There are communities in the Far North and on the East Cape where children have never seen their mum or dad - or even their grandparents - working. Demoralisation sets in. These communities are rife with drug-taking, crime, alcoholism, obesity and ill-health. This was what our Prime Minister said in 2004. And has the government done anything about the problem? Apart from the jobs jolt policy preventing the unemployed from moving to these workless towns, no. Neither did that policy prevent parents moving to or growing families in these places.
New Zealand has its parallels with Australia. It is not surprising Helen Clark was reluctant to criticise John Howard's overdue actions in the Northern Territories. Any disapproval would have drawn attention to her own government's inability to protect victims of child abuse.
Hone Harawira's outburst, on the other hand, was a red herring. If he had called Howard a statist or even fascist bastard we might have had the real debate which is about how heavy-handed should a government be in tackling problems that exist throughout society but disproportionately among indigenous, poor communities.
Anyone who listens to Willie Jackson and John Tamihere espousing their paternalistic solutions for Maori communities in south and west Auckland might wonder why Hone hasn't labelled them racist. Jackson and Tamihere want to control the benefits going into dysfunctional Maori families, to link the receipt of welfare money to behaviours they see as desirable - getting the children to school, feeding them properly, not taking drugs and boozing till all hours and not neglecting or abusing their children.
If these two men were Pakeha they would no doubt have also drawn the wrath of Hone and the Maori Party by now. And while their ideas haven't stretched yet to alcohol prohibition it is Hone himself who wants tobacco prohibition. Inasmuch as far more Maori smoke than Pakeha surely this, in Hone's terms, is a racist policy too.
There are Aboriginal leaders who have given qualified support for Howard's national emergency actions. One is Noel Pearson who has worked on the Aboriginal problem for decades and come up with similar solutions as Jackson and Tamihere. Is he a racist too?
So we can see that calling John Howard a racist was a complete waste of time and a unfortunate diversion from the harder question I have already posed.
The problem needs to be split in two. There is a law and order component and there is a social component. Howard has a duty to protect the children who are being illegally abused. This he seems to understand better than his detractors.
But, and this is the thorny but, is suspicion a good enough reason to enforce health checks on all aboriginal children? Because some Aborigines get paralytic drunk should all be stopped from drinking? And worse, with the inevitable criminality that goes with prohibition, will the children end up exposed to even more danger?
Howard is no longer prepared to simply speculate about the answers. He is going to find out. And the ends might eventually justify the means.
Meantime, in New Zealand, with its higher regard for human rights (but lesser regard for stopping crime) thousands of children will go on living perhaps not dissimilar lives to some Aboriginal children. Aboriginal children are four times more likely to be the subject of a finding of abuse (neglect, emotional, physical or sexual in that order) than non-Aboriginal. In New Zealand (when a breakdown was last published ) Maori children were twice as likely as non-Maori children to be victims.
Do we need to think about some short sharp doses of paternalism in this country too? Maybe the Jacksons and Tamiheres have it right. Ultimately people have to learn to stand on their own two feet and take individual responsibility for their actions. But if they won't, not even for the sake of their own children, then there is no other choice but to expect and exercise intervention. We used to talk about "breaking the cycle" but the phrase seems to have faded away as generation after generation has proved stubbornly immune to the efforts of social workers and opportunities presented by a strong economy.
Instead of simply slating Howard, Hone should be watching closely and seeing what can be achieved with this last-resort approach. Aspects of it may be needed here.