Just before parliament rose for a six week break, the Prime Minister announced a major series of proposals to take control of Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory, and significant aspects of their lives, as part of responding to the latest report on sexual abuse of Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory – a topic I spoke on in the Senate earlier this week.
Given that the report itself noted these problems have been well documented for many years, there has been some commentary on the Prime Minister’s motives in taking such dramatic action so close to an election.
I’m not that interested in what the motives might be. I’m interested in whether or not this will improve things or not. There have been plenty of headline grabbing announcements in this area in the past that have made a big splash at the outset, but have failed to deliver improvements on the ground.
The Prime Minister has rightly called this situation an emergency, and has relied on the statement within the first recommendation in the report that “Aboriginal child sexual abuse in the Northern Territory be designated as an issue of urgent national significance.”
However, there has not been much mention about another part of that same recommendation – “It is critical that governments commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities.”
In the introduction to their recommendations, the reports authors emphasise that
The thrust of our recommendations, which are designed to advise the Northern Territory Government on how it can help support communities to effectively prevent and tackle child sexual abuse, is for there to be consultation with, and ownership by the communities, of those solutions.
They also make a point of quoting at length from former Liberal Indigenous Affairs Minister, Fred Chaney, who has said
I think governments persist in thinking you can direct from Canberra,…. that you can have programs that run out into communities that aren’t owned by those communities, that aren’t locally controlled and managed, and I think surely that is a thing we should know doesn’t work.
I am concerned about this, not because of niceties regarding process, but because we have plenty of evidence that developing and implementing the solutions in conjunction with people on the ground dramatically increases the chances of success (or reduces the chances of failure). Virtually every comprehensive report provided to governments into this issue over the past decade or more emphasise this point. It was a key component of the Social Justice Report tabled just last week by the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner.
Professor Boni Robertson, who compiled a similar report in relation to Indigenous children in Queensland in 1999, has been reported making very critical comments about aspects of the plan. “When is this knee-jerk nonsense going to stop and when are they going to start proper consultation with our people so that we can get it done properly?”
You can read a short summary of the report here. It includes this list of “important points made by the Inquiry”:
• Child sexual abuse is serious, widespread and often unreported.
• Most Aboriginal people are willing and committed to solving problems and helping their children. They are also eager to better educate themselves.
• Aboriginal people are not the only victims and not the only perpetrators of sexual abuse.
• Much of the violence and sexual abuse occurring in Territory communities is a reflection of past, current and continuing social problems which have developed over many decades.
• The combined effects of poor health, alcohol and drug abuse, unemployment, gambling, pornography, poor education and housing, and a general loss of identity and control have contributed to violence and to sexual abuse in many forms.
• Existing government programs to help Aboriginal people break the cycle of poverty and violence need to work better. There is not enough coordination and communication between government departments and agencies, and this is causing a breakdown in services and poor crisis intervention. Improvements in health and social services are desperately needed.
• Programs need to have enough funds and resources and be a long-term commitment.
Given that the federal Parliament will have to pass a lot of law changes for the Prime Minister’s plan to operate as he has stated, I assume the Parliament will get a chance to assess the detail of his plan to see how well it addresses the key points of the report.
ELSEWHERE: There’s heaps on commentary around the blogosphere. I won’t try to list them all, but this post at Larvatus Prodeo includes a wide range of links to comments on various sites. Not surprisingly, it has also received enormous coverage in overseas media, as well as on some overseas based blogs.