Little Children are Sacred

Anyone whose seen the movie Rabbit Proof Fence, or read about the Stolen Generation knows that the history of government intervention on the behalf of Aboriginal children has been quite tragic. So the chances of anything good coming out of Prime Minister John Howard’s drastic new proposals aimed at curbing child abuse in Aboriginal communities seem quite slim. Here is a roundup of some of the reaction in the blogsphere:

Culture Matters offers some background:

Howard, in reaction to a recently released report about child abuse in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory called Little Children are Sacred [pdf], has introduced sweeping measures, including banning alcohol in certain communities for six months, cracking down on pornography (both legal and illegal, it would appear), and introducing a raft of other measures aimed at forcing Aboriginal parents to ensure the welfare of their children. These include tying welfare payments to certain outcomes, such as school attendance or holding payments in reserve to ensure that money is spent on food and other necessities, though I’m not entirely sure how this would be implemented. This Associated Press article outlines many of the measures to be taken.

Kimberly Christen echos the thoughts of many bloggers when she writes:

Many commentators have noted the outright racist overtones of the plan, the problems with linking government welfare to “benchmarks,” and the undermining of indigenous rights and self-determination. This is all true, as it has been for some time under the Howard government. But the truly scary part is Howard’s admission that he is trampling on constitutional rights, but oh well. This is the same logic the Bush administration used to push through the Patriot Act after 9/11–in times of crisis “we” have to sacrifice some “freedoms” for the good of all. The illogic disregards the fact that constitutional rights are not crisis-optional, they are, in fact, meant to withstand crisis and maintain rights.

Jane Simpson looks at the chances that the government will even be able to implement this rather dubious plan:

A shock and awe campaign relying on volunteers, and not backed up by adequate and sustained long-term planning and long-term implementation? So – what evidence do we have that the Federal Government can deliver adequate long-term implementation? Or the 3-4 BILLION dollars over 5 years that Jon Altman of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research reckons is needed for a long-term outcome.

Unfortunately – very little.

And s0metim3s compares the plan to government intervention into “failed states”:

Much of this rests firmly on Australia’s history as a penal colony and its record as a mostly anxious outpost of Imperial power. It might be noted that this latter aspect is evident in the recent occupation of countries in the Asia-Pacific by Australian military and police. Nevertheless, such exercises are presently conducted under the rhetoric of ‘failed states’ and humanitarian intervention – with little, if any, opposition voiced against such from within Australia, so deeply entrenched and seductive is this disposition of benevolence. And, it might also be remarked that this most recent declared emergency in the northern parts of Australia closely resembles this discourse of ‘failed states’ and its practices – though this time as an “internal” re-colonisation. All of this is to suggest that Agamben’s eloquent account of the sovereign exception and ‘bare life’ are helpful, but insufficient to explaining what is transpiring in the detail, as a process.

Culture Matters also has a post surveying the media reaction to this story.

I’m sure there is a lot more out there, if you find anything particularly good please post it to the comments.

UPDATES (July 11th):

  • Culture Matters reports that “families in the NT fleeing to the desert in fear that the government was coming to take their children.”
  • Jennifer Martiniello writes that “It has been an openly stated agenda that Howard wants to move Aboriginal people off their lands…”
  • Paul Toohey asks whether it is appropriate to use methods used against organized criminals in Aboriginal Australia?
  • And “a coalition of Northern Territory Indigenous organisations has issued 50 recommendations in response to the Commonwealth’s plan.”

27 thoughts on “Little Children are Sacred

  1. I should add (and at the time of writing the above post I hadn’t seen the reports of this) that one of the (I think it’s four or five) people appointed to the ‘taskforce’ to oversee this ’emergency’ was the same person who oversaw the police contingent on the Solomon Islands.

    And then there’s this: “Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough says police and the Army will enforce the alcohol bans. ‘We send people to Timor, we send people to the Solomons. We believe – and I have had preliminary discussions with police – that they’ll be willing to do so.'” – from here.

    The Prime Minister also made a speech at some thinktank about how this was like ‘Hurricane Katrina’. Hmmm.

