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A cynical scratch, a pustular response

lan Ramsey
Sydney Morning Herald - June 30, 2007

 

It is six years, four months and 12 days since the Herald ran a story headlined, "Black Australia: a picture of despair, rage and violence". It was written by Debra Jopson and told of the rape of an eight-month-old baby and a three-year-old toddler, two Aboriginal children in remote communities in Northern Australia. The date was Friday, February 16, 2001. It was the year George Bush began his obscene presidency, New York's twin towers came down, the Tampa ignited Australian politics, and John Howard won his third election.

Aboriginal Australians hardly rated.

Jopson's horrific story that late summer day was culled from a 122-page report in which the lead author was Dr Paul Memmott of Queensland University. It included the paragraph: "A typical cluster of [Aboriginal] violence [in remote townships] would be child abuse, alcohol violence, male suicide, pack rape, infant rape, rape of grandmothers, self-mutilation, spouse assault and homicide." It added: "Most domestic violence victims are women, but there is a little-reported phenomenon of rape and sexual abuse of small children". Researchers believed "the severity and extent of this kind of violence may be increasing."

Wrote Jopson: "[Researchers] found reports that groups of boys aged 10 to 15 had raped drunken women and that boys had traded younger sisters to older boys to pay gambling debts and to buy alcohol. Dr Memmott said he was relieved the report has finally been released. Governments needed to acknowledge the situation was worsening with each generation.

"'It's very despairing because it is like sitting on a time bomb', Dr Memmott added."

All John Howard's Government sat on was the report.

It was given the report in August 1999 but waited 18 months, until well after the Sydney Olympics. Then Amanda Vanstone, as Howard's minister for justice at the time, released it on January 30, 2001. And what did our Prime Minister do? Call out the troops? Send in the police?

He did nothing.

Well, almost nothing. Three weeks after the release of the report, Violence in Indigenous Communities, and a week after Jopson's story in the Herald, Howard flew to Darwin for a Country-Liberal Party dinner to mark the 59th anniversary of the first Japanese air raid on mainland Australian mainland in World War II. On February 20, while he was in Darwin, Howard announced $1 million "to address petrol sniffing in the NT". His press release said nothing about Aborigines in any context whatever.

Even the word was excised from all Howard-speak.

So, too, the Memmott report. It was if it had never existed.

I was reminded of that 2001 report and the Howard Government's instant memory loss by Brian Johnstone, a staffer in the Hawke and Keating Labor governments and now a reporter with The National Indigenous Times, a weekly newspaper written, edited and published privately out of Canberra. Three years ago the paper won a Walkley Award for the excellence of its journalism in reporting Aboriginal issues.

In July 2003 Johnstone wrote a long comment piece defending the now-defunct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and its attempts to deal with indigenous family violence issues, including child sexual abuse. His article, revived four years later, rang a number of bells this week about what Howard had been doing to remorselessly cut ATSIC to pieces by incrementally reducing its funding each year - after a massive $460 million cutback in the Government's first 1996 budget - and what it had not been doing on issues like those ultimately disclosed in the 1999 Memmott report.
One of those bells was a seminal speech to the National Press Club on June 11, 2003, by Mick Dodson, then professor at the Australian National University's Institute for Indigenous Australia. ABC television's The 7.30 Report ran a video clip this week from the Dodson speech that must have made even the Prime Minister cringe a little.
However, the entire speech shows just what a travesty Howard now indulges in an election year in his efforts to move the flighty sheep among the voting community back into the Coalition fold. Aboriginal violence and sexual brutality of children has always been there, like some stinking abscess. Only now does Howard discover it as "a national emergency" to bolster his image as a strong leader on a moral crusade.

Even Kevin Rudd has taken fright.

Yet Dodson's speech, more than anything of the myriad government reports, state and federal, over the years, makes the case just how lazy and indifferent the Howard Government has been on the issue of Aboriginal community violence. Here is part of his National Press Club speech four years ago. Make up your own mind.

"Violence is undermining our life's very essence. It is destroying us, and there are very few Aboriginal families that are not struggling with the debilitating effects of trauma, despair and damage resulting from violence. I am talking about violence between Aboriginal people and against Aboriginal people, about domestic violence between partners, sexual violence against men, women and children by individuals and groups, violence by groups against other groups, self-harm and suicide, and all forms of psychological and what I call historical violence.

"I am talking about violence that is now so entrenched in our relationships that the victims become the perpetrators of violent acts which continue to the next generation of children, so that even before those children reach adulthood they in turn become perpetrators of violence against members of their own families.

"I am talking about violence that traumatises entire families and communities, that is sometime referred to as 'dysfunctional community syndrome'. Where people are traumatised even by association and the knowledge of, and the witnessing of, acts of violence. I am talking about alcohol- and drug-induced violence, and the sheer madness of communities supporting clubs and wet canteens where alcohol-related violence and dysfunction dominate the rhythms of life for everyone.

