Politics aside, an end to the tears is our priority

Opinion Article

2007 June, 23

Alcohol and drug addiction can’t be fixed immediately, but the Government is on the right track to stop the suffering in the outback, argues Noel Pearson

Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough telephoned me 15 minutes before he and Prime Minister John Howard made their announcement of a national emergency response to protect Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory. He took me through the measures the federal Government would be taking.

I thought to myself: “Well, mate, if you think you had your work cut out for you in Cape York, then this is going to place you in the national firing line.”

While the plan is a necessary development, there are risks associated with the bold line of attack announced by Brough and Howard. My assessment is:

  • The focus on grog and policing is correct, but as well as policing there must be a strategy for building indigenous social and cultural ownership.

  • Making welfare payments conditional is correct, but the Howard-Brough plan needs to be amended so responsible behaviour is encouraged. Responsible people shouldn’t just be lumped in with irresponsible people.

  • The land-related measures are clumsy and ideological, but they are not an attempt at a land grab, and the problems with the land measures are nowhere near as high a priority as action for the welfare of children.

  • There is a huge implementation challenge. Based on the performance of the federal and provincial bureaucracies up to now, I am not confident they are up to it. The Council of Australian Governments trials in the past five years have not delivered meaningful results.

This is not my plan. It is the federal Government’s plan. If it were up to me I would do some things differently. But I am not the government and, like everyone, I have to deal with the realities as they are, not how I would prefer them to be.

A few simple questions lead me to the view that decisive action is needed.

First, is the situation of children’s welfare in indigenous communities in the NT and the states a situation of national priority?

We have just had the Anderson-Wild report on the NT. Similar reports have come down in recent years in Queensland, NSW, South Australia and Western Australia. No one denies the situation is a national priority.

Second, is the situation with children’s welfare one of national emergency? Child protection is not like poverty or educational underachievement or general socioeconomic disadvantage. Time and deliberation can be taken when considering and devising solutions to these large structural problems.

But what do you do when a child is being subjected to abuse this very day? What do you do when a child is likely to be abused next week?

What do you when the abuse is going to happen the week after next?

What do we do when there are scores of children involved across the communities, the states and territories? If it were your child at risk of this suffering, would you think this a matter of emergency?

This is not a moral panic. The abuse is real. This is not a media or political beat-up. The report from Pat Anderson and Rex Wild confirms a reality of suffering. Something has to be done to relieve the suffering now, not in six months, not in two years. Now.

We can’t rehabilitate people from alcohol or drug dependence immediately. We can’t fix the poor education immediately. We can’t fix up the poor health immediately. But we must stop the suffering straight away. Everyone, from the Prime Minister to his bitterest opponents, centres their preferred strategy or response on the fate of the children. No one can escape this fact: the fate of the children is the bottom line. Whatever one thinks of Howard and Brough, their strategy is justified on the basis of the fate of the children. If not Brough and Howard’s plan to stop the suffering, then what alternative plan should be pursued? Here most of the critics fall into a deafening silence. They have vociferous views about what will not work, but they are silent about what will work. So the sum total of their response – “we don’t need missionary paternalism again”, “prohibition doesn’t work”, “indigenous people must consent to the changes”, “we need more government services”, “we have to provide rehabilitation”, “we have to deal with intergenerational trauma”, “we have to deal with things in a holistic way” – is inaction and procrastination while children’s lives continue to be ruined. It is not that the points made by the critics are wrong – they are often correct – but their criticism does not translate and often cannot be translated into action.

I believe the Government’s proposal will make a difference in the short term. If one accepts that the proposed measures will save women and children this year, then the bottom line is this: rejecting the Government’s emergency measures equates with giving priority to some other issue before rescuing the children.

Even where extremely concerted responses have been implemented, such as the new child safety regime in Queensland, which has made significant improvements to the child protection system, we are a long way from stopping the abuse.

All we have now is a new system to respond to abuse. We don’t have a system to prevent the abuse. There are still about 80 child welfare notifications a month across the communities of Cape York.

About 30 of these notifications are substantiated. Of the remaining 50 there is a lot of doubt as to whether the assessment bar is too high because officials (such as school principals and health workers) who are obliged to report cases of suspected abuse or neglect are perplexed as to why particular cases were not able to be substantiated.

One leading principal from a school in Cape York told me: “I fill out these reports in as objective and straightforward a manner as I can. I have a statutory duty to report accurately what I see. Unless a child is bleeding, it’s very hard. There is a delay in time before the child safety people arrive. They don’t see what the teachers see.”

A retired principal from my home town who served at the primary school in the 1980s, having read my account of the problems at Hope Vale, wrote to me recently: “You have spoken, Noel, of the sexual assault and unlawful intercourse with minors. It concerned me back in the ’80s when a Year 1 boy was playing truant through fear. He was being sexually assaulted on his way home from school by his Year 8 uncle.

“Painful as it was for me and for the mothers of these kids, I had to bring it to their notice. There was great shame and unwillingness to accept, and a wish to sweep it under the mat (through fear of community reaction, I presume, and especially that the occurrence was known to a white person). I left the matter for them to clean up, as I saw my brief was to keep the children safe, not to stir up trouble in dominating the community.”

