10 August 2010

How to Recognise Different Types of Social Justice Issues From Quite A Long Way Away

This morning I was surprised and slightly confused to read about the current policy priorities for indigenous Australians being championed by Amnesty International.

Let me state from the outset that I am generally a fan of Amnesty, and support them financially on a monthly basis. But I’m not entirely sold on this morning’s effort. I appreciate the concern, and it’s certainly a good thing that someone out there is looking out for the rights of indigenous Australians. I would just rather a slightly more realistic and pragmatic approach be taken.

Claire Mallinson, speaking on behalf of Amnesty, told ABC reporters that the Northern Territory Intervention is discriminatory and a violation of human rights. In particular, she was concerned about the basics card. You can find a summary of Amnesty's position here.

And now: Some background.

In 2007 in the lead up to his last federal election, then Prime Minister John Howard announced a national emergency response based on a report into child abuse and other social issues affecting remote indigenous communities. Given the timing of the announcement, it was difficult not be a little cynical about the politics involved in the scheme. Also, activist groups in southern states (made up largely of white uni students who had never met an aborigine in their lives) started jumping up and down, decrying the racist imperialism of the Howard Government, foaming at the mouth and falling over backwards.

Since all that went down, very little has changed. Standards of living in remote communities are still ridiculous in comparison to even the dodgiest houses in major cities. Amnesty International is, quite rightly, pretty annoyed about that.

One change that has been implemented is the Basics Card, which is an income management tool that helps to ensure money in remote communities is being spent on food and utilities and not on gambling, alcohol or other problematic social habits. Given the extent to which the issues of neglect and child abuse are interwoven with alcoholism, gambling, substance abuse and domestic violence (to say nothing of cultural disenfranchisement and wholesale national indifference) this makes a lot of sense, and by and large the response I have seen in my travels to remote communities is that the basics card has been helping a lot and the elders are keen to continue using it in communities where the difficulties in spending money wisely have as much to do with appalling levels of literacy and numeracy as with criminal neglect.

So I was a little surprised to read that Amnesty was so vehemently opposed to it. Their argument is that it is discriminatory and needlessly restricts the freedom of those for whom the program is implemented. And admittedly, it doesn’t help matters that the anti-discrimination laws had to be revoked in order to institute a program that specifically targets aboriginal communities. To find out more, I did what I always do when I’m politically confused: I paid a visit to my friendly local shopping centre charity spruiker.

Garry: Can you tell me why Amnesty are opposed to the Basics Card?
Amnesty Girl: The main problem is that it makes life more difficult for people in remote areas. Women in those areas used to pool their money and once a month go shopping and buy all their groceries in bulk. You can’t do that with the basics card. Also, it’s discriminatory. We feel it’s not right that this system be imposed on Aboriginal communities and not everyone else.
Garry: Surely the basics card is more about preventing the money being spent on gambling or petrol sniffing or something, than fostering convenient shopping arrangements.
Amnesty Girl: The intervention was aimed originally at reducing child abuse. We feel that imposing this restriction on aboriginal communities simply because they are aboriginal does nothing to prevent child abuse.
Garry: But aren’t all these problems interlinked?
Amnesty Girl: Of course. But it’s discriminatory to apply it only to communities because they’re aboriginal. We have problems with child abuse where I’m from, but the Government doesn’t make us use basics cards.
Garry: Where are you from?
Amnesty Girl: New South Wales.
Garry: …
Amnesty Girl: Did you know that Northern Territory has the highest instance of alcohol abuse in the world?
Garry: Yes I did (it was also in the news this morning).
Amnesty Girl: So why don’t they just put us all on Basics Cards?
Garry: Thanks for your time.

The answer to her question is that in larger cities and even in regional New South Wales there is considerably more access to police, health services, counselling services and financial management assistance than there is in East Arnhem Land. It’s not discrimination to tailor specific solutions to specific communities with specific (and chronic) needs. In fact it’s called good governance. To regard me, with my privileged upbringing and tertiary education, as requiring the same care and attention as those bought up in near enough to third world conditions isn’t social justice; in fact it’s called idiocy. Aboriginal people need our support and it is our moral responsibility to provide it, antidiscrimination laws be damned, not least because it’s was us that screwed them out of their land and culture in the first place.

I could have stayed to argue with Amnesty Girl, but I was running out of lunch hour. Also, I’ve been watching old episodes of The West Wing, and couldn’t help but feel it was more Lymanesque to simply end the conversation and walk off smugly in the knowledge that I was much better informed and vastly more intelligent. Furthermore, I needed to return my James Bond comic to the library.

And now: Number one - The Larch

Garry with 2 Rs

P.S. I realise the Amnesty International link is quite dated. By the time I got back to news.com.au to find the quote from this morning, it had been deleted. I'm not sure what to make of that.
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