In June 2007, the Australian government announced a plan to deal with problems in Aboriginal communities - after doing nothing for the last eleven years. Reports of child sexual abuse were used to take over about 60 Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory and to scrap the current permit system for visitors. The government used the army to 'secure the communities' and sent in doctors which were initially supposed to do mandatory checks on all Aboriginal children, which were soon changed to optional.
Key parts of the intervention is the government giving itself five year leases over Aboriginal community land and the abolishment of the existing permit system.
It is interesting that the government has not explained how the abolition of the permit system is supposed to reduce child abuse. It is likely to increase it since Aboriginal elders will have no power any more to keep non-indigenous paedophiles out of the communities, as anyone can go onto Aboriginal land.
The whole thing smacks of election ploy (there will be a federal election later this year) and over reaction. We believe that the only real solution to the many problems in Aboriginal communities has to come from the Aboriginal people themselves and all that can be done is to support the many grass roots efforts and to empower Aboriginal people to move away from their victim hood and welfare dependency.
We suspect a rather sinister hidden agenda behind this government takeover of Aboriginal communities: Let us remember that first this government abandoned ATSIC, the democratically elected Aboriginal representative body, robbing Australian Aboriginal people of a unified voice. Next they changed the law to allow for 99-year leases on Aboriginal land, which allows mining companies and tourist resorts and anyone else to make contracts with Traditional Owners over parts of Aboriginal land. But the problem those people, companies and cooperations would face is for example to get their tourists to the nice new beach resort in Yirrkala or Maningrida through the rest of Arnhem Land. So this removal of the permit system will do nicely to really give white entrepreneurs free reign to do what they like once they can con Traditional Elders to sign some land over to them for the next 99 years.
We are fairly certain that the issue of Aboriginal child sexual abuse is only a fitting smokescreen for this government to undo most of the Aboriginal Land Rights achieved since Eddie Mabo's historic victory.
And here you can read in-depth analysis of some of the intervention issues:
Child Sexual Abuse
The Northern Territory government established a board of inquiry into the protection of Aboriginal children from sexual abuse on the 8th of August 2006. The inquiry was asked to look into how and why Aboriginal children were abused, identify problems with government responses and look into how government agencies can better cooperate and support Aboriginal communities to prevent child sexual abuse. Over nearly one year the inquiry held over 250 meetings in 45 different Aboriginal communities and received 65 written submissions.
The inquiry was co-chaired by Lawyer Rex Wilde QC and Aboriginal leader Pat Anderson, who wrote a report titled 'Little Children Are Sacred', in which they detailed child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities. That report was released on 15th June 2007 and made 97 recommendations on how to address this serious problem, which has been ignored by too many Australian governments for too long.
The inquiry identified poverty, unemployment, lack of education, boredom and overcrowded and inadequate housing as the basic underlying problems in Aboriginal communities. Those basic problems lead to excessive use of alcohol, drugs and petrol sniffing, which in turn lead to excessive violence and in the worst cases to sexual abuse of children.
The report identified two main ways to reverse the situation: education and conquering alcoholism. Unless those two are successfully dealt with there is no point in addressing any of the other recommendations of the inquiry.
The Australian media has beat up stories of traditional marriages and suggested that child sexual abuse happens as part of them. This requires a clarification of what traditional Aboriginal marriages are:
In Aboriginal society traditionally marriage contracts were made between different families, neither the girl nor the man involved had any say in the matter. Typically very young girls were married to older men. A man usually had to be about thirty years of age before he could be married, while girls were married well before sexual maturity, sometimes even soon after birth. This system developed to ensure protection of girls and women (by experienced men) and to ensure healthy offspring and genetic integrity by allowing marriage only between the 'right skins'. The girl was encouraged to spend time with her husband, but only once she reached puberty did she have to go and live with him. The man was forbidden to have any sexual contact with the girl until she was a woman. Before white settlement women in Aboriginal society were considered sacred and extra-marital rape was very rare as in traditional Aboriginal society rape was a crime worse than murder and punishable by death.
The Aboriginal marriage custom was pretty much in line with western laws until 1883, when the age of consent was increased from 12 years to 16. Since then however there is potential conflict as Aboriginal custom would allow sexual contact before the age of 16 (only if the two parties are married and the girl has reached puberty).
Consent to sex inside of a marriage was not an issue in Aboriginal society and in western society rape inside of marriage became an offence only in the mid 1980's and in the NT only in 1994.
