Uluru Statement from the Heart

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Indigenous people march for justice and equality in Mount Isa, Saturday May 27.

I have long been supportive of the need for a Treaty between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia and those that know me know I am writing in what little spare time I have, a book about why I think so. The book is aimed at convincing non-Indigenous people as I know most Indigenous people want one.

Yet I’m pleased that the need for a Treaty is at the centre of the recommendations of the 2017 National Constitution Convention outlined in the “Uluru Statement from the Heart”.

The statement acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign nations of Australia who have lived here in legal terms from “time immemorial”. This was sovereignty in a sacred sense and speaks to an ancestral tie with the land which was never ceded and which co-exists “with the sovereignty of the Crown”.

How could it be otherwise, the statement asks, for people who lived here for 60 millennia which could not disappear from world history “in merely the last two hundred years”?

Changing mere words in the constitution won’t fix that, but substantive change and structural reform might.

Despite not being innately criminal, Indigenous people are the most incarcerated in Australia, showing the “torment of our powerlessness”, they said.

In order for Indigenous people to “take their rightful place” in this country, the Convention has asked for a “First Nations Voice” in the Constitution.

That would take the form of a Treaty, or “makarrata”,  a Yolgnu (NT) word meaning “the end of a dispute and the resumption of normal relations” or in the convention’s words “the coming together after a struggle”.

The convention has called for a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement making and “truth telling about our history”.

Harking back to the Referendum, in 1967 Indigenous people were counted, “in 2017 we seek to be heard”.

“We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future,” the final sentence reads.

Agreement and truth sound like a better future to me. I’m walking.

Cross posted from my North West Star editorial, Tuesday May 30, 2017.

Australian budget 2017 ignores the energy problem

poweThe word budget has a long association with money. It comes from the Latin “bulga” which became Old French “bougette”, as a diminutive of “bouge” which was a type of leather bag.  The word originally described a pouch or wallet and later by metaphor its contents. In the mid 18th century, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, in presenting his annual statement, would “open the budget” and only in the last 150 years would the term be extended to other finances.

According to the Merriam Webster definition of the word, the government definition is merely an example of the fourth meaning, namely  “a statement of the financial position of an administration (as of a nation) for a definite period of time based on estimates of expenditures during the period and proposals for financing them.”

Merriam Webster’s lack of attention on the government aspect of the budget is due to its American focus, where the budget is not the centrepiece of the political administration but rather administered by Congress. Australia, which follows the Westminster tradition, has kept the budget as a government tool even if unlike Britain it has dispensed with the “bougette”.

Though budgets are ephemeral things subject to huge variation and change within a short period of time, they are analysed to great extent as a health monitor of the government. Australia has been running a current account deficit since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and no government has been able to rein in spending within its means since.

The Rudd-Gillard budgets of 2008-2013 had to deal directly with that crisis, though it was helped by a motoring Chinese economy. Labor were continually castigated by the right-wing commentariat casting doubt on the “credible return” to surplus which Treasurer Wayne Swan would conveniently place in the fourth and last year of forward estimates.

One of Tony Abbott’s many memorable fear campaigns against that government was the “debt and deficit disaster” (swapping three words for alliteration). Labor spending was planting a “debt bomb”, Abbott and his supporters said, which would explode at some future time. This was stealing from the future, which was correct, but which would have had a lot more credibility had Abbott too not stolen from the future by taking a wrecking ball to carbon pricing.

Abbott was eventually turfed out of office as incompetent but those that followed have a lot to do to repair his damage. There is still no price signal in carbon and its lack was the elephant trading scheme in the room of Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison’s second budget last night.

The media has dubbed it a “Labor lite” budget, spending big on health care, education and infrastructure and paying for it by taxing the banks.  But its failure to understand the role of carbon in our economy is hobbling Morrison’s equally Labor-like promise the budget was a “credible path back to surplus”. Like Swan, Morrison predicted this would happen in four years but given Turnbull’s recent public commentary against an ETS it is just as difficult to believe about 2021 as 2016.

The fact is that since white occupation, Australia has been the lucky country, living beyond its means. It did that through the wool market and convict labour for the first 50 years , then plundering mineral wealth thereafter while subsidising agriculture with cheap Indigenous labour.

Australia’s last budget surplus was when the price of iron ore, and to a less extent coal, went through the roof. Though the prices for both have increased in the last 12 months, even the government says it is “prudent to assume” neither will return to massive revenues in the future – especially coal -unless they can somehow deal with carbon emissions.

A day before the budget, ABC Four Corners program exposed the energy crisis as a failure in public policy. But a night later its budget analysts in Canberra more or less ignored the issue.

But from talking to small and big businesses I know energy reliability and cost is becoming the single biggest burden on the Australian economy.  Government plans such as Snowy 2.0 and putting a reserve price on gas will barely scratch at the surface. Cyclone Debbie was seen as a one-off disaster but one of the predictions of climate change is for stronger and deadlier storms so another Debbie, Yasi or worse in the coming years is hardly out of the question.

