The Elephant in the Room


By Chris Graham, September 13, 2011

For decades, government report after government report has chronicled the continual failure of bureaucracies to lift Aboriginal people out of the mire of poverty and disadvantage. And for decades, Aboriginal people have been offering the same solution, as yet untried. Self-determination. CHRIS GRAHAM looks at the never-ending cycle of government reports into government failure, and the refusal of a nation to accept that it’s part of the problem, not the solution.

The elephant in the room: Self-determination

If the publication of government reports alone were enough to lift Aboriginal people out of disadvantage, then black Australia would be the healthiest and wealthiest people on the planet.

In the past seven months, at least five major reports into the appalling life circumstances of Australia’s First Nations people have been handed down by governments.

They all say pretty much the same thing. Well, almost, but we’ll come to the dissenting report in a minute.

In May, the NSW Auditor General released a report that outlined the train wreck that was the NSW government’s decade-long policy on Aboriginal affairs (Two Ways Together), noting that it had failed to deliver the outcomes intended.

In June, the federal parliament handed down a report entitled Doing Time – Time for Doing, a probe into the extraordinary rates of incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth.

That report found government programs to halt the rising incarceration rates were ineffective.

In July, the federal government was forced to release a cabinet-in-confidence document entitled Indigenous Expenditure Review.

It lays bare more than a decade of government failure, and billions of dollars of bureaucratic waste through the failed delivery of services to Aboriginal Australians. It is by some margin, the most harrowing read of government in decades.

In August, the Productivity Commission handed down its bi-annual review, which outlines Commonwealth service delivery to Aboriginal people.

The Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage Report 2011 said exactly what was said in 2009 – government programs were failing badly, in no small part because of a lack of coordination between Commonwealth departments.

The fifth report – the dissenting document – was delivered in February.

It was the Prime Minister’s ‘Closing the Gap’ report card, an annual statement to parliament on government progress in, as the name suggests, closing the gap between black and white Australians.

Of the five reports, the Prime Minister’s is the only document to suggest government programs were starting to make a real difference. After telling parliament that Aboriginal people needed to change their behaviour for real gains to be made, Gillard said that while much remained to be done, government service delivery was heading in the right direction.

Obviously, the Prime Ministerial statement flies in the face of the available evidence. Her statement is particularly concerning in light of the contents of the Indigenous Expenditure Review, which stated the precise opposite.

Even more concerning is the reality that Gillard’s cabinet fought tooth and nail to suppress it, finally capitulating after Channel 7 took the government all the way to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and won the right to access the document under Freedom of Information laws.

All of the reports are well worth reading, because they catalogue the sort of government failure that people expect, but rarely believe, even when they see it. But the problem with them is that while they’re very good at identifying the failings, government reports have never really been particularly good at coming up with solutions.

Indeed, a common feature across all of the reports is for the authors to blame governments for their repeated failings, only to suggest governments should continue to centralise service delivery.

In other words, the reports consistently find that bureaucracies are the answer.

In fact, bureaucracies are the problem.

Which leads us to the reason why, year in year out, we keep getting reports on government failure in Aboriginal affairs policy.
Government ministers are looking for solutions in all the wrong places.

In a former life, Paul Kauffman was Associate Professor at the University of Canberra. Today, he’s Manager of Research and Planning at Aboriginal Hostels.

Kauffman has written extensively on international issues around the world, and has a particular focus on the four major western nations with Indigenous populations – Australia, America, Canada, and New Zealand.

In 2003, Kauffman published a ground breaking paper entitled Diversity and Indigenous Policy Outcomes: Comparisons between Four Nations.

It received virtually no mainstream airing upon its release.

The issue of Australia’s performance against its Western peers is a fairly sensitive subject.

We love to be compared with the US, Canada and New Zealand in the sporting arena, but when it comes to human rights – and in particular our treatment of our First Nations people – Australia has a tendency to get a little defensive.

When you read Kauffman’s report, you get a sense why.

Kauffman’s report ranks Australia against the other nations in 21 key areas, covering everything from education and employment to health and incarceration rates.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard pats the climate change elephant. (AAP IMAGE).

The figures are startling.

Just 13.6 percent of Indigenous Australians have a post-school qualification, compared to 85 percent of all Maoris.

Twice as many Aboriginal Canadians speak their native tongue at home, compared to Aboriginal Australians (29.3 percent versus 13.3) and almost twice as many Aboriginal Australians left school before the age of 16, compared to Aboriginal Canadians (40 percent versus 22 percent).

In First Nations youth suicide rates, Australia is a world-beater. The Maori rate – one of the worst on earth – is 56 per 100,000 head of population.

Australia’s rate is almost double that, at 108.

Of the 21 statistical areas, Australia fares worse than Canada, the US and New Zealand in every single category, except four.

We’ll return to those shortly, because the major point of Kauffman’s report is not to belt Australia over the head with its own statistical failings.

It’s to explain why we’re failing so badly.

“Contemporary Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and United States governments claim to have pledged their allegiance to similar policy approaches,” writes Kauffman.

“All governments proclaim that they are committed to renewing partnerships, strengthening Aboriginal governance, developing new fiscal relationships and supporting strong communities, people and economies. It is significant that in the United States and New Zealand, treaty and other agreements have provided extensive educational scholarships, and individual and educational and business opportunities.
And there it is – the ‘T’ word.

A treaty is merely an agreement between two parties. In the context of Indigenous peoples living under colonisation, it is self-determination by any other name. The right to run your own affairs.