So while there is some potential for what we today consider to be child sexual abuse to happen in traditional Aboriginal marriages, the real problem lies elsewhere and almost all of the reported sexual abuse of children happens outside of traditional marriage.
How did they come about when before white settlement such abuse rarely happened?
The inquiry has reported on incidences that might explain how tolerance for such abuse has increased in Aboriginal society and not surprisingly (at least to us) it has to do with the behaviour of non-Aboriginal people in Aboriginal communities.
In at least three communities non-Aboriginal people got away with child sexual abuse for years because they lived in 'tow worlds'. Typically the families of the girls received direct or indirect financial benefits and consequently turned a blind eye and discouraged others in the community to speak up. Such experiences usually leads to a wider prevalence of child sexual abuse eg Aboriginal males who previously would have never even dreamt of doing anything like this now have a much lower threshold which typically is lowered further by excessive alcohol consumption. Many Aboriginal child sexual offenders also report having been victims themselves.
There is even evidence for organised paedophilia. In one community young girls are made available to non-Aboriginal workers at a nearby mine, in other communities taxi drivers either take advantage of under age girls themselves or drive them to their clients, in yet another a non-Aboriginal person took Aboriginal girls to town and trade sex with those girls for drugs. He would give the girls some of the drugs and buy Aboriginal paintings with the rest, selling those paintings to fund overseas travel and plastic surgery.
Another contributing factor is that while Aboriginal elders are trying to teach their teenagers respect for Aboriginal culture, those same teenagers are exposed to western society and education which encourages 'free' sex, leading to Aboriginal teenagers seeking extra-marital sex as young as ten or twelve years. Some girls would try to get pregnant at that age to then have some 'protection' from boys, other teenage girls would coax each other to have sex with multiple partners. The wide availability of pornography, adult movies, drugs, petrol sniffing and alcohol exasperate the situation. An already severely weakened traditional culture is unable to stem the flow, Aboriginal elders are at the end of their wits and the inappropriate behaviour of teenagers further weakens traditional culture. It also leads to very high rates of STD's and AIDS.
Again the inquiry found that education is the most effective and important tool available to turn these developments around.
What is most sobering is to read that these are not new revelations, but that for example Davis & Leitenberg reported similar incidences back in 1987.
These are but a few glimpses of an excellent but very sobering report, a report that elicited a surprisingly immediate and massive response by the Australian federal government, which only five days later announced a massive intervention plan including the federal government taking control of NT Aboriginal communities for at least five years, the Australian army being sent into Aboriginal communities, medical checks on all Aboriginal children being promised and the scrapping of the permit system.
In Summary my understanding of child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities after reading only some of the over three hundred pages is as follows:
Child sexual abuse and for that fact any rape in traditional Aboriginal society is a crime considered worse than murder and punishable by death. However since white settlement many Aboriginal communities have experienced child sexual abuses perpetrated by non-Aboriginal people (often in positions of power) living in or near Aboriginal communities. This has been going on for decades and authorities have failed to act on it, making it an accepted thing. This experience combined with heavy alcohol use has lead to some Aboriginal people going against their tribal law and tradition when engaging in child sexual abuse.
I totally agree with the authors of the report that significant reduction of alcohol abuse is most important as those same Aboriginal perpetrators would be very unlikely to engage in such activities were they sober. The alcohol removes their cultural inhibitions. Secondly and just as importantly education can help to turn the present silent acceptance of such incidences around and reinforce traditional values.
However the Australian government seems to be less concerned with these two solutions and pushes a very different agenda. Read next month on how this massive intervention is unfolding, it's pros and cons as well as the Northern Territory governments response to both the federal intervention as well as the inquiries report.
Please read the summary of the original report.
The full 'Little Children Are Sacred' report is at times chilling but also very interesting reading and is available here.
Yunupingu signs 99-Year Lease
In a highly controversial and surprising move, former Australian of the year Galarrwuy Yunupingu has this week signed a MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) to negotiate a 99-year lease with the Australian federal government. The agreement will give control over traditional Gumatj land to the federal government for the next 99 years.
To us this smells of very clever politics on behalf of the federal government, but we very much doubt that it is good policy. It is certainly a major coup for the federal government to get such a vocal critic and high profile Aboriginal leader to support their policy.
The agreement comes after a secret meeting held last month between federal indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough, Queensland Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson and Galarrwuy Yunupingu. That meeting was held one week after this years Garma festival in August on the very same ground.