Solar and wind barely merited a mention in the budget but they will surely be the key to solving the “debt and deficit disaster”.  Australian coal is the best in the world but it must remain in the ground for now. Similarly gas is also just a short to medium term solution and is unlikely to expand out of Queensland given the social licence issues which the government ignores in its mantra to “produce more gas”.

Funding ARENA – the Australian Renewable Energy Agency  -and putting over $3 billion of debt and equity to support low emissions projects through the Clean Energy Finance Corporation are great initiatives out of the leather bag. But they merely set the framework. The budget mechanism is carbon trading and until that is brought back Abbott’s zombie energy policies continue to walk the land.

 

Easter rising: The Rwandan genocide 25 years on

“When I came out, there were no birds, said one survivor who had hidden
throughout the genocide. There was sunshine and the stench of death.”

Introduction to Leave None to Tell the Story

I don’t get much time off at Easter but I’ve always enjoyed the time. Four days off is a reasonable time to plan something, whether a resurrection or a holiday.  I like it too as a moveable feast whether it is the spring of the north or the autumn of the south. One Easter I decided I needed to understand why the massacres in Rwanda happened. And so 13 years ago an Easter that started as a holiday for me changed into something else.  I decided to lock myself away and devour a dry Human Rights Watch 900-page explainer in the Easter of 2005 to see if I could understand why. I had printed it off in the office, on two sided-copy four pages up, still 100 sheets of dense A4 reading to get through, when the weather was probably nice outside.

But what I wanted, weather could not provide. 2005 was when I no longer wanted to work in IT but hadn’t yet figured out what to do. So I learned widely. Through a love of history, Aboriginal studies was the subject that compelled my return. What happened here when the neolithic era met European naval might and germs from Malaysia was inevitable, though the spoils less inevitably went to Britain. If the Arabs had worked out the Australian coast the same way they worked out the winds, it would have happened earlier. Or else China would have peeked up just over the horizon. But there remains no firm evidence of any European landing before the Dutch in Queensland.  There meetings set the tone and the template for European human behaviour over the next 300 years. It was a topic I would return to again and again. This is the unacknowledged theft of a continent and the categoric rejection that it was genocide that enabled it.

Around that time, Hotel Rwanda was released at the cinema in memory of the killing in that country just over a decade earlier.  It was the story of Paul Rusesabagina, the son of mixed Hutu/Tutsi parentage, caught up in the killing,  as a relatively powerful position of a conscierge in an exclusive white hotel.  The Hôtel des Mille Collines shared its name with the thousands of hills that dominated the capital Kigali but its picturesque setting belied astonishing violence. As the Europeans fled Kigali Rusesabagina turned the hotel into a refuge and the story tells how he and his refugees narrowly avoided the slaughter.

But a slaughter it was. Genocide was certainly possible in Australia in the 19th century,  it was possible in Europe in the 1940s and now we were seeing it was still possible in Africa 50 years later. No convention of human rights could stop it nor police nor courts.  The name of that report I began reading on Good Friday told the moral: “Leave None to Tell the Story”. The killers knew the more they killed, the less would be around to inform on them. Tens of thousands influenced by fear, hatred, promotion or money, made the choice to kill quickly and easily.

But that barely began to explain what was happening in Rwanda between April and July 1994. In Australia the battleground is identity politics (foolishly forgetting Australian politics has always been about identity). In Rwanda the battle was for real,  your identity could kill you. Over half a million people were killed either for being labelled a Tutsi or for being a Hutu who tried to protect Tutsis. Given Hutus grossly outnumbered in Tutsi in Rwanda, it was this latter action that spread widespread fear.

Yet it was a bogus distinction, they are the same people. Hutus and Tutsis had for centuries shared a single language, a common history, the same ideas and cultural practices. They intermarried, they looked alike. Today they are no longer different save arbitrary classifications based on birth.  The ancient kings of Rwanda were Tutsi and when the Germans, and then the Belgians ruled, it was convenient for the colonisers to keep the Tutsi elite and marked anyone Tutsi as an elite – as long as they kowtowed to European bosses. But when a gusty democracy was in the air in the Africa of the 1950s, the Belgians saw the numbers and switched sides. From independence in 1963 the Hutus ruled with implicit support of the French who replaced the Belgians as the regional hegemon. The French were happy to deal with a Hutu government and looked away while many Rwandan Tutsis were exiled or killed in the years that followed.