But the mention of the word on Australian soil sends politicians and conservative commentators into a tail-spin.

Like this, from former Prime Minister John Howard in 1988, while launching his “One Australia” policy as Opposition Leader (the policy which saw him call for a cooling on Asian immigration).

“I abhor the notion of an Aboriginal treaty because it is repugnant to the ideals of One Australia,” Howard said.

He offered that his One Australia policy would “…welcome all those who share our vision and are ready to contribute to it.”
Presumably, Aboriginal people who want real self-determination are not “welcome”.

Kauffman’s report, however, casts treaty – and self-determination – in a far more positive light. His report argues that in Canada, the US and New Zealand, treaties have paved the way for lifting Indigenous peoples out of their disadvantage, the resultant benefit being prosperity for an entire nation.

New Zealand in particular comes in for high praise.

“The New Zealand story is remarkable, because there was always a treaty or consciousness of a treaty and after restructuring the national economy between 1987 and 1992, Maori employment and livelihood were hit hard,” writes Kauffman.

He adds: “Since 1994 many Maori people throughout New Zealand have re-established themselves to share a reasonable if not bountiful place in the modern New Zealand economy, which with globalisation and the shift to knowledge economies, is still under pressure.

“When I visited New Zealand with eleven Aboriginal leaders in 1998, Maori culture, language, regional agreements, educational initiatives and business success were much in evidence.

“Although there is not statistical equality between Maori and non-Maori in many areas, labour force participation, median weekly income and retention of 16 year olds at school approaches similar levels to non-Maori.

“New Zealand has the best comparative data over time, and that country has shown how well-integrated policies, specifically linking training, education and economic opportunity, can significantly reduce phenomena such as unemployment within a ten year time frame.”

The point being, while most Maori will argue that the Pakeha (white people) have been breaking treaties ever since they were introduced, the sky is yet to fall in on Aoateroa.

“Maori employment and educational rates increased significantly after 1992 because of Treaty settlements and effective programs,” Kauffman says.

“There is pride in their Polynesian cultural heritage and achievements. A number of Treaty or regional agreements allowed Maori to own and work in major corporations.

“It is likely that both business assets and educational investment together were critical factors for change.”

And therein lies the lesson in Kauffman’s report. Rather than hamper Aboriginal progress, treaties have in fact formed the basis of advancement. This is also the case in Canada and the US.

But in Australia, it has been an unfortunate feature of the Australian political landscape that despite having the worst life statistics for First Nations people, we have the best record in telling the rest of world ‘how to fix the blacks’.

In August 2009, Professor James Anaya – the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and one of the world’s foremost experts on Indigenous issues – travelled to Australia to get a first hand look at the Northern Territory intervention, a Howard government 2007 re-election policy that is well-known in the international human rights community for its racially discriminatory measures.
Prof Anaya didn’t like what he saw, and said as much.

In his interim report, he noted: “After several days in Australia listening and learning… I have observed a need to develop new initiatives and reform existing ones in consultation and real partnership with Indigenous peoples to conform with international standards requiring genuine respect for cultural integrity and self determination.

“Of particular concern is the Northern Territory Emergency Response. These measures overtly discriminate against Aboriginal peoples, infringe their right of self-determination and stigmatise already stigmatised communities.

“The emergency response is incompatible with Australia’s obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights; treaties to which Australia is a party.”

Anaya’s comments sent the conservative commentators and politicians into a rage.

Tony Abbott, then Opposition spokesman on Indigenous affairs, responded by calling Prof Anaya – a man who has devoted his life to travelling the world looking at these issues – an “armchair critic”.

News Limited reported that Prof Anaya’s call for the Racial Discrimination Act to be reinstated for Aboriginal Territorians could trigger an “army of publicly-funded human rights lawyers” to start challenging different aspects of the intervention in court.

Inexplicably, Abbott added: “If there are any concerns about the impact of this measure … why don’t we extend it more broadly? I think that would be the way to solve the problem, not to drop the measure.”

If Abbott was annoyed, the architect of the NT intervention, Mal Brough – a man with more missionary zeal than the 1930s – was apoplectic.

“I get very annoyed when I hear people pontificating about human rights when today there will be children sitting out there in abject squalor with diseases they don’t have to have, with inadequate education, poor nutrition and poor access to health and we have some nicety about human rights legislation,” Brough told ABC radio.

“Let’s get real, look these people in the eye, instead of coming in and telling us that we’ve offended some law rather than offending the right of a child to be healthy and happy and to have a future.”

Anaya was certainly telling Brough he had offended “some law” – namely international human rights law – but he was also telling Brough that his policy was killing Aboriginal men, women and children.

The fact is, human rights don’t cause “inadequate education, poor nutrition and poor access to health”.

Government does. And government neglect is rooted in the refusal to respect and extend basic human rights to a marginalised proportion of the population.

It’s worth remembering Brough and his colleagues were at the end of a 12-year stint in office when he discovered the desperate poverty confronting Aboriginal people.

According to the federal government’s own report into the Northern Territory intervention, released in late 2009 after two years of the policy, the death rate in intervention communities went from 10 in the year prior to the intervention, to 84 the year after.

Suicide and self-harm rates almost doubled in two years.

The intervention caused widespread starvation among Aboriginal people, and the Sunrise Health Service in Katherine reported an immediate spike of up to 57 percent in anaemia rates in children, courtesy of the intervention’s compulsory welfare quarantining provisions. The Australian Indigenous Doctors Association warned the government that the intervention was causing “immediate and lasting harm to Indigenous people”.

