“National emergency response to protect Aboriginal children in the NT” That was the heading on the June 21 media release from Mal Brough, the Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs. June 21 was Federal Parliament's last sitting day before the politicians fled Canberra's cold for a six-week break.
At 12.54pm – according to the Sydney Morning Herald's acerbic commentator Alan Ramsey – Prime Minister John Howard's office called journalists to a joint press conference by Howard and Brough at 1.15pm. It was only 45 minutes before the House of Reps resumed for its last question time until August 7. Not much time for thoughtful questioning.
[This comment has been modified since its original posting.]
July 1, and Grumpy Old Journo finally comments. The delay may have surprised those who know that I'm a member of a local reconciliation group – and, by now, that I'm not an admirer of John Howard. Why not speak out earlier?
One risk was that a quick response would be ill-considered. It would have joined those who said Howard had found himself another Tampa or a “black children overboard”, a gut-wrenching issue – in this case, the sexual abuse of children in dysfunctional, remote Aboriginal communities – which he could exploit to get re-elected.
Could not have Howard's action been honourable, a statesmanlike response to a genuine national emergency?
But the day after these comments first went up, the Murdoch tabloid papers reported a Galaxy poll result that just 25 per cent of voters thought Howard acted because of concern for the problem, while 58 per cent said his action was to boost his support in the looming election.
What if the truth is somewhere in the middle? The Galaxy question didn't offer the chance to reply, "Well, a bit of each, actually", so its result may have been unfair. No-one doubts Brough's sincerity, and it's possible he did persuade Howard that urgent action was needed to impose troops, police, doctors and “managers of all government business” on prescribed Aboriginal communities, and to ban alcohol and porn. All without consultation, it seemed initially.
But Howard is a consummate politician and it's difficult to believe he failed to see electoral advantage in his stance.
As it happens, Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd didn't take any risks. He offered Howard full support.
But surely it was possible to applaud the Federal Government for taking decisive action -- even if one still had reservations about the way in which Howard said he would go about it.
Largely, it was left to non-politicians to express misgivings. Fortunately, there were many voices doing so – including many with expertise in Aboriginal communities and in child abuse cases.
Medical experts pointed out that compulsory mass screening of children for sexual abuse, involving physical examinations , would almost certainly be illegal as well as a breach of medical ethics.
Of course, one could call the Howard-Brough move paternalistic They were going to tell the Aboriginal people what would happen to them, and initially they implied there would be no consultation. As Howard said, the time for talk was over.
Some could argue paternalism was justified in the circumstances. But there was always an alternative – sit down and talk to the Aboriginal people.
And of course, the Howard-Brough move, as initially stated, was racist. There was little suggestion of a crackdown on booze and porn in the wider, white community, nor of compulsory mass screening of white children for sexual abuse. But perhaps there too, one could argue the need for this "profiling".
A better-thought-out approach could have avoided the Sydney Morning Herald's big front-page headline on June 27, “Families Flee in Panic”, and under it, “Brough blames liars for spreading hysteria”. Under it, the intro read:
Panic about the Howard Government's crackdown on child sexual abuse has spread widely throughout remote Aboriginal communities, where parents fear their children will be taken away in a repeat of the stolen generation.
But even the most reasonable people with misgivings about the Howard-Brough approach could draw abuse like this extraordinarily vituperative piece by Miranda Devine in the SMH. (By the third par, Ms Devine has also quoted approvingly from a new book by Helen Hughes of the right-wing “think tank”, the Centre for Independent Studies, attacking land rights as apartheid.)
After a week, Howard and Brough appear to have softened their rhetoric and to have accepted they need the co-operation of Aboriginal communities to ensure the success of their “national emergency response”.
But for Howard, at least, credibility would be improved if he had previously shown concern about the well-documented problems of Aboriginal communities, including child sexual abuse, detailed by Alan Ramsey in a piece as vituperative as Ms Devine's. For other evidence that Howard shrugged off these problems for the past decade or so, The Australian has provided many examples, including this.
If only Howard had been prepared, all those years ago, to say sorry. If he had not shut down the stolen generation inquiry when it was set to substantiate its findings. If he had confronted the racial bigotry of Pauline Hanson's supporters. If he had offered more support for land rights and for the Mabo and Wik judgments, his credibility would have been strong.
Without that credibility, it's understandable that many of us remain wary.
After first posting these thoughts on Sunday, I walked down to the waterfront at Woy Woy, where Aboriginal people had a major function. In a big marquee, I watched children performing traditional dances, seemingly oblivious to the icy wind, heard some heart-breaking personal stories of the stolen generation (and yes, I believe them to be true), and tried some bush tucker.
The growing pride and determination of Aboriginal people can be seen clearly at such an event. The activism of decent whitefellas has helped, but the big advances have come from the dedicated work of many respected Aboriginal leaders and mentors.
Howard and Brough appear to be modifying their initial, hard-line approach. It appears the medical checks on children will be carried out more sensitively, and will address wider health issues, rather than just probe for signs of sexual abuse. After days of prevarication, the Federal Government seems to be promising it not plan an assault on land rights.
But issues remain. Is a move to private home ownership sought by Aboriginal people in the remote communities?
There is a good chance Howard and Brough will make a worthwhile difference -- if they go beyond a short-term "shock and awe" attack, and provide more resources for the longer term. Brough has conceded the NT needs more help with providing police and police stations, but he has refused help with teachers and schools.
But most of all, nothing will work if Aboriginal people are denied a say in their own future.
Meanwhile, read this with anger
The SMH's P1 lead shows another broken promise by the NSW Labor government, or more accurately, its failure to provide funding so that its promise to combat sexual abuse of Aboriginal children can become more than empty words. The SMH story begins:
OUTBACK NSW is plagued by a shocking lack of resources to tackle indigenous child abuse which has led to a permanent queue of 40 cases needing investigation and another 30 waiting to be heard by the courts.
More than a year after a State Government report revealed Aboriginal children in NSW are four times more likely to be abused than non-indigenous children, a senior child sexual assault specialist has painted a devastating picture of dwindling funding and shortages of expert counsellors and
investigators in NSW's west . . .
In some communities, child sex had become so normalised that children as young as six had been observed performing oral sex on each other. "They say they're just playing, without having any sense that it's wrong."
When the Federal Government announced its crackdown on indigenous child abuse last week – to be focused on the Northern Territory – it accused NSW of sitting on its own report, revealing
a similar crisis, for nine months.
NSW's Breaking the Silence report followed interviews with more than 300 Aborigines in 29 communities and found that not one could name a family unaffected by the scourge of child sexual assault.
You'll find these claims backed up on the website of Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation. And if you want to raise your voice in protest at the Federal or State government failures, ANTaR's site provides links where you can sign online petitions.