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Ishmahil Blagrove, Jr. talks to Aboriginal activist and community leader Shane Phillips about the plight of Aboriginal people in Australia, the suspension of the Race Discrimination Act, and the country’s Intervention Laws which have been described as Australia’s Apartheid.

What is the National Aboriginal Alliance and why was it established?

The National Aboriginal Alliance is a great concept for the moment; it’s a very good vision. A lot of community groups from the different states wanted to establish a voice. We need a voice that says what the majority of Aboriginal people are feeling and what’s happening in Aboriginal communities, a voice that can talk about the issues so that when people make negative comments about Aboriginal people, we have someone to respond with a more objective and balanced view. We also need to make sure that we are influencing our people to create unity, self determination, and economic development, but, most importantly, a united voice.

What are the issues facing the Aboriginal people of Australia?

Dispossession is the root of all the evil. If we look back only several generations, people have lost their land, their culture, their language and many are now forced into a position in society that they cannot relate to. We see the results of that in family breakdown, alcohol abuse, substance abuse, and people lacking initiative, or skills around raising a family or seeking employment or pursuing an education. Those are just some of the things that are the effects of their dispossession. The majority of Aboriginal people are living in very poor housing; we are only 2% of the population and within our communities, something like 70% are unemployed or even more. People are living day to day. In many cases they are living in Third World conditions because our people are at the bottom of the barrel when it comes down to economics. A lot of our people haven’t been taught the skills of survival in this type of world. When I say this type of world, I mean modern society. We were classed as flora and fauna under Australian government acts until 1967 and only then did we receive the right to vote and to be a part of society.

Last year the government under then-Prime Minister John Howard introduced a series of draconian measures known as ‘The Intervention.’ I have heard it described as Australia’s Apartheid. What is The Intervention?

The government scrapped the Racial Discrimination Act so that they could implement three specific rules: the right to send the Army into Aboriginal communities, the establishment of non-Aboriginal managers within Aboriginal communities, and the supervision of people’s social security payments. The broader implications are that people who live in remote areas where there is nothing, no jobs, they have to get unemployment benefits; now those benefits are taken away from them and they are paid 50% of their income in coupons to spend in specific shops. You don’t have any control over your own budget. You have to spend these coupons in specific stores and in many places, those stores aren’t within a few hundred kilometres of some communities. If you did that in mainstream Australia, people would be up in arms. It just targets Aboriginal people. If you live in the Northern Territory and you are Aboriginal it only affects you; the policy does not apply to non-Aboriginal people living there. Even our Aboriginal war veterans are affected by it, and they’ve gone out and fought for this country. The government has banned alcohol and pornography in Aboriginal communities and erected signs outside the communities saying alcohol and pornography are not permitted or is prohibited from here; that’s absolutely ludicrous.

And this only applies to Aboriginal people?

Only Aboriginal people are barred from drinking alcohol in the Northern Territory. If you are white it’s totally ok; you’re not affected in any way by the law. They can drink alcohol, they can possess pornography, they don’t have their payments affected and they can make their own decisions. If you are an Aboriginal person, the manager of your community (who is a white person) will make the decisions for you. If The Intervention is not apartheid, then I don’t know what other word they could use to describe it.

What has been the Aboriginal response to these laws?

We had a demonstration on 12th February outside Parliament that was called the Convergence on Canberra and what that did was let us highlight what the issues were. It was about empowerment, self-determination, and economic development. We protested against The Intervention because we felt that the apartheid part of it was crazy and wrong.

Supporters of the intervention suggest it was introduced as a means of addressing high levels of child abuse within Aboriginal communities. Is there a disproportionate level of child abuse within your communities?

I will actually go on record and say per capita, I think child abuse in Aboriginal communities is a lot less than in mainstream Australia. We’re not saying it doesn’t happen and it hasn’t happened. This whole thing came about when some communities stood up and said, look, we want to do something about some of the issues within our communities, and instead of the government helping them, they went and told the rest of the country that Aboriginal people couldn’t manage their lands and that there were child protection issues, pornography, alcohol and substance abuse problems. Their answer to it was to give us The Intervention, which completely took away from Aboriginal people the right to make independent decisions.

So do you believe that the policy is racially motivated?

Totally. It’s so simple; if you are a black person, an Aboriginal person in the Northern Territory, you are affected by it, and if you are a non-Aboriginal person, you are not affected by it. People can make their own minds up on that one.

How have the media reported the issues?

Controversy makes ratings and sells newspapers, that’s how they make money. If we said all these Aboriginal people are doing fantastic and everything is good, no one would want to know about it because it’s not that news-worthy.  They have unintentionally, or maybe intentionally, promoted or helped to create a divide between blacks and whites that is not needed in this country. Aboriginal people are perceived as being at the bottom of the barrel; we are only 2% of the population and anything we do is negative front-page news. It’s the media’s responsibility to change that perception because they created it in so many ways. You can look through the papers and if you get someone to independently analyse it, you’d find that they could have always dealt with the stories about Aboriginals in a more balanced and productive way.

The Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made an apology to the ‘Stolen Generations’; is that the first step forward?

I think it was a great start. A lot of people are saying, why should we all say sorry? The government of the day at that time, they enforced these laws, so it is the present government’s job to take responsibility and say, look, we think that was wrong and we’re sorry that they did this. Such a great healing process began from the government making the apology; a seed was planted. Many of our people have found it to be a healing process and it’s started the dawn of a new era for our people.

So where do the struggles go from here?

I think it’s time we broke the mould. We may have to internationalise our plight. Our country cried over apartheid when it happened in other countries and if it’s gonna happen here, someone’s got to help us.

1st March 2008

Australia's Apartheid Laws