Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Aurukun: the shame and the breast-beating

The carefully weighted decision of a Cairns judge not to impose custodial sentences on nine men found guilty of rape of a ten-year old girl has caused a predictable political firestorm. State Premier Anna Bligh said she was appalled at the sentence and has stood down the crown prosecutor in the case. Meanwhile federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin said she was “sickened” by the lack of a jail sentence. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd also joined the chorus of disapproval saying he was “disgusted and appalled”.

Cairns District Court judge Sarah Bradley did not record convictions against six teenage attackers and gave three others aged 17, 18 and 26 suspended sentences over the rape of a 10-year-old girl in Aurukun in 2005. Bradley said the sentences were appropriate and were in line with what was requested by the prosecution. The Queensland government is appealing the sentences and has ordered a review of around 75 sexual assault cases in Cape York over the past two years.

Although Queensland state officials said they were not aware of the case until it was reported in the media on Monday, Anna Bligh has admitted her government’s child safety officers have failed in their duty of care. The child was gang-raped at the age of seven and was later put into foster care with a non-Indigenous family in Cairns. However child safety officers returned her to Aurukun, where she was raped again three years later. Bligh says the officers made the wrong decision in removing the child from foster care. The girl contracted a sexually transmitted disease from the latest assault.

The case has heightened calls for the NT intervention to be brought into Queensland. But the inevitable result will be an increase in the prison population of Aboriginals. Aboriginal people now make up almost 90 per cent of the Territory's prison population. In 2005 the national rate of imprisonment of Indigenous people was 12 times higher (1,561 per 100,000) than the rate for non-Indigenous persons (129 per 100,000). Queensland has already the second highest number of incarcerated Aboriginals.

The crown prosecutor would have been aware of this when he decided against seeking jail time for the nine offenders in Aurukun. He described the crime as "childish experimentation" and consensual "in a general sense" though not “in a legal sense”. The publicly released court transcripts showed that prosecutor Steve Carter described the incident as "consensual sex". He said the girl had pre-arranged the sex with the nine males and they had not forced themselves on her or threatened her. He asked for custodial sentences not to be given. "My submission in relation to this particular offence is the same that I make in relation to children of that age ... they're very naughty for doing what they're doing,” he said. “But it's really - in this case, it was a form of childish experimentation, rather than one child being prevailed upon by another”. This is not an uncommon experience in Aurukun.

Aurukun is about 100km south of Weipa on the Cape York Peninsula and looks out west on the Gulf of Carpentaria. Aurukun is the centre of the Wik native title claim and is the home to a population of about 1,200 mostly Indigenous people. The Aurukun Shire Council has applied mainstream town planning principles to create rows and columns of residential block houses. But Aurukun people have made their own use of space. Individuals generally occupy houses according to family networks (sometimes more than 20 people in each house) and regional cultural affiliations such that inland groups occupy housing towards the eastern end of town. However, most Aurukun people are dissatisfied with these housing arrangements.

Aurukun was the scene of several riots this year. In January this year,a riot broke out which involved a quarter of the population. The riot began after a local man was arrested by police. Another 31 people were arrested after a squabble between two clans in September. In this riot, 200 people pelted houses and cars with projectiles, including spears, and lit fires.

But people have lived peaceably here for thousands of years. The locals fiercely guarded their bit of tropical paradise and armed warriors turned away Dutch sailors in the 17th century. Nearby Cape Keerweer takes its name from the Dutch word “to turn back”. The first mission was founded in Aurukun in 1904. It was managed under the provision of the Queensland Aborigines Act by the Presbyterian Church. Aborigines were forced to move into the mission settlement. In 1978 the community fought the Bjelke-Petersen Queensland government plan to abolish the reserves and take control of the land. All the adults in Aurukun signed a petition they sent to Governor-General protesting the decision: “We know this place is our land. Our great, great grandfathers lived here in this land for a long time. It is our mother. It brings us food and everything. The world is good. We want to live in a useful way. Why do you not want to give us back our tribal land?”

Today Aurukun is chronically under-resourced in the most basic infrastructure and services. As well as chronic overcrowding in housing, facilities are old and decrepit, food is expensive and low quality, jobs are few, skills are rare, drug and substance abuse is common and there are no doctors or dentists. It is doubtful today’s elders would agree with the 1978 petition that “the world is good”. Bligh, Macklin, and especially Kevin Rudd should remember this before they rush in to condemn lenient sentencing.


Iain Hall said...

Sorry Derek, but there is no excuse that can validate this disgusting leniency By Sarah Bradley and the number of indigenous men in jail should have no bearing on a case such as this.
When even prominent indigenous women are outraged by this case, lefties like you should think twice before running the line you do here.

Derek Barry said...

I made no comment about the validity of the sentence. I'm aware of the indigenous voices that were unhappy with the sentencing and they have good reasons.

But I was more concerned with the politicians who responded to the media drumbeat with stock statements of shock and horror.

yes, child sex is abhorrent. But so is endemic poverty and third-world living conditions in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

My main point is that the conditions that created these problems are not new. Whether it be Aurukun, Palm Island or Wadeye, these remote Aboriginal settlements are in monumental crisis.

But you can't build a media frenzy out of that.

Iain Hall said...

The problem is that for so many of these communities there is just no economic reason for them to exist. And no amount of extra funding is going to change that.
Recognition of this fact within the indigenous advocacy industry should see some of these communities closed down and their people encouraged to move to places where they can be part of a viable economy. Sadly exceptionalism as the left espouses means that such suggestions are considered a thought crime.

Derek Barry said...

I agree these communities have very little economic imperative.

As have many other small non-Indigenous communities in rural Australia.

How to prop them up, or indeed whether they should be propped up at all is a difficult matter, especially when there are strong emotional ties to the area and the land.

This is not a simplistic right v left issue.

Forsoothsayer said...

these sentences are ridiculously lenient, even for the worst community in the world. these acts cannot be condoned. the law explicitly states that the consent of a child cannot be obtained and for the prosecutor and the judge to suggest otherwise is a VERY dangerous precedent, even if the perpetrators are also under age.

Ann ODyne said...

The MSM describes a Tribe as a Community and then expects the re-badged Tribe to have all the sensibilities of The Ormond College Graduates Community - a Tribe of a completely different culture.
'the Presbyterian Mission hit them in 1904, the government claimed them in 1978' etc etc blah blah.
Let us instead, consider 1878 or 1804 when the Aurukun were unsullied by the filthy white invasion: did they never abuse women/children at that time?
Of course they did - they are a tribe, and behaved like a tribe.

It is silly of us to expect them to have a Government House Reception behaviour code.
The King of Saudi Arabia treats women and children just as badly.
The family of Saddam Hussein were infamous rapists. We cannot expect a remote tribe to have better behaviour.