I’d like to unravel the Howard Government’s new plan with respect to indigenous welfare. There are a couple of different issues there.
First, I’m not happy with the use of the word “crisis”, because that suggests something that suddenly crops up. It’s not sudden – it’s more like a chronic problem that has now snowballed to the extent that it can’t be ignored any longer. It has been known for a long time that there are massive problems in some indigenous communities. I’ve written about these issues before.
I’ve been inspired to write this post after reading two posts, one by my lovely friend RG and another by Miss Politics. They were food for thought, because it made me realise that I had a different point of view, but each had good points to make. I was commenting on their blogs, but I then realised I’d be better off writing my own post, as the comments were turning into mini-posts.
1. Political opportunism
The indigenous welfare plan was described in The Age headline yesterday as a “black children overboard” stunt, designed to increase the Howard government’s popularity before a Federal election where they are facing some serious competition. Obviously, this headline produced some controversy.
Yes, I think there is definitely a giant dollop of political opportunism. The Howard government has been in power for 10+ years, and they finally decide to act now, just before an election? Forgive a girl for being a little cynical.
But the next question is: if it saves women and children from abuse, does it matter what the government’s motives are? I say that it does not. Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know that I am not a fan of the Howard government. But if they manage to do something good, I’m not going to gainsay them just because I dislike many of the things they do. I wonder if there’d be nearly so much outcry from the Left if Prime Minister Rudd had instituted this plan? Forgive me yet again for my nasty cynicism. I can only echo the words of Noel Pearson:
Quite frankly, I couldn’t care less whether John Howard or Kevin Rudd ruled this world. My priority is to take advantage for immediate intervention for the protection of children…
I’m not going to reject this initiative without having a closer look at it. On the other hand, I’m not just going to swallow it whole either.
2. A change is needed
Welfare payments have been poured into indigenous communities for the last 30 years in an effort to alleviate poverty, but if anything, paradoxically, conditions have become worse. Perhaps the money isn’t getting down to the grass-roots – but surely if the system was working, we’d be seeing some sort of improvement by now?
Some of the responses to Howard’s plan infer that the problems of the indigenous community will be cleared up if we address the underlying social issues. I presume that this refers in part to the need to recognise native title, the need for reconciliation and for saying “sorry”. Yes, I agree, it is important to acknowledge that some terrible things have been done to indigenous people in the past.
I am a very strong supporter of native title, although unfortunately, as presently conceived of by the Courts and the Native Title Act, it is such a weak property right so as to be non-existent.
However, I think that these issues should be part of a long term strategy, not something that can be used to fix problems here and now.
Terrible things are happening to indigenous people now. It is important to tackle them head on, decisively. I’m all for the long term plan mentioned above, but it is not the priority. Let me quote from a newspaper article in The Age from last year:
In the western desert community of Papunya the cultural notion of “secret men’s business” has taken on a particularly sinister interpretation for at least four under-age girls, the youngest being just seven.
Seven months ago the girls were found to have serious sexually transmitted infections — some of the worst in the medical books — but health workers claim child welfare authorities are yet to send anybody to the community to investigate.
In the meantime it is believed that at least one of the girls was reinfected by her abuser.
Not only is it claimed that officials from the Territory’s Family and Child Services Department (FACS) have not travelled the 280 kilometres to Papunya, health care workers at the community have told colleagues in Alice Springs that they have been reprimanded for not first consulting with parents and community elders about the spate of infections.
A health care worker who regularly visits Papunya told The Age by way of background: “The situation is astonishing. What the medical staff were being told to do was consult the potential perpetrators of abuse. Where else in Australia would this happen?”
Because the infections include resilient strains of gonorrhoea and syphilis, there are suspicions that the abusers are more likely to have been men, rather than teenage boys.
“FACS should have sent out a team of experts as soon as the infections were detected who could talk to the children and parents in their own language while the issue was immediate and before anybody could put pressure on the girls to remain silent,” the health care worker said.
We have to deal with the practicalities of this now. As the mother of a young girl, the above extract makes me feel sick to the core.
I believe that just focusing on reconciliation as a solution is problematic. Yes, I have marched on reconciliation marches and the like. Of course I want indigenous and non-indigenous Australians to live together in mutual respect. However, the “sorry” campaign can carry an inference that the problem is the fault of non-indigenous Australians, and once we apologise, the problem will go away. I don’t think it will. It’s a bit like those child abusers who say, “I couldn’t help it, my family was poor, my father abused me, my mother was a drunkard.” It may be an explanation, but it is not an excuse. The perpetrator of the abuse has a choice.