Long-term leader Juvénal Habyarimana was not easily identified as a Communist or capitalist so Rwanda was a powerful pawn in the Cold War, and tactically important to the east and west. Hutus still ruled Rwanda in 1994 but the collapse of the Soviet Union and a surge from a confident Tutsi-refugee army in Uganda (the Rwandan People’s Front or RPF)  threatened to change the balance of power again. Habyarimana was in power for over 20 years, increasingly unpopular and facing multi-party elections for the first time. He was increasingly useless to the west and like all unpopular leaders he played to far-right fear. He egged on a Hutu Power group, and drumming up hatred and suspicion of Tutsis by exaggerating the threat of the rebels.  State-controlled radio played a crucial role in getting that message out. Habyarimana backed up his talking with violence with several massacres of opponents in the years leading up to the genocide.

He had his supporters. As well as the loyalty of a large standing army, Habyarmina also trained up a young militia, some with guns, but mostly with machetes, and called them “Interihamwe”. Interihamwe was a Rwandan pun meaning “those who stand together” or in a more apt context, “those who attack together”.

Habyarimana had released a demon he could not control. He was growing weaker in his own organisation. There was no longer a Soviet Union to play off against the United States. Worse still the JPF was winning the war. Habyarimana agreed to a peace settlement on their terms. This antagonised Hutu Power who picked up the internal anti-Tutsi spoils. When Tutsis in next-door Burundi decided to overthrow its Hutu president for a Tutsi, Hutu Power decided to act in case Rwanda was next. It decided on large-scale massacres of Tutsis and “sympathisers” to derail the peace process and get the country behind them.

They started at the top. On April 9 Habyarimana’s plane, which he shared with Burundi’s new Tutsi president was gunned down near Kigali Airport killing all aboard. The culprit for this attack was never identified (nor the likely European support it received) but it left his lieutenants free to enact the planned massacre.

Enter Colonel Théoneste Bagosora. Bagosora led the Presidential Guard, other troops and militia in a murder frenzy of Hutu government officials and opposition leaders. The death spree created a power vacuum which Bagosora and his clique filled. The spread of the killing was tacitly condoned and other soldiers and militia also began systematically slaughtering Tutsi as well as Tutsi and Hutu political leaders across the country.  Within a day Bagosora’s government was accepted as fact by the army which was now on a war footing again, as the RPF had used Habyarimana’s death to launch another invasion.

The rest of the world looked away. The UN were ordered to withdrew to their posts leaving the local population at the mercy of assailants. Opposition forces appealed to the three colonial powers, France, Belgium and the US not to desert Rwanda. Bill Clinton’s US still smarting from their humbling experience in Somalia in 1993 did nothing. But all a joint European force of French, Belgian, and Italian troops did was evacuate the foreigners, and then departed. The Belgians were also cowarded into withdraw their troops from the UN peacekeeping force after 10 were killed in clashes with Hutu Power.

Bagosora recruited administrators and political leaders for the killing campaign, getting support first from Habyarimana loyalists and then from administrators and local leaders from the other parties who were predominant in central and southern Rwanda. By April 12 state radio stressed partisan interests must be put aside in the battle against the Tutsi enemy across the nation.

By April 17 the last few administrators opposed to the killing were removed and often killed.  Radio was used to ridicule and threaten those preaching calm. With no sign of foreign intervention the new government was ready to act. The processes were now in place. As well as the army, the administrators and the militia, a fourth movement sprung up dedicated to a “civilian self-defense” program which put a useful euphemism to the killing task.

Zeal to that task took on more significance than rank: subordinates could prevail over their superiors if they showed greater commitment to genocide. This encouraged ambition and initiative for those willing to trade in lives. In the early days killer systematically targetted opponents’ names and houses but this was not quick enough so a new strategy became driving Tutsi out to public sites, to be then massacred in large-scale operations. Towards the end of April, authorities sensitive to what little international condemnation there was, declared “pacification,” another dangerous euphemism. This was not an end to the killing but greater control over killing.

Like the Nazis the Hutu leadership was too distracted by genocide to ensure its own survival. By mid-May, the RPF were advancing through the country yet the genocide continued into its final phase: tracking down the last surviving Tutsi such as those hidden. or women and children who had been spared so far, or those protected by priestly or medical status. The rush was on to eliminate survivors who could testify to the slaughter.

But history is written by the winners. The RPF overthrew the Hutu leadership later that year and turned the country into a dictatorship under Paul Kagame. Many of the hardlines in the Interihamwe and military did what the Tutsi rebels did and continue the fight from exile. Some like Bagosora were caught and sentenced to prison but the majority slid back into obscurity. A few like Rusesabagina also stayed in exile because only there was it safe from Kagame’s wrath to say that Rwanda itself had not learned the lesson as it was subsequently turned into a nation governed by and for the benefit of a small group of elite Tutsis.

The rest of the world was culpable too, wary of interfering in a war-torn country with few resources and dependent on foreign aid. So no one cried “never again” and the conditions for massacre were allowed to fester. If there is a lesson from the Rwandan genocide to the Australian one it is that sometime in the future it will be denied that it ever happened.