Monday, June 25, 2007

Howard on the end justifying the means

The Hon John Howard, Australian Prime Minister, has recently announced the effective annexation of the Northern Territory by the federal government due to a crisis of widespread child abuse amongst the indigenous population. In his own words:

The level of intervention here is quite dramatic and quite sweeping. We ought not to not mince words, we are in effect supplanting the Northern Territory Government in many of the areas of responsibility.
Others have discussed the timing, motivation and political effect of this move (this is a very sudden and dramatic move on an issue that has been reported for decades), as well as the more important question of whether it will actually help to reduce abuse. These are complex questions on which I have hunches, but little expertise. However, one thing that grabbed my attention while listening to Mr Howard's defence of his actions was his appeal to the logic of the end justifying the means:
Interviewer: This appears to be a blow at any semblance of self-determination.
John Howard: Well, some may see it that way, but is that more important than fixing the problem? I mean, see, this has been the problem with so many of the approaches in the past to indigenous affairs, that doctrines and notions have been given greater prominence than outcomes and solutions.
Later he said:
I don't think you can respect power structures in these communities when clearly those structures have failed to deliver the right outcomes, and you've got to, as in always, you've got to pay on results.
Does the end ever justify the means?
All quotes can be found in this interview on ABC's Lateline.

UPDATE: Thanks to all those who have commented on this very complex issue. A number of the comments have helped clarify my original question. The issue is not so much about the ends justifying the means as the intention of certain (very worthy) ends being used to justify potentially ill-conceived, ineffective or even self-defeating means.

UPDATE #2: It is worth at least reading this summary report from the NT government inquiry. H/T CraigS.

UPDATE #3: My local federal MP, Tanya Plibersek, talks sense on the issue in today's (27th June) SMH. Again, H/T CraigS. She doesn't, however, touch on the issue of empowerment/ownership - bringing local communities on board, which also means listening to their concerns and being willing to negotiate.


jeltzz said...

I suspect, and like you am perhaps working more on hunches than expertise, that Howard's assumption of control is a step back in the whole Indigenous Affairs area. Having just been forced to read a truckload about missions to Aborigines, Howard's intervention looks more and more like the rejection of the last 40 years or so and a determination to impose a paternalistic 'solution', which will be about as useful as the 'Pacific Solution'.

But, to your question, since the means is in fact inextricably linked to the end, shapes the end, and gives the end its end-ness, one can never justify the end over against the means used to get there, since the means creates the end.

- Seumas

Mister Tim said...

Your ultimate question is "Does the end ever justify the means?". This question usually asssumes that the means would be considered unethical taken alone. I'm not sure that's quite the case in this instance.

For example, the Commonwealth is already ultimately responsible for the Northern Territory (s.122 of the Constitution).

While Howard's argument is that the end justifies the means, the meanss in question are not necessarily unethical. Perhaps it's a choice between multiple meanss, none of which are unethical in and of themselves, and then you make a choice based on results.

I do agree with Howard in one aspect: if you're going to assess courses of action, if multiple approaches are roughly equal all else considered, then evaluating them based on results and outcomes is appropriate.

Theteak said...

Perhaps we should make them have wine and cheese nights Byron?

michael jensen said...

What's wrong with paternalism? We should stop this liberal hand-wringing and get on with it.

Philip Britton said...

Surely your recent post on Divorce answers your question about ends ever justifying means.

mister tim makes a good point. I'm yet to see anyone show exactly how the 'Howard plan' is unethical.

Jeltzz - this is a vastly different scenario to the 'missions' activity. It that time, existing social structures were subverted and deconstructed in order to achieve an aim. You would be hard pressed to argue that there are many well functioning social structures in some of these communities at present.

I don't see Howard arguing that his radical plan is a long-term solution, rather a 'circuit breaker'. In that sense it sets the ground work for a new community-government conversation about how these people can rebuild their lives (if that is possible... surely the gospel of jesus christ spoken and lived towards them is what is needed!). This conversation has been so damaged by alcohol in particular to this point to have made it largely fruitless.

michael jensen said...

