Koori History Newspaper Archive

Aborigines need action not ideology

Age - 7th March 2009
Author: RUSSELL SKELTON - Russell Skelton is a contributing editor.

Memo Mr Rudd: This is a policy area that's working, so don't try to 'fix' it.

IN A week when the Federal Government could take barely a trick on the economy, it seemed like a small act of lunacy to open up a new battle on the social policy front. But the Rudd Government bungled indigenous policy badly when Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus decided to terminate funding for the Australian Crime Commission taskforce on indigenous child abuse and violent crime.

After unrelentingly negative publicity and criticism from pro-interventionist indigenous leaders including Professor Marcia Langton, the decision was quickly overturned. The taskforce, set up a year before John Howard started the Northern Territory intervention, has played a key role in identifying and targeting not only child abuse, but domestic violence and the trafficking of drugs, alcohol and pornography into communities.

The backflip has not only proved to be a distracting and embarrassing diversion, but has left the Government exposed to the criticism that they are playing both sides of the indigenous policy divide over implementation of the contentious emergency intervention.

According to Langton, who holds the chair of indigenous studies at Melbourne University and is a powerful voice for the intervention, the anti-intervention forces now have the ear of the Government. On the surface at least, there appears to be some justification for Langton's acerbic claim.

Even worse, there have been other Government lapses that suggest an acute lack of focus. The decision to allow outspoken interventionist sceptics Pat Turner and Professor Larissa Behrendt to oversee National Indigenous Television (NITV) without any charter of accountability and balance also sends the wrong message.

And Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin's decision to partially reimpose the permit system (a move thrown out by the Senate) seemed designed to appease recalcitrant land councils.

Then there was the decision to anoint Professor Mick Dodson Australian of the Year. While Dodson has a distinguished record of public service, he is also a prominent advocate of the anti-interventionist camp.

His critics claim he speaks out about the need for rights - mining, human and land rights - but unlike Langton, Noel Pearson and Warren Mundine, he stands at the back of the debate when it comes to troubling issues of child abuse and domestic violence.

Dodson's honour, bestowed by an independent committee, bewildered and infuriated many on the pro-interventionist side.

Indeed Langton's recent searing essay on "Big bunga politics" (published in the Griffith Review) argued that powerful Aboriginal men, obsessed by personal aggrandisement, get to decide what is best for Aboriginal women and children and appeared to be indirectly aimed at Mick and his brother Pat Dodson, among others.

The essay was a critique of Aboriginal male authority preoccupied with rights while ignoring the Aboriginal "reality show".

Leaving aside the internecine world of indigenous politics, the bitter row over taskforce funding tarnished what had been a solid Government record.

What was Debus thinking? An important aspect of the taskforce operation is that, unlike the NT intervention, it has had a national focus monitoring indigenous teenage prostitution among truckies in the remote towns of western NSW and tracking the movement of pornography from southern states into northern communities.

What is more, the taskforce's powers to require people to testify has provided a valuable shield for those wishing to speak up but fearful of payback.

A significant part of its work has been aimed at changing the culture of health services and government agencies to make them more alert to incidents of child abuse identified by Anderson and Wild in the Little Children are Sacred report.

While there is evidence of serious fumbling, there is little evidence to support the thesis that Rudd and Macklin have been backsliding on the emergency intervention.

The Government has maintained and expanded funding for the vast bulk of the Howard-Brough enterprise - much to the annoyance of the ALP left - and guaranteed it well into the future.

Macklin has set up safe houses, funded domestic violence programs and on the most fundamental issue of the intervention - income quarantining - held firm despite the recommendations of her review team. She has also reformed community development employment programs, poured millions of dollars into housing, stuck to the principle of lease-back initiated by her coalition predecessor and increased the police presence in communities.

It's hardly a record of appeasement or spin. And it was Macklin after all who, with Rudd's help, had the Debus decision overturned.

It has never been the Government's approach to cherry pick between the ideology of one camp or the other, but to implement outcomes-based policies intended to end the culture of violence.

As Sue Gordon, the distinguished former magistrate who headed the intervention and wrote a landmark report on child abuse, said this week, making communities safe will take years of confidence building within a consistent policy framework.

So far the framework remains firmly in place despite some inexcusable fumbling.