At the festival Galarrwuy resigned as the chairman of the Northern Land Council and gave a scathing attack on the federal government and it's Aboriginal intervention policy, saying that he is "sick and tired of governments using indigenous Australia as a political football" and "Aborigines should be left to shape their own policies and future" and that the federal governments intervention is "is worrying, sickening and rotten".
It seems that Galarrwuy had a major change of mind and the question on everyone's mind is why?
After the signing Galarrwuy suggested that the government create a senior elders group to advise the government on the management of the land.
While the details of the agreement are not available and indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough has publicly stated that "money was not the motivating factor behind Mr Yunupingu's decision" we understand that Yunupingu's community will receive several million dollars to allow individuals to buy their own homes under the agreement.
It also remains to be seen how the other NT Aboriginal leaders view Yunupingu's secret meeting so soon after Mal Brough disappointed many respected Aboriginal leaders at the festival by pulling out at the last minute and consequently denying them the opportunity to speak to him.
While Northern Territory Attorney-General Syd Stirling publicly suggested that Yunupingu had the full agreement of his community, there is some gossip that that is simply not true and at least some people are quite opposed to giving the government control.
While many people wonder whether Yunupingu has sold out, we would reserve judgement. We believe that Galarrwuy would have done the best he could for his people. We assume that Mal Brough would have confronted him with the certainty that his land would be taken over by the federal government anyway as part of the federal government intervention - at least for five years and that this could be easily extended. Mel Brough (or more likely his department staff) would have offered Galarrwuy several sweeteners for signing the agreement.
Being faced with loosing his land anyway or signing a 99-year lease, Galarrwuy probably negotiated for as much compensation as he could and reluctantly signed. This is just our assumption and only the full text of the agreement and the eventual lease will tell. We just hope the Gumatj will get a much better deal than the Tiwi Islanders, who signed the first such deal, apparently in exchange for basic infrastructure that non-Aboriginal Australian communities get for free.
While believing that Galarrwuy did the best he could, we are seriously concerned that this deal could be the beginning of the end of Aboriginal communities and culture as we know them and as they have existed for tens of thousands of years.
This deal is likely to force Aboriginal people to embrace western notions of individual land and house ownership. The resulting fragmentation of Aboriginal society has the potential to destroy whatever is left of Aboriginal cultural community. Most western people would have no idea of the severity and far-reaching nature of this impact. Their society, to whom land is sacred and to be cared for and to whom the notion of owning land is totally foreign and disrespectful to that land, is likely to be threatened in its very roots by individual ownership of land and houses. There are already frequent family feuds in Aboriginal communities and individual house and land ownership is only going to make them worse and more frequent
Another possible effect might be an Aboriginal sub-prime mortgage market :'( with banks auctioning house blocks in Aboriginal communities and non-Aboriginal people moving in...
There are many other issues to talk about regarding the government intervention and 99-leases and I will certainly address some more of them next month.
In our August newsletter we described the main reason the government gave for it's intervention into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.
This month we will explore the wider health issues.
As a key part of the intervention the federal government wanted to give all Aboriginal children in the NT (Northern Territory) a medical check-up, which was mainly intended to find evidence of sexual abuse. Four month after the start of the intervention less than 20% of NT Aboriginal children have been checked and preliminary results are not what the government wanted to hear.
While there were a few underage children who do have sexually transmitted diseases (but there seems to be no clear evidence of the sexual abuse the government was looking for), the really shocking news is the very high prevalence of treatable eye, ear teeth and other health problems in both children as well as the wider Aboriginal population:
- Aboriginal people are ten times more likely to go blind from eye cataracts than the general population, mainly because the usual system of putting people on long waiting lists for treatment does not work for Aboriginal people (they forget appointments month or years in the future).
While the government does little to help the over 300 people waiting for eye surgery in central Australia, the privately funded Fred Hollows Foundation is actually going out and treating Aboriginal people for preventable eye diseases, proving that it can be done if the will is there.
- The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) says that 90 per cent of Aboriginal children in the NT have severe ear infections and 25% have holes in their ear drums. The problem is caused by a lack of services and the two ear, nose and throat specialists in the NT have no chance of dealing with the problem. A relatively modest ten million dollars a year would make huge difference.
- The prevalence of dental disease among Indigenous children is estimated to be about 60-70%
- After coming under increasing pressure the federal government agreed to provide about 50 million dollars over two years for follow-up treatments. The big questions are: what comes after that? why not make it a permanent yearly additional budget, which is what is really needed. And Crikey claims that even this funding promise seems to have been reversed.
