Claims of child abuse are proving a fertile pretext to menace the Aboriginal communities lying in the way of uranium mining
Its banks secured in the warmth of the southern spring, Australia is not news. It ought to be. An epic scandal of racism, injustice and brutality is being covered up in the manner of apartheid South Africa. Many Australians conspire in this silence, wishing never to reflect upon the truth about their society’s Untermenschen, the Aboriginal people.
The facts are not in dispute: thousands of black Australians never reach the age of 40; an entirely preventable disease, trachoma, blinds black children as epidemics of rheumatic fever ravage their communities; suicide among the despairing young is common. No other developed country has such a record. A pervasive white myth, that Aborigines leech off the state, serves to conceal the disgrace that money the federal government says it spends on indigenous affairs actually goes towards opposing native land rights. In 2006, some A$3bn was underspent “or the result of creative accounting”, reported the Sydney Morning Herald. Like the children of apartheid, the Aboriginal children of Thamarrurr in the Northern Territory receive less than half the educational resources allotted to white children.
In 2005, the UN committee on the elimination of racial discrimination described the racism of the Australian state, a distinction afforded no other developed country. This was in the decade-long rule of the conservative coalition of John Howard, whose coterie of white supremacist academics and journalists assaulted the truth of recorded genocide in Australia, especially the horrific separations of Aboriginal children from their families. They deployed arguments not dissimilar to those David Irving used to promote Holocaust denial.
Smear by media as a precursor to the latest round of repression is long familiar to black Australians. In 2006, the flagship current affairs programme of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Lateline, broadcast lurid allegations of “sex slavery” among the Mutitjulu people in the Northern Territory. The programme’s source, described as an “anonymous youth worker”, was later exposed as a federal government official whose “evidence” was discredited by the Northern Territory chief minister and the police.
The ABC has never retracted its allegations, claiming it has been “exonerated by an internal inquiry”. Shortly before last year’s election, Howard declared a “national emergency” and sent the army to the Northern Territory to “protect the children” who, said his minister for indigenous affairs, were being abused in “unthinkable numbers”.
Last February, with much sentimental fanfare, the new prime minister, Labor’s Kevin Rudd, made a formal apology to the first Australians. Australia was said to be finally coming to terms with its rapacious past and present. Was it? “The Rudd government,” noted a Sydney Morning Herald editorial, “has moved quickly to clear away this piece of political wreckage in a way that responds to some of its own supporters’ emotional needs, yet it changes nothing. It is a shrewd manoeuvre.”
In May, barely reported government statistics revealed that of the 7,433 Aboriginal children examined by doctors as part of the “national emergency”, 39 had been referred to the authorities for suspected abuse. Of those, a maximum of just four possible cases of abuse were identified. Such were the “unthinkable numbers”. They were little different from those of child abuse in white Australia. What was different was that no soldiers invaded the beachside suburbs, no white parents were swept aside, no white welfare was “quarantined”. Marion Scrymgour, an Aboriginal minister in the Northern Territory, said: “To see decent, caring [Aboriginal] fathers, uncles, brothers and grandfathers, who are undoubtedly innocent of the horrific charges being bandied about, reduced to helplessness and tears, speaks to me of widespread social damage.”
What the doctors found they already knew – children at risk from a spectrum of extreme poverty and the denial of resources in one of the world’s richest countries. Having let a few crumbs fall, Rudd is picking up where Howard left off. His indigenous affairs minister, Jenny Macklin, has threatened to withdraw government support from remote communities that are “economically unviable”. The Northern Territory is the only region where Aborigines have comprehensive land rights, granted almost by accident 30 years ago. Here lie some of the world’s biggest uranium deposits. Canberra wants to mine and sell it.
Foreign governments, especially the US, want the Northern Territory as a toxic dump. The Adelaide to Darwin railway that runs adjacent to Olympic Dam, the world’s largest uranium mine, was built with the help of Kellogg, Brown & Root – a subsidiary of American giant Halliburton, the alma mater of Dick Cheney, Howard’s “mate”. “The land grab of Aboriginal tribal land has nothing to do with child sexual abuse,” says the Australian scientist Helen Caldicott, “but all to do with open slather uranium mining and converting the Northern Territory to a global nuclear dump.”
What is unique about Australia is not its sun-baked, derivative society, clinging to the sea, but its first people, the oldest on earth, whose skill and courage in surviving invasion, of which the current onslaught is merely the latest, deserve humanity’s support.
John Pilger: Under cover of racist myth, a new land grab in Australia
This article appeared in the Guardian on Friday October 24 2008 on p34 of the Comment & debate section. It was last updated at 01.22 on October 24 2008.