Some good news emerging from the bad

Another month, another setback – several, unfortunately. With preparations for the budget being finalised in an atmosphere of quiet desperation, COVID-19 is now clearly out of control.

What Health Minister Greg Hunt snidely terms “the Victorian second wave” is rampant and the borders of the other east coast states have been breached, although, at the time of writing not yet overrun.

The mad sovereign citizens are on the move, their immediate target compulsory wearing of masks, but more dementedly anarchic demands to do whatever they like and bugger the rest of us.

The embattled Victorian premier Daniel Andrews has been reduced to lurching between imposing ever more draconian restrictions and pleading for his constituents to do the right thing. Some are simply confused by the mish-mash of often contradictory edicts, but it has become alarmingly obvious that an increasing number of them just aren’t listening.

Too many have become denialists. recalcitrants or just plain crazies. They see their selfishness and perversity as some kind of higher morality whereby their imaginary sovereign citizenship transcends the common good. Darwinian evolution – survival of the fittest – will presumably cull quite a few of them, but that is a very long term solution to what is an immediate crisis.

The brawl over nursing homes is getting nastier – the age-old impasse of federalism, with the commonwealth making the rules and the states having to manage them, has come to a head over the grave of the old and infirm.

State borders are being constantly revised, with exemptions seen by many to be unfair and partisan – and much the same applies to most of the restrictions being switched on and off in defiance of Scott Morrison’s ukase that this simply cannot happen.

As a result, no one is quite sure what is going on, let alone whether it is a sensible or effective policy. And the assurance that all will be revealed in October when our resident magician pulls the numbers out of his budget hat, have not proved encouraging.

The latest dire statistics show that the country has fallen into deflation for only its third time in history and that the national debt is now well on the way to hitting a trillion dollars – that’s $1,000.000.000.000. Now that’s a really eye-watering number.

Josh Frydenberg may well be weeping and wailing but is showing no real signs that he has a clue what to do about it all. But to be fair, he is hardly Robinson Crusoe – the rest of the world seems similarly bereft as the pandemic continues to fill the graves, body-bags and refrigerator trucks in the many countries less fortunate than Australia.

Yes, we must still call ourselves the lucky country, however grim the prospects appear – and they look like becoming even grimmer. Only days after releasing the last economic update. Treasury Secretary Steven Kennedy warned that it was already obsolete, that the Victorian situation would mean less growth and more unemployment. Happy Christmas in advance.

But let’s get to some good news for a change. There is to be a quiet revolution in the intractable area of indigenous reform.  White Australia, in the unlikely guise of Scott Morrison, has admitted that the years of trying to close the gap from the top have failed and that it is time to ask the real stakeholders – the First Australians – to tell the rest of us, and specifically, his government, what is actually needed.

So from now on the strategy will be a genuine partnership – 50 peak indigenous bodies will be brought into the process as equals and will have a real say in setting their own goals and their own targets. And this means that the old formulas devised by the well-intentioned shiny bums in Canberra will become at least relevant to the long-running frustrations of those who have, for far too many years, been seen as clients and customers rather than active participants.

Old targets have been junked and revised, and 16 new ones formulated. So as well as the obvious concerns about health, housing and education, the terrible suicide rate becomes an issue front and centre, as do the rates of imprisonment and domestic violence.  And interestingly, the less direct disadvantage of the decline and disappearance of some languages is to be addressed, along with an increased emphasis on securing land and sea rights within the over-complicated process.

Achieving outcomes will be a long and tortuous business, involving debate and probably some conflict. There is already a problem with Morrison saying that there will not be a bucket of money; many participants regard it as essential that they can assess their own budgetary requirements and that will inevitably require increased funding.

And indigenous politics being no less rancorous than the version in Canberra, there are bound to be divisions both within those inside the tent and those who feel excluded. Noel Pearson, Megan Davis and Roy ah-See, whose credentials as serious and credible leaders are unquestioned, have all cast doubts about the ability of the peak bodies to negotiate with communities. They are worried that some of the targets are insufficiently ambitious. And they point to the primacy of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which was and is the key to genuine reconciliation.

These are legitimate concerns and they should be addressed. But they do not detract from the significance of the agreement signed off last week. The diligent negotiator Pat Turner – whose credentials are equally impeccable – has brought to the concord all three levels of government: the commonwealth, all the states, and local. This is an opportunity not to be missed. And it can work in concert with Uluru –  in fact, it can it enhance it.

The big breakthrough is that Morrison, pushed by his Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt, is prepared to confront the obvious truth: there can be no real progress until those who have suffered under the centuries-old regime of failure can be given power and responsibility to repair the damage.

And they too may fail, we may be faced with more generations lost to misery and despair. But at least they will be given a chance on something resembling a level playing field.

And that’s the good news. But now, back to the pandemic.

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Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.
[email protected]

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