  2. Elizabeth Povinelli gave a talk in Helsinki this spring that addressed some of these issues. It was called ‘The Child in the Basement: States of Killing and Letting Die.’ Povinelli wants to understand the background assumptions informing the ways that liberal democracies like Australia can ignore (whilst also creating) forms of everyday suffering and death (those that might be described as ‘crummy’), especially in marginalized groups. Thus, she wanted to cross a critique of sovereign power based in the spectacular politics of ‘the emergency’ with a critqiue of sovereign power based in the crummy politics of ‘letting die’ (and compare Biehl on Brazil). A lot of her talk was simply about skin infections in aborigines that are never tested or treated and that are tolerated by Australian medical authorities in ways that are appalling.

    I am intrigued, sOmetim3s, by your sense that a turn to Agamben is insufficient to explain what is happening in detail (as in the quote excerpted above by Kerim). Can you say more? My own sense is that a turn to Agamben to model or understand these uses of ’emergency’ to legitimate and inscribe ‘sovereign’ power is fine, although it really is just a redescription in critical terms of what governments like Howard’s think they are doing. It as though a critique based in the legal theories of the right is allowed to stand for an analysis of the whole cultural field.

    The one thing that stuck with me in Povinelli’s talk was her riffing off of a text by Usula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” to understand the moral logic of liberalism and its utopian fantasy that some day, some where, the promises of a liberal society will pay off. It is the futurity of liberal promises that enables everday sufferings in the present to be ignored or concealed. (These are complicated arguments and I would love to have a discussion in the future about Povinelli’s critique of liberal multiculturalism in Australia…)

  3. Strong – there’s a lengthy (maybe rambling) reply over under the comments under the relevant post. (I tried leaving a link here, but I think your software won’t allow it.)

    And yes, a discussion on Povinelli and multiculturalism would be excellent.

  4. I’ve been writing about this a fair bit over the couple of weeks, though as I’m out in the field (doing linguistic research in an aboriginal community in the NT) I’m tantalisingly close to the action but depressingly distant from a reasonably stable internet connection.

    One more report that has come out in recent days, it’s on the abc news website, said that the rates of child abuse in aboriginal communities was in fact no more prevalent than in the cities, such as suburban Melbourne.

    With that in mind, it’s strange (unless you think in terms of political motivation) that the government latched so fiercely onto this report but ignored the report of maybe a couple of months ago that said aboriginal health was on averga 100 years behind that of the west in general. That to me is more of an ’emergency’ and deserved a little more than what it got: sweet f.a.

  5. Hi all,

    As an anthro who’s worked in Central Australia for a decade, I can only say that something had to be done on a human rights basis. I have personally and experienced too much violence, Sorry Business, and worst of all, neglect of children when their parents are ‘charged up’ (drunk). I could write at length on the things I’ve seen … like 13 children living in a shipping container amidst dog droppings, rusty tins, dirty nappies, etc, suffering from ear infections so badly that pus oozes from their ears, with no running water and no cooling in 40 degree celcius heat.

    I’m sorry, but whilst I abhore the Howard government – and I am certain that people will slam me for this- people (women especially) have been crying out for something to be done for years and someone is at last doing something.

    Above, someone said that the rates of child abuse are no more than in Melbourne. I challenge this based upon NT government statistics over a number of years that show the rate of STDs in Aboriginal communities is five or six times higher than that occurring in the general populace. Indeed the Anderson/Wild report (Little Children are Sacred) supports this. The Anderson/Wild report also has 97 recommendations, which I believe, have been largely ignored by the Howard government at this stage.

    Improved access to education is the most important of these. I would like to see what Mr Howard & Mr Brough are planning – and why they haven’t taken on the recommendations in the report, especially in regards to education.

    The ‘land grab’ issue is another thing altogether. The permit system in its present form discourages community development in so many ways creates a form of silent apartheid but at the same time, the last thing these communities want is sightseerers, New Age psuedo-shamans and other less inviting characters invading their lives. This issue needs very careful consultation and discussion.

    I could go on at length, but I won’t. As a mother, I just want to see children happy, safe, and healthy. I am sorry if I’ve offended anyone – but as I said before, I’ve been living and working in this ‘field’ for ten years and something needed to be done.

  6. Napangardi, I think your recourse to identity (mother, woman, anthro working “in the field”) isn’t an explanation of why you support the Govt’s actions, or why you think others should, but a gesture made for why your support should, according to you, be beyond question, beyond debate. And since I am sure there are women, mothers and anthropologists who have worked “in the field” who disagree with you … well, I’m not surprised you’d worry about offending others.

    Besides, no amount of “something had to be done” can explain or justify why these particular measures had to be “done” – no explanation as to how bans on porn might actually stop child abuse, no explanation as to how compulsory acquisition of lands will stop child abuse, etc. And since you acknowledge that very few of the Report’s recommendations have flowed through to the ‘national emergency’, perhaps it’s not the time to be using the kinds of arguments which rather dubiously seek to present those who disagree with you as, for instance, uncaring of children.

    As for higher STD rates, perhaps you might acquaint yourself with the different medical approaches used in many indig communities compared to, say, in Melbourne. Prescription policies regarding antibiotics and penicillin are not the same. You assume, wrongly, that STD rates point to different sexual practices. So, perhaps you should ask yourself why you want to leap to those kinds of assumptions.

  7. Som3times, here is my rejoinder. Where do I start?

    First,let me ask you how much time have you spent living in Aboriginal communities? Can you understand that for most Aboriginal people, the reality is not whether to apply Derrida, Foucault or studies of post-colonial migration to their situation, but to simply put food in their mouths and have a safe place to sleep at night?

    Furthermore, this is not a question of the politics of ‘my identity’ or an illusory ‘divide’ between those who support Howard and those who don’t. Those are your words and your worlds; not mine. Nor did I make any assumptions about ‘different sexual practices’; just that fact that STDs occur in Aboriginal communities at a much higher rate than in other Australian communities. Would you like confirmation or photographs of STDs that simply don’t exist in any other communities in Australia? I can grant you access to this information, if you wish. You seem to be deferring to the culturally relativist notion that difference is ok if it’s explained away as ‘cultural’, even if it’s child sexual abuse or sexually transmitted diseases (most introduced by Europeans and Malays).

    Do I sound upset by your dismissive reply? Well yes I am. These are not simply anthropological objects – they are people. They are my kin and my kin’s kin – people I know and love dearly. I am tired of anthropologists in Central Australia turning a blind eye to what’s going on because they are too busy defending their own positions in regards to Section 23 of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act or working in some other ideological silo. I am also sickened to the core by theorists who clearly have no idea.

    Perhaps the thing that has upset me most about your reply is that my post was about the need for action based upon basic human rights, not short term, ‘shock-and-awe’ lip service, which is what I believe the Howard/Brough plan is.

    I made it clear that I supported the recommendations in the Anderson/Wild report. I wish to see these implemented above all others. Why did you not pick up on that point in stead of retreating into the tired politics of identity or the rather flimsy point you make about ‘something needing to be done’ in to which you have inserted your own concerns about the unexplained nature of the Howard/Brough plan? I share your concerns but clearly, you did not read my post carefully enough to notice.

    I truly believe that the sustained education of women, in particular, young mothers, is the key to community development and wellbeing. However education is difficult when community schools often operate for only 3 1/2 – 4 days per week, have difficulty attracting and holding experienced teachers and lack basic resources. There are communities in Central Australia at the moment (again, I am happy to supply the contact details or you can make your own inquiries) where the teacher is the only person who can fill in Centrelink forms and who has access to a regular supply of food. So teachers spend their time filling in welfare forms and cooking meals for the children and elderly on communities instead of teaching.

    To explain this, you might like to do some research into the complex and disempowering relationship between the NT & the Commonwealth which underlies this. The NT is not self-sufficient (it relies on Commonwealth funding) nor truly self-governing – thus it cannot effectively fund the programs such as delivering education in remote areas. Do you know anything of the costs associated with service delivery in remote areas? I suspect not. For example, I know of one small NT government department that has just been given a $40,000 bill for the infrastructure associated with two pre-existing two phone lines – which is more than its entire operational budget. Please note, it was pre-existing infrastructure and the bill was deemed as ‘an equipment service and provision’ charge which would from now on be an annual fee. Small wonder there is no money left in the Territory’s purse to fund education or proper health services in remote areas.

    The NT government has been asking for assistance with education and health for years. So have Aboriginal women and Aboriginal organisations. Those at the coal face, the teachers, nurses, and doctors have been doing their best. But more help was needed. If this latest plan is a way to get that help, then good. However, I suspect that the way in which the NT government, in consultation with Aboriginal organisations and communities, was going to address the report’s findings with a long-term plan was the better way to go and the one to which Howard & Co will be forced to return.

    There are other issues you might like to note. The Chief Minister found out about the Howard/Brough plan as she walked into a press conference and a journalist asked her about it. This is symbolic of how Brough and Howard have treated -and is still treating- those who should have been including in formulating the plan from the start.

    They will make mistakes – they have already done so- and I suspect that they will be forced to sit down and treat Aboriginal people as people.

    my point was that Aboriginal women have been asking for help about this for more than twenty years.

  8. Not much time, actually. But this decides an argument how, exactly? And, yes, I think that I do understand that impoverishment is the issue. Thanks. Poverty, access to health care, particular prescription regimens, access to condoms … these are all contributing factors in rates of infection, of STIs, among other things.

    This is no basis upon which to imply anything about ‘cultures’ – just as it’s not a basis upon which to treat of the problem as if it’s ‘cultural’ (which in this instance means making laws which apply to all indig communities).

    So, where do you get off even suggesting that that I’m an apologist for certain sexual practices because of relativism?

    As for the report, it only contains anecdotal evidence of higher rates of child sexual abuse in indig communities. Terrible, heartbreaking reports, yes. But, still, there is no evidence that child abuse is indeed more prevalent in, say, Hermannsburg than in, say, Camberwell.

    And, until there is something more than this, I’m not inclined to believe claims of an ‘epidemic’ for three simple reasons: i) I fully understand that there are pressures against the reporting of such abuse, but those pressures (family, shame, etc) apply everywhere; ii) no teams are sent into various suburbs of capital cities, with a presumed right to interview children and parents about child abuse, so the possibility of comparison is non-existent even at the level of anecdotal reports; iii) I think that people in this country are inclined to believe that the otherly-complexioned are more prone to treat their children badly (the ‘children overboard’ thing).

    As for identity – this was your pitch: “as a mother”, “as an anthro”, etc. And the jibe about reading material is just rhetorical silliness.

    But, arguments aside, I gather that there are people who genuinely believe that they can use this moment so as to deliver better outcomes. Something beyond the shock&awe. But I don’t see how playing to the racism of the tabloids, privatising communal lands, conditions on welfare, and no announcements of budget allocations for schooling, health care and housing will do this.

    And, are you traveling with the ‘taskforce’ – and, if so, in what capacity?

  9. Sometimes, read carefully.

    I’m not part of the taskforce. I live in a community in Central Australia and work with Aboriginal people in land management & community development.

    How does time in a community and in-depth familiarity ‘decide an argument’ exactly?

    Well, for a start, you know who to ask and how to ask. You know what to look for when something is wrong – indeed, you know how to tell when something is wrong in ways that outsiders simply glance over. You understand the power of silence. You know when to use words and what words to use. You also know the protocols for beginning an action and how to get things happening.

    Which is exactly what this taskforce has NOT done: asked included, consulted the people in communities about how to solve issues. It is exactly what YOU are not doing – asking, considering, consulting the people themselves. It’s easy: you treat Aboriginal people with basic dignity and respect. Which is the exact approach taken by the NT government, the Land Councils and others.

    Of course, I don’t think you’re listening to what I have to say about the depth of or broader issues associated with undertaking the changes needed on the ground, because I don’t think you care about the real people on the ground. I suspect academic one-upmanship and a publishing record are where your concerns lie. So, ok, I apologise most humbly and sincerely to you for caring about people I live with and love.

    I am sorry that I live in a community, and wanted to comment as a mother, anthropologist, friend, wife, sister, and aunty that something needed to be done about the sons who are dying in car accidents caused by grog, about the child with genitals mutilated when she was raped by an uncle at age 3. About the women I’ve sheltered in my house when their husbands are drunk and beating them up. About the very senior Aboriginal man and his wife who were beaten by their drunken daughter -who threatened to beat me as well when I tried to defend her mother. I am so sorry for doing this because I offended you. Because for you, these things aren’t real and don’t exist. I am truly, truly sorry that I dared to give voice to people who I see every day, who have been crying out for something to be done for years.

    So yes, S0metim3s. I am sorry for upsetting you.

