SPECIAL FEATURE: by Mal BroughNews Weekly
Australian Aborigines at the crossroads
, October 27, 2007
Horrifying reports of indigenous children suffering at the hands of sexual predators made headlines in June this year after the publication of the Northern Territory report Little Children are Sacred.
But when federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, dramatically intervened in the Northern Territory to tackle this evil, along with the associated problems of alcohol and drug addiction endemic in these communities, he was predictably attacked as being "paternalistic" and "culturally insensitive".
In a speech delivered in Melbourne earlier this month, the Minister defended his actions.Today we stand at the crossroads. We are at the crossroads of whether we are going to move forward as a nation and we are going to take our entire nation with us, our indigenous population, as part of that, or whether we're going to ignore it.
Unless the rest of Australia actually understands that - that is, the depth of despair that indigenous people are in, and the loss of culture that is a direct result of that despair - then we are going to lose not only another generation, we are in fact going to lose the last remnants in many places of what was a very rich culture.
The focus has been on the Northern Territory, and there are those who like to think this is just a problem of remote Australia. But I'm here to tell you the circumstances in Western Australia, not just the East Kimberleys, not just the Pilbara, but also the Central Desert and also in the suburbs of Perth, are worse than many of the circumstances in the Northern Territory.Horrendous stories
The two authors of the Little Children are Sacred
report on Aboriginal child abuse visited 45 communities in the Northern Territory in the course of their inquiry. They didn't find sexual abuse in some of those communities; they didn't find it in most of those communities; they found it in every single community - 45 out of 45. Think about that, the enormity of that, for a moment - people coming forward with the most horrendous stories.
We have children as young as three with gonorrhoea; we have 24-year-old grandmothers; we have so many babies being born with alcohol foetal syndrome that their capacity to pass on the oral history of their people is gone before they're even born. We have physical and sexual abuse of boys and girls and men and women. It knows no boundaries.
That is the reality in the Territory; and it also in South Australia, Western Australia, New South Wales and Queensland, to differing degrees.
The reason that the Federal Government has acted in the Northern Territory is simply because we have the capacity and the power to do so.
People dress up self-determination, land rights and all sorts of nuances of arguments. Really in their heart they are saying that the right of a child to be born and to be safe and to have an education and to have an opportunity in this country is somehow below that of these other niceties that don't even reflect anything of what occurs in their life.
Do you know how many times that I've had raised with me the issues of the stolen generation? Once in the Northern Territory in Darwin by a woman who wanted to be connected to family. The other time was at ANU by people who are not part of the stolen generation.
Treaties? Never has this subject been raised with me by Aboriginal people in the communities; it's raised by white people in universities.
They don't seem to understand the disconnect between where people are today and where they want to be and the fog that they're living in.
Kava is a coma-inducing drink used in the South Pacific for ceremonies. In Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory it's been legal for years. Why? Because it stops people having violent outbursts. Instead, they're just comatose under trees; they don't feed their children. Their children don't go to school and white fellas thought that was a better outcome because there were fewer people going to hospital.
Kalumburu is an East Kimberleys town of about 300, isolated by the wet for a good part of the year. There are only 90 males in Kalumburu.
Of those 90 men, in the last two months 15 have been charged with child sex offences, predominantly penetrating a girl or a boy under the age of 13. Who were these 15 men? They were the mayor, the deputy mayor, two other councillors, the police liaison officer, a truancy officer, two wardens.
What does that tell you? These are people of authority. These are the people white fellas like me and bureaucrats turn to, who go to consult with about answers to their communities, to whom we give money and more empowerment.
One of those leaders, who was the police liaison officer, was a man in whom both the local police sergeant and I had great faith. We thought he would be an indigenous sworn police officer soon.
He and his wife were doing good things. They asked for money from me to assist them to take young boys out of the community who had been truant or had brushes with the law to take them back onto the homelands to teach them cultural ways. We provided that money to him. He has been charged with procuring children as young as five and six.