- An independent study has found that Aboriginal people are 26 times more likely to suffer from dementia even as young as 45.
While the short term attention given to the health of Aboriginal children is welcome, there is a lot of concern about the government's approach and about long-term prospects:
- Dr Mark Wenitong from the Cape York Health Council points out that the federal government intervention is largely ignoring men's health. Federal Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma says that the intervention has undermined the authority of Aboriginal men and does nothing to empower them. "Where there is dis-empowerment, where there is confusion in a person's life, where people are being disenfranchised from their culture, from their language, from their authority and communities, that all leads to poor health," he said.
- Calls by the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association for the government to outline a long-term plan for health has been ignored by the government. AIDA's president Tamara Mackean also demands better consultation with and involvement of Aboriginal people and points out correctly: "If a person doesn't have control over their life, then that is a negative impact on their health and well-being".
- The Australian Medical Association has criticised the federal government for limiting it's health checks to the NT and is asking for an extra $460 million a year to be spent on Indigenous health.
- Delaney Thiele from the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) agrees and says: "We've got 141 Aboriginal community-controlled health services around the country. So it's about increasing the resources and getting a fair slice of the pie to address Aboriginal health at the coal face, so that communities are also participating in trying to close that gap."
There is also substantial criticism of the way the intervention is handled by the government:
- Doctors who have followed the call to work in the intervention program claim that the compensation they receive from the federal government does not even cover their expenses to keep their own praxis going while they are away.
- The Australian Indigenous Doctors Association points out that local medical clinics do not receive Medicare payments for the initial check-up they are asked to perform and the children cannot be rechecked for 12 months, resulting in a large income loss for local clinics and affecting normal health services.
- Maningrida doctor Paul Burgess told over 200 people meeting to protest the intervention that many of the health checks are being made by doctors which are inexperienced with Aboriginal people, further eroding trust. "The best way to provide health care for children is to adequately resource primary health care teams within communities." Dr Burgess said that even the woman and children who told their story to the 'Little Children are sacred' inquiry are being let down by the intervention.
- An article in the Medical Journal of Australia suggests the introduction of 99-year leases on traditional land in Indigenous communities may reduce Aboriginal people's connection with their land, erode their self-worth and in turn affect their health.
And there are calls for mental health and the huge gap in life expectancy to be addressed:
- A petition with over 80.000 calls for 'closing the gap' between Aboriginal and general life expectancy. The average life expectancy of an Aboriginal person in Australia is 17 years less than the average. In some communities the average male life expectancy is only 33 years! That is a national shame the federal government should not ignore any longer.
- The Australian Psychological Society is calling for more Indigenous people to be trained as psychologists. Indigenous psychologists would be much more successful when dealing with mental health problems of Aboriginal people and in preventing suicides. Society president Angela Gordon says "It's more likely Indigenous people will actually seek help from an Indigenous psychologist because they believe they'll have a chance of understanding them," she said. "There is really a crying need for properly training professional psychologists who can work out in Indigenous communities."
- The Medical Journal of Australia suggests the Federal Government has violated a United Nations (UN) covenant by denying Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders adequate health care
It seems to be a fairly clear that the federal government did not initiate this intervention to improve Aboriginal health or address child sexual abuse as they claim.
If they really wanted to improve Aboriginal health they would have spent the already over one billion dollars the intervention cost so far on existing and struggling health services, which would make a real and measurable difference to Aboriginal people. This invention is actually taking money from those services and giving it to more bureaucrats.
The fact that the government produced a discussion paper on the removal of the permit system already in 2006 and that the intervention policy required an enormous amount of drafting and legal work but was released less than a week after the "Little Children are sacred" report, makes a mockery out of the prime ministers claim that his intervention is a response to the report.
I am more an more convinced that our initial hunch about this intervention is true. The real agenda of this intervention seems to be the undoing of decades of Aboriginal land rights achievements since the historic Mabo case. 99-year leases and the crapping of the permit system will likely take Aboriginal people back to the dark ages of colonialism.
Removing the permit system will only worsen child sexual abuses and open the door to many other problems in Aboriginal communities. We believe that the real reason the government is pushing so hard for the permit removal (see also monthly Aboriginal news below) is that the holders of 99-year leases on Aboriginal land would not want to apply for permits every time they or their customers want to visit their lease. The above details on the health crisis in Aboriginal communities clearly shows that this government does not really care about Aboriginal health and child sexual abuse but simply uses them to achieve it's hidden agenda of reversing land rights.