"So I think there may be a misconception that we're here to fix things. We're not. We're here to examine as many kids as we can in two weeks and to send the figures back to Canberra, and also to give the figures to the local health service."
[volunteer doctor, stationed in Titjikala, south of Alice Springs for two weeks as part of the Government's response.]
It's now a month since the Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, and the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, stood together to announce that There is A National Emergency of sexual abuse on Aboriginal communities, And the Government Will Send Out The Gunships.
We have a right to expect that if the Government sends out the gunships, there is good reason to. There is. We also have a right to expect that when the problems are longstanding there should be a good plan with longterm solutions. The last month has shown that there isn't.
The gunships were sent off with only a mud-map, under the command of a taskforce which has no member professionally trained to work with sexual abuse victims. Without advice from Indigenous doctors or people who know about Indigenous health interventions, sex abuse or Indigenous children. Without paying attention to the advice of Pat Anderson and Rex Wild, the authors of the report that triggered the announcement. ('Gunships' and 'swarms of locusts' are Wild's metaphors). And with no idea of how much the operation would cost.
It's bright shiny lip-gloss to call the present disastrous state of many Indigenous communities a National Emergency - because emergencies are things you don't expect, and you can be forgiven for not foreseeing them. The problems in Australian Indigenous communities have been laid out in report after report after report over the last 10 years. Many people have shown the need for long-term solutions, and many communities have trialled solutions, some successful, some not.
Lots of people very much want this intervention to work. But their hopes for change are being undermined by the Iraq-sized lack of planning, the arrogant dismissal of the people who've been working on these problems for years, and the unbelievable stupidity of linking land tenure to sexual abuse. The saddest moment of the last month was watching the Reverend Djiniyini Gondarra during a Mawul Rom 'workshop' at Galiwin'ku on Elcho Island, on the 7.30 report (thanks Mel). There's an extended interview on video here. I recommend it. He is speaking with passion and a bitter sense of betrayal. He and his community had been negotiating a shared responsibility agreement with Mal Brough.
DR DJINIYINI GONDARRA: When he [Mal Brough] came here [last year] there was a good spirit, do you know? We sat and we talked to him, you know? We didn't march, we didn't demonstrate. We said, "Come and sit down. We are your friend. We want to talk to you. We want to solve problems. What are your problems? Tell us. We can work together."
Mal Brough offered them 50 new houses, classrooms, more teachers, more doctors, help for people starting small businesses. They said "This is good, we can work with you". They wanted to work together to improve law and order. But when he asked them for a 99 year lease, they said, not yet, they needed to talk it through. They did what he told them to, they consulted with 15 clan nations, they gave him reports. They thought they were starting something new, they would build a better community.
Then this year the gunships sailed in. Compulsory acquisition, abolish the permits.
DR DJINIYINI GONDARRA: I am really sad, I am sad. Here was this government of the day asking us to work with them. New ways, they said, new ways. A new way is sitting and talking. And fine, the solution was the best way and when we're ready to take that challenge, they change their mind. What sort of government is this? What are they really doing? Are they really want to sit and talk?
"But now John Howard and his government has just let us down. .. Everything is just spoiled ... Theres nothing we can hope for . ..Who can believe this sort of a government - doesn't emphasis peace just emphasise inconsistency" [my transcription]
"I feel just, disgusted. There's nothing for me there. What can I say? It's going to destroy our people. That's not working together." [my transcription]
Two other reports have been quietly ignored in the gunfire. Either report should have seen the responsible Governments (Federal and State) walk the plank. The first casualty was the Social Justice Commissioner's report which said that the administration of Indigenous affairs generally is stuffed (my opinion here). It includes longterm recommendations for addressing family violence. And the other was the 2007 report card on Indigenous Health [.pdf] from the Australian Medical Association, which said the administration of Indigenous health is stuffed, although "The bottom line, of course, remains criminal [my emphasis] underfunding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health,".
So, what money are the Feds putting into it? Ken Parish at Club Troppo points out that a month later we STILL don't know.
$3-4 billion over 5 years is what Jon Altman (Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University) estimated that it would cost to do it properly. Immediately he was jumped on by the Federal Finance Minister Nick Minchin accusing him of double counting and saying: "The Prime Minister's right to say this current initiative will be in the tens of millions of dollars."
