why whites have a material stake in Aboriginal rights, part two

Last week, I wrote a piece for New Matilda comparing the Right-wing outrage over the apology to the (black) Stolen Generation with the almost universal acclaim for the apology to the (white) Forgotten Australians. The article concluded like this:

But there’s another point to be made about the apology to the Forgotten Australians, and it’s a much more uplifting one. The ceremony conducted by way of reparation for their suffering received bipartisan political support and the universal backing of the Australian media. That’s at least in part a consequence of the apology to the Stolen Generation. Because that gesture was made — and was broadly backed by Australians — it was far easier for a similar response to Ray Carlile and his peers.

The opponents of an apology argued that it would set whites and blacks against each other. In fact, it did exactly the opposite. Justice, by its nature, is inclusive, not exclusive. The recognition of a wrong done to Indigenous people set a precedent that made the recognition of a wrong done to whites easier rather than harder.

That’s why we all have an interest in the struggle for Aboriginal rights, no matter how traumatic an honest assessment of the past might seem. A government that can neglect Indigenous Australia will find it easier to do the same to others. So, too, the reverse: with every step towards justice for Aborigines making justice more real and immediate for everyone.

You can see the same phenomenon in the Rudd government’s new welfare policy. The Age reports today that:

WELFARE recipients of all races will be forced to have their money managed by Centrelink unless they can demonstrate personal responsibility, under dramatic changes proposed by Families Minister Jenny Macklin.

The move is a sweeping extension of rules applied to indigenous people in the Northern Territory as part of the Howard government’s emergency intervention of 2007.

Ms Macklin wants to restore the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act, which was suspended in the intervention to apply the tough welfare scheme only to Aborigines. To keep the tough rules for indigenous communities, she has extended them to non-indigenous people.

The imposition of an outrageous Victorian-era paternalism, in which the poor lose the right to make decisions about their own lives, was only initially possible because of racism. There is, after all, a long tradition of Aborigines being treated as children (oh, but always in their very best interests, naturally). But with the intervention in place — and, what’s more, with it accepted and even applauded by many people who should have known better — the extension of welfare quarantines became far more politically palatable.

Interestingly, the new measures will not apply to aged pension recipients. Why? Because, the Age says, of ‘an outcry from pensioners affected by the NT intervention who had spent a lifetime paying taxes’. Though the relevance of paying taxes might not be altogether clear, it’s evident that — who would have thunk it? — NT pensioners didn’t warm to the idea of the government determining how their pension might be spent, despite the assurances by Jenny Macklin and other experts that this was a wonderful way of helping low income earners. The policy won’t apply to the age old pension because, as John Howard knew, the aged are a relatively powerful political constituency.  Aborigines and the long-term unemployed? Not so much.

The intervention was an extraordinary policy, made in flagrant opposition to the reports into child abuse that allegedly sparked it. And now the consequences are becoming clear.

In these times, it’s worth remembering Ben Franklin’s famous adage: we need to hang together because if we don’t we will assuredly be hanged separately.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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