The mutual obligation of fascists, racist scum and cold-hearted pricks

By Michael Mansell, Aboriginal lawyer and land rights campaigner
Prime Minister Howard never had it so good. Without lifting a finger, former enemies fell at his feet. Howard neither suggested his plans for Aborigines would change, and nor have they.

Given John Howards treatment of Aboriginal issues, it is amazing he is not daily condemned. After all, he dealt native title a cruel hand with 'bucket loads of extinguishment'. He refused to apologise to the stolen generations and will not give compensation. He is currently dismantling Aboriginal legal services. He sacked ATSIC and Pat and Mick Dodson. It is Howards way, or no way.

Debating whether Aborigines agree with Howards welfare only plans plays into his hands. The issue having been so publicly raised though, we have to now complete the exercise before moving on. In the meantime the Prime Minister has, sadly, not a bit of pressure on him to respond to land rights or legal reforms. I be damned if I argue, and lose if I do not.

At the heart of the discussion is Pat Dodson. No-one, least of all me, questions Pat's commitment to his people, or his sincerity. At issue is what Pat symbolised, at least until recently. Pat was equally respected by white and black Australia. Pat represented resistance to the Howard strategy of pushing black issues further and further off the political agenda. When Dodson shifted he did so in a big way- not just embracing Howard's plans but selling them, arguing “mutual obligation” picked up existing obligations amongst Aborigines. Howard, Pat argued, was merely acknowledging Aboriginal culture.

So is the fundamental shift by Pat Dodson and others all about egos, or did they really believe they could change Howard. If they believed they could make the Prime Minister change, what was it he should change to?

The Dodson/Pearson position - well, it is more Noel's position, with Pat vital to selling it- in the Age (15th Dec) gave ample space to spell out their ideas about Aboriginal needs and hopes. No mention of Aboriginal decision- making, the need for a land or an economic base. The whole focus was on matters internal to Aboriginal communities, and indeed families. The focus indicates where the authors believe the problem to be.

It is a blame-the-victim mentality.

Seeing Aborigines as a social issue conveniently ignores historical events that would scar any people. Name a people on this earth that have lost a whole country, and with it their ability to decide their own fate, and prospered despite it all.

It is no accident that the greatest breakdown in Aboriginal family relationships occurs among the most dispossessed. With loss of land comes breakdown in homogeneity- the group gets geographically scattered, the relationships with each other change and there is no common purpose other than survival. Retention of land, or return of lands, in itself will not solve the problem. But it helps.

This is where the bigger issues become imperatives. A land base can lead to some form of community stability. Roots to that land gives the group a common ground, literally, and the social and political organization can grow from there. There is nothing wrong with outside influences- don't we all suffer that- but planning and decision making rests with the people themselves. It is true self determination.

The difference is that a broader approach gives a holistic response to a bundle of problems that are as political as they are social. The narrower emphasis on social arrangements, which is essentially “mutual obligation”, pretends landlessness, loss of authority and racial domination are irrelevant.

It is hard to know if the Dodson Team agrees with the right of government to interfere with Aboriginal ways of doing things. It seems governmental domination through funding, laws and certainly education is acceptable, but not if it goes too far. What is too far is not explained, perhaps because they agree with the process but not the result.

The “Team” wholeheartedly agrees with the Prime Ministers mutual obligation, which necessarily involves interfering with the most basic relationships between parents and children. Using funding conditions to override parents rights to wash their children is but an example. The whole thing could so easily have been avoided by education rather than the big stick approach.

It appears that when the Dodson Team endorsed Howard's mutual obligation plans they did not look at the fine print. This means they were either naïve or worse, thick. If you sell your soul to the devil you cannot complain when he sends you to hell. That is the pact.

The Dodson Team says whether mutual obligation contracts are fair depends on the attitude of the recipients. In other words, it is only racist if the Aborigines directly affected agree it is. Does that mean that an hotelier is racist for refusing service to Aborigines who complain, but not if Aborigines do not complain?

Both the Dodson Team and the NIC are content to advise the Prime Minister, thereby accepting the right of a white person to decide what is best for Aborigines. No talks of empowering Aborigines through an Aboriginal government, or any other forum.

It is said there can only be one government in Australia. What nonsense. There is one federal government, six state and two territory governments. There are 717 local governments, and Norfolk Island has its own government. Is there no room for just one more?

An Aboriginal government throws full responsibility to Aborigines. It allows a holistic approach that can be planned over many years. It is better than policy-jumping depending on who is in government.

On the Mulun example, the resources for a petrol bowser could be provided without strings attached. The community would have the right to impose its own standards across the board, without outside domination. It is the very principle on which the Commonwealth of Australia was formed in preference to England imposing its will on the colony.

The strategy of the Dodson Team is little more than to make the Prime Minister look good. Invitations for Howard to visit communities are photo opportunities for the PM.

Pat needs to admit he made a mistake. Haven't we all?

Michael Mansell

Aboriginal Provisional Government
23rd December 2004