In announcing the policy, Howard predicted it would cost some “tens of millions” of dollars.

The bill today has climbed beyond $2 billion.

Notably, the very first recommendation of Little Children Are Sacred, the report which the Howard government used to justify the intervention, noted: “It is critical that both (the NT and federal) governments commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities.”

Instead, the Howard government implemented the plan without any consultation with Aboriginal people, save for one – Noel Pearson, a Cape York Aboriginal man with no links to the Northern Territory.

It’s no coincidence that the NT intervention has been such an enormous policy failure.

Which brings us neatly back to the four areas in Kauffman’s report where Australia fares better than Canada, the US and New Zealand.

Unfortunately, they provide no comfort for the current Australian approach of Canberra-control of black communities.

Under the category “single parent families”, Australia beats the US with 28.1 percent versus 39 percent. Even so, you could hardly suggest that Aboriginal families stay together longer thanks to federal government policies.

It’s just the nature of black Australia to stick together longer.

Australia also fared slightly better in smoking rates than New Zealand Maori – 45 percent versus 50 percent.

But that was in 2001. The story today is quite different.

By 2006-07, efforts to stop smoking in New Zealand saw rates cut to less than 40 percent among Maori. At the same time, rates in Australia continued to climb.

In 2011, it sits at more than 50 percent.

Australia also comes in under Maori in diabetes rates – 24 percent compared to 30 percent in New Zealand.

Again, the figures have taken a turn for the worse.

Australia’s rate increased from one in four in 2001, to around one in three today. At the same time, Maori diabetes rates have decreased.

Most notably, one of the four areas where Australia doesn’t fare worse than the other three nations is in employment.

The Maori and Native Americans had unemployment rates of 10 percent and 14.6 percent respectively. Australia’s was 20 percent, but Canada’s was 24 percent.

There’s a simple reason why we didn’t finish last.

By 2001, the Community Development Employment Projects scheme (CDEP) was starting to gather steam.

CDEP was a program where Aboriginal people worked for the dole in, as the name suggested, projects aimed at building their communities.

It was created in 1977 by Aboriginal people near Katherine in the Northern Territory, as a local solution to local problems.

The program was quickly adopted – voluntarily – by Aboriginal communities around the nation, so much so that by 1996 the Census reported it was operating in more than 250 locations.

Enter the white man, in this case the Howard government.

By the mid-2000s, the Howard government had begun branding the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) a “failed experiment in self-determination”.

ATSIC had to go, Howard decided, and CDEP, which was administered by ATSIC, had to go with it. It had become a “destination” rather than a step into real employment, said Howard’s ministry at the time.

When the government finally axed the program in 2007, Aboriginal unemployment had dropped to around 13.8 percent.

Today, four years after the death of CDEP, unemployment now sits at around 20 percent again.

If you want more evidence of the power of black design over white malaise, then look no further than the federal government’s recent experiences in Aboriginal housing.

While dumping on all manner of Australian Government programs aimed at alleviating Aboriginal disadvantage, the Indigenous Expenditure Review which Gillard fought so hard to suppress actually praises one scheme – the Home Ownership Program (HOP).

HOP is one of the few government programs which is actually self-funding, and was described by the Auditor General at the turn of the century as one of the best programs in the Commonwealth.

The program enables black families to access home loans at interest rates one percent lower than the Commonwealth Bank rate. Most importantly, you also don’t require substantial savings to qualify. You just need a capacity to service the loan, and a good rental history.

HOP has been around for almost two decades. Like CDEP, it was an Aboriginal creation, having been designed and launched by ATSIC. Enter the white man again. Specifically, Mal Brough.

After the abolition of the ATSIC, the HOP program – which the Commonwealth retained – saw its waiting list blow out to several years. As a result, in 2008-09, applications nose-dived by 34 percent.

Aboriginal people – who had been queuing up to access an Aboriginal controlled and created program – walked away in droves.

The Howard government could have eliminated the backlog with a fresh injection of funds – money that it would get back through the payment of interest by Aboriginal homeowners. Instead, Brough constructed a brand new program, called HOIL – Home Ownership on Indigenous Lands. He quarantined more than $100 million in housing funds desperately needed by a people who were, in many communities, sharing a single dwelling with more than 20 other residents.

Brough’s bold plan was to encourage Aboriginal people living on their own land to purchase their own homes.

Of course, Brough never stopped to ask whether Aboriginal people in remote regions even wanted to own their own homes. As it turns out, they overwhelmingly didn’t.

Thus, after several years, the HOIL program managed to secure just 15 loans worth less than $3 million.

At the same time, the Commonwealth was forced to spend almost $10 million to administer the program. By any measure, HOIL was a spectacular failure.

In yet another government report, the Australian National Audit Office slammed the program in late 2010: “While it is necessary that costs will be incurred for the establishment of a program of this nature, the administrative costs of $9.9 million for the HOIL program were very high compared to the low level of loan activity that ultimately resulted.”

Significantly, the Indigenous Expenditure Review, recommended that money be transferred out of HOIL and into HOP.

To her credit, Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin last year did precisely that. It had an immediate affect, with the waiting list dropping from around 1,500 to just over 400.

Despite the enduring failure of government, there is some light on the horizon, at least in NSW. It’s a pin-prick of light, but light none-the-less.

Earlier this month, the NSW Government announced a Ministerial Taskforce in response to the Auditor General’s report into the failed Two Ways Together program.

When the Two Ways Together report was released, Victor Dominello, the new Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the O’Farrell government, publicly stated that Aboriginal people were not responsible for the spectacular failure.

