shock tactics in alice

The Weekend Australian (Feb 19-20) ran an article, Destroyed in Alice by Nicolas Rothwell exposing the severe alcohol and drug abuse problems amongst aboriginal people in Alice Springs.

In response, some have deplored Rothwell’s “shock tactics”

In some ways this is already an old discussion. Rothwell’s so called shock tactics ought to be welcomed. The taboo of not discussing the most shameful features of our society is now long broken. How does not exposing shame assist the shamed? No one has ever explained this. The taboo was broken by Noel Pearson many years ago, for example, in his Charlie Perkins memorial Oration, On the human right to misery, mass incarceration and early death (October 2001). This set the precedent and the taboo has been broken on an increasingly frequent basis since then.

A follow up article in The Australian (Riding the Gravy Train that runs on Aboriginal Misery) by Northern Territory independent MP, Alison Anderson, (who resigned from the Labour Party in 2009), is part of a debate between real people but has been edited by The Australian to hide that fact. Alison Anderson’s article was written in response to an article by Jennifer Mills (Shock Tactics in Alice Springs) in New Matilida which deplored Rothwell’s original article. Anderson’s unedited version is here

Part of the context for all of this is conflicting attitudes to the 2007 Howard / Brough Northern Territory intervention whose stated purpose was to protect aboriginal children from widespread abuse, which had been documented in a report by Pat Anderson and Rex Wild. As stated earlier, the taboo against discussing and exposing such abuse is now long broken.

Nicolas Rothwell in his expose says that:

“The roots of the present dilemma are multiple. Progressive observers in the thickly populated realm of Aboriginal policy analysis love to blame the intervention for luring bush people into town as refugees from its constraints.

There is an element of truth to the charge, but more in the blunt fact that it is now easier to drink in town than in the communities, where the illegal supply is fitful and marijuana has come to dominate”

So, the old debate about the intervention continues between those who equate Howard with the devil who could do no good and those who argue that something had to be done immediately to protect children from abuse.

Although there are no easy solutions the important thing here is that the issue of indigenous welfare dependency and drug abuse has been correctly analysed by Noel Pearson and solutions have begun to be put in place on his turf at Cape York.

The first issue is that child protection must be put in place immediately through heavy handed policies of zero tolerance to abusers. This applies to Alice Springs today as well the earlier Howard / Brough intervention. But that is only a first step.

Next, we have the issue of analysis. In 2001, Pearson identified the main problems of the aboriginal people as substance abuse and dependency on passive welfare.

This says a lot and risks a lot. These are problems that need to be solved by aboriginal people so he is immediately rejecting victim mentality. It is far better to deal with your own problems than to complain about how enormous they are in such a way as to abandon hope of a positive change for the better

He doesn’t reject or dismiss the importance of other problems (racism, dispossession and trauma) but he does distinguish clearly betweeen the current main problems and the longer term historical legacy, putting these latter problems in a secondary position for now.

“When abusive behaviour is deeply entrenched in our communities it is not the material destitution , the social ills and historical legacy that fuel the abuse epidemics. It is the epidemics that perpetuate themselves.”

This analysis gives hope and real guidance because it means aboriginal and white people can get on with tackling real and urgent issues rather than becoming passive (paralysed by the complexity) and possibly guilty about a huge morass of unresolved issues. Pearson rejects “symptom theory thinking”, that the main reason for substance abuse is the despair, hopelessness, social dislocation of aboriginal communities and other “underlying causes”. He identifies such thinking as a real problem, causing paralysis.

He stated then, frankly, that the situation was worse than ever before, with respect to life expectancy, illiteracy, the abuse and neglect of children, the numbers of aboriginal people in prison and juvenile institutions, alcohol abuse, petrol sniffing, violence against old people for money and grog.

… many of the traditions we purport to follow are too often merely self-deceptions (that we care for each other, that we respect our Elders, that we value our culture and traditons) … The intrinsic force in the grog and drug epidemic is now stronger than the force of our traditional social norms and values

It takes courage to say these things about your own community but Pearson speaks the hard truths

As well as identifying the main problems, Pearson analyses those problems, traces their history and outlines plausible solutions

Substance abuse / addictions are problems in their own right. The five factors that are needed for an outbreak of substance abuse are present in aboriginal communities: (i) the substance being available (ii) spare time (iii) money (iv) the example of others in the immediate environment and (v) a permissive social ideology

He rejects progressivist solutions of “harm minimisation” and calls for zero tolerance and enforced treatment as the necessary steps to break out of endemic substance abuse:

The absolute intolerance of illicit drugs, absolute enforcement of social order, and mandatory treatment is the core of the strategy

He identifies it as a political struggle rather than a health or moral problem. Because, “The social function of substance abuse epidemics is to make people unable to organise themselves, politically and socially”