Hey, wouldn't it be cool if the whole of Australia said: in order to help in the NT, we will all as a nation foreswear our right to drink alcohol and use porn.

jeltzz said...

Philip, my point is not so much about the destruction of those existing social structures, but that generally authoritarian and over-bearing responses to situations like this fail in the long-term. Not merely that it is not a long-term solution, but that the impact of a crisis-'solution' itseld will be detrimental in the long-term.

On the social structures side, I rather think that these communities may have functional, if not ideal, social structures in place. Disregarding them at all is questionable, as I see it, because the government is exercising power to strip people from basic responsibilities for themselves.

- Seumas

Mister Tim said...

jeltzz - I think the evidence on the whole is that these communities do not have functional, let alone ideal, social structures in place. It may be true that over-bearing respones to situations like this don't tend to work in the long run, but every response so far (including ones that recognise the social structures in local communities) has failed and has sometimes served to make things worse. I can't see how this response can be any worse.

Theteak said...

Hey, wouldn't it be cool if the whole of Australia said: in order to help in the NT, we will all as a nation foreswear our right to drink alcohol and use porn.
Totally agree, but with the addition of gambling. And yeah, I agree, what is wrong with paternalism? It has become a dirty word among those who have 'non-human identifying companions called doberpersons.'

jeltzz said...

theteak said "what is wrong with paternalism?"

Probably this is the heart of my critique of the Howard government's actions. Paternalism is, to my mind, an attitude and policy of treating adults and communities as if they were children - it strips them of moreal and practical autonomy and responsibility.

To do so, wholesale, in a liberal democracy is a worry legal and moral step. I hypothesise it will create a number of different outcomes, including the furtherance of dependency on government agencies, an increased reaction of hostility towards working with government agencies, and the collapse of social structures capable of sustaining themselves.

The rhetoric being used to sustain these measures is not only troubling, but offensive. I note that in today's SMH (26/06/07), Howard is quoted as comparing this crisis to hurricane Katrina. This reach for a comparison is ridiculous.

Is there a massive problem? I think there is. 'Something' must be done. My reading of the situation is that the 'something' Howard has chosen to enact is entirely wrongheaded, and while it may deal with abuse problems, it will create wide-spread and long-term social carnage in the NT.


michael jensen said...

The safety of children is not an 'ends', or an 'outcome'... it is a basic condition of human existence that is needed come what may. If it means that liberal democratic principles are contravened, then so much the worse for liberal democratic principles. The so-called rights and freedoms of adults are not to be exchanged for the right children have not to have an adult have sex with them.
I will still vote for Rudd, but this may just be the salvation of Howard. No children overboard this time...

Neil Cameron (One Salient Oversight) said...

I would feel far more sympathy for the Howard government's actions if they can actually be proven to work.

Cutting off access to alcohol and pornography is not going to magically reduce levels of violence... and certainly not reduce levels of child sexual abuse.

In fact, the Howard government's understanding of pedophilia at this point needs to be severely questioned.

Pedophilia and child sexual abuse are not caused by a combination of pornography and alcohol. If that was the case then there'd be hundreds, if not thousands, of men who have turned into potential child molesters as a result in our cities.

My argument is more detailed here

nico said...

hmm. i'm not sure that the end will justify the means, simply because i'm deeply skeptical that these particular means will bring about the desired ends. it is not just power structures that howard’s plan is overriding – it is people, too. for these types of health and welfare interventions to work, communities need to trust the intervening body and to be able to take ownership of the intervention (both methods and results), and the response from the indigenous community has thus far indicated that neither of these are likely to happen under howard’s plan. there is a further danger, too – when communities feel that the cost of the intervention is too high (i.e. their self-determination and collective voice), they may end up devaluing the end result. i would hate to hear indigenous communities, or anyone, say ‘well, if this is what it’s going to take to end child abuse, it’s just not worth it’.

mister tim – i agree that indigenous communities are deeply dysfunctional. but is this response make them functional, or deepen the social rifts that bred that dysfunction in the first place? i rather think the second…

michael – i don’t think that the issue here is the contravention of democratic principles, but more the way in which the howard government is interpreting and imposing those principles. of course children have a right not to be abused, but is it better to seek to impose this right in a way which will fracture, or heal, communities?