One of the examples raised by Nanette Rogers, Crown Prosecutor for the Northern Territory, when she blew the whistle on this issue last year, was that of a 6-year-old girl who drowned while being raped by an 18-year-old man, while other children watched on helplessly. I don’t think colonisation provides an excuse for that kind of behaviour. And it is not the fault of the non-indigenous community that he did this terrible deed. Yes, the young man might be poor and disadvantaged, but that doesn’t mean he is excused from raping and killing small children. It was his choice, and his responsibility.
I believe that one of the important pieces of the puzzle to true self-determination is taking responsibility for your own actions, and being aware that you can change the way in which you behave. To this end, I agree with Noel Pearson that there has to be an end to the “victim” mentality – that of blaming others for your troubles. I believe in empowerment of indigenous people; that they can control their own destinies. It should all be about teaching people to stand on their own two feet.
One of the main things which stops indigenous people from taking control of their own destiny is the endemic drinking, drug use and petrol sniffing which afflicts communities. It is very hard to control your own actions if you are totally trashed. Your brain and body are literally destroyed. Further child abuse is far more likely to happen when parents are “out of it”, and don’t notice what is going on with their kids. Even if adequate educational facilities are provided, if your parents don’t care whether you go to school or not, you are unlikely to attend.
3. The proposed plan of action
Pros of the plan
I think that indigenous communities do need drastic action at least in the short term to break the cycle of despair (including banning alcohol on reserves, and making support payments dependent upon children attending school). I would be much more worried about the banning of alcohol if it were not for the fact that many indigenous leaders are asking for it to be done. I must take this into account.
I also think that the fact that someone is actually doing something about this issue is good, whatever the motives behind it. I note that some indigenous leaders have given support to the plan. If some think it is a good idea for their communities, or are prepared to give support to a modified version of the plan, who am I to gainsay them, as a white city gal? On the other hand, I think it’s also really important to listen to those leaders who criticise the plans, as they may have good points.
Cons of the plan
The downside of Howard’s plan is the very hasty, aggressive nature of it. As much as I say that I’d like something to be done now, I would have preferred a little more thought and consultation to go into it. Personally, I like to take a deep breath and think through the implications before I do something. Paradoxically, this is because I am a very emotional person, and so I need to think in case I shoot from the hip and end up hurting someone without intending to do so.
If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. In this sense, I tend to agree with Lowitja O’Donohue:
Ms O’Donoghue, a former ATSIC chairwoman, said her opposition was based on a fear the intervention was too draconian.
“The people who are speaking out now welcome the intervention but we do not support the draconian intervention,” she said.
“Army trucks rolling in is pretty frightening for a community that’s been demonised. Governments should listen to a proper strategic plan in how they go about tackling this emergency. Of course it’s a national crisis.”
I note also that Rex Wild QC, the joint author of the report Little Children are Sacred has also criticised the plan, saying that the Federal Government should have been trying to build up a relationship of trust with indigenous people. Wild said on Lateline Business
“Well, the first problem is that people’s backs are immediately up. We didn’t have that problem when we arrived. …[W]hen we did our work, we were well-received because we spent some time preparing the people for what was coming. The troops didn’t arrive. We didn’t arrive with a battle ship. We arrived gently…”
Scaring people is not a helpful way to try to get them on board. But then, on the other hand, if it stops little kids from being raped or women from being beaten, it’s a lesser evil to prevent a greater evil. Perhaps it’s a start to a greater focus on these issues. I hope so.
One of the problems with indigenous welfare is the lack of coordination between Federal, State and Local governments. For this reason, I agree with the proposal last year by Noel Pearson, Patrick Dodson and Marcia Langton that a body such as the Productivity Commission be set up to coordinate indigenous welfare reforms.
I do hope that some positive things come out of the plan. I also hope that it will be ensured that communities have adequate services, such as fresh water, health care, educational facilities, mental health facilities, housing and the like. Proper services are vital to improving living conditions and living a healthy life.
I do not think that the plan will work without getting a majority of indigenous people on board. It is crucial that any process which is to have long-lasting beneficial effects on indigenous people be seen to have indigenous input and support. I know from my own experience that unless you have an internal desire to change yourself, there’s no hope of anyone else forcing you to change. Change must come from within. And realising that you have the capacity for positive change and growth will lead to real self-determination.