Pearson’s historical analysis of why things are now worse in aboriginal communities is very insightful. He speaks of the

“irony of our newly one citizenship in 1967 was that after we became citizens with equal rights and the theoretical right to equal pay, we lost the meagre foothold that we had in the real economy and we became almost comprehensively dependent on passive welfare for our livelihood”

Pearson describes both the Australian Labour Party and the Coalition as being “half right” and not capable of making the changes required to turn around the social disaster of the Australian aborginal people:

… the Australian Labour Party will be strong and correct in their policies in favour of the rights of Aboriginal people – particularly land rights and native title – and they will be weak and wrong in relation to the breakdown of responsibility in Aboriginal society occasioned by passive welfare dependency, substance abuse and our resulting criminal justice predicaments. The Coalition will better understand the problem of responsibility but will be antipathetic and wrong in relation to the rights of Aboriginal people: they advocate further diminution of the native title property rights of Aboriginal Australians

Finally, we have the problem of the long, hard slog of systematic solutions. Such solutions, with a focus on early education to achieve basic literacy, are being put in place by Pearson’s team in Cape York. If necessary, more can be written about that at another time.

6 Responses to “shock tactics in alice”

  1. 1 Bill Kerr

    Tony Abbott wrote a letter to Julia Gillard on March 20 proposing a joint trip to Alice and calling for a new intervention. Jenny Macklin, Minister for Indigenous Affairs, dismissed his proposal as political grandstanding. Macklin’s response is unfortunate because bipartisan action is needed to solve this problem.

    In Abbott’s letter, for the first time, he acknowledged flaws in the Howard 2007 Northern Territory intervention, that it was “top heavy”.

    These issues are analysed further by Noel Pearson in today’s Australian who points out 4 differences between his approach in Cape York and the approach in the Northern Territory (Ineffectual bipartisanship ruins social policy). Best to read the whole of Pearson’s article but here is a summary of the 4 differences:

    The first difference is that in Cape York the reform agenda has been the initiative of Aboriginal leaders and the policy proposals have come from the Cape York Institute, not from government…

    A second difference is that in Cape York the reform agenda is being implemented in large part by Aboriginal leaders and organisations…

    As a result, a third difference is that in Cape York there is no great presence of the large national non-government organisations that routinely deliver social programs that dominate the Territory scene…

    A fourth difference is that in Cape York income management occurs only in cases where welfare recipients have failed to fulfil their conditions for receiving income support…

    This article from Tony Abbott’s website (The NT intervention worked. Now let’s go further) indicates that he has taken some aspects Pearson’s analysis on board:

    One of the problems with the intervention was its “top down” nature. It was announced without prior consultation with Aboriginal people many of whom applauded its goals and supported its measures but regretted its imposition without reference to them. A good way to avoid this would be for the Prime Minister and myself, to invite the leading indigenous people of Alice Springs, Katharine and Tennant Creek to a summit at which changes such as those I have put forward could be discussed and decided.

  2. 2 Bill Kerr

    Excellent article by Miranda Devine:

    THE bestiality tweet by inner-city barrister Larissa Behrendt against the Northern Territory activist Bess Price, was offensive.

    Behrendt wrote that watching Price on the ABC TV program Q&A was worse than watching “a show where a guy had sex with a horse”….

    We should be grateful for the tweet because it gave us a rare undisguised insight into the depraved and rancid core of the reflexively leftist, inner-urban, ivory-tower thinking that infects every level of politics, in every political party, at every university, in every protected job and every comfortable suburb shielded from hardship, and immune to reality. …

    But she (Behrendt) is still NSW Australian of the Year for 2011. And her appointment to the Gillard Government’s review of indigenous education on Wednesday went ahead, just another prestigious post to add to her glittering CV.
    Price is right with her cry for help by Miranda Devine

    See also:
    Calls to dump Larissa Behrendt from review after Twitter slur

  3. 3 jim sharp

    bill kerr
    one can’t but note! how you pedal massmurdoch’s class factions views & not other from the coal face
    [Aboriginal News]

    Media release
    April 15 2011 for immediate release

    Town camp leader outraged by Bess Price claims on Q and A

    Barbara Shaw, spokesperson for the Intervention Rollback Action Group
    in Alice Springs and resident of Mt Nancy Town camp says that comments
    by Bess Price on Q and A about the “success” of the Intervention
    ignore the huge evidence of continuing failure.

    IRAG says Mrs Price’s comments have caused distress amongst people
    living in prescribed areas under the Intervention, whose experiences
    of deteriorating social conditions continue to be ignored by
    government and mainstream media.

    “It is outrageous that Bess Price can continue to go on national media
    and spread false information on the Intervention while life in our
    town camps and communities gets harder and harder”, says Barbara Shaw.

    “We now have a massive crisis in Alice Springs as people come in from
    the bush because of the failure of the Intervention. On Monday night
    while Bess was on Q and A talking about our kids being safer, I was
    dealing with multiple situations of children needing emergency care.”

    “The Intervention has done nothing to help – I find it harder to look
    after my family because I am still on the BasicsCard. If things are so
    good, why do government statistics show more children being admitted
    to hospital for malnutrition and more young people committing suicide
    and self-harm? Why are more and more children being taken away from
    parents and put into care?” Ms Shaw asks.

    “Bess says education is the key to improving lives. But she didn’t say
    that Yuendumu school attendance rates have halved and are now down to
    only 30 per cent since the Intervention came in and bilingual
    education was banned by the NT government.”

    Ms Shaw says she is very concerned that Bess Price is misinforming the
    wider community about the feelings and views of NT Aboriginal people
    about the Intervention.

    “Marcia Langton wrote in the Australian today that Bess Price ‘resides
    in Yuendumu’. This is untrue and the Australian needs to correct the
    public record. Bess does not live under the Intervention. She lives a
    comfortable lifestyle in the eastern suburbs of Alice Springs, not in
    a prescribed area. She does not have a Basics Card and she does not
    work for the dole. She doesn’t have her home raided. She doesn’t
    have her alcohol taken away at the bottle shop,” Ms Shaw concluded.

    “Bess says Aboriginal women have been given a voice by the
    Intervention – but which ones? Thousands of women have lost their jobs
    as Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) close down, many
    women leaders have lost their positions of authority as community
    councils were closed and Government Business Managers and Shires took

    “In the last federal election, I outpolled all other candidates in
    remote communities in Central Australia because people agree the
    Intervention and Shires have failed.”

    “Women do need a voice – we need for the government to listen, to
    scrap the Intervention and empower us with resources and jobs to go

    An Alice Springs based community worker and IRAG member Marlene Hodder
    says, “Many Warlpiri women living in Alice Springs are very unhappy
    that Bess Price assumes she can speak for them. Last year they sent a
    strong recorded message to Minister Macklin as she refused to meet
    with them on more than one occasion. They are tired of not being
    listened to as they feel the Intervention is an insult to them as
    mothers, grandmothers and carers.”

    ”These women says they struggle to maintain their dignity with racist
    taunts being thrown at them as they walk into town and the unfairness
    of the BasicsCard when the reality is that there is no work for them.
    Strong in their culture and staunch Christians, they pray every night
    for the Intervention to end.”, concluded Ms Hodder.

    Contacts: Barbara Shaw 0401 291 166
    Marlene Hodder 08 8952 5032

  4. 4 Bill Kerr

    There are things people say Jim that give an indication of their broader view or world outlook. To quote Barbara Shaw, your exemplar from the coalface:

    She doesn’t have her alcohol taken away at the bottle shop

    It’s another illustration of the liberal thinking that won’t bite the bullet of the zero tolerance policies that are required to put a stop to the welfare dependency – drug abuse spiral.

    It’s also should be clear to you if you read my first comment on the thread and the original article that:
    – the intervention was far from perfect but the bottom line is to protect the children
    – the problem in Alice Springs does partially arise from the intervention since it is easier to obtain alcohol in Alice now than the remote remote communities
    – the intervention needs to be extended and improved

    I think your reflexive disgust for the Murdoch press is getting in the way of your clear thinking. As Miranda Devine pointed out the thinking behind Larissa Behrendt’s ugly comment is uglier than the comment itself.

  5. 5 jim sharp

    bill kerr
    She doesn’t have her alcohol taken away at the bottle shop

    It’s another illustration of the liberal thinking that won’t bite the bullet of the zero tolerance policies that are required to put a stop to the welfare dependency – drug abuse spiral.

    “now “comrade!” that’s the same “LIBERAL BOOZH-WAH WORLD VIEW” mentality which imposed the work houses {bastilles} as marx aptly called’em upon the poor working classes.

    so its alright to impose zero tolerance on the poor. but not on your government wage dependency class as well as the capitalists.[mao did better he imposed zero tolerance on all classes] you’re sounding more than a tad like those yesteryear gawd bothering temperence leaguers who hypocritically moralised only against those they wished the boozh-wah zie had power over.

    but you must know it was then the genuine marxians who fought & will fight against any boozh-wah power over model.
    i.e.for progressive reforms which empowers human beings with real humane dignity

  6. 6 bill kerr

    I get the distinct impression that you haven’t read Pearson’s analysis of the problem. I provided a link and summary to his 2001 oration, in the original post. I suggest you read that and direct any future comments in that direction. Alternatively, you could enlighten us as to your specific ideas about how to solve the situation in Alice Springs, rather than waffly “correct” generations.

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