Why we desperately need new

Aboriginal Policies

We must confront the domestic violence and child abuse crises. Here’s how. By Peter Howson

The Age, 10 May, 2002

Prime Minister Howard signalled an important change in the Government’s approach to Aboriginal policy when he said recently that part of the problem is that many Aborigines are physically separated from the rest of society. This reinforced the remarks by Minister Ruddock at ATSIC’s National Policy conference in March that "I am not about separateness, I am about inclusiveness", and his clear rejection of any idea of a separate Aboriginal nation ("Beyond practical reconciliation…", on this page on April 16).

These statements have not come out of the blue. As the Prime Minister hinted, they are a reflection of a growing awareness in the community generally of the seriousness of the problems within some Aboriginal communities and a moderation of earlier attitudes of some Aboriginal spokespeople. This week’s speech by Aboriginal Noel Pearson ("Labor and the left seem to have abandoned Aboriginal people," in this paper on Tuesday) illustrates the new thinking among Aborigines and the emphasis on current problems rather than issues of the past.

These contributions make it clear that the time has come for the government to adopt new policies to tackle these problems. Such action will help Aborigines themselves and will also be widely welcomed in the broader community.

It is obvious the most immediate problems are those of child abuse and domestic violence. So far, no government, let alone ATSIC, has plucked up the courage to directly address these crises. Yet, after the alarming suggestion by Northern Territory Minister Ah Kit that there is almost no functioning Aboriginal community in the Territory (in dangerous territory on this page on March 11), Lorian Hayes of the Cherbourg community said of domestic violence (Chanel 9, April 28) "it’s everywhere … it touches every Aborigine family in Australia".

The 2000-01 report on child protection vividly illustrates the problems that have arisen from the past policies of promoting separate communities. With limited prospects of economic advancement and in comparative social isolation, it is not surprising that many residents have vented on others their anger and frustration with life.

The report shows a rate of care and protection orders for indigenous children more than six times higher than for non-indigenous children - and warns this may understate the extent. These removals from parents reflect an incapacity to manage children, undoubtedly partly reflecting the domestic violence to which Aboriginal women are 45 times more likely to be subjected than non-indigenous women. Minister Ruddock suggested shifting the emphasis of policy towards individuals and families — but the question is how specifically should such problems be addressed?

This what-specifically-is-to-be-done question applies to other points rightly made by the minister - the need to improve literacy and numeracy skills of primary school students, to give equal emphasis to individual responsibilities as well as rights in the context of welfare assistance, and to make substance abuse, particularly alcohol and tobacco, a central focus of improving indigenous health.

His proposal to ensure that general programs and services cater for indigenous people surely requires strong action to reform delivery organizations and to eliminate the embedded associated corruption that was a major complaint at the ATSIC conference.

What are some of the other possible actions that might be taken?

1. The allocation of more resources to maintaining law and order in Aboriginal communities and a joint policy statement by all governments that they expect

violence against Aboriginal women, and child abuse and neglect, to be dealt with;

2. The provision of special boarding schools for primary school students from very remote areas, focusing particularly on Aboriginal children with poor English literacy and numeracy. This could help improve existing poor school attendance levels and lift the educational capacities of Aboriginal children.

3. The provision of subsidies to those living in remoter communities prepared to take jobs outside those communities, where there are very limited prospects of independent employment. Less than half of the 47,000 Aborigines living in sparsely settled areas are employed, and most of those are participants in the Commonwealth’s Community Development Employment Projects scheme.

4. A similar subsidy approach might be adopted to the provision of housing outside remoter communities. Over-crowded housing increases the potential for domestic violence.

5. Amendment of the Northern Territory Land Rights Act to allow some communal land to be made available for individual leasehold and to reduce the powers of the two large existing Land Councils. The communal land system is part of traditional Aboriginal society - but it makes the development of private enterprises, and hence employment, much more difficult.

Implementation of changes such as these particularly requires the involvement of state governments. Howard and Ruddock should bring all levels of government together to ensure a more inclusive policy regime in the interests of Aborigines themselves.

Peter Howson was minister for Aboriginal affairs in the McMahon Government.