BY AMY MCQUIRE, JUNE 1, 2011
Originally published in Tracker Magazine.
NATIONAL: He may not have delivered on his promises, but at least Kevin Rudd walked the walk. Literally.
Only a few months after winning the election, and within a week of making the formal apology to the Stolen Generations, Rudd jumped on a plane and headed to his first Aboriginal community as our nation’s leader. It was significant for many reasons.
First, Rudd’s predecessor had only made four trips to Aboriginal communities in his 12-year tenure as Prime Minister. And even then, it had taken John Howard two years since taking the top job to pay a visit to the nation’s most disadvantaged citizens.
So the announcement that Rudd was making, or at least being seen to make, Indigenous affairs a personal priority was heartening for those who desperately wanted change, and it was a departure from the previous government, which was characterised by its disdain for community consultation.
Secondly, Rudd had decided to fly to the Aboriginal community of Walgett, in north-west New South Wales. Contrary to popular belief, the “real Aborigines” do not only live up north. Despite this, regional and urban Aboriginal people around the country are often forgotten by politicians and media alike.
Rudd’s visit to a regional NSW Aboriginal community was seen as recognition that not all communities are the same, and that the “one-size-fits-all” approach during the Howard years could not be sustained if the Commonwealth is serious about closing the gap. Rudd’s next visit to an Aboriginal community would be only a few months later, when he took his cabinet to Yirrkala, on the Gove Peninsula.
It was this same community Julia Gillard visited this month, after flying into the Northern Territory in a visit she had been pressured into making by Opposition leader Tony Abbott.
It’s her first visit to Aboriginal communities since taking office. Not quite as bad as Howard’s record, but still, pretty damning.
After touring communities, Gillard concluded that she was satisfied many aspects of the intervention were working, citing the school breakfast and nutrition programs, income management and housing provided under the Alice Springs Transformation Plan.
The lessons Gillard has taken away from her short visit to the Territory seem to be few. As a whole, the policy has been a failure, and has damaged the rights and confidence of many Aboriginal Territorians, as described in countless United Nations’ critiques, reports and research.
For example, compulsory income management has been targeted as responsible for a spike in anaemia rates in children in communities east of Katherine.
There is no evidence that the alcohol bans are curbing drinking, in fact, international evidence shows that prohibiting alcohol rarely works. And the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP), the most expensive plank of the intervention, has been a failure from the outset.
The problem with Gillard is that we don’t know where she stands on any issue, let alone Aboriginal affairs. While Rudd did not deliver many promises, failed his own targets, and continued the intervention without attention paid to so-called “evidence-based policy”, Gillard has largely sat silent, save for when a political opportunity appears before her.
She has dragged her feet on visiting Aboriginal Australia, despite Labor claiming it is committed to closing the gap. Above all else, she has so far failed to convince anyone she is a Prime Minister with conviction.
-Amy McQuire, editor