June 23, 2007
FAR from being a radical saviour concerned with the protection of Aboriginal children from sexual abuse in the Northern Territory, the Prime Minister is mostly concerned with painting all Aborigines as being useless crooks and abusers. That way, he can put up a smokescreen to justify the weakening of Aboriginal communal rights to land under the guise of economic development.
Nobody denies that sexual abuse and alcoholic dysfunction in indigenous communities is a massive problem. Many Aborigines have long advocated for better services to deal with the issues, and have strongly asserted that alcoholism and sexual abuse are not a part of Aboriginal culture. It is, in fact, a learned behaviour. Where did Aborigines learn it? It is partly a hangover of the missionary days only 20 and 30 years ago, where sexual violence was routinely perpetrated on Aborigines by police, pastoralists and missionaries, and where the church often forced people to marry against their social and cultural clan systems. This is not an excuse for abuse today, but it is part of the reason people are behaving this way now. Sure, the abuser must take responsibility for these terrible actions, and sure, society has a responsibility to protect children. But to do so only through the law has never worked either here or overseas.
There's no evidence that dealing with addictions and sexual abuse through legal, criminal or administrative systems alone works. It might help alleviate some physical injury and perhaps prevent a small amount of abuse, but it doesn't address the emotional and mental turmoil that gave rise to the behaviour in the first place.
By contrast, Native Canadian communities in crisis with sexual abuse have turned the issue around in 10 years by community-led action, by government being prepared to listen to and trust local community leaders, and by supporting communities themselves to make the abuse of alcohol a socially unacceptable behaviour. But to think that forcing such programs on anyone will work is stupid. This is a Government too hungry for power and control, and prepared to ignore evidence to use it.
Research strongly shows that programs developed by indigenous people themselves are the ones most likely to work. The NT report called for a diverse approach, and called for education services to deal with grinding poverty. How can Aboriginal children be forced to school when in many cases in the NT there are not the schools or teachers to educate them properly? Howard's response is to assume total control and make it look as if he's dealing with root causes. Instead, all he is doing is window-dressing the symptoms and blaming Aborigines, as if they're all criminals.
What about the privacy rights of young Aboriginal children from good homes? Could you imagine all teenage girls in Elizabeth Bay or Toorak being forced to take medical examinations for a fear of sexual abuse? Never. Does the Government seriously think sexual abuse doesn't occur in non-Aboriginal communities? That doesn't make it OK in Aboriginal communities. I just wonder why the Government has decided on this tired old knee-jerk approach now. Why has it waited when reports in other state jurisdictions have also called for federal co-operation?
Howard's central message in Aboriginal affairs since the time of the Hindmarsh Island affair is that all Aborigines and their culture and spirituality are false. He tells the public that we are all abusers and crooks, citing ATSIC's demise as evidence. He doesn't tell the public that the minister controlled 85 per cent of its budget, yet made sure Aborigines copped all of the blame. He uses issues such as sexual abuse as reasons apparently Aborigines can't manage their own affairs. He twists Noel Pearson's economic development mantra — and Pearson is naive for letting him do so — into a lie about real estate being the answer for social dysfunction.
What Howard really wants is to destabilise Aboriginal communal rights to land, and to get easy access to the NT's uranium.
He wants to use sexual abuse in indigenous Australia as a smokescreen to marginalise us even more, and to gain leverage from this issue and give the election a convenient race-based edge. I can just hear it now: "If those silly Aborigines just lived like us, everything would be OK."
Come on, John. You are lying through your teeth again. You must really be grasping at straws in an election year if you need to further blame Aborigines to take the heat off your environment, broadband and IR woes.
Gregory Phillips is a medical anthropologist specialising in healing, post-traumatic stress syndromes and addictions in indigenous communities.