Tanya Plibersek, the Labor MP for Sydney, does a good job in her Sydney Morning Herald column today: By all means act, but know it is for the long haul.
Over the past decade, up to 14 significant reports have exposed the crisis of child abuse and neglect in indigenous communities. The release last week by the Northern Territory Government of Little Children Are Sacred is the last in a long list.
It is a national shame that despite all these reports no government of any political persuasion has done enough to protect indigenous children. Labor will support any proposals from the Federal Government that will stop child abuse and neglect. There are no excuses for abuse or neglect.
Obviously, providing a safe environment for vulnerable children immediately is the first step. Extra police, doctors and child protection workers are necessary to do that. These short-term interventions are appropriate, but on their own are not enough.
Truly ending an inter-generational cycle of abuse and neglect will take a long term commitment. Medical teams will be required not just to give children initial check-ups but to provide health care and counselling. Police are necessary to prevent violence now, but so are better schools and more teachers, jobs and hope for the future.
Jailing pedophiles is necessary, but the Government will need to confront more complex questions, such as what to do with young teens who have abused younger children because the teenagers haven’t known any other life. What type of rehabilitation works in such cases? How do we support young mothers to care for and protect their new babies and small children if no one has ever cared for and protected the mother?
Perhaps most critically, how do we ensure it is the pedophile who is removed from a home or community, not the child? One submission to the territory inquiry said: “In cases of sexual abuse, the child is often removed from the community (to be taken to a place of safety or to be interviewed). This can lead to the child believing they have done something wrong, and make families reluctant to report as it is the child who is removed rather than the alleged perpetrator.”
While intervention to stop child abuse is critical, the Government has to be careful that its approach does not discourage reporting of abuse.
When issues such as housing have been raised in the past the Howard Government has failed to acknowledge how important appropriate housing is to the safety of children. Overcrowded housing doesn’t cause child abuse, but a parent will find it much harder to protect a child in a home that has 20 people living in it with all their friends and relatives coming and going.
The Government response needs to build on strengths and leadership in local communities, and in particular work with elders; the grandmothers, the mothers and the aunties in indigenous communities who have been speaking out about this problem for many years.
There are successful programs which have reduced violence and drug abuse – programs such as the night patrols of older women who intervene in violent incidents or send drinkers home. The Federal Government would do well to listen to indigenous leaders who have run successful programs such as the Mount Theo-Yuendumu petrol sniffing program, which has helped more than 400 young people, and helped the Yuendumu community go from having about 70 regular petrol sniffers to none.
Child abuse and neglect can be prevented. We know that intensive early intervention with families works. We know that we have to deal with the whole family, including with drug, alcohol, gambling or pornography addictions; we know that top quality pre-schools and schools can make a world of difference.
Indigenous leaders have tried to get all sides of politics and all levels of government to listen to the stories of decades of abuse and neglect. It’s no wonder that some indigenous Australians who have been the subject of so much reporting and the victims of so much government neglect are sceptical about this belated recognition. But the Prime Minister’s motives are not the issue here. Even if this measure is politically motivated, it is worth supporting large-scale and urgent intervention, as long as it works.
If the Government does dedicate the massive resources necessary to turn this problem around, if it works well with indigenous leaders, if it is genuine in its desire to fix this disaster, then it will get Labor’s full support.
Whether the Prime Minister’s approach will work is a more serious question. The Government will have to work with indigenous leaders to ensure it does.
I tend to be more cynical, I’m afraid, about the government’s actions, finding too tempting perhaps the thought that John Howard has been looking for rabbits to pull out of the hat and may have found a black one. I still feel that the government’s work in Indigenous affairs has been poisoned by the ideological stance they have adopted over the past eleven years which has seen them firmly in the denialist camp when it comes to core issues of Aboriginal identity, self-determination, land ownership and recognition of the realities of Australian history — in short, their weakness on reconciliation. At the same time I don’t want to fall into the romanticist camp either. I accept that there has been a “benign racism” (as Louis Nowra has termed it) among many on the left which ironically has the effect of reducing Aboriginal communities de facto to the status of flora and fauna yet again. So I do lean, and have for some time, to the position Noel Pearson has presented in his more carefully articulated analyses of policy in this area. At the same time I think we all need to read Paul Keating’s wonderful Redfern Speech again and again — forgetting, perhaps, the rather bitter figure Keating seems to be today.
So that’s where I am at the moment. The page Some thoughts on the events of June 2007 continues to evolve. The problems of my local community here in Surry Hills, Waterloo and Redfern continue to be vexing as well. Much is good, but there is still plenty of space for soul-searching even here, and much to be frustrated about both at the grass roots level and in terms of government (state and federal) policy.
Hmmm. I have just been watching the 7.30 Report — do read that transcript — and I may find myself shifting ground on this. Not much of Tanya Plibersek’s comments needs to be changed, but it may be this current intervention needs further thought…