Joanna said...

Mister Tim: 'every response so far (including ones that recognise the social structures in local communities) has failed and has sometimes served to make things worse'

This, I think, is a vast and unhelpful generalisation. One of the problems with Howard's solution, it seems to me, is that it totally fails to acknowledge that some Aboriginal communities have seen significant positive change over time, through approaches that are consultative and inclusive. The message sent by John Howard is: Aboriginal communities have failed and so 'we' (federal government) need to intervene. A more accurate picture is that the federal and state governments have failed for years and years to adequately support successful community-based initiatives - like Woolaning Homeland Christian School.

I have no problem with a level of intervention, or with radical solutions, but how can anyone with a knowledge of Australian history NOT question whether a paternalistic, top-down approach will simply add fuel to the fire? This is not liberal hand-wringing, it's historical reality. Are we really naive enough to think that this can't get any worse? Is sending in untrained doctors to do compulsory physical checks and untrained police to 'restore law and order' really the best we can come up with? At the very least, a timetable that includes community consultation and appropriate training seems necessary.

nico said...

jobloggs - i totally agree with your point about untrained doctors & police, and the need for proper training and community consultation. but what should be done in the meantime to prevent children from being abused during the (at least) months this will take?

Craig Schwarze said...

Is there a massive problem? I think there is. 'Something' must be done. My reading of the situation is that the 'something' Howard has chosen to enact is entirely wrongheaded, and while it may deal with abuse problems, it will create wide-spread and long-term social carnage in the NT.

The Howard governments actions are in line with the recommendations of the NT report, which stated that controlling alcohol abuse was the #1 priority. It went so far as to say that if you didn't control alcohol, you may as well give up the whole game.

The report is online at the NT government website, it is worth a read (I have only read the 15 page summary). They make about 95 recommendations.

The feds are not banning alcohol in the entire territory. The figure I recall is 60 communities, chosen (I imagine) because they are most problematic.

We already impose all sorts of restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol (let alone other drugs), so this is nothing especially new.

To label it "paternalism" and reject the measures on the basis of ideology, all the while leaving young children in situations where they are being molested and bashed...I really find it hard to swallow.

I admit, I was furious when I read Byron's post yesterday. Of course Howard is being political - but those who use this national tragedy as a lever to attack Howard are being no less political.

Joanna said...

Nobody is suggesting that we simply leave children to be abused - surely we can all agree on the horror and tragedy of the situation for such children. And this is not an occasion for politicking. Frankly, I don't care what Howard's motives are. But I do care that we do the right thing - not something that will make things worse. Surely the Iraq war - and the way in which Saddam's atrocities were used to argue that we must invade Iraq NOW - should have taught us something. The appalling nature of this situation cannot be used as an excuse to justify any actions at all simply because they 'do something'. I hope with all my heart that the current actions do some good. But I think we need to listen to the many indigenous leaders who are urging the importance of community consultation, training for those who are entering these communities, and above all a focus on the long-term, not just the immediate.

byron smith said...

I do agree with Howard in one aspect: if you're going to assess courses of action, if multiple approaches are roughly equal all else considered, then evaluating them based on results and outcomes is appropriate.
Good point. However, have these measures been used before with effective results? My concern is that while the government is certainly aiming at good results, are these the best methods? The form of argumentation used by Howard in the interview seemed to be justifying this move with respect to its intentions.

Theteak - not a bad idea. Unfortunately, given the alcohol bans, they will just have to be cheese nights.

MPJ - I'm ok with (some forms of) government paternalism, as long as the aim (like that of all parents) is to help people grow up into mature responsible adults.
The safety of children is not an 'ends', or an 'outcome'... it is a basic condition of human existence that is needed come what may
What is the aim of the government's plan? To increase the safety of children. This is a goal, intended outcome or end of their actions. To ask about the relationship between this goal and the means chosen to pursue it need not belittle the importance of the goal. On the contrary, this is too important a goal to pursue through (what many experts seem to think are) poor methods.

Nico - of course children have a right not to be abused, but is it better to seek to impose this right in a way which will fracture, or heal, communities?
This is precisely what I wished I had said.

