Like Neil, although I do not have his download problem, I have refrained to this point from commenting on the Federal Government's proposed intervention in the Northern Territory to deal with, in the Prime Minister's words, what we can only describe as a national emergency in relation to the abuse of children in indigenous communities in the Northern Territory.
I really needed time to think the issues through.
I am still doing this, listening to the debate with interest. However, I thought that it would be helpful to me and might be of interest to you if I tried to disentangle some of the issues. My personal view is that this intervention may well come to be seen as marking a seismic shift in Australian Government, and not just for our indigenous people.
The Prime Minister's Announcement
By way of background to my international readers, on 30 April 2007 Rex Wild and Pat Anderson handed their report to the Northern Territory Government on the protection of Aboriginal children from sexual abuse. Entitled "Little Children are Sacred", the report paints a disturbing picture of conditions in certain Northern Territory Aboriginal communities. You can find a copy of the report here.
On 22 June, Prime Minister Howard and Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Minister Brough made the dramatic announcement that the Australian Government was taking over direct control of the Northern Territory's Aboriginal lands and the communities on them.
Nine key measures were announced.
First, the intention to introduce widespread alcohol restrictions on Northern Territory Aboriginal land for six months. The Federal Government will ban the sale, possession, transportation and the consumption of alcohol and (introduce the) broader monitoring of take away sales across the Northern Territory.
Second, the Government will bear the cost of medical examinations of all indigenous children in the Northern Territory under the age of 16 and will provide the resources to deal with any follow up medical treatment that may be needed.
Third, change welfare payment arrangements so that 50 per cent of the payments to parents can only be used to purchase food or other essentials. This requirement will follow the parent wherever that parent may go, so the obligation cannot be avoided simply by moving to another part of Australia.
The Prime Minister also foreshadowed that Mr Brough would be bringing to Cabinet at its next meeting some proposals to further extend the conditionality of welfare payments to all Australians receiving income support to ensure that these payments are used for the benefit of their children.
Fourth, the Government will enforce school attendance by linking income support and family assistance payments to school attendance for all people living on Aboriginal land. The Government will ensure that meals are provided for children at school with parents paying for the meals.
Fifth, the Government will take control of townships through five year leases to ensure that property and public housing can be improved. If that involves the payment of compensation on just terms as required by the Commonwealth Constitution then that compensation will be readily paid. The Government will also require intensive on ground clean up of communities to make them safer and healthier by marshalling local workforces through Work for the Dole arrangements.
Sixth, the Government will scrap the permit system (this controls outside access) for common areas and road corridors on Aboriginal land.
Seventh, the Government would ban the possession of x-rated pornography in the proscribed areas and would check all publicly funded computers for evidence of the storage of pornography.
Eighth, to enforce law and order there would be an immediate increase in policing levels. Here the Government would be asking each state police service to provide up to 10 officers who'll be sworn as police in the Northern Territory. Special financial incentives would be provided to reward the police in question.
Ninth, additional resources would be provided to set up an Australian Government sexual abuse reporting desk, while the Government would also ask the intergovernmental ministerial council to formally refer the issue of child abuse to the Australian Crime Commission to allow the Crime Commission to locate and identify perpetrators of sexual abuse of indigenous children in other areas of Australia.
To support these measures, the Government will legislate to amend the Northern Territory land rights legislation and the Territory self government legislation.
The measures themselves are going to be overseen by a taskforce of eminent Australians. This will include logistics and other specialists and child protection experts. In addition, managers will be appointed to control Government activities in particular communities.
Setting a Context
I am not quite sure why all this took people so much by surprise. Something like this has been coming for a while.
As with the gun-control legislation introduced after the Port Arthur Massacre, the Prime Minister has previously demonstrated that he is prepared to intervene outside the Commonwealth's role and powers when personally convinced that something needs to be done.
I am using Port Arthur as an example, there are many others, because this was an intervention supported by the majority of the community where most of those affected and opposed were Government supporters.
The fact that previous policies towards our indigenous peoples have failed has been widely recognised and has become a national scandal.
The emergence of Aboriginal leaders such as Noel Pearson prepared to challenge conventional wisdom inside and outside the Aboriginal community has changed the dynamics of the debate. I have watched Mr Pearson with growing admiration as he has emerged as a sustained, passionate and articulate advocate of the need for change, an admiration shared by many others in the broader Australian community.
Then we have Mr Brough's own growing frustrations. I have never met Mr Brough nor do I necessarily share all his views. I do know that he is a former army officer, a determined man whose frustration and growing anger with the staus quo has been apparent for some time.
We can see this if we look back at his press releases over the last twelve months. You can also see the progressive emergence of the skeleton of the Commwealth's response.