It was a surprise – if not refreshing – departure from the usual blame game levelled at the victim’s of government policy.

During an interview with this writer earlier this month (at the announcement of the Taskforce), Dominello was asked why he didn’t take the well worn ministerial path of blaming Aboriginal people for the failings of government.

“Because Aboriginal people weren’t at the table,” Dominello replied.

The NSW Liberal strategy of inviting Aboriginal leaders to the ministerial table is a radical departure from standard Australian government policy. It brings Aboriginal leaders into the process as equal partners. It puts Aboriginal people at least partly in control of the solutions.

As Stephen Ryan, chair of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council (publisher of Tracker) put it, “It seems to be, and I hope it is, a taskforce that can address some of the outstanding issues.

“I certainly hope it will be a true partnership and it is, as the Minister says, something that hasn’t been tried before – us, the Aboriginal community of NSW, in the room with a third of the cabinet.

“It’s something we haven’t been given the opportunity to try before, so I’m certainly grateful to the Minister and his cabinet compatriots.

“But it is called a ‘taskforce’, and there’s a hard task ahead of all of us.”

A ministerial taskforce, it’s important to note, is not self-determination. To borrow a phrase from the Howard ministry, it cannot become the destination.

But it is a step in the right direction.

Just as Australia is the only nation on earth that uses the term ‘queue jumpers’ to describe perhaps the world’s most disadvantaged people, Australia is also the only Western nation on earth where self-determination is even debated, let alone considered controversial.

There also happens to be only one Western nation on earth with trachoma, a third world eye disease which has been eradicated in poor nations like Vietnam.

And there’s only one Western nation on earth which jails black males at a rate more than five times greater than South Africa did in 1993, when the Apartheid regime collapsed.

All of the reports mentioned in this feature are available on the NSWALC website, at (follow the publications link) or via the Tracker website download page (

But if you can’t be bothered reading the 40 pages of the Two Ways Together report; if you can’t be bothered reading the 56 pages of the Prime Minister’s Close the Gap report card; if you can be bothered reading the 346 pages of the Doing Time – Time for Doing report; if you can’t be bothered reading the 66 pages of the Productivity Commission’s Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage report; and if you can’t be bothered reading the 470 pages of the Indigenous Expenditure Review report, do yourself a favour and read Paul Kauffman’s Diversity and Indigenous Policy Outcomes: Comparisons between Four Nations.

It’s only 28 pages, and it contains more solutions than all the other reports combined. If you’re really stuck for time, skip to the last page. There, you’ll find a table entitled ‘Key national policies and Indigenous outcomes’.

It notes that while Canada, New Zealand and the US all have “constitutional recognition of Indigenous peoples”, “Indigenous Treaties” and “Diversity-employment policies”, the column under Australia lists “none”, “none” and “few”.

Now look at the outcomes column.

The male lifespan of First Nations in Australia is 56. The others are between 67 and 68. Under infant mortality, our figures are almost twice as bad as New Zealand and the US. Over-representation in prison: United States, 1.4 times. Australia, 14 times.

Despite this, governments in Australia are still filing report after report on ‘how they broke it’, and ‘how they’ll fix it’.

The elephant in the room – the debate we must have – is about self-determination, the ONLY proven way to lift an Indigenous peoples above the atrocious affects of colonisation.

The fact is, the solutions for black poverty lie within black Australia, not white government.

Always have, always will.


OTHER key works Australian governments might consider reading are the bi-annual Sustainable Governance Reports, from Bertelsmann Stiftung, a German think-tank which looks at the stability of nations around the world.

In the Australian report for 2009, one of the authors writes: “Ethnic minorities are not actively discriminated against, but it should perhaps also be noted that Indigenous Australians experience appallingly bad outcomes on almost all measures of economic and social well-being and health.

“While various programs and payments are made available to Indigenous persons, government provision of health care, community services and basic infrastructure in Indigenous communities is far from adequate.

“The federal government recognised this and has recently made a commitment to substantially increasing resources flowing into these communities [a reference to the Council of Australian Governments boost to Indigenous affairs funding].

“Nonetheless, to the extent that government policy has failed to rectify the adverse situation of Indigenous communities, it could be argued that the state does not protect Indigenous civil rights.”

The author of the report is none other than Roger Wilkins, the former secretary of the cabinet office of NSW, under Bob Carr when Two Ways Together was first launched. Wilkins, notably, is now the secretary of the Commonwealth Attorney Generals department, the very bureaucracy that designed the laws to suspend the Racial Discrimination Act to enable the Northern Territory intervention.

• Chris Graham is the Managing Editor of Tracker magazine. He is a Walkley Award winning writer and twice won the Human Rights Award for his reporting on First Nations in Australia.



Casual Racism

by Zoya Patel on Mar 13, 2012 • 12:30 PM

Zoya Patel

In my last column, I mentioned how I often forget that I’m Indian. I’ve always identified more strongly with Australian culture than my Indian heritage – I love pop culture, English literature, really bad American TV shows (let’s face it, Australian culture is actually just a mash-up of other Western cultures with a smattering of our very own quirks and customs). Bollywood is good for a laugh, but I never really engaged with Indian culture the way that I have with Western culture, and I doubt I ever will.

When you speak in an Australian accent, rarely spend time with Indians other than your family, and even think in English, it can be hard to remember that to other people, you may not look like you belong.

Luckily for me, there’s always a spot of casual racism to remind me what’s what.