This is not part of indigenous culture. This is not part of any sane culture. This is a culture that is being destroyed.
The Federal Government has legislated to enable those who want to in the Northern Territory to actually change direction. The lunatics say I'm forcing people and taking people's land away. Quite the opposite.
What I've actually done is legislated to say to people, if you want to unlock the value of your land, if you want to again have the chance to be able to aspire to something - such as home ownership, jobs, cultural awareness, bringing up a child in a healthy environment - then you can do so.Historical legacy
It has been our responsibility, as legislators over the last 30 years, starting with "sit down" money with Gough Whitlam and land rights under the Fraser Government. Those two single things did more to harm indigenous culture and destroy it than any two other legislative instruments ever put into the Parliament.
You can be land-rich but be absolutely poor in every other way.
Recently, land-rights pioneer Galarrwuy Yunupingu spent six hours with Noel Pearson and me in the Northern Territory. As he spoke, we connected as parents, and as fathers. He opened dialogue with me that day, and I told him what we were trying to achieve.
Then he said, "Kava is killing my people." He pointed across the waterway and said, "The people over there will not have fed their children today. Those children will not go to school. Alcohol, you haven't restricted it enough. Your welfare payments, you need to go further; CDEP (Community Development Employment Projects) must go."
And my eyes opened. I said, "Where have you been? A month ago you just ridiculed me for everything I did." He said, "Now I understand why you're doing it." He said, "Now let's talk about land reform, because the next stage is unlocking the value in our land so the next generation actually has job opportunities.
"What I want to do is not have this collective, where all of us here own the land, but no one individually. And because it cannot be turned into any value, inalienable freehold, I want to change that. I don't want to lose my native title rights, I don't want to lose the underlying title - what my forefathers gave me, but I actually want to unleash its value."
That's what Noel Pearson's been advocating, and for five years they've been fighting the Queensland Government to just give them what they want, that is land rights change. They actually want what's called DOGIT (deed of grant in trust) land, to be able to be used so people can own a home where that is.
You see, we have actually built an apartheid system where we have said if you live separately from us we'll make people have a permit to go in there and we will hold you responsible for what occurs. We will pour the cash in. Every now and then we'll come in and give you something else, and then we'll tut-tut when it all goes wrong.
For those who say I don't consult, I'd make this point.
Consulting is not talking to those people who purport to be indigenous leaders. Consulting is talking to people who don't have a voice on the ground. That's what I've done as a politician, as a member of parliament in my electorate, talking to people in their houses, talking to people who are not particularly articulate but have worries and concerns about their own areas.
Take Theodora, a 65-year-old woman. She once told me: "A lot has changed in our town from the 300-person riots that we used to have and the houses that were being burnt down 18 months ago, but you haven't helped me enough."
I said, "What do you want, Theodora?"
She said, "I want to feel safe when I walk up to the ATM in my community to take money out to feed my grandchildren. But when I do, the young men come in here and they threaten to break my washing-machine or my television if I don't hand them the money over.
"They take the money, they spend it on ganja [marijuana], they get high, they come down, they're hungry and then they take the last food off the table, off my grandchildren."
We must have the guts to make it stop, and the only way we do that is to take really tough decisions, which some people don't like.War zone
I'm passionate about this because I've taken the time to go into the town camps at night and see what is nothing less than a war zone in Australia. What chance have these people got if we ignore them?
If we turn back now, if we blink now, then we will have committed genocide on indigenous communities. That is what it is, because their oral history will disappear with alcohol foetal syndrome. Abuse gets passed down from generation to generation, with six-year-olds being raped by 10 to 15-year-olds.
As long as I am the federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, nothing - no amount of cartoon caricatures, no amount of academics who don't actually want to go and front the reality, or no indigenous activist - will deter me from doing what these people have asked me to do.- This article is an extract from a transcript of the 40th annual Alfred Deakin Lecture at Mebourne University, delivered on October 2, 2007 by the Hon. Mal Brough MP, federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs.