“We are worried about people in army uniforms coming to do sexual health checks on our children.” These words, from a woman in Tennant Creek, were relayed to us through one of our partner groups in the Northern Territory this week.
It’s a worrying response. In the remote parts of the Territory, where there’s not much access to the media: rumour and half-truths can spread like wildfire.
The 1967 referendum saw the full recognition of Indigenous people in this country, but the problems of neglect and abuse have continued over the last four decades. In the past couple of weeks, though, Indigenous issues have leapt to the front of the national agenda and we have seen unprecedented Government action, particularly focused on the issues of child abuse.
Undoubtedly child sexual abuse needs to be urgently addressed. Mick Dodson talked confrontingly about the problem in 2004. Thirty-five years ago, Hal Wootten who later went on to lead the Deaths in Custody royal commission, called on Australia to tackle Indigenous issues as if on a war footing. Tragically, the issue has been neglected by governments at all levels until now.
Mobilising the power of the Australian Government to tackle this issue, as John Howard has done, must be lauded. The bureaucracy in Canberra has perhaps never moved as quickly. Within days, police and army have been deployed and a legion of public servants and volunteers are on the way to remote regions which many Australians have only seen in travel brochures.
The big question, though, is: will it be successful?
There is some precedent for marshalling such resources and people. The Solomon Islands in 2003, for instance, saw the largest deployment of Australian troops since the Korean War. Just as now, they were joined by the Australian Federal Police and bureaucrats.
The situation in the Solomon Islands was certainly different. Almost a decade of civil war had torn the country apart and devastated the economy. Gangs and weapons made the streets dangerous. Australians were welcomed in the Solomons and immediately had a noticeable effect on law and order. Many hundreds of weapons were handed in, and there was a rapid improvement in safety and security, particularly in Honiara.
The longer term impact of the RAMSI intervention is less easy to evaluate. There were violent riots in 2006 and a difficult relationship has emerged with Australia since then.
The Solomons intervention was criticised at the time, not for its intent, which, like the current focus on Indigenous communities, was admirable. The Australian Government’s top-down, law-and-order approach in the Solomons succeeded at first because the aim was very clear: to establish security. To ensure long-term sustainable development, however, you need active participation of communities from the beginning.
The early successes in the Solomon Islands have been tempered by the failure in the initial stages to provide local jobs, to work with communities to build on their strengths and fix their weaknesses, and to get local people involved in planning appropriate infrastructure and services.
The strong emphasis on law and order enacted this week in the NT will likely have a dramatic short-term effect in the remote areas of the Territory too. But for long-term sustainable outcomes, a partnership between all outside actors and local communities will be crucial. The lesson we have learnt in Papua New Guinea, East Timor and the Solomons is that community participation and involvement is tricky but crucial if we want to see positive long term change.
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