The battle for Aboriginal rights

An apology from Kevin Rudd to Australia's aboriginals and a pledge about closing the life expectancy

How wistfully Gordon Brown must look on the honeymoon period that newly elected Australian counterpart, Kevin Rudd, is still enjoying.

Where Brown fears passing Olympic symbols, he is unable to hold a torch to Australia’s most famous Mandarin speaker’s forceful rejection of China’s now infamous athlete security guards.

Where Brown is fearing the next general election, Rudd is basking in a 73 per cent approval rating, compared to a nine per cent rating for the new Liberal leader Brendan Nelson. It would hardly help Brown to point out the similarities with those heady days after Tony Blair's 1997 election win.

The analogy of 1997 Britain was furthered by Rudd’s apology to the Aboriginal people for the "profound grief, suffering and loss” that his predecessors inflicted upon them, leading to an outpouring of emotion that could at least be compared to, if not rival, the death of Diana. It is not often that the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, weeps while watching CNN, though this is what he claimed happened while watching Rudd’s historic moment.

But are words enough? As John Pilger quite rightly pointed out on these pages, the answer is 'no'. By focusing on past injustices – including the “Stolen Generations,” which saw indigenous children taken from their families up until, unbelievably, the 1960s – there is a danger that present inequalities could be quietly swept under the carpet. And these inequalities are all too real: an infant mortality rate that is almost three times higher than the non-indigenous population, rates of death from treatable and preventable conditions ranging from three times to eight times higher than for non-indigenous Australians and, for some, a lack of access to adequate health care, housing, food or water, according to Human Rights Watch. All this in one of the world’s wealthiest nations.

Critics correctly point to the lack of a move to allow the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act with regards to the Northern Territory National Emergency Response – which deals with alleged child abuse in the region – thereby continuing the legalisation of discrimination of the indigenous population. As well as this, there have been calls to alleviate the lack of funding for the Aboriginal Legal Aid services, which is to blame for the indigenous legal service’s inability to deal with the civil and family law issues, according to a recent article in Criminal Law Journal.

Words, however, are undoubtedly a start, especially when they are backed up by Rudd’s latest promise, announced in London this week, to use the first day of parliament every year to provide an update on progress to close the life expectancy gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians by 2030 – which incredibly stands at 17 years at the moment.

But as well as this extremely welcome concrete policy proposal – and arguably as importantly – the words of apology have huge merit in themselves. An analysis of Rudd’s speech in the Sydney Morning Herald suggested the apology is no more than a “shrewd manoeuvre” designed to “respond to some of (Labor's) own supporters' emotional needs”. But, even if this were true, an apology issued so soon after gaining power undoubtedly places the rights of indigenous Australians at the heart of the political agenda, and is an essential step in changing the attitudes of ordinary non-indigenous Australians – attitudes which often leave a lot to be desired.

These inequalities will not dissipate until attitudes move away from the perception that the indigenous people naturally have a predilection for alcohol and self-destruction, despite white Australians’ best efforts – attitudes which, if not predominant, are still depressingly mainstream – toward acknowledgement of European settlers’ role in creating the inequalities and low sense of self worth that may give rise to substance abuse. These were attitudes that, incredibly, allowed John Howard to send the troops in to stop child abuse in the Northern Territory.

Australians need only to look over the Tasman Sea to New Zealand to see how an indigenous and non-indigenous population can live together. Crucially, and contrary to many Australians’ wishes, it is not a case of assimilation by the indigenous population. True, there are still inequalities and racial tensions bubbling under the surface, but through gestures such as making Maori an official language and having a dedicated Maori free-to-air TV channel, New Zealand has embraced its Maori heritage and it is a source of pride for non-indigenous New Zealanders. Until Australians feel the same, inequalities will remain – but words, even if they are hollow, are a positive step.

Jaimie Kaffash began his writing career working for a magazine for British ex-pats in Sydney. He now freelances from the less exotic climes of Kentish Town, north London, taking particular interest in Australian politics and the growing tribulations of Arsenal Football Club.
Getty
Show Hide image

The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times