Tuesday, 26 June 2007


A recently-released report has shown that child sexual abuse is rife amongst certain indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. Alcoholism and petrol sniffing are also widespread. These are remote communities, living in extreme poverty, with appalling housing conditions, few jobs, poor schooling. Australians should be ashamed that fellow Australians live in such conditions.

John Howard has declared this a crisis akin to a national emergency and has declared that he will take over the constitutional powers of the Territory Government in order to solve the problem. This was announced with much bluster and without consultation with the Territory Government. Needless to say, there was no consultation with the communities, themselves, nor with the elders who run those communities.

John Howard has no respect for the Indigenous community. The problem certainly is a serious one and it demands decisive action, but it smacks of paternalism, at best, and racism, at worst, to intervene in a manner which has total disregard for the Indigenous leaders who form the councils responsible for leading such communities. Surely, any genuine Government, would work with the communities in solving this problem, rather than simply taking over and imposing their will upon them?

Incidentally, the Howard Government declared the living conditions of Indigenous communities in the Territory a 'scandal and crisis' over ten years ago. In that time, he has abolished ATSIC, making Australia the only developed country without a democratically-elected body for its Indigenous population. He has pulled funding from programs introduced by Labor to tackle social issues. He has sacked locally-elected Councillors. He has closed programs designed to tackle child sexual abuse. So why his urgency now? Anything to do with heading towards an election this year?

And what is the proposed solution? Well, first of all, it's an increase in the police presence. Once again, as is too often the case in this country, problems experienced in poor Indigenous communities are perceived in strictly criminal terms and the solution is seen as the provision of more police. And how is this going to work? We're talking about sixty communities in remote areas, some of them hundreds and hundreds of miles apart. Howard's sixty extra police (borrowed temporarily from the States)will have a big task ahead of them policing these communities. Incredibly, the police will be accompanied by soldiers from the army and the Minister is describing the first six months as an attempt to 'secure the ground', making it sound like a war; which perhaps it is?

Then there is the banning of alcohol and pornography. Prohibition. Yeah, history shows us that works. How are you going to guarantee such a ban? We all know that prohibition leads to a black market in the things being prohibited. The Northern Territory is a vast area; it doesn't take a genius to imagine how some enterprising people will come up with a way of smuggling alcohol into these communities, selling it at ridiculously-inflated prices. And, in any case, you can't solve alcoholism by simply removing alcohol. Alcoholics needs counselling and support, not simply denial of their addiction. If an alcoholic capable of domestic violence is deprived of alcohol, what behaviours are they likely to exhibit? And how do you prevent pornography? John Howard's solution: Government inspectors who will regularly inspect computers to make sure no-one is accessing pornography on the Internet.

Perhaps the most disturbing of all of the proposals is the plan to make it compulsory for children under the age of sixteen to be inspected medically for signs of sex abuse. Can you imagine the outrage if John Howard proposed that all white, middle class children be inspected medically in such a way? Isn't forced physical inspection of young children a form of abuse in itself, no matter what the motive? Can you imagine the distress and upset, with soldiers and police taking over a town, with a few doctors in tow, forcing young children to have gynaecological examinations? It's too terrible to imagine.

In fact it is so terrible to imagine, that the town which has been cited as the first to have a visit from the army and police, is reported to be in a state of extreme anxiety and fear. So much so, that a number of families have fled into the desert. There are fears for their safety. Why so scared? Well, the last time police and welfare workers came into Indigenous communities in such a planned, programmed manner, they were stealing children from their parents. Vans arrived, children were herded into them and then driven away. For many, this was the last time they ever saw their families again. If you want just a hint of what happened back then, watch the film "Rabbit Proof Fence." So, thank you, John Howard, you've revived the fears and despair generated by the Stolen Generation. We've not learned a bloody thing in all these years!

So, to sum of John Howard's plan: we keep Indigenous people in remote communities with little access to services. We don't improve their living conditions one iota. We don't provide them with counselling or rehabilitation services. We send a bunch of police and soldiers out to watch over them. We send inspectors out to check their computers. We force young children to be physically inspected in an invasive, scarily-intimate way. We ban alcohol and pornography. We don't consult with the local communities, we don't involve Indigenous leaders. We rustle up a few extra police on a temporary basis who will 'occupy' the lands and then leave after a few months. Mission accomplished? We've heard that before.

This is policy-making on the run. It's John Howard exploiting a serious issue for political gain. It's coming up with a bunch of poorly-thought out, inappropriate policies in order for him to look tough. And it's based upon a complete misreading of them problems.

Alcoholism and pornography may be contributing factors to the issue of sexual abuse, but sexual abuse is more complex than that. You take away alcohol and pornography and you stop child sexual abuse? I think not. Child sexual abuse occurs for a variety of reasons. There are paedophiles within our communities who aren't alcoholics. There are alcoholics who aren't paedophiles. And, as far as I know, there is no proven causal link between pornography and paedophilia. And how do you distinguish between pornography, burlesque, erotica? You think everyone who subscribes to Suicide Girls is a paedophile? And Canberra banning pornography? Ironic considering Canberra is the only place in Australia where it is still legal to purchase X-rated pornography (coincidentally, the politicians exempted the ACT when it introduced a ban on X-rated pornography everywhere else.)

You can't take a complex issue like this and solve it with simple, black and white measures. Complex problems require complex, subtle solutions. Policing and prohibition. What about treatment, counselling, rehabilitation, support? What about examining the causes of abuse and finding ways of removing the things which contribute to the problems? What about consultation, research, democratic involvement?

Child sexual abuse is not endemic to Indigenous communities. It happens to be a serious issue in those specific communities, but it occurs within white communities to an alarming degree as well. Would we ever suggest such draconian measures in those societies? And what about the paedophilia which has been discovered in our churches? Would we ever suggest the banning of alcohol among priests? The inspection of church computers? The forced examination of under-age parishioners? I think not.

Not surprisingly, if you look at the research and statistics, child sexual abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence is concentrated in areas of severe social disadvantage, regardless of the issue of race. Of course it occurs in middle class communities as well, but the evidence suggests that, where it occurs in a widespread manner, it is related to poverty; poor education, poor nutrition, poor access to services; unemployment and disempowerment. If Howard truly cared, he would be tackling the severe social disadvantage experienced by these communities, not simply offering increased policing and invasive, intrusive inspections of children's' vaginas.

Child sexual abuse is caused by many things, but one thing it is always about is power. Adults exerting their power over young and vulnerable children in a criminal way. Treating the problem by exerting white power over the Indigenous community; by removing any vestiges of self-determination and self-respect; by not even talking to these communities or asking for their views; by removing privacy, dignity and choice – these measures are a form of abuse in themselves and simply contribute to the feelings in these communities that Aboriginal people are not respected or valued in our broader community. They are an expression of privileged power over centuries of dispossession, disenchantment and the undignified destruction of cultural inheritance.

John Howard is a man from yesterday. These policies come right out of White Australia; the kind of policies which led to the Stolen Generation. It's a replication of failure and a continuation of an arrogant disregard for Indigenous people and their culture. Let's find a way of removing abuse from these communities as quickly and effectively as we can, but not in this way. I'm a Buddhist and am not supposed to hate but I hate john Howard and everything he stands for and I yearn passionately for the day he is thrown out of office. His cold, calculating, heartless way if running this country is damaging so many lives.

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