JoBloggs - could you tell us more about successful community-based initiatives - like Woolaning Homeland Christian School?

Craig - as I said on your blog, I am sorry if my post angered you. My original post was not intended to be highly critical, but to reflect on a particular pattern of logic I noted in the PM's comments. Unfortunately, I did not express myself very clearly the first time I tried to highlight this.

Craig Schwarze said...

I again urge everyone to at least read the summary of the original report (there is a link on my blog). The authors believe that control of alcohol is critical to having any hope of long term success.

byron smith said...

I second Craig's suggestion. It is worth a read. One of the key recommendations is 'Empowerment of Aboriginal Communities'. This seems to me to be close to the heart of some of the concerns expressed here.

I am glad the PM made the positive comments at the end of his address last night (asreported in the SMH).

Joanna said...

I think the banning of alcohol is the least contentious of Howard's plans - partly because it is a solution that significant numbers of Aboriginal communities have already adopted. Most commentators have, however, noted, the problems of 'sly-grogging' and people travelling to purchase alcohol at urban centres, which will proliferate.
Byron, I will post a bit about Woolaning on my own blog. I wonder if the next question for us to ask is, what is the role of the Australian church in all this? The Aboriginal Christians I know live with a deep level of hurt over the almost total lack of interest that most non-Aboriginal Christians show to their plight. In Melbourne, Aboriginal Christians have said that the Muslim community has proved a far more generous and engaged partner for action and dialogue. Shame on us!

nico said...

nice update byron. however, while the issue at the centre of your post may not be 'the ends justifying the means', it's definitely being painted into that corner by both the howard camp and the media (see howard's opinion piece in today's smh, 'duty of care justifies government action'), and so is probably still worth considering in those terms...

Mister Tim said...

Having read through the proposals a bit more carefully, I tend to share Noel Pearson's view (Link:
1. Somethind needed to be done
2. The Government's proposed actions are a step in the right direction
3. There are elements of the Government's proposals that might have been done better, e.g. encouraging the communities to take ownership of the measures as they are implemented.

Mal Brough has said in interviews that the current actions are only stage one of a long term commitment. Hopefully the Government will try to build community ownership of the changes in the future and as they progress.

Jonathan said...

Paternalism can work when it is clear that one party is in the position of parent and the other is like a child. On top of that, even in actualing parenting, the best option doesn't always have the best short term results.

There are two issues of intervention here. The territory's self-government is given to it by the federal government, so it can easily be taken back. While the idea that the federal body can override the representatives of territories in the way it can't in the states does seem a bit strange, many appear to accept that the notion of self-government should be put aside when it comes to issues such as euthanasia and same-sex unions. Doing so in response to child abuse is not dramatically different.

The other issue is self-determination in the indigenous community. This principle is the one Howard says is not more important than fixing the problem. Without claiming any insight myself into this particular situation, it is clear that some of the opposition to the moves is based on the idea that the problem won't be fixed by ignoring that very principle, so the means may be self-defeating. Clearly an end cannot justify means unless there is reason to believe the means will actually achieve that ends.

But is that all? Shouldn't the side effects of the means also be considered? It may be worth suffering them, but what are they? The problem with saying the end justifies the means is the same as the problem with saying the end never justifies the means - both treat "doctrines and notions" as simply abstract things, rather than trying to put in a rightful place the ends that are the principles' purpose.

byron smith said...

Thanks Jonathan - that's a very helpful comment.

A further comment about the timing. That the government has decided to act at this point in (electoral) time doesn't mean they are wrong to do something now, but it does highlight their lack of activity for many years. The recent report is far from the first. Yet this is a teritary point.

The main point that I'd like to make is that it is good that there is recognition of the size of the problem.

The secondary point is to be concerned over the long-term affects of this approach, as many others have said. Because, despite repeated assertions to the contrary, there is actually something more important than preventing child abuse today - and that is preventing even more child abuse (and other self and socially destructive behaviour) tomorrow. Of course, this latter question is more complex than the issue today and ought not to paralyse action today, but it ought to be reason for reflecting on today's action - or better, noting the substantial reflection on previous actions that has already occurred.