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Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory (NT) are facing considerable changes to their lives, including loss of control of their lands and withheld welfare payments, as part of extensive new policies aimed at tackling the sexual abuse of children.
The Australian government's “national emergency response” to an inquiry into the sexual abuse of indigenous children in the territory also involves widespread restrictions on alcohol, the abolition of a community employment scheme, and a ban on X rated pornography.
The government initially also announced plans to conduct compulsory checks on the sexual health of Aboriginal children, but after an outcry from health and medical groups it is now organising optional general health checks.
The intervention, announced on 21 June without consultation with indigenous or medical groups, was followed by the rushed passage in August of enacting legislation. It has provoked alarm among many indigenous and public health experts as well as human rights and legal groups.
There is widespread support for some long overdue political attention to the problem of child abuse, which many reports have documented over the past 20 years. Some aspects of the intervention, including the provision of extra police and health services, are also generally supported.
But many experts are concerned that overall the NT intervention, as it is called, may do more harm than good by undermining Aborigines' control over their lives and connection to their land.
Pat Anderson and Rex Wild, QC, the authors of the report Little Children are Sacred, which prompted the intervention, told a recent forum on indigenous health that their 97 recommendations bore little relation to the government's response. Indeed their first recommendation emphasises the importance of “genuine consultation” with Aborigines.
Ngiare Brown, a prominent indigenous doctor at the Menzies School of Health Research, in Darwin, told the forum at the Garma festival, in Arnhemland, that the “punitive” intervention had been developed “in a complete policy and strategic vacuum”; violated the principle to first do no harm; and had left many families and communities frightened.
“We don't empower people by removing their control,” Dr Brown said. “We don't overcome poverty by stripping them of their land and assets. It is patent fiction to link land rights to child protection.”
A spokesman for the Australian Indigenous Doctors' Association, which represents about 120 doctors and 120 medical students, told the BMJ that the intervention was making many Aborigines “worried sick.”
The Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses also warned that the intervention was creating “fear, confusion, and uncertainty.” It ignored international evidence about the importance of land rights and community controlled services in improving health, tackling social inequality, and developing successful indigenous communities.
“Children are being used as an excuse for an intervention that is disempowering the very communities it purports to assist,” the congress said in a statement issued at its conference in Alice Springs last month.
Fran Baum, a commissioner in the World Health Organization's Commission on the Social Determinants of Health and professor of public health at Flinders University, in Adelaide, said that the government had used “a report that bravely named and respectfully described the problem of child sexual abuse to launch what is seen as an offensive, an attack, an assault on fragile Aboriginal communities.
“[The] report called not for the declaration of war, with its echoes of domination and crisis, but for a thoughtful consultative process that stands some chance of leading to meaningful change,” she said. “The report recognised that there has to be change but that this was only likely if Aboriginal people are listened to and respected—the basis of any functional relationship.”
Concerns are widespread that the intervention, announced in a heated pre-election climate, will not translate into long term sustainable solutions despite its likely billion dollar cost.
Oxfam Australia, one of more than 40 organisations behind a campaign urging governments to close the 17 year life expectancy gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, said the lack of consultation raised questions about the intervention's likely impact.
“It would have had a greater chance of sustainable success if there'd been a fuller engagement with Northern Territory Aboriginal people,” the agency's executive director, Andrew Hewett, told the BMJ.
Jackie Huggins, co-chairwoman of Reconciliation Australia, said that the intervention included all the “ingredients for failure” that the past 40 years had shown didn't work—“centralised, top down, imposed, one size fits all programmes” devised and run from Canberra or the state capitals.
The Law Council of Australia said that the haste with which the government had passed its 500 pages of legislation was extraordinary and unjustifiable. The government's approach, the council added, was “overbearing, intimidatory, discriminatory, and designed for electoral consumption in parts of Australia far removed from the Northern Territory.”
Tom Calma, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner at the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, said that the intervention did not meet the standards of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recently passed by the United Nations General Assembly.
“Development and human rights experience, both in this country and worldwide, shows that unless communities have the opportunity to take some level of ownership of the solutions to the problems they face, the best intended initiatives will fail,” Mr Calma said in a recent speech.
The government has repeatedly dismissed criticisms of the intervention as “political correctness” and insists that there has been no time to consult more broadly because of the urgency of the response needed. It has also argued that paternalistic approaches are needed in indigenous policy generally, claiming that policies based on self determination have failed.
The intervention has not been driven by the health department but was announced by the prime minister, John Howard, and the indigenous affairs minister, Mal Brough, and comes at a time when the government's hold on power seems increasingly precarious.
The 11 year old government has not previously made indigenous people a priority and has steadfastly refused to apologise to the “stolen generations”—the children of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders who were forcibly removed from their families until 1964.
The recently retired federal court judge Murray Wilcox, a critic of the government's failure to implement the recommendations of an inquiry into the stolen generations, says the current intervention continues an approach of dominating people in a way that must further damage self esteem.
“The way the federal government has gone down this route appals me because it makes all the mistakes of the past,” he said.