Matt Price in The Australian talks some common sense:
Plainly, everybody is in favour of protecting children. It’s how to first patrol and then change behaviour in remote communities that’s problematic and it’s now clear that for all their good intentions, the PM and minister Mal Brough are making it up as they go along.
Earlier this week I was in Canberra to see a large group of Indigenous people, a number of them from the Northern Territory, and other organisations with expertise in service delivery, release a statement expressing concern that the government’s plan aimed at helping Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory was in danger of being ineffective – and potentially even destructive – if it was not implemented properly, in conjunction with Aboriginal people at community level.
I have received many many emails over the last week from Indigenous people and from others with expertise in working in child protection, health and substance abuse expressing concern about what they have heard so far about the government’s approach. The response to many of these concerns, predictably but unfortunately, is to dismiss them as being attempts to derail the Prime Minister’s plan, rather than attempts to make sure his plan actually works.
Even more unfortunately, many of these people have been attacked as putting politics before the protection of children – attacks which are offensive and unfair, and which are themselves very political in nature. It is unfortunate that Noel Pearson, despite expressing similar concerns himself, has joined in these attacks. I can only assume his passion for the issue has clouded his judgement in this case. As he himself said in his very thought provoking and well argued piece in the recent edition of the Griffith Review (‘summarised’ – if you can call such a long piece a summary – here at Club Troppo):
even where the right policies have been identified and adopted, their implementation is susceptible to distortion. The correct policy can easily sour because of incompetent implementation, because the calibration is lost.
To smear people who are not disputing the goal of protecting children, but querying the implementation is not only unfair, it hinders much needed debate about how best to calibrate what is a complex, multi-faceted problem.
After being unable to provide any answers to repeated questions from Kerry O’Brien on the 7.30 Report about how the medical examination of children is going to be carried, Mal Brough’s response was to try to suggest that concerns about how it might be done were in effect saying “let’s do nothing”.
Tellingly, one of the co-authors of the “Little Children are Sacred” report, Rex Wild QC, has spoken out about aspects of the government’s approach. It’s a bit hard to attack him for “willing the government to fail” on this issue, given he wrote the report the government has used as justification for its action. You can read the full interview with him here, but this is one example:
EMMA ALBERICI: Army, federal police and Commonwealth officers today began arriving in five communities in Alice Springs. After your nearly year-long examination of the issues, in your mind, is that a welcome and necessary move to tackle the child abuse and neglect crisis in the Territory?
REX WILD: Well, there certainly are not recommendations that we made, Emma. I’m not sure whether the Prime Minister has had brought to his attention each of the 97 recommendations. But the very first recommendation provides that the matter of child sexual abuse be declared as a national emergency effectively, we have said. That’s happened. So that is good.
The second part of that first recommendation was that there be a collaborative undertaking between the Northern Territory Government and the Australian Government in consultation with Aboriginal people and that has not happened. So to that extent recommendation one has not been given effect to.
EMMA ALBERICI: And how do you feel about that?
REX WILD: Well, we are disappointed with that.
EMMA ALBERICI: Well so what is the answer?
REX WILD: The answer is to – it is down to the people, work out what they need with them, provide them with assistance and support, which is both financial and personal, on the ground, people they can work with, people who spend time with them, people that come and stay with them, visitors that are regular and they know by now and not people who blow in for five minutes or 10 minutes here and there, descending from the sky like a swarm of locusts and then disappearing again.
That’s not what is required. We need long-term strategic work with people, building up trusts. We were able to do that in a very short time by, we think, sitting down with people under the trees in the gymnasiums or equivalents and talking with them. That doesn’t seem to happen when the bureaucrats arrive.
As this piece in The Age notes, concerns have also come from others with expertise who the government has asked to help.
Despite these signs that reality is actually starting to be engaged with on this issue, the uber-urgency regarding legislative amendments is still being talked up, with suggestions that legislation “for its radical welfare blueprint for remote indigenous communities ready within three weeks.”
Speaking in my role as a legislator for a moment, it is a bit concerning that there’s still no real details about what might be in this legislation, even though we will no doubt be urged to pass it instantaneously or else face being accused of being soft on child abuse. An amendment to the Land Rights Act is one that was mentioned at the start, although I’ve still seen no indication of how that is linked to child abuse or welfare for that matter. Frankly, if the government is wanting to demonstrate goodwill and reduce anxiety amongst the Aboriginal people in the Territory, it should put the changes in this area to one side, as even Noel Pearson has called them “clumsy and ideological”. Perhaps there will be other changes in there, but passing radical changes without proper examination is risking major problems in implementation, particularly if those changes are not based on the recommendations from the “Little Children are Sacred” report.
Hopefully, this report in The Age gives an accurate indication of how it will need to play out in reality in all the communities – a respectful encounter where people at local level are asked “how can we help you?”, and then given that help on an ongoing basis. That is one thing we will need to keep an eye on.