No. 59 – 16 August 2007
By Rod Benson
On 21 June Prime Minister John Howard, along with the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, announced that Australia was in the grip of a “national emergency” on the scale of Hurricane Katrina. The crisis was brought to light by the release on 15 June of a report, Little Children Are Sacred, arising from a Northern Territory government Inquiry headed by two eminent Australians, Rex Wild and Pat Anderson. This is the latest in a series of reports documenting horrific and sickening violence and abuse in Australian indigenous communities. 
Responding to the present crisis, Mr Howard announced that his government would introduce a raft of strong measures aimed at addressing violence and abuse in NT indigenous communities.
“The duty of care to the young of this country is paramount,” he said, “and nobody who has any acquaintance with that report could be other than appalled by … the cumulative neglect of many over a long period of time and frustrated in the extreme of the inability of governments to come to terms with an effective response to deal with this problem … Without urgent action to restore social order, the nightmare will go on – more grog, more violence, more pornography and more sexual abuse – as the generation we are supposed to save sinks further into the abyss.”
Strong words indeed. And strong legislative measures were to follow. Opponents have accused Howard of racism, paternalism and political opportunism. On the charge of racism, the government’s heavy-handed approach to welfare reforms, scrapping of the permit system, and compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal lands do suggest a racially (or ethnically) directed reform program. Introducing similar measures to suburban Australia is unimaginable. But one could argue that to do nothing also smacks of racism.
On the matter of paternalism, the ideological tide appears to have turned in favour of drastic and draconian policy solutions, and an embrace of blatantly utilitarian ethics. As Noel Pearson movingly said on ABC radio in June, "Ask the terrified kid huddling in the corner, when there's a binge-drinking party going on down the hall, ask them if they want a bit of paternalism." And as the Australian editorialised at the time, “Those who oppose the supposedly paternalistic intervention of outsiders are condemning many Aboriginal children to a living hell.”
More recently, Mal Brough has worn the paternalism label, and the charge of utilitarianism, as a badge of honour. Asked in a Lateline interview if his government was instituting “a new paternalism,” Brough claimed it was outcomes that mattered, and he had no qualms about being labelled paternalistic. This suggests that paternalistic indigenous policies seeking to deliver “positive” outcomes in remote communities are likely to receive widespread support among white Australian voters. There are parallels with last year’s stem cell debate, where “therapeutic” outcomes were all that mattered. The expert knows best. The end justifies the means. End of debate.
As for political opportunism, that is the nature of professional politics. Mr Howard has made an art of it during his eleven years as Prime Minister, although as Hugh Mackay pointed out this week, a case can be made that he is resorting to increasingly desperate measures in a bid to keep ahead of his political rivals.
We are now at the pointy end of the government’s emergency response. Earlier this week the House of Representatives passed five bills which the Senate will rubber-stamp. These included measures for alcohol restriction; computer auditing to detect prohibited pornographic material; better management of community stores to deliver healthier and more affordable food; five-year leases on some communities to enable better management of investments and improved living conditions; land tenure changes for town camps; and removal of customary law as a relevant mitigating factor for bail and sentencing conditions.
Passage through Parliament of such wide-ranging legislation is a significant achievement. No wonder Mal Brough said last week that it was the most important moment of his political life. All he needs to do now is put it all in place, and come away with positive outcomes.
What have the churches been saying about the “national emergency”? There has been cautious support but also strong criticism from leaders of the mainstream churches (e.g. here and here and here).
A large group of Australians, among them various Christian leaders, including myself, signed an open letter to the Minister for Indigenous Affairs on 26 June, welcoming the government’s commitment to tackling violence and abuse in indigenous communities, but indicating areas of grave concern with the substance and process of the planned reforms. The letter emphasised the need for sustainable solutions and long-term planning, the importance of developing programs that will strengthen families and communities and empower them to confront problems (rather than an over-reliance on top-down and punitive measures), and the need for adequate consultation with indigenous communities and the NT government.
The NSW Council of Churches (here I need to disclose that I serve as the Council’s Public Affairs Director) issued a statement on 28 June welcoming the federal initiatives in the Northern Territory, but noting that the problem was a national one, that non-indigenous people were responsible for some of the violence and abuse documented in the Wild-Anderson Report, and that legislative and punitive measures alone could not be expected to deliver morality in accordance with acceptable community standards. The Council also urged careful consultation with local communities and community leaders.
The Baptist Union of Australia, along with its mission agency Global Interaction, issued a statement lamenting the fact that “well-intentioned and well-funded programs by governments of different persuasions have done little to reverse the difficulties in the past,” cautioning that “by their nature, government programs tend to be strongly bureaucratic and to provide formulated, one-size-fits-all services,” and claiming “there is little evidence that child sexual abuse is worse in Indigenous communities than in other Australian communities.”
Most recently, the Social Issues Executive of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney released a fine discussion paper outlining the main criticisms and arguments in support of the federal intervention, noting four process issues of concern (geographic specificity, means versus ends, use of state force, and lack of consultation), and offering a series of questions to be asked of the government and, importantly, its opponents. The paper concludes: “Perhaps we should imagine the recent Federal Government intervention as a form of ‘emergency field surgery’—a rapid response, with limited instruments, to save a patient. But it is a blunt instrument, and the ultimate solution will be complex and multi-faceted.”
Clearly the Howard government has a long way to go in progressing this initiative. I suspect a federal Labor government would have done much the same in similar circumstances. There is a great deal more of value still to be said on the new legislation, its implementation in the diverse communities affected, and the responses by those communities.
Careful attention also needs to be paid to the degree to which these policies actually resolve problems of child abuse and neglect; the ways in which alcohol and drug abuse, petrol sniffing and access to pornography increase the risk of abuse and neglect; and the extent to which the problems extend beyond remote indigenous communities into thousands of supposedly “safer” Australian suburbs, homes and families.
The churches and relevant parachurch agencies need to contribute more to the debate, and – where possible – to the solutions. And the people directly affected, all of them Australian citizens with their own hopes and fears and aspirations and perspectives, need our ongoing prayers and our genuine care. They too are our neighbours.
Rev Rod Benson is founding Director of the Centre for Christian Ethics at Morling College, Sydney, Australia.
1. For example, Boni Robertson, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Task Force on Violence Report, May 2000 [1.4Mb]; Sue Gordon, Putting the Picture Together, Western Australian Government, 2002 [4Mb]; and Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2005, released 12 July 2005 by the Productivity Commission [full report 2.1Mb].
Soundings is a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics, edited by Rod Benson. Soundings welcomes submissions of up to 1200 words that contribute to analysis and debate on issues of religion, ethics and public policy in Australia and internationally. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Soundings, and the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College, Sydney Australia. Views expressed in Soundings articles are not necessarily those of the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College or the Baptist Churches of NSW & ACT.