I’ve written about casual racism a fair bit, and I think it’s important to distinguish between casual racism and racism proper. To me, casual racism is what happens when people base their actions and attitudes on assumptions about race that they may not be conscious of, or are not intended to be discriminatory, but that serve to propagate the same myths about other cultures that have caused levels of subjugation and oppression for centuries.

Racism proper is just prejudice in its most open and revolting form.

One thing that really gets me in general about racism is how little people are aware of it – and when I say ‘people’ I primarily mean white Australians. Like my many non-ethnic friends who often proclaim that ‘racism isn’t an issue’, based entirely on their own experiences.

I am in no way claiming that Caucasians can’t and don’t experience racism, but I do think that (particularly in Canberra, where I’m from), a sort of bubble exists that means that most Caucasians are unlikely to experience racism, or be present when someone else is.

It does exist though, and I’ve had plenty of firsthand experience with it.

One situation I often point to when it comes to casual racism is the conversation I regularly got stuck in when I used to work part-time at a pharmacy, run by a lovely Indian man who went by the Anglo-Saxon name of Bob.

The conversation went something like this:

Customer: “You’re Bob’s daughter, aren’t you?”
Me: “No, no I’m not.”
C: *look of deep surprise* “Really?!? I really thought he was your dad.”
M: “Nope, we’re both just Indian.”
C: *awkward silence*
M: “… Would you like a bag for that…?”

Now, you probably don’t think this is a big deal, and at first it didn’t bother me. Until the following started happening:

C: “You’re Bob’s daughter, aren’t you?”
M: “No.”
C: “Well, you can see why we would think that.”

Um, actually, no I can’t see why you would think that. Maybe because I’m being deliberately obtuse, or maybe because assuming that I am related to whatever Indian is in the closest vicinity makes the assumption that all Indians look the same, or that all Indians must be related.

This is factually incorrect, and culturally ignorant. Or, as I like to put it, casually racist.

I can safely say that at each of my various other jobs, none of the Caucasian employees have been asked if they were related to the multiple Caucasian bosses that we worked for. And before you protest that it’s ‘different’, or that it’s easier to tell the difference between two white people, let me point out a few reasons why I think this is an issue:

1. The assumption that I was related to my boss, simply because we’re both Indian is based on the idea that all Indians, and indeed all migrant groups, are homogenous entities with no individual traits to help discern them from each other.

2. It suggests that all Indians really do look the same. What, our skin colour makes us melt into a brown blob, identical to all the other blobs around us? Despite the fact that we have brown skin, we do still have completely different skin tones, features and individual looks. We are still human.

3. It ignores the fact that, much like Caucasians, south-east Asians can have similar physical features (i.e. skin colour), and still be from entirely different countries. I am from Fiji. Bob is from South Africa. We don’t even speak the same language.

4. Worst of all, the way in which people asked me suggests that they thought it was such an obvious assumption, that I was being deliberately difficult by getting offended.

I can pretty safely say that not all of the 1.21 billion people who are currently living in India are related to each other. Prreeetty sure about that.

This kind of casual racism is the worst kind, because it’s considered to be entirely reasonable, and it tends to slip under the radar. Yet, it is just as damaging and insidious as any other form of racism.

Viewing racial groups as homogenous entities is what leads to racial discrimination in the first place – and even though no one means anything nasty by asking if I’m related to Bob, the fact remains that people implicitly assume that all Indians, or Asians or Arabs in a two-block radius of each other are related – because we’re obviously the Other, and hence are more likely to be connected to each other than any of the Anglo-Saxons around us.

Maybe I’m blowing this out of proportion, or maybe people honestly aren’t aware of how offensive it is. But even if it is just a case of a storm in a chai cup, it still says a lot about our attitudes towards different races.

Casual racism will always fascinate me, because it’s so much more integrated into our psyches than overt displays of racism. When someone is actually just being openly racist, I assume that they’re quintessentially a dickhead and move on with my life.

But when someone makes an innocuous assumption, or asks a seemingly casual question, it raises a lot of questions about societal views of race and multiculturalism.

Because, although there certainly are more Caucasians than Indians in Australia, that’s just not a good enough reason to discriminate between us in what is a globalised world.

But I guess that’s just one ‘curry-munchers’ opinion.

The Coconut Chronicles


Life in a public mental ward – enough to drive you insane

Catherine Jones
March 15, 2012

An unhealthy system … there are drugs that don’t cause horrendous weight gain – but you won’t be getting them in a public ward.

The state psychiatric system needs urgent reform.

Imagine for a moment that you are returning from the corner shop after buying milk one evening. At the end of your street, you can just make out the outline of two, big, burly police officers, waiting.

As you approach, they grab you, manhandle you, drag you terrified and screaming to the street corner, then violently hurl you into the back of their paddy wagon and race off at breakneck speed – to where, you have no idea.

You have never been dangerous or violent; you have never broken the law or committed any crime – in fact, three short months ago, you were the victim of a serious crime yourself, a violent sexual assault that you were lucky to have survived.

You are worried sick that your mother, who was waiting for you to return from the shop, will have no idea what happened to you and will be frantic that you disappeared into thin air, particularly given your recent history.

When the paddy wagon finally stops, you have arrived at the local public psychiatric hospital.

This is what it felt like to be ”scheduled” under the NSW Mental Health Act when I was 28 and my experiences with the NSW public mental health system only went downhill from there.

Allegedly designed to protect me, to help and heal me, it has done nothing but traumatise and brutalise me, destroy my career and steal great chunks of my life. I now have a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder, on top of the bipolar disorder triggered by too many anti-depressants in the wake of my sexual assault. And my experience is far from uncommon.

Terrible abuses of human rights occur daily in our public psychiatric facilities but are known only to the victims’ families and close friends, because in essence, no one else cares about people with a mental illness.

The draconian NSW Mental Health Act is every bit as harsh as something you would see in Texas, one of the most backward states in the US, my American lawyer husband tells me. It gives police and doctors carte blanche to treat people scheduled under that act as they please.

I have been in a ward where electroconvulsive therapy was used as a threat; where a dirty look at a nurse could result in a ”code” being called, a bashing by hospital security and hours in a padded cell; where psychological abuse and verbal insults from nurses and doctors were par for the course.

I nearly died in one ward, where I was forced to take a drug that I was highly allergic to, despite my protestations to the doctor that it was causing brain seizures and anaphylaxis.

As an involuntary patient, I had no say in my treatment, even when it was killing me. My life was saved only because three good nurses witnessed a seizure and demanded the doctor change the medication.

The drugs I have been forced to take have seen me balloon from a healthy 62 kilograms in 1997 to my present obese 90kg. (There are drugs that don’t cause such dramatic and horrendous weight gain; I know because my private specialist uses them. But you won’t be getting them in a public ward.)

Even the reasonable hospitals are still glorified jails by another name, where everything, including your phone and wallet, and tea and coffee-making facilities, is locked up, and you are limited to just two phone calls a day.

Being imprisoned for being ill is horrendous enough, but recently in NSW, involuntary patients even lost their right to a timely legal challenge to their detention.

The wait was extended from two weeks to three or sometimes longer to save money, as an independent consultant’s report now reveals, despite two years of denials.

Only now is that being remedied, according to today’s report.

I have done everything I can over the past 14 years to protect myself from this system – I have insight into my illness; I am totally ”medication compliant”; I pay top private health cover to have access to a private psychiatrist and private hospitals. Yet nothing protects you from this public system once you have been in it: as I discovered last year, you can even be scheduled ”on your history” alone.

The public hospital psychiatric system and the Mental Health Act in NSW both need urgent reform. An excellent starting point would be with how people are ”scheduled” under the act. People with a mental illness are statistically no more violent than the rest of the population. So why are police involved in taking them forcibly to hospital?

For everyone else in our society who is ill, we call an ambulance.

Given that one in five of us will became mentally ill at some time in our lives, it could be your loved ones one day. Would you want to see them treated like this?


A history of marriage in Australia

ABC  The Drum
1 July 2011

Rodney Croome

Rodney Croome

Rodney Croome

On August 13, 2004, in a debate punctuated by rage and tears, the Senate passed a Howard government amendment to the Marriage Act banning same-sex marriages.


Rally in support of gay marriage rights (Getty Images: Luis Ascui)

Exactly 45 years earlier, on August 13, 1959, in the midst of debating Australia’s first national Marriage Act – the one Howard later amended – the House of Representatives erupted at the news an Aboriginal woman had been denied permission to marry.

In Darwin the protector of Aborigines had refused Gladys Namagu permission to marry her white fiance, Mick Daly. In response to questions from the opposition, the Menzies government promised such discrimination would never be written into Australian marriage law.

This coincidence highlights the direct link between the way Aborigines were once denied freedom to marry the partner of their choice and how gay and lesbian Australians are denied the same freedom today.

Yet the link runs deeper than infringing the principle of individual autonomy.

In an article published in the latest edition of Overland, I argue Australian governments have a shameful history of manipulating who ordinary people marry in order to engineer broader visions of what Australian society should be. This history goes back to the earliest times.

In convict Australia the government assumed control over who the majority of white Australians married and used this control for overt ideological purposes. Governor Philip wanted to create a native Australian yeomanry and rewarded those convicts who exhibited appropriate traits with permission to marry.

Forty years later, governor Arthur sought to inculcate convicts with industrial rather than agrarian values and gave the reward of permission to marry to convicts who conformed. There was resistance to these controls from convicts who insisted on marrying for the sake of love or children, from women convicts who married to escape the convict system and become “free subjects”, and of course from the anti-transportationists who despised this kind of governmental intervention in personal life and brought it, and convictism, to an end in the 1850s and 1860s.

But Australian governments had not lost their weakness for infringing freedom to marry. Into the 20th century women had to fight hard for the right to marry who they wished and conduct those marriages free of laws against contraception, abortion and divorce.

Because of the White Australia Policy servicemen in occupied Japan were refused permission to local Japanese women or, if they married anyway, were unable to return to Australia with their Japanese wives.

Infringement of Aboriginal freedom to marry was most notorious of all. Beginning in the 1860s in Victoria and culminating in the 1930s in West Australia and Queensland, authorities assumed ever more control of who Indigenous people married.

In Queensland the purpose was to prevent miscegenation by preventing black/white marriages. In WA it was to absorb blacks into the white population by preventing black/black unions.

The adverse effect on Indigenous people was always the same, and, as with convicts, some Aborigines resisted control. Women deliberately fell pregnant to their forbidden fiancés, couples escaped to states without marriage controls, and in 1935 the “half-caste women of Broome” petitioned the WA Parliament declaring:

Sometimes we have the chance to marry a man of our own choice… therefore we ask for our Freedom so that when the chance comes along we can rule our lives and make ourselves true and good citizens.

Aboriginal advocates in Sydney and Melbourne were slower to pick up on the issue. But when they did – as a way to prick the conscience of an Australia increasingly concerned about “Hitlerism” – the right to marry the partner of one’s choice shot to the top of Aboriginal Australia’s list of demands above land rights and equal pay, and second only to the right to vote.

When the case of Gladys and Mick hit the headlines across the world, thanks in part to an appeal to the UN Secretary General, it helped end the entire rotten system of Aboriginal protection laws and propelled the nation towards overwhelming endorsement of Aboriginal citizenship in 1967.

Many white Australian’s have forgotten how important freedom to marry was, but not so Indigenous people like lawyer, Tammy Williams. When the issue of same-sex marriage was raised during the recent national human rights consultation she said, “I couldn’t help but think about my family, when you talked about the right to choose your partner… In my family, it’s only one generation ago that we were prevented from choosing our chosen partner to marry – not because of sexual orientation, but simply because of our race, our Aboriginality.

The denial to gay and lesbian Australians of our freedom to marry follows the historical pattern I have outlined.

The decision to form a lifelong legal union with one other person is one of the most important decisions most of us is ever called on to make. To rob an entire group of citizens of the legal right to make that decision sends the message that they are not fully adults, fully citizens or fully human. This was the burden convicts and Aborigines carried in their day and it is the burden gay and lesbian Australians carry today.

As it was in the past, today’s infringement of the freedom to marry is part of a broader ideological vision imposed by government. That vision is a theocratic one which sees the subtle re-introduction of Biblical values back into civil law following their removal in the second half of the 20th century.

Most importantly, the success of today’s freedom to marry movement will, like the movements before it, have consequences far beyond those directly affected. It will mean a re-affirmation of equity, impartiality and humanity as the values that govern Australian law. It will mean marriage is no longer manipulated to discriminatory, ideological ends and is instead what it should be, an affirmation of love, a commitment to fidelity, a source of security and a font of personal happiness.

Routine violations of the freedom to marry seem to well up from the bedrock of Australia’s history. But so do challenges to these abuses. As a result, when these challenges succeed, Australian society matures quickly and profoundly.

Rodney Croome AM, is an honorary lecturer in sociology at the University of Tasmania.


Pride and prejudice

Daily Life

February 29, 2012 – 9:26AM

Alyena Mohummadally

Pakistani-born lawyer and social justice activist Alyena Mohummadally on the challenge of reconciling religion and sexuality.

Alyena Mohummadally ... proud queer Muslim

I was raised in a Muslim household where we were encouraged to ask questions and seek answers. But for a long time, all I knew about sexuality and Islam was that heterosexuality was celebrated once married, and that homosexuality – a word used to describe men who have sex with men – was forbidden. Lesbians didn’t even get a look in.

I had known I was attracted to women since I was in my early teens. I remember watching German Figure Skater Katarina Witt in the Winter Olympics and thinking she was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.

I first ‘came out’ to my parents when I was at Uni, but I went back into the closet when I saw the emotional chaos it caused for my family. My father didn’t want to speak about it and my little sister felt like I was tearing our family apart. I ended up denying my sexuality and living a double life, and hating myself for it.
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In 2000, I entered my first same-sex relationship, and then suddenly it dawned on me that maybe I was no longer Muslim. When I decided to renounce my faith, I was miserable but I couldn’t pretend I didn’t want a life with a woman. Strict interpretations say that homosexuality is forbidden in Islam. So I felt I couldn’t be queer as well as Muslim, and I was consumed by confusion. I even spent a year lying to my parents and saying I was “Women’s Officer” at Uni when I was the “Queer Officer”.

Eventually, I moved interstate and found the courage to explore both sides of my identity and discovered I could not deny my sexuality nor my spirituality. I could be both Muslim and queer since I believed Allah created me this way, and being a good person was enough for me to call myself Muslim. I am not a cleric nor religious scholar but I studied the religion and found my own way home. There are 99 names for God in Islam, and 97 of them are words like gentle, merciful, forgiver – this is the God that made me.

Until a few years ago, there were no online support groups for queer Muslims in Australia. I made a promise to myself that is I was ever comfortable enough with my reconciling faith and sexuality, then I would do something to help people find a voice when I for so long believe I had none. In 2005, I founded an online support group “Queer Muslims in Australia” to provide people like me with a safe space to connect.

We have just over 100 members so the group is small by today’s standards but I think of it as over a hundred brave people who are on a journey not dissimilar to my own. It still makes me extremely sad to read of people searching for “sham weddings” because it is not safe to come out. But I also do not think anyone should come out if there is a risk that they might be harmed or hurt – and this is a real risk for many people.

It has been a long and difficult road for my family to come to accept my sexual identity, but it’s worth it. I am now in a happy, committed and secure relationship with a non-Muslim woman, with whom I have a young son. We are raising our child to be Muslim because it just feels right. Although my parents have said that they still wonder why Allah created me differently, they accept my partner, and love her and my son. This is what matters to me.

Ultimately, I identify as a “queer Muslim”. But I am also a mother, partner, sister and daughter, a lawyer and a social justice activist. And I have found that I cannot be happy if I choose one world over the others. I’ve had countless people say to me, ‘You can’t be queer and Muslim – it just doesn’t exist in Islam.” To this, I simply say, “I exist. So it must be possible.”


Should we name and shame online racists?

Tory Shepherd

by Tory Shepherd

18 Jan 05:50am


The interwebs are a cesspit of bigotry, bullying and racism, hate and snuff porn, and all things dark and evil, right?

Does anonymity breed hate? Pic: AP

Right. But, being a human place, they’re also full of wit and wisdom and things of beauty.

It’s hard to tell who’s winning, but there’s a bloody interesting skirmish going on. Twitter user @lizsinnott tweeted a screenshot from a Facebook page on which a bunch of racist nongs had posted racist rubbish about an ad for indigenous education.

Pig ignorant, superficial, uneducated, poorly composed, petty, nasty crap like:

God! Look at that boonga nose! Disgusting! Maybe if they stopped pretending to be Australian dancing animals who beat sticks and think it’s music and started being humans who dont live off the doll they’d get somewhere in life.

Disgusting indeed.

Another Twitter user, @swearycat, posted the screenshot on their blog. It spread through social media. And then people started tracking down the racist clowns, figuring out where they worked, and reporting them to their employers.

Modern medium, classic name and shame.

I won’t repeat the names here, because the people who are now involved in the exposé are redacting the names as people apologise, so I’ll leave the list in their capable hands.

The broader question is: Is naming and shaming an effective tactic against people being dickwads, and worse?

It certainly got Marieke Hardy in trouble. Hardy joined in a shaming exercise under the hashtag #mencallmethings, pointing to a blog post she’d written about the author of “ranting, violent” online attacks against her – but got the name wrong, and was forced to apologise.

But what if you get it right, and can literally shame people into realising the error of their ways?

The best outcome would be that you might force people to realise they let the crazy free-for-all hatefest of the internet go to their heads. They might just take a good hard look at themselves. It might make them think about what they say, and stop feeding the beast.

It might just make them stop spreading hate speech on Facebook, and turn to forums where it’s easier to stay anonymous. Anonymity gives people great freedom to voice their most horrid thoughts, to give free reign to foul ideas and to become world wide bullies.

It could, conceivably, encourage people to pose as others and post hateful things in order to discredit their enemies.

It could encourage cyber vigilantes.

I still reckon it’s worth a go. Like it or not, the internet is a frontier town. It’s close to lawless – and that’s part of its beauty. Censorship is not the answer; neither is removing the cloak of anonymity that allows people to speak without fear of retribution.

But where bad ideas fester, and hate speech flourishes, the best weapon against it is fresh air and sunlight, and the ridicule of the cyberworld.

And if you’re stupid enoughto be racist, and to put your own name to your racism, well you’ve already done the naming and shaming part yourself.



Things I Don’t Have to Think About Today (Australian version)

Originally published by John Scalzi


Today I don’t have to think about those who hear “terrorist” when I speak my faith.
Today I don’t have to think about men who don’t believe no means no.
Today I don’t have to think about how the world is made for people who move differently than I do.
Today I don’t have to think about whether I’m married or in a relationship, depending on what gender my spouse is
Today I don’t have to think about how I’m going to hail a cab after midnight.

Today I don’t have to think about whether store security is tailing me.
Today I don’t have to think about the look on the face of the person about to sit next to me on a plane.
Today I don’t have to think about eyes going to my chest first.
Today I don’t have to think about what people might think if they knew the medicines I took.
Today I don’t have to think about getting stared at in a shopping mall when I kiss my beloved hello.

Today I don’t have to think about if it’s safe to hold my beloved’s hand.
Today I don’t have to think about whether I’m being pulled over for anything other than speeding.
Today I don’t have to think about being classified as one of “those people.”
Today I don’t have to think about making less than someone else for the same job at the same place.
Today I don’t have to think about the people who stare, or the people who pretend I don’t exist.

Today I don’t have to think about managing pain that never goes away.
Today I don’t have to think about whether a stranger’s opinion of me would change if I showed them a picture of who I love.
Today I don’t have to think about the chance a shop assistant will ignore me to help someone else.
Today I don’t have to think about the people who’d consider torching my house of worship a patriotic act.
Today I don’t have to think about a pharmacist giving me a look of disapproval while filling my prescription.

Today I don’t have to think about being asked if I’m bleeding when I’m just having a bad day.
Today I don’t have to think about whether the one drug that lets me live my life will be taken off the market.
Today I don’t have to think about the odds of getting hit on at the pub I like to go to..
Today I don’t have to think about turning on the news to see people planning to burn my holy book.

Today I don’t have to think about others demanding I apologise for hateful people who have nothing to do with me.
Today I don’t have to think about my child being seen as a detriment to my career.
Today I don’t have to think about the irony of people thinking I’m lucky because I can park close to the door.
Today I don’t have to think about memories of being bullied in high school.
Today I don’t have to think about being told to relax, it was just a joke.

Today I don’t have to think about those who view me an unfit parent because of whom I love.
Today I don’t have to think about being told my kind don’t assimilate.
Today I don’t have to think about people blind to the intolerance of their belief lecturing me about my own.
Today I don’t have to think about my body as a political football.
Today I don’t have to think about how much my own needs wear on those I love.

Today I don’t have to think about explaining to others “what happened to me.”
Today I don’t have to think about politicians saying bigoted things about me to win votes.
Today I don’t have to think about those worried that one day people like me will be the majority.
Today I don’t have to think about someone using the name of my religion as a slur.
Today I don’t have to think about so many of the words for me controlling my own life being negatives.

Today I don’t have to think about still not being equal.
Today I don’t have to think about what it takes to keep going.
Today I don’t have to think about how much I still have to hide.
Today I don’t have to think about how much prejudice keeps hold.
Today I don’t have to think about how I’m meant to be grateful that people tolerate my kind.

Today I don’t have to think about all the things I don’t have to think about.

But today I will.

*If you are a young, white, able-bodied, straight Australian male of Christian background with no psychiatric illness or learning disabilities then you need not read this because it isn’t about you. But maybe you should, because it is about everyone else.

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