In Melbourne’s Age newspaper this morning discussion continues of John Howard’s plan to solve “the problem of child abuse in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities”. Mr Howard has called the the “crisis” Australia’s Hurricane Katrina, referring to the magnitude of the problem* and the necessity of immediate mobilisation of resources.
Parallels might be drawn, but not in the way Mr Howard has. The response to Katrina showed that as much as we talk about equality and race-blindness, in a crisis you’d better be white, well-educated and be able to liquidate some assets in a hurry. Such crises are not great levellers, but rather they bring into view just how much class, wealth and race affect one’s chances.
Commentators in the USA have talked about how Katrina brought out the best in people – volunteers opening their homes, giving all their cash, helping in the rescue effort. That’s true. We also saw something of the worst of behaviour: police barracading bridges to keep out African Americans fleeing flooding and looting in New Orleans; clothing donations covered in excrement, machine oil, or ripped so they were unwearable; and the sending of people with nothing to the poorest areas of Houston, to the poorest, least resourced and most overcrowded schools rather than to areas with healthier resources.
The Katrina disaster wasn’t only caused by the hurricane – the immediate crisis was made much worse by faulty levee maintanence and inadequate preparation. The “crisis” in Aboriginal communities wasn’t precipitated by a single disaster, but by a hundred years and more of dispossession, paternalism, promise, fickle policy, and apathy. Improving the situation requires creativity, it requires commitment, and it will hinge on solutions that recognise that the current situation has origins that reach beyond the previous government.
*”A nightmare of Hobbesian proportions.”