"And I am talking about psychological violence experienced through racism, through misguided public policies, through exclusion and limited opportunities for economic integration and participation in Australian life. We are overburdened by our experiences of all these forms of violence. To read the many reports detailing violence in our communities is to make one weep …

"Some of our perpetrators of abuse and their apologists corrupt family ties and our culture in a blatant and desperate attempt to excuse their behaviour. We must all acknowledge that the level of violence in our communities is totally unacceptable. It is extreme and requires extreme action. Our behaviour of silencing is no longer sustainable and can no longer be excused. Recent research by Paul Memmott and others for the Federal Attorney-General's Department concludes that the rates of violence are increasing and the types of violence are getting worse …

"Child violence includes neglect, incest and assault by adult carers, pedophilia, and rape of infants by youths. Our children are experiencing horrific levels of violence and sexual abuse beyond comprehension. I cannot bring myself to relate the extent and the detail of some of the violent encounters endured by children and babies that I have read in the process of writing this paper.

"Others have also written how this is 'threatening the future of the community as a visible social entity'. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Taskforce report said: 'When a community has to deal with the deaths of 24 young men in one year, most of which were suicides, there can be no stronger cry for help. Indeed, it is a deafening roar that something is wrong. When the same community reports three men raping a three-year-old girl, who was raped by another offender 10 days later, there is a crisis of huge proportions. This same community has a $6 million tavern.'

"How did we get to this point in our history?

"There are various theories about why violence has reached this crisis point. We must find ways of moving beyond the silence. We must find ways of moving beyond the shame and the numbed acceptance. Many of us are trying, but many are not trying hard enough. Here, in this forum, I propose that the Aboriginal leadership, men and women, call on the Australian Government to work with us, to acknowledge the centrality of violence-induced trauma and its debilitating effects and to combat family violence as a national priority.

"This is not just our problem, it is everyone's problem.

"It is not only the indigenous leadership that should be tackling these issues, it also requires strong political leadership from the Prime Minister and from the state and territory premiers and chief ministers. Addressing the violence in Aboriginal communities is central to the success of all Aboriginal programs …

"Violence is devastating our communities and destroying our futures. I call on all of us to take responsibility and to work together to combat the violence, and because too many of us for too long are either unwilling or incapable of taking responsibility …"

That was four years ago. A few weeks later, in July 2003, Howard had a meeting with Aboriginal leaders at the Lodge in Canberra. There were some fine words, as always, and then nothing. Now, four years later, Howard suddenly discovers a "national emergency" in "saving" Aboriginal children.

Excuse me while I vomit.

The true story of inaction is on the record

Federal Parliament is in recess. The politicians won't be back for six weeks. They fled Canberra's winter a week ago. Two days before they left, Queensland's Andrew Bartlett, a 10-year Democrat senator, made a late-night speech on the adjournment. He started speaking at 11.28pm. He sat down at 10 minutes to midnight. What Bartlett did was anticipate John Howard's latest orchestrated pulling of the wool by a full 36 hours.
Bartlett began by saying he wanted to talk about "a few different reports" released over the previous week "that affect indigenous Australians", pointing first to the Northern Territory Labor Government's 316-page Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle (Little Children Are Sacred) report on Aboriginal child abuse, which was made public by its two academic authors in Darwin on June 15, even though it went to Clare Martin's Territory administration on April 30.

Bartlett continued, in part: "One of the aspects I find frustrating about the [media] response is that, as the report itself makes clear, there is not a lot in it that is actually new. I have noted comments from [co-author] Dr Judy Atkinson about a report she wrote in 1989 for the national inquiry on violence, a report she wrote in 1991 for [the Department of] Prime Minister and Cabinet, and a report she and others did on violence, including sexual violence, in communities in Queensland.

"The situation [the latest report] details is extraordinary, but it is not extraordinary in the sense there is anything particularly new. The big issue here is, why is this still happening? Why has the situation not changed? Why are we having another report with another round of shock-horror headlines, as though this is some brand new discovery? Why are we continuing to fail? Why is it that indigenous communities in the Territory and many other parts of the country are continuing to fail?

"As the report also makes clear, we should not kid ourselves that sexual abuse and sexual assault of children, and child abuse in general, are confined to indigenous communities or to remote areas. It is clear this is particularly rife in a number of indigenous communities, along with a lot of other chronic social issues that need addressing. But I think it important we do not kid ourselves this is all an indigenous problem.

"As I have said a number of times in this place, and as the Senate itself has acknowledged through motions passed unanimously, there is a serious problem with child abuse in general in Australia - a crisis - and within that [crisis] there is a serious problem of sexual assault …

"The report emphasises there are no simple fixes, and it estimates it will take at least 15 years to make significant inroads into the crisis. [But] even though it says it will take 15 years, I would remind you that more than 15 years ago we had reports saying not very much different from what is in this report. So these issues are not new, and acting as though this is some sudden, great exposé does not help …"

Oh yes it does. Certainly our Prime Minister hopes so.

Thirty-six hours after Bartlett's speech, Howard's office announced to the Canberra press gallery, at 12.54pm on the last day of Parliament before going into recess until August 7, a joint press conference with Brisbane's Malcolm Brough, his Indigenous Affairs Minister, at 1.15pm - or 45 minutes before the House resumed for the last parliamentary question time for six weeks. That was the press conference where Howard announced what is effectively martial law in those Aboriginal townships across the Northern Territory where his Government this week began sending in police and troops to "deal with what we can only describe as a national emergency in relation to the abuse of indigenous children".

Howard's national emergency is a political one.

He has an election to win. The genuine national emergency he is hiding behind is the one his Government has ignored effortlessly for 11 years. Just read the public record.

Article: A cynical scratch, a pustular response, lan Ramsey, Sydney Morning Herald - June 30, 2007