Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Indigenous groups suspicious of Howard's emergency response

A group of 90 indigenous and welfare groups have accused Prime Minister John Howard of using the child sex abuse emergency as an excuse for a land grab. The group made the claim in a letter to Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough. They said the move to take control of Aboriginal communities in NT is “totally unworkable” and a “Trojan horse” to take over Aboriginal lands. The letter said the proposals went well beyond an emergency response and solutions must be developed with the communities not prescribed from Canberra.

Howard announced the intervention last week, declaring abuse of children in indigenous communities a national emergency. Howard argued the plight of children overrode concerns of intervention in the territory which he dismissed as “constitutional niceties". He urged the states to co-operate on similar measures and offered to cover any expenses they incur.

The Prime Minister’s announcement came in the wake of the release of the NT Government’s “Little Children are Sacred” report (pdf). The 316 page report was produced by the NT board of inquiry into the protection of Aboriginal children from sexual abuse. The title of the report reflected the traditional law of the Yolngu people which says that “little children are very sacred because they carry the two spring wells of water from our country within them. The eight month inquiry reported to NT chief minister Clare Martin on 30 April and examined the extent, nature and factors contributing to sexual abuse of Aboriginal children, focussing especially on unreported abuse.

The report found that sexual abuse is endemic across the Territory. Its two major findings were that Aboriginal child sexual abuse in NT should be seen as a matter of urgent national importance and that the NT government provide strong leadership on the issue. The inquiry said that sexual assault is no more acceptable in Aboriginal society than it is elsewhere. However due to a major breakdown in Aboriginal culture, Indigenous communities face particular difficulties in dealing with the problem. Consumption of alcohol, other drugs and petrol sniffing have led to excessive violence which in turn have led to sexual abuse of children. Family breakdown, the weakening of traditional values and lack of employment opportunities are all contributing factors. The report said the federal government’s multi-billion dollar surplus should be used to address these problems.

The report’s authors, lawyer Rex Wild, QC, and Aboriginal (Alyawarr) leader Pat Anderson, travelled more than 30,000 kilometres visiting 45 communities in NT, where they were told of rampant child sexual abuse in every community. They recommended changes in 12 key areas: alcoholism, education, poverty, housing, substance abuse, gambling, pornography, unemployment, government agency response, law and justice, and rehabilitation of offenders. Education was identified as the key to solving the problem. Education ought to explain what sexual abuse was, confirm that sexual contact between children and adults was not normal, and insist that attending school be compulsory. It also insists that parents take responsibility for their children in terms of school attendance, cleanliness, care and abiding laws.

The report made 97 specific recommendations after the inquiry found that sexual abuse is rampant in virtually every Indigenous community in the Territory. The recommendations fall across the areas of leadership, government responses, family and children’s services, health – crisis intervention, policing, bail, offender rehabilitation, prevention, family support services, education, community awareness, alcohol, other substance abuse, community justice, the role of communities, employment, housing, pornography, gambling and implementation of the report.

It took two further months for the NT government to release the report after which the Howard Government immediately swung into action. It planned to introduce widespread alcohol restrictions on NT Aboriginal land for six months. This involves banning the sale, possession, transportation, consumption and will also monitor takeaway sales. The Government announced it would bear the cost of medical examinations of all indigenous children under the age of 16 and change welfare payments so that 50% can only be used for the purchase of food and other essentials. The plan links income support and family assistance payments to school attendance.

One of the more controversial proposals is in the area of property rights. The government plans to take control of townships through five year leases to seek improvement in property and public housing. The permit system for common areas and road corridors on Aboriginal lands will be scrapped. X-rated pornography in prescribed areas will be banned and all publicly funded computers will be examined for evidence of pornography.

All states except WA have agreed to provide 10 police officers for immediate deployment. They will be backed by military logistics officers. The Australian Crime Commission will be asked to locate and identify perpetrators of sexual abuse of indigenous children in other areas of Australia. While there is broad-based bi-partisan support for the move, the Howard response has been criticised in some quarters as paternalistic, and a form of apartheid. While the Prime Minister had no control over of the timing of the "Little Children" report, the timing does smack of electoral opportunism and leaves him open to the charge of orchestrating a "Tampa 2". However unlike the Tampa, this is a genuine emergency and deserves the chance to succeed. But unless he gets the indigenous community onside, it will go down in the long litany of failed government initiatives to ease the plight of Aboriginal Australia.

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