I suspect that the final straw was the rejection in May by Tangentyere Council and the Alice Springs Town Camps of the Australian Government's proposal to upgrade the camps to suburbs in return in part for land title changes. I think that this sealed the fate of current structures because it showed how hard real change had become.
If we look at Mr Brough's press releases from this point we can, I think, see the evolution of the new approach.
Two days after the rejection, Mr Brough released (25 May) an independent report of a review into policing levels in remote Indigenous communities in Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory. In his release, Mr Brough again mentioned the problem of child abuse while complaining about lack of cooperation from the Northern territory and Queensland in the inquiry.
On 28 May, Mr Brough slammed Northern Territory LaborSenator Trish Crossin over her suggestion in Senate Estimates that Tiwi Islander's had been bribed to accept an historic land agreement along the lines proposed for Alice Springs.
Noting that the Budget included an additional three-quarters of a billion dollars to measures focusing on education, early childhood, and economic independence, taking overall indigenous spending to a record $3.5 billion in 2007-08, Mr Brough suggested that Mr Calma had failed to recognise the progress that had been made.
He concluded that he was also particularly disappointed that the Social Justice Commissioner did not choose to use his report to give a higher profile to the issue of family violence in Indigenous communities.
The following day, 15 June, saw the release of the Northern Territory report into child abuse. Mr Brough responded:
The Australian Government has been leading the way on this issue for the past year but there is minimal discussion of human rights abuses occurring in Indigenous communities, let alone of our work to address this.
I would have thought it reasonable to expect that this issue would be a higher priority for a Social Justice Commissioner.
He went on:
The report into child abuse in Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory is a damning indictment into the failure to protect children.
After attacking the Northern Territory Government for its failure to participate in previous inquiries, Mr Brough said in what I found a quite remarkable comment:
These are issues that I raised soon after taking over the Indigenous Affairs portfolio 18 months ago as a direct result of parents telling me of their concern about violence and child abuse in Indigenous communities and desperately wanting someone to listen and act.
I find this remarkable because I would have thought that common politeness as well as practical realities would have dictated some notice to the Commonwealth Minister given his role. While Mr Brough expressed his willingness to cooperate, I suspect that this finally sealed the fate of the Northern Territory Government.
I was not provided the report or its findings ahead of its public release today.
On 19 June Mr Brough welcomed the Noel Pearson/Cape York Institute Report On From Hand Out to Hand Up: Cape York Welfare Project. This set out a radical approach to welfare reform targeting Cape York's particular needs and received extensive media coverage.
Three days later, 22 June, the Federal Government acted, in so doing changing Australia forever.
To explain this, we need to look at two dimensions, the indigenous context and then the broader Australian scene.
According to the 2001 census, Australia's indigenous population was 485,000. The number will be higher now because more people are classifying themselves as of indigenous descent, while indigenous birth rates are significantly higher than in the broader community.
In 2001, the Northern Territory's indigenous population was 50,790 of whom 41,204 were classified as remote, the group most affected by the current move. Both numbers will be higher now for the reasons given above.
I make this point because while the land affected covers perhaps 40 per cent of the Northern Territory, a vast area, the population involved is perhaps a quarter of one per cent of the Australian population. In simple terms, changes that will affect all Australians are being driven by problems associated with a population equivalent to a reasonable size regional city.
In saying this, I am not detracting from the problems that must be addressed. My aim is to provide a sense of perspective.
As a number of Aboriginal leaders have pointed out, the total number of those affected by problems of social and economic deprivation and associated problems of abuse are far greater in the broader community than the total Aboriginal population.
My second point, and this is one I have repeated many times, is that the problems experienced by certain of the Northern Territory's Aboriginal communities, while replicated elsewhere, are not typical of the total Aboriginal experience.
I make this point because so much of the discussion has, yet again, come to be expressed in terms that simplify and in so doing treat the Aboriginal people as a single uniform lump. They are not.
Take, as an example, the way the terms "white" and "black" are used, terms that I have seen used by some of left liberal, right wing and indeed Aboriginal leaders in their discussion on this debate.
What does "white" mean today in an Australia containing people from more than 140 countries many of whom are clearly not "white"? Are we suggesting that a third generation Chinese Australian is a "white"? Or a new refugee from Southern Sudan?
Similarly, what does "black" mean? If "black" is code for Aboriginal, where does this leave my Sudanese example or, for that matter, any African or African American Australian?
My point in all this is that we have to avoid stereotypes, to recognise that the problems experienced by some (not all) of the Northern Territory's Aborigines are special problems that need to be dealt with in a local context.
This is, I think, one of Mr Pearson's core points in regard to his own communities. He wants a Cape York solution, one that deals with the specific on-ground problems faced by his people, not one imposed from outside regardless of local conditions.
After more than six hours, I need to finish this post here. I will continue in my next post.