A few weeks ago I caught up with Toronto Star reporter Rick Westhead while he was passing through Darwin. We had a long chat over couple of cups of bad coffee and I gave him my views about the NT Intervention and race relations in this country.
Late last night Rick sent an email telling me that his piece had been published and that my “comments made the cut.”
Rick’s piece is a well-written and balanced overview of the current state of indigenous affairs in the Top End and just about as good a job as a stranger in a strange land could do of this most complex aspect of Indigenous affairs policy on short notice. He obviously put considerable time and effort into the piece and spoke to many people with views right across the spectrum of opinion about the NT Intervention.
Rick also spent a few days out at the remote Arnhem land coastal community of Ramingining and attended a community meeting called to consider proposed changes to the NT Intervention.
Among those he spoke to while at Ramingining was Senator Nigel Scullion, the Australian Opposition shadow minister for Indigenous Affairs.
Last night I emailed Rick and corrected his tag for Scullion as a member of the “Labour” party. Rick has changed Scullion’s tag to “Liberal”, which is partly correct. Scullion sits in the Senate as the Senator for the Northern Territory, elected as a member of the NT’s conservative party, the Country Liberal Party, or CLP.
Scullion’s comments caught my eye, firstly because of his use of the swearword “bullshit” to describe reactions to alcohol bans – particularly as Ramingining has always been a “dry” community – but also because many of his comments appeared ill-informed or seriously out-of-step with contemporary policy and thinking – even within his own side of politics.
Here is what Scullion had to say to Rick while he was at a community meeting to discuss the changes to the NT Intervention – now called Stronger Futures – as reported by Rick Westhead in his piece in Saturday’s Toronto Star:
Senator Nigel Scullion, a member of the Liberal Party, stood to the side and defended the intervention.
“Look, you can’t have it both ways,” Scullion said. “You want to talk about preserving the old ways and rejecting modern society, but you want to drive around doing your hunting in Land Rovers?”
One of the criticisms of the intervention has been that a blanket prohibition of alcohol wasn’t necessary because some communities such as Ramingining already banned booze.
“That’s bulls—,” Scullion said. “I’ve been here when the whole place is pissed. The fact is there are big problems in Aboriginal communities. Look at the teen pregnancy rate. Look at how many 10-year-olds are contracting STDs. Don’t tell me they’re getting them off toilet seats. Men are trading them cigarettes for sex.”
Scullion said few locals are willing to report or condemn the crime of sex with minors.
“In an isolated place like this, community is everything, and if you stand out, you’ll be ostracized and that’s it,” he said. “They might even kill you.”
Scullion similarly defends the decision to force indigenous students to learn in English, even though most children in Ramingining grow up learning local languages Djambarrpuyngu, Gupapuyngu, and Ganalbingu before they study English.
“English is the language of Australia,” he said. “There has to be an interface. We have to facilitate people being able to communicate.”
The elders are ready to hear from Scullion, and he walks to a nearby microphone. He’s hoping to win votes, not alienate locals, so he begins by apologizing for the lack of consultation before the intervention’s introduction.
“We should have come here first before the intervention and asked what you wanted and for that I’m sorry,” Scullion said. “But that’s in the past.”
The past seems to be a place that Senator Scullion seems to be firmly stuck in.
I’ll leave it for others to draw their own conclusions about just what Senator Scullion meant by his comments and welcome your thoughts as comments below.
In the apparently likely event that the Liberal-National Party Coalition wins the next Federal election Nigel Scullion is slated to become our next Indigenous Affairs Minister.