ABORIGINAL AFFAIRS: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Sexual abuse of Aboriginal children: is Labor serious?
, September 15, 2007
Labor politicians have reportedly tried to discourage Aborigines from co-operating with the Federal Government in its attempts to tackle sexual abuse of Aboriginal children.Shocking accounts of rampant sexual abuse of Aboriginal children have been documented in Little Children are Sacred, a report commissioned by the Northern Territory Government. The NT Chief Minister, Clare Martin, received the report around six months ago, but sat on it for four months before releasing it.
Shortly after it was released in June, the Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mal Brough, and the Prime Minister, John Howard, announced that the problem of sexual abuse of Aboriginal children constituted a national emergency, and set in place a detailed intervention plan to try to deal with the problem.
The plan was initially opposed by some state and territory Labor leaders, but supported in principle by the Opposition leader, Kevin Rudd. Eventually, the state Labor leaders fell into line.
In a subsequent debate in federal parliament on August 7, Labor MP for the NT seat of Lingiari, Warren Snowdon, said, "We made the decision at the time this was announced to give it in-principle bipartisan support, because we share the concern about kids being abused."
Mr Snowdon went on to outline his reservations about the report, and spoke of attending meetings in NT indigenous communities in which these concerns were expressed.
He also referred to being present at a meeting of the Northern Land Council, where he attended a presentation by the chairman of the federal task force, Dr Sue Gordon, and Major-General David Chalmers. "What I found illuminating from that presentation was the lack of information they were able to provide. They could not answer so many basic questions."
He said, "The response from Magistrate Gordon at once stage was, 'We're working on the details as we go'." He added, "Is it any wonder that people are left confused, dismayed and concerned? They do not know what is being proposed."
In federal parliament, Labor MP Bob McMullan made clear that Labor would vote for the legislation, but believed it was "doomed to fail".
However, a subsequent in-depth report, "Shame job", by Sarah Ferguson for the Nine Network's Sunday
TV program (August 26, 2007), cast a different light on their role.
In the course of the program, an Aboriginal person from the Yuendumu community stated that the Labor politicians who visited before the arrival of members of the Federal Government's task force tried to discourage them from co-operating with it.
This statement was subsequently denied by Mr Snowdon and Labor's Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin.
Mr Snowdon, who accompanied Ms Macklin on the trip, said the program did not contact him for comment. "It's a very shoddy piece of journalism," he told Australian Associated Press.
Jenny Macklin also denied that she had urged people not to co-operate with the Federal Government initiative.
The causes of abuse of women and children in indigenous communities, particularly in remote areas, are complex. These Aboriginal communities are dependent on government hand-outs, whether in the form of social security, "job creation" schemes, or royalties. None of the communities is financially viable.
program found that sexual abuse was prevalent in each of the communities it visited, and some members of these communities were willing to speak to the program about it; but the crisis was obscured by a culture of silence, in which vulnerable family members were intimidated or shamed into covering up criminal conduct routinely perpetrated against women and children.
The absence of an effective and continuous police presence in small and remote communities is just part of the problem, as is chronic unemployment, welfare dependency, alcoholism and drug abuse, and pornography.
Additionally, there are acute problems such as a lack of education and appalling health conditions, with many Aboriginal people living in over-crowded and filthy dwellings.
These conditions feed into not only the problem of child abuse, but also domestic violence, preventable diseases such as diabetes and glaucoma, and a sense of helplessness which pervades many Aboriginal communities.
The Federal Government intervention seeks to address some of these problems, particularly in relation to law and order, Aboriginal community health and housing. It will cost around $500 million a year.NT's response
In contrast, the Northern Territory Labor Government later announced its own response to the Little Children are Sacred
report, which will cost $286 million over the next five years. The Territory Government's response has seven planks, including safety, housing, education, jobs, culture, a better way of doing business, and health.
However, unless there is a comprehensive program to establish businesses in these communities to provide meaningful employment, together with a permanent police presence, politicians will be talking about the same problems in 10 or 20 years' time.- Peter Westmore