Weekend Australian - March 7, 2009

Aboriginal affairs are a moral challenge for the PM

SCORE one for common sense with the federal Government's decision to continue an Australian Crime Commission investigation into child abuse in Northern Territory indigenous communities. Not that Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin had a choice, given the way she, like all her cabinet colleagues, is hostage to Kevin Rudd's claim that social democrats, like him, always do more than conservatives to help the disadvantaged. In his January essay laying down Labor Party doctrine, the Prime Minister explained how he wanted to assist underprivileged Australians abandoned by economic ``neo-liberals'', a synonym for large-L Liberals. Unlike them, he believed ``all human beings have an intrinsic right to human dignity, equality of opportunity and the ability to lead a fulfilling life'', Mr Rudd wrote. If there is an area of Australia that specifically needs Mr Rudd to deliver on this undertaking, it is the remote Northern Territory, where indigenous communities are plagued by poverty and violence, illness and sexual abuse.

Ms Macklin obviously understands this, as demonstrated by her commitment to continuing John Howard's Northern Territory intervention program, created to improve living standards for the most disadvantaged of Aborigines. Her decision will undoubtedly upset advocates of abstract rights who believe specific measures to protect indigenous women and children in the Territory are unjust because they primarily target Aboriginal communities. This group is a traditional Labor constituency, consisting of educated men and women working in senior public service positions, and there was strong speculation that the ACC taskforce would close until Marcia Langton , an indigenous advocate with little time for programs that do not place the interests of ordinary Aborigines above all else, intervened. As The Australian reported on Thursday, Professor Langton warned that the Government was listening to Aboriginal lobbyists who denied child abuse existed in remote communities. After that, Ms Macklin had no option but to offend the ideologues by backing the intervention. To do anything other would had crippled her boss's credibility.

The challenge for Ms Macklin is to keep it up and focus on practical solutions to real problems in remote Northern Territory communities, and to lean on the states to do the same. A year after Mr Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generations, there is ample evidence that the NT intervention has slowed under Labor. Planned housing is not being built, and while Mr Rudd promises programs to improve health, nothing much has happened since he took over from the cruel conservatives. Last week Noel Pearson, a pragmatist like Professor Langton, had to complain in The Australian before Education Minister Julia Gillard responded to a proposal to cut truancy among Aboriginal children. None of this is good enough, and Mr Rudd must prove his Government can cut through the bureaucracy and special pleading that have too long left remote Aborigines to rot. In asserting the ethical superiority of his philosophy of government, Mr Rudd claimed the moral high ground before he started the climb. The mountain of Aboriginal welfare is the one he must scale first.