The NT Chief Minister, Clare Martin, estimated $1.5 billion was needed for housing in the NT. She was jumped on by Mal Brough saying that was political opportunism. What he was considering was "an existing $1.4 billion package for remote indigenous housing across Australia, insisting it not be spent "on the same system that has failed before."' What's this all mean? Maybe that, while appalling overcrowding of houses is a major cause of health problems and perhaps of sexual abuse, the States haven't spent the money the Commonwealth gave them for improving houses because "the same system" is code for "Aboriginal land rights" and the Commonwealth wants "land rights reform" a.k.a land rights abolition, before they'll hand the money over (at least, that's South Australia's position.)
The Australian Medical Association asked the Feds for an extra $460 million a year, ($1.8 billion over four years), to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander primary health care. Dead dead silence.
So what's the Something Big been?
The most obvious thing is that no one knows what's going on. Least of all the people the operation is supposed to help. As Andrew Bartlett points out, the Wild-Anderson report hasn't been translated into Indigenous languages yet (which was one of the reports' recommendations). Not that that matters, since the Government is ignoring the report's recommendations anyway. But lack of information breeds anxiety. Pat Dodson was told this, the Opposition spokesperson on Indigenous affairs, Jenny Macklin, was told this. The Taskforce was told this too, but their head blames other people. "Some people are really causing mischief," You don't need mischief-makers, when you don't tell people what they can expect - as the volunteer doctor's comment at the start of this post shows.
Today we learned what the Government has achieved so far - and Rex Wild's concern about the intervention being just a visiting swarm of locusts seems alarmingly accurate.
• 15 policemen have been stationed at a few communities. Probably a good thing - but are they just temporary - are the Feds going to keep paying for them? Apparently the NT - like WA - has found it hard to recruit and keep police officers.
• One permanent doctor is in place at Mutitjulu. Good! But no plans for attracting and keeping doctors in communities generally. Which everyone knows is hard.
• Standardised health checks have begun in 5 communities (no longer mandatory, probably no longer all Indigenous kids, and no more direct searching for sexual abuse since they learned that's beyond the training of most volunteer GPs) .... And what have they found out so far? Yup, among other things, anaemia. Which Max Kamien found 37 years ago among the Aboriginal children living in Bourke*. A disease of poverty which, seven years ago, the National Health and Medical Research Council. expressed concern about (Nutrition in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples: An Information Paper [.pdf]). And today we learn that the NT Government probably doesn't have the money to pay for the follow-up health care needed. Kids referred to an ear/nose/throat specialist, when Alice Springs doesn't have one.
• Six Government Business managers and three Community brokers are in place. They may know what they're doing - but it seems that the locals don't - Kerry Moir, President of the NT’s Local Government Association (LGANT) is reported in Crikey as being concerned that there appears to be no effective coordination between the NT Government’s Local Government Reform program and the elements of the Commonwealth intervention that will affect local community administrations. Track back to the Social Justice Commissioner's report...
• "Drafting of legislation is well advanced to allow legislative measures to be put in place as quickly as possible." It was supposed to have been in Parliament next week. But maybe they're having trouble drafting it, since... Lots of people have pointed out there's no link between land-tenure and permits and child abuse. Every lawyer, every bush lawyer and their dog has protested this theft of property rights. AND, surely the killer argument, the NT Police Association says that abolishing permits will mean open slather for grog-runners and drug-smugglers to go into communities.
• Oh, and Mal Brough says that "NORFORCE personnel have been a hit with communities, particularly the children." Pretty expensive footy games, and Tonstant Weader is fwowin' up again.
And the other thing that has completely disappeared from the news is what is happening in those communities where CDEP jobs and income stopped on July 1. Salacious stories of sexual abuse are so much more marketable than the way the Government has let successful CDEP programs die, or the consequences of the loss of aged care workers, meals-on-wheels, women's centres in communities. Or the fact that the Fed made NO arrangement for the transition. It's all been quite haphazard. Cape York gets CDEP places changed to real jobs. At Umbakumba 112 people now go back on the dole.
As the decision to let the only airservice in the Western Desert go broke suggested, the Feds do have a long-term solution. They said so last year - audit the remote communities, decide they're unviable, close them down, and force people into hot demountables on the fringes of cities. Completely ignoring the evidence that people often live in remote communities because the rivers of alcohol flow much faster through the fringe camps, and the diseases of poverty flourish there, without the compensation of living on one's own land. No wonder Dr Gondarra sounds betrayed.
* Kamien, Max, 1978, The dark people of Bourke: a study of planned social change. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies ; Humanities Press.