The Guardian October 11, 2000


TAKING ISSUE with Nathan Barnes
The sham of the big "debate"

Listening to media commentators you might get the impression that the 
recent comments about Indigenous Australians made by Minister for 
Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, Philip Ruddock, to the Le 
Monde and Washington Post newspapers, were merely an 
"oversight", a "slip", a "gaff". Ruddock is a "moderate" who was "taken out 
of context", as the man himself claimed.

The first giveaway that this was not so came from the Prime Minister 
himself, and it involved one word John Howard has no hesitation in using.

Howard defended Ruddock with, "It illustrates how trivial and demeaning 
much of the debate on Indigenous affairs is in this country."

The key word here is "debate". But before we go into that, let's see what 
the media reported Ruddock  who is also Minister for Reconciliation  as 
saying, and look at what he actually said, in context.

The Ruddock quote in The Age was fairly typical of what was reported 
elsewhere: "We're dealing with an indigenous population that had little 
contact with the rest of the world. We're dealing with people who were 
essentially hunter-gatherers. They didn't have chariots. I don't think they 
invented the wheel." That was from The Washington Post.

By itself it is insulting, and even the mild rebuke from Aboriginal Senator 
Aden Ridgeway, that it appeared Ruddock was "appealing to prejudices held 
by some people", exposes the racist intent at its core.

The full quote begins with: "We are putting in an enormous amount of work 
to improve the conditions of our indigenous people. But we are starting 
from a very low base." Is that enough context?

Ruddock was asked by Le Monde  "Why do Aboriginal people remain 
the most disadvantaged minority in Australia?"

His answer was, "Of all the indigenous peoples on the planet, if you 
compare them with the Canadian or American Indians, the Australian 
Aborigines were the people who came into contact with developed 
civilisation latest."

He went on, "For them, the process of adjusting to western civilisation 
happened more slowly."

The next question from Le Monde nailed Ruddock's subtext to the 
wall: "So you're suggesting that the social situation of Aboriginal people 
in present-day Australia is the consequence of their own socio-cultural 
`limitations'. Which means that white people and the society they have 
constructed are in no way responsible for the condition of the Indigenous 
people."

Ruddock did not refute it.

Ruddock knew full well what he was doing. The Howard Government's racist 
policies have come increasingly under the spotlight in the international 
community, particularly during the Olympic Games, and Ruddock's interviews 
were part of an attempt to justify the actions of his government.

They are connected at home to the big "debate" sham. This is where backward 
and reactionary policies are introduced with a call for a debate.

We were to have a "debate" about Aboriginal rights, the GST, welfare, 
industrial relations, defence spending, etc (except the introduction of 
draconian new powers for the military which were ushered in without so much 
as a murmur).

It works like this: the sham debate is played up by the mass media, and 
under cover of the hype with its grand statements about democracy, the 
Government actually implements its policy.

So, while the Indigenous "issue" was being "debated", and Howard called for 
an end to "political correctness" (to allow for the free flow of racist 
slurs), his Government was busy introducing its Native Title Amendments 
Bill which took away native title rights and went so far as to deprive 
Indigenous Australians of their common law property rights.

So much for debates.

For the Government, there are many benefits to be gained from the likes of 
Ruddock's utterances, for even as they gained sensational headlines Howard 
was plotting with Northern Territory Chief Minister Denis Burke to gut the 
NT Aboriginal Land Rights Act.

The Act was introduced by the Fraser Government in the 1970s and has been 
the target of successive right-wing NT governments.

The Howard Government put the Act on its list of rights to be killed off, 
commissioning the Reeves report last year which proposed just that.

All the major recommendations in the report were subsequently rejected by 
the House of Representatives Select Committee on Aboriginal and Torres 
Strait Islander Affairs.

Not to be put off by anything as trivial as a parliamentary committee's 
decision, following talks with Denis Burke last week Howard proposed 
amendments to the Act in Federal Parliament.

The proposed amendments that reflect recommendations in the Reed Report, 
include:

* Giving control over sacred sites to the NT Government;
* Granting a power of compulsory acquisition to the NT Government;
* Taking away property rights by legislating away land claims;
* Weakening the right of traditional owners to control mining on their 
land.

I don't think it would take the "moderate" Philip Ruddock "out of context" 
to say he supports these proposals, to the hilt.

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