I think about this fearful boy. I don’t know who he was. I would doubtless know him if his identity were revealed. If he is still alive he is probably between 26 and 29. What has he become since Year 1? Has he turned into an abuser? What has his uncle, who must be between 33 and 36, done since Year 8? Did he continue to abuse this nephew or other children? Did something in his own childhood lead to his behaviour?

Queensland may have the most concerted governmental response to child protection anywhere in Australia, but we are still talking about a system that deals with abuse and neglect after it has become a problem. We are not talking about a system that prevents the abuse or neglect before it becomes a problem.

This is why we have proposed the welfare reform measures that we have put forward to the federal and Queensland governments. We propose that a family responsibilities commission be established by the Beattie Government to exercise powers over welfare payments. These powers need to be granted to the state-created commission by the federal Government. Our most eminent elders need to sit on this street-level commission.

We need Howard and Peter Beattie to co-operate to make our proposal work.

The aim of the family responsibilities commission is to intervene early, to hold adults to account for their behaviour and to ensure that the welfare of children is the utmost priority. This is about complementing the Queensland Government’s existing child safety response system with an effective and practical prevention system.

But we urgently need legislation from the Prime Minister and the Premier.

Let me return to the next question about the federal government plan: does the fact that Howard and Brough are politically motivated in the conception and activation of their plan make their plan unsupportable?

Does the fact that there are electoral calculations underpinning this manoeuvre make their proposed intervention wrong?

Of course not. I could not care less if the plan is accompanied by political motivations. If the plan is aimed at providing relief from suffering then this has priority over everything. Whether Howard or Kevin Rudd ends up being the prime minister of the next parliament is not worth two cents in my calculation compared with whether we have a plan that can cut through immediately.

Grog and policing are the most urgent priorities. The Anderson-Wild report makes clear, as if we did not already know, that there is a direct connection between the epidemic of grog and drug abuse and the neglect and abuse of children. It was the hapless mother in a small community called Grassy Narrows in Ontario, Canada, who told a social scientist who wrote about parallel problems in indigenous communities there more than 20 years ago that these addictions are “a poison stronger than love”.

We have always known grog is a problem for our people. But to know that grog is a problem is not enough. Because we have plenty of problems. We have plenty of explanations for our problems. We have plenty of proposed solutions. The question is: what emphasis, what strategic priority, what urgency, what focus do we give to grog?

If you acknowledge that grog is a problem but you don’t give it emphasis, priority or focus, then it is likely you will do nothing about it.

This is the story of Aboriginal policy and Aboriginal leadership in this country. We all have said that grog is a problem, but we have not given it the emphasis or priority or focus it needs for us to get on top of the problem.

Take the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody. It mentioned grog as a significant problem in the story of over-representation of indigenous people in custody. But it did not bring grog into relief. It did not make a confrontation with grog a principal target of policy and action. Grog was just one of a long list of underlying factors. But there are factors and there are factors. Some factors are primary and therefore need to be tackled as primary factors. Grog and drugs must be seen as primary factors.

We are paying the price for the intellectual and policy failure of those royal commissioners of 17 years ago.

The only worthwhile outcome was a report compiled by Marcia Langton, of the commission’s Aboriginal issues unit, chaired by Patrick Dodson, called Too Much Sorry Business. This was the only intellectually worthwhile output from that entire wasteful enterprise. Its discussion of grog as a primary problem is as fresh as the Anderson-Wild report just handed down, but it did not play a central role in the royal commission’s final report and recommendations.

So 17 years of the connection between grog and child abuse goes by unrecognised by policy. How much of today’s problem could have been avoided had we got the thinking and the policy right back then?

The Howard-Brough plan to tackle grog and to provide policing is correct. However, the plan needs to be amended so that there is a concerted strategy to build indigenous social and cultural ownership.

Howard and Brough need to understand the challenge is this: we must restore Aboriginal law in these communities. We must restore Aboriginal values and Aboriginal morality in our communities.

Aboriginal law, properly understood, is not the problem, it is the solution. When I say Aboriginal law, I just do not mean the laws that prevailed in our pre-colonial classical culture, I mean our contemporary values and expectations about behaviour. The old law did not deal with grog, drugs, gambling, money and private property.

These new things have represented a fundamental challenge for Aboriginal culture. Many communities have struggled to apply the values that underpinned their traditional law to these new challenges.

We have not met this challenge successfully. We desperately need to.

We need to develop an Aboriginal law that deals effectively with these new challenges: grog, drugs, gambling, money and private property.

Some communities have articulated an Aboriginal law that deals with the new challenges as well as the old. Many communities have strong social and cultural norms dealing with the old challenges, but they are hapless in the face of the new challenges. What does Aboriginal law have to say when relatives want money for binge drinking?

Howard and Brough will make a historic mistake if they are contemptuous of the role that a proper and modern articulation of Aboriginal law must play in the social reconstruction of indigenous societies. I support their determination to end the suffering.

Politics aside, an end to the tears is our priority