As mentioned here, I spent most of last week in Darwin and Alice Springs, meeting with and listening to people about their views on the federal government’s intervention into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.
I had eleven formal meetings, plus two informal talks with people over dinner. This involved around 70 people in total. The groups included health organisations, child and family organisations, land councils, health researchers and a range of practitioners in health and allied professions – including many people based on or working in Aboriginal communities. Of course, this just scratches the surface in regards to the specific needs and realities in particular communities, but at least it gave me some idea of people’s views about what is happening and what is needed prior to the Senate resuming this week.
It is impossible to summarise the wide range of views I heard, but I thought I would mention a few key impressions I gained.
One strong point which I drew from all my discussions is that Aboriginal people, as well as the wider Australian community, are poorly served by simplistic polarised debate which insists something is either 100 per cent good or 100 per cent bad. Almost everyone I spoke with saw some potential opportunities for improvements in the situation as a result of the federal government making a priority of the situation facing Aboriginal children. But almost everyone – even the most enthusiastic supporters of intervention – had criticisms of at least some aspects of what has been announced to date, and concerns about harm that could be done if the implementation wasn’t done well.
Completely dismissing everything the Howard government does in this area is both unreasonable and unlikely to help improve things. Likewise, the federal government dismissing every concern people raise is likely to lead to a lot of unnecessary harm and could seriously compromise the effectiveness of what is done. I find it hard to see how someone can simultaneously claim to want to do what’s best for Aboriginal children, whilst also saying they will refuse to listen to any views about how best to do this that differ at all from their own. However, this appears to be the attitude that the Prime Minister and at least some of his Ministers are taking, which is a great concern.
The Parliament resumes for two weeks of sittings this coming Tuesday, and the Coalition government has indicated they will be introducing legislation relating to the Northern Territory intervention. However, it is unclear just what will be in the legislation, how broad it will be or how much of a chance the Senate will get to consult with the community about it.
Mr Howard has been reported as saying that the Opposition is “entitled to see the legislation and to express whatever view it wants, but I want to make it clear, we will not be changing our approach in the Northern Territory. We will be going ahead with all of the elements of the intervention plan that Mal Brough and I announced.”
There doesn’t sound like much room for listening there. It must be nice to be so totally certain of what you’re doing that you don’t even need to talk with the people who have worked on the problems for decades, and will be directly affected by the consequence of your actions.
It will be outrageous if the federal government tries to force their legislation through the Senate in the next fortnight without any chance for a Senate Committee to properly examine it and consult with the people of the Territory. There is no reason why the three week break before the next sitting in mid-September could not be used for a short Committee inquiry. It would be absurd not to hear from some of the people on the ground in the Territory about the potential impacts of the legislation – particularly given that no one there has yet had a chance to see what is in it.
Given that it is now over five weeks since the intervention was first announced, I was quite surprised how little detail had still been provided to key organizations and workers, and what minimal consultation there had been. I heard the government’s taskforce head, Sue Gordon, on radio in Alice Springs once again using the analogy of an emergency intervention after a cyclone. I think this is a pretty poor analogy which seems to be being used as a convenient excuse for not talking to or working with existing organisations on the ground. The cyclone analogy suggests pretty much everything has been wiped out, but the fact is that there are a lot of organisations working on the ground – some of them doing very good work with very little resources. The cyclone disaster analogy also falls over when one remembers that it’s been five weeks since the ‘emergency’ intervention was announced, and frankly not a lot has happened.
One of the people who has commented on my posts about this issue has regularly raised the query of what precise evidence there is to demonstrate the actual extent of child sexual assaults, as opposed to assumptions based on anecdotal information. I did explore this matter with a number of the people I met with. The lack of precise data is a problem with child protection issues in urban Australia, so it is not surprising that is even less precise in remote Aboriginal communities. However, health workers on communities and others who worked in the Alice Springs hospital made it pretty clear that there was a serious enough problem to merit major action, even if it was hard to quantify the problem.
It seems somewhat strange that, despite the issue of child sexual assaults being used to justify the intervention, there has been little apparent focus on what to do about offenders – either in the immediate or in the longer-term. Despite the initial focus on sexual assaults of children, it appears that most of the early activity has focused on assessments of the overall health situations of children in various communities, rather than sexual assault. This is a welcome move in my view, as I think the sexual assault focus, while important, is too narrow and can’t really be dealt with in isolation from wider issues of abuse, neglect, under-resourcing and dysfunction. However, it obviously is part of the overall picture – albeit a very difficult part – and it does merit more specific attention than it appears to have got to date.
One other factor which came out strongly in almost every discussion I had was the ridiculousness of trying to link the permit system and land tenure under the Land Rights Act to the issue of child abuse. Even some who very strongly supported the federal government’s overall plans to intervene said they didn’t believe the permit system needed to be abolished or that it would help in any way to do so. Indeed, the Northern Territory Police Association has made it clear that they believe the permit system assists in tackling potential criminality, sly grogging, drug running, etc.
Land Rights is something which was fought long and hard for by Aboriginal people.
Given that there has been no link demonstrated at all between child abuse and the existing system of land tenure under the Land Rights Act, it is not surprising that there is a great deal of suspicion about what the federal government’s real motives might be in trying to reduce the control Aboriginal people have over their land. If the federal government genuinely wants to build trust and support at community level for their actions in this area, they should put their changes to the permit system and land tenure to one side, and focus on the real issues at hand.
One further issue which was concerning even the biggest supporters of intervention was the sudden decision to scrap CDEP throughout the entire Northern Territory. There are still no real details about what will replace it or where the extra money will come from (assuming there is any) to cover the gaps left by the abolition of the program. Apart from making it easier for the government to quarantine people’s welfare payments, it is hard to see what this has to do with child health or family violence issues. If the funds are not replaced to keep supporting the many services which CDEP props up on many communities, it will undoubtedly makes things harder for many Aboriginal people in these places.
One political advantage the federal government has in pushing ahead with its agenda is that the Northern Territory government is widely seen as having failed dismally in assisting Aboriginal communities. The common refrain – especially in Alice Springs – is that a lot of money that should go to remote areas is rechannelled into the suburbs of Darwin where the key electorates are. When money is budgeted to provides positions in remote areas, many of the positions are often not filled – because unfilled positions provide a saving for the Territory government, there is a view that there is often little urgency about trying to get them filled.
It is easy for the federal government to respond to criticisms of their intervention by saying that the Territory government has failed so there is no other option. There is some truth in this, but the federal government’s record in areas where they have had responsibility is far from unblemished. The ‘whole of government’ trial which the federal government has run in the community of Wadeye (Port Keats) in recent years has been a total debacle. And whilst the federal level has some sort of experience in areas like health and education, their experience in child protection is virtually zero, so it is hard to have a lot of confidence that they will be able to handle this part of things well.
Of course, it is still unclear whether the federal government actually wants to handle these things. One other area which is still far from certain is exactly how much extra money the federal government is planning to put into the intervention. Despite a lot of big talk, the suggestions of how many extra dollars may be attached remains very low. This may change soon – I hope it does – but at present there is still a widely held suspicion that most of the extra financial responsibility will be thrown back on the Territory government once the election is out of the way. The lack of any formal plan, benchmarks or budget so far simply adds to that suspicion.
As I mentioned above, legislation relating to the intervention is due to be tabled in the Parliament on Tuesday. It may deal with the full range of issues, from land rights, the permit system, quarantining of welfare payments, alcohol and pornography restrictions and more – or it may deal with just some of these. This will become clearer soon enough.