On Thursday, June 21, in response to the Little Children are Sacred report, the Australian Government announced broad-ranging emergency measures, ostensibly to address child sexual abuse in the Aboriginal communities of the Northern Territory. These measures included welfare reform, compulsory health checks, the acquisition of townships through five-year leases (including payment of just compensation) and the scrapping of the permit system.
The legislative package was pushed through Federal Parliament in August with almost negligible opportunity for public scrutiny. With control of both houses of Parliament, the Federal Government released the amending bills to the Opposition only 24 hours before they were due to be passed. They neglected to consult adequately with Aboriginal people of the NT, including land councils, and deliberately disavowed Aboriginal leaders who travelled to Canberra to meet with them.
The complex and surreptitiously rushed legislation undermines the integrity of our democracy and continues an historical trend in Australia of providing band-aid solutions to the complex trauma and chronic illness that exists in Aboriginal communities.
For some years now, public commentators have been noting a silencing of dissent in Australia and this has never been more apparent than in the wake of the Federal Government’s emergency response to the NT report.
There has been an insidious tenor creeping into public debate that if you critique aspects of the NT plan, this equates to wanting Aboriginal children to suffer. This logic is deliberately divisive and if it is sincere then it is politically naïve. It is insulting to the great and many Aboriginal women and men who have struggled over the past three decades to have state, territory and federal governments seriously address the problems of family violence; child sexual abuse; alcoholism; overcrowding; and under-funding of health, housing and legal services in Aboriginal communities.
In fact, for over three decades, Aboriginal women have been at the forefront of raising awareness of the serious problem of violence and sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities. The failure of Aboriginal women to gain serious traction on this issue, whether in the media, among policy makers or political representatives, raises serious questions about the difficulties Aboriginal women, and Indigenous peoples, face in contributing to public policy and influencing the democratic process in Australia.
As Aboriginal people we live in a Western liberal democracy as 2 per cent of a 21 million polity. Recently Noel Pearson described us as “lepers of Australian democracy”. This is not a novel revelation, just a realistic observation about the difficulties Aboriginal people face in effecting change. The representative configuration of our democracy permits only limited citizen’s participation in decision-making and a manifestation of this is a public policy culture that generally focuses upon the greatest good for the greatest number.
Evidence shows that Aboriginal people have lobbied the Federal Government to act across a broad range of areas including law reform, funding for health services, legal services, healing and treatment centres and increased funding for community justice initiatives. There has been inaction if not outright hostility by the Federal Government to Indigenous issues for well over a decade. Thus, it would be inconceivable for Indigenous peoples to not question the timing of this intervention.
Moreover, in addressing child sexual abuse, the legislative package includes acquisition of Aboriginal land, with prohibition of Aboriginal law and the permit system, despite there being absolutely no evidence-based research to support a causal link between Aboriginal land rights and child sexual abuse.
In fact, an evidence-based response by the Federal Government would instead emphasise the salutary influence of consultation with Aboriginal people and the imperative of fostering a sense of ownership over solutions. Few Australians are aware that many Indigenous policies and programs are devised without adequate input from Aboriginal people themselves. Evidence-based research shows that Indigenous peoples must be included in devising solutions to difficult, intransigent problems and best practice reveals that very few policies and laws are effective if Aboriginal people are not consulted.
In the broader context of Australian history, recent developments confirm that 219 years after first contact, Australia remains exceptional among affluent Western democracies in remaining utterly incapable of comprehending the true genesis of disadvantage and trauma in Aboriginal communities.
First published in the University of New South Wales magazine in September 2007.
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