I have been one of many people, black and white, who have been calling on governments for a long time to make child abuse and Indigenous issues major, national priorities. As was noted in the Foreward of the recent Northern Territory Report on the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse, it was via my motion that the Senate passed an all-party resolution last year supporting a national strategy to address child sexual assault (for all children, not just Indigenous ones).
So not surprisingly, I believe it is a good thing that priority and focus has been given to this issue by the Prime Minister. I will do what I can to keep it there, including via regular examination of developments and detail on this blog.
There has been a fair degree of cynicism amongst many of the responses to the government’s plan, including from many Indigenous Australians. Given the past history of many grand government announcements which have not been followed up with adequate resourcing or implementation once the headlines have died down, there is every reason for people to be cynical. However, that should not be a reason to try to tear this plan down, it should be a reason to keep the focus on it, to do everything possible to translate all the current waves of rhetorical flourishes into real and lasting positive change.
Let’s start with a reminder about recommendation 1 from the Northern Territory report, which has been used as the hook for the major federal intervention which has been announced:
That Aboriginal child sexual abuse in the Northern Territory be designated as an issue of urgent national significance by both the Australian and Northern Territory Governments, and both governments immediately establish a collaborative partnership with a Memorandum of Understanding to specifically address the protection of Aboriginal children from sexual abuse. It is critical that both governments commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities.
It looks like we’re on track with the first sentence of that recommendation, but there’s not much sign of the second one even being acknowledged yet, let alone acted on.
As Noel Pearson has said, “Howard and Brough will make a historic mistake if they are contemptuous of the role that a proper and modern articulation of Aboriginal law must play in the social reconstruction of indigenous societies.” He also states that “Aboriginal law, properly understood, is not the problem, it is the solution.”
There has been a wide range of comments about the Prime Ministers proposals, which are clearly still being developed. Despite the diversity of the comments, there is still a tendency to put people in the ‘for’ or ‘against’ camp, even when people supposedly in separate camps appear to be saying quite similar things. Given Noel Pearson is put unquestioningly in the camp of those in favour of the proposals, it is worth highlighting a few of the other concerns he has expressed, some of which are quite close to ones others who are seen as ‘against’ have also voiced.
“The Howard-Brough plan to tackle grog and to provide policing is correct. However, the plan needs to be amended so that there is a concerted strategy to build indigenous social and cultural ownership.”
“the Howard-Brough plan needs to be amended so responsible behaviour is encouraged. Responsible people shouldn’t just be lumped in with irresponsible people.”
“There is a huge implementation challenge. Based on the performance of the federal and provincial bureaucracies up to now, I am not confident they are up to it.”
“The land-related measures are clumsy and ideological, but they are not an attempt at a land grab, and the problems with the land measures are nowhere near as high a priority as action for the welfare of children.”
I agree that action on child welfare is more important, but I have not seen any convincing arguments why the land measures are needed. And my concern is while this may not be as urgent an issue, if Land Rights law is changed to implement these measures, there’s a fair chance it may not be changed back, no matter what the success or otherwise is in regards to child welfare.
Pearson also says “If not Brough and Howard’s plan to stop the suffering, then what alternative plan should be pursued? Here most of the critics fall into a deafening silence. They have vociferous views about what will not work, but they are silent about what will work.”
I don’t agree with all of this statement. To me, the alternative plans are out there, including Pearson’s own plan for Cape York, which has some similarities to Howard’s but also some very significant differences. The Northern Territory report itself constitutes a comprehensive plan of action in its 97 recommendations, although I would agree it could do with including an immediate circuit breaker or two on top of its suite of measures. Past reports into the same issue also contain comprehensive plans of action which have never been fully acted on or resourced. However, Pearson is right in the sense that only governments are in a position to implement this, so we have to work with what they put forward (assuming they let people work with them). We also have to make damn sure this one is properly resourced, something of which there is little sign so far.
Interestingly, Pearson’s article in last weekend’s Australian is called “Politics aside, an end to the tears is our priority”. This matches well with Kevin Rudd’s proposal for a bi-partisan ‘war cabinet’ to deal with Indigenous issues, an idea which has a lot of appeal to me, as a way of keeping the issue in a state of continuing national priority for all politicians.
A range of Australian blogs recently addressed the theoretical question of whether a politician’s motives are relevant in assessing their policies. The Prime Minister’s plan to tackle sexual abuse of Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory provides a very current and crucial real world example. While assessment of motive may give an insight into how likely it is that a policy will be fully followed through, it really isn’t relevant in assessing whether the policy is any good.
The motives may be as pure as can be and the policy still be bad. Conversely, the motives may as devious as possible, but the policy may still be spot on. Indigenous affairs provides lots of sad examples where the political intentions may have been totally honourable, but the policy was disastrous. Some people argue that the hugely destructive policies that led to the Stolen Generations were mostly carried out with good, albeit misguided intentions. This history of the Stolen Generations, which played no small part in creating some of the circumstances that has led to the crisis we are now trying to address, is worth keeping in the back of our minds in this debate. Not because I think these latest proposals are similar, but rather because urgings that “it’s for the good of the children” shouldn’t be used as a catch-all phrase to silence any criticisms or concerns about the details. In the same way that I think it’s a distraction to criticize the Prime Minister’s motives, I don’t think it helps to focus on the motives of people who express concerns about the details.
In his appearance on TV’s Meet the Press today, the Prime Minster waved away questions about on the ground details by saying that was falling into “the old Canberra trap of talking about this as some kind of generalised philosophical debate.”
This is a bit ironic, given that at this stage, the whole thing is being driven and developed by politicians and bureaucrats in Canberra. Given that almost everyone actually supports the stated goal here, I hope the government becomes a little bit more open to advice on how to make their policy work, rather than insist they are the only ones with all the answers. The lack of details, including the lack of work done on the likely costs, is one area which will need urgent attention to flesh out the initial hasty announcement.
If people keep getting howled down everytime they ask for more details, or point out problems they see in details that do become apparent, there’s a fair chance that some good advice on how best to implement this plan will be missed.
Even the head of John Howard’s hand picked taskforce to implement this plan, Sue Gordon, has been quoted as “being among those warning of inadequate resources to support the plan”. However, she has said “her taskforce would move quickly to determine what extra resources were required. And she said the commonwealth had promised to pay.” (my emphasis)
As is pretty obvious just reading the comments by the health experts in the same article, just doing the measures relating to grog properly will probably cost more than the “tens of millions” John Howard has floated as a possible cost of his plan. My guess is that the full cost of properly implementing what has been proposed will go well into the billions of dollars, particularly if it is taken beyond the Territory and into the States, as the Prime Minister is urging, so I hope Sue Gordon has got that promise in writing.
(I will probably do a series of posts on this topic over the coming weeks. You can read my previous post here).