There is no doubt that urgent action is needed to combat child abuse and sexual assault in Indigenous communities, and that in fact such action is long overdue. That, indeed, is one source of criticism of the Federal Government’s plan - John Howard has known about the shocking state of this issue for all 11 of his years in power, but has only now decided to declare it a “national crisis” and to dramatically intervene.
It is always dangerous to allege political motives for this most emotive of issues, and the Prime Minister should be rightly commended for his (albeit overdue) attention on this emergency. But criticism of his plan is not an endorsement of welfare, bureaucracy or ineffective policy, as much as rhetoric and loud overtures on the issue does not excuse bad policy. We want the crisis fixed, and we should use this opportunity to focus on what the real solutions to the national Indigenous health crisis are, from which real benefits will flow.
The nature of John Howard’s intervention has caused further widespread criticism, as has his failure to consult with either the Northern Territory Government, whose laws are being overridden, or Indigenous communities, whose lives are being affected and rights significantly eroded.
Many have attributed the high level of scepticism regarding the Prime Minister’s plan to a natural suspicion of his motives, based on 11 years of disastrous policies and wilful neglect. Regardless of the PM’s motives however, a close inspection of the plan reveals some very worrying features and a perplexing attitude towards the issue.
Disturbingly paternalistic and unnecessarily heavy-handed, the plan involves sending Australian Federal Police and Australian Defence Force troops into Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory to restore law and order. The police are trained in neither NT laws nor cultural sensitivities, and their deployment is for many reasons a step back towards colonial days.
The plan also involves compulsory invasive medical examinations of children under 16, again by professionals largely untrained in cultural issues, and unrealistic given the chronically under-funded and under-resourced present health infrastructure in the Territory, already stretched beyond capacity with many health positions currently unfilled.
The banning of alcohol and pornography, regardless of the abject failure of prohibition elsewhere, is equally unrealistic, and suggests to the rest of Australia that this child abuse is perpetrated entirely by Aboriginal men. That is simply not the case, as the report Little Children are Sacred found. It further highlights the flawed logic in the Government’s approach in creating an Australian apartheid, where two communities live segregated under different laws.
Similarly, it is difficult to see how changing the nature of the land tenure in Indigenous communities and quarantining 50 per cent of welfare payments will in any way help reduce the level of abuse of the children in these communities.
In reality, these are complex issues that demand a comprehensive response that cannot be administered effectively by these short-term stopgap measures. What will become of the programs when the ripples of this knee-jerk response recede? Will it be another case of shock-and-awe, resulting in another “post-war” Iraq?
The reasons at the heart of the substance abuse and addiction must be addressed. Where are the sweeping reforms to the “crisis” in education, health and housing that has lead to this “national emergency”? Where are the shelters and rehabilitation programs for those affected? The real tragedy is that the plan (PDF 1.01MB) to address the overall health crisis has been written and costed, but the Federal Government refuses to fund and implement the recommendations.
Many success stories abound in Aboriginal health; the missing ingredient in their widespread implementation has been a lack of funding. The Federal Government knows the shortfall - $460 million in increased annual funding will close the health gap - but has granted only an extra $30 million a year for Indigenous health programs Australia wide in this year’s budget, despite an obscene budget surplus, over 40,000 signatures on a GetUp campaign petition calling for a greater commitment, and a similar number on our Close The Gap coalition partners with the same message.
Now that the Government has provided a national response to an Indigenous issue of urgent importance, we cannot unquestioningly accept that this commitment will last, or indeed be effective at all.
The considered response suggests, in fact, that these changes will do more harm than good. The issue of child abuse and sexual assault in Indigenous communities is entwined in these broader social issues that John Howard continues to ignore.
These draconian and alarmist policies will achieve little more than entrench a great divide between the rest of Australia and these Indigenous communities that have suffered in unimaginable conditions while their government looked the other way, only to have that government send in the troops to police bad policy, under a different set of rules than the rest of Australia.