Any non-Australian readers, start here. The report is here.
A proposition: its always political, always, and if it isn’t, it had better be. Thats what being leader of a political party is about. So lets get past that from the get-go.
And as my sometime co-author Mumble says, it might or might not be good policy (like Mumble, I don’t know). But I do know that the conditions of Aboriginal Australians are beyond scandalous (and have been for a long, long time), and that “something has to be done”. So something is being done. I heard an interview with Noel Pearson on PM last night. Pearson was just magnificent (as he has been in a series of media appearances I’ve seen online in the last couple of months; example); in the PM interview he basically told all the critics to bugger off. Pearson’s responses to the interviewer powerfully demonstrated that since this policy intervention is widely understood as being about the immediate protection of children, it then carries such overwhelming moral suasion that any opposition will be swept aside (at least for the time being); see also Noel’s “Your Say” in the Weekend Australian. And so we’re only left to ask the question “why now?”.
I’m not as cynical as some on this. First, I just don’t see this issue as a big vote-switcher. Big-stick Federal intervention will generate criticism on the left of various sorts (eg., see these reactions from the Greens, the Democrats; ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope has called the proposals racist, inter alia, et alia), but the people sympathetic to these criticisms aren’t likely vote switchers. Recalling Parliament, passing the legislation, and the implementation of the policy: these events will provide a huge circuit-breaker on the dominant political narrative of the last few months (Labor’s huge lead in the polls, industrial relations, responses to climate-change), and the Prime Minister gets to be very, well, “prime-ministerial” (Richard Farmer’s Crikey contribution on this aspect of it struck me as spot on, underscoring the power of incumbency, the ability to abruptly change the terms of political debate).
The interesting political question is does an aggressive Federal policy intervention into Aboriginal affairs switch votes in the middle? Will this policy intervention make anyone who has voted Liberal in the last couple of cycles, but is saying they will vote Labor this time around, come back to the Libs? And, in particular, these are people in marginal electoral divisions like, say, Parramatta, Lindsay, Eden-Monaro, Bonner, Moreton, Kingston, Bass… I doubt it. Frankly, this could well be an issue that improves Coalition support in hitherto safe Liberal seats in leafy suburbs (insert “doctors’ wives” comment here): e.g., North Sydney, Bradfield, Bennelong (!), Wentworth.
One other thought: while “it is all political”, don’t discount the possibility that the Prime Minister is also looking to the history books, given that his government remains odds-on to lose the next Federal election. Having presided over a period of great prosperity, perhaps Howard has got an eye on what future historians will say about what his government did for the most impoverished and vulnerable in Australian society (imagine superimposing two time series: Sydney property values, the ratio of white-to-Aboriginal life expectancies, 1996-2007). The roll-out of the policy as Australia comes under some international attention with APEC will probably also play well, all things considered. In addition, as Howard came to this decision, while he is perhaps first and foremost a political leader, I wonder also about the personal underpinnings: voices from inside his household (Jeanette?); his references to the “passion” of his Cabinet and the relevant minister, Mal Brough, on this issue; memories of an Earlwood Methodist childhood… as he contemplates/confronts the end of his tenure as prime-minister?