    But answer this. Can you honestly tell me that you condone the alcohol abuse and violence that are going on? Because with your dismissal of the Anderson/Wild report and the statistics within it in your previous post, that is exactly what you’re saying. Have you actually read the report? Have you bothered to look at the detailed references or the many other reports that exist which document these issues?

    If you had spent time living in communities, you wouldn’t be questioning the validity of the report. It would be in your face every day. But I’m sorry – I forgot – time in a community is no defence of an argument for something to be done, some action to be taken to stop the violence and the abuse (which doesn’t really exist).

    So yes, I am sorry for caring, and in caring, have offended you. Perhaps I care too much because this is my world and my life that you are denying.

    Of course, you will reply and talk down to me, as you have done before. Your heart is closed and your words are cold, hard stones to the people out here.

    Real people. Not post-colonial rhetorical objects.

  10. Napangardi, you are presumptuous. I’m not an academic. I have been listening very carefully to the debates around this, and yours is not the only position. Certainly it is not the only position among indigenous people. Indeed, it’s not even the only position of indigenous women – despite your attempt to imply this. My point, if it’s not already clear, is that your being a mother, anthropologist, etc does not automatically validate your argument, isn’t even an argument – it’s spin. And I don’t find you any more persuasive because you present yourself as the only one with a heart, who cares, etc.

    Though this question of yours is more than spin: “Can you honestly tell me that you condone the alcohol abuse and violence that are going on?” It’s a rather nasty little bit of rhetoric, is what. But it’s a game I’m not really interested in playing.

    I have not questioned the validity of the report. I have questioned the resurgence and appeal of missionary approaches, and I have questioned the manner in which this report is _read as_ identifying an ‘epidemic’ of child sexual abuse in indig communities that it does not substantiate.

    NB: ‘read as’ – the fine print of the report itself insists that there is nothing to suggest child sexual abuse is *more prevalent* in remote indig communities than in any suburb in AU. And all of what you recall as happening in, I’m not sure where, has also happened elsewhere: young males dying in car accidents because of alcohol; child rape; domestic violence; and the rest. Sit in any metropolitan public hospital for a while.

    In the same week, there were two awful reports of children being bashed to death in AU – only one, the one that occurred in an indig community, was presented in the media as a consequence of that community as a whole and a justification of measures applied to the community as a whole.

    And, time spent in a community surely does inform what problems there are. But it in no way follows that the urgency that *something* should be done justifies precisely that which is being done. Or puts an end to debate on those measures.

    So, again: I don’t see how playing to the racism of the tabloids, privatising communal lands, conditions on welfare, bans on porn, and *no* announcements of budget allocations for schooling, health care and housing will accomplish anything good, let alone end or minimise child sexual abuse.

  11. Oh dear, Sometimes. Get your facts right.

    Did I ever say that my point was the only point?

    No, I did not.

    Did I ever infer that mine was the only position on this matter?

    No, not once.

    Furthermore, where did I suggest in my posts that debate should end, or that there were not alternatives?


    You have put these words into ‘my mouth’. Rather presumptuous of you, I think.

    What am I supposed to make of this: “My point, if it’s not already clear, is that your being a mother, anthropologist, etc does not automatically validate your argument, isn’t even an argument – it’s spin”.

    It’s not spin. I am stating who I am, where I live, what I do. I am a voice from the coalface. I am not questioning your identity or labelling you as ‘spin’. I am not questioning your validity. Do you have a problem with the fact that I am those things and happen to live in a community? Why are you so offended by who I am? What is it that bothers you so much about real people, real events that are not part of the media hype?

    You clearly, and unequivocally, state that: “I’m not inclined to believe claims of an ‘epidemic’ for three simple reasons …” In your own words, you reject the Anderson/Wild report’s findings on the extent of the violence, substance abuse and sexual abuse happening in Central Australia. Not my words, yours.

    The events which I recounted happened at Burt Creek in 2001 & 2003, Larapinta Valley in 2002, and Papunya in 2006. Would you like the names of the people involved, since you seem dissimissive of reality? You seem very reluctant to verify the evidence I am offering you.

    Your point of view is not the only one. It is not even one informed by any experience of what is happening on the ground – and I think that is why you dislike what I say so much. Your point of view is not necessarily shared by ‘most Aboriginal women’ in communities here. They want the violence to end. They want the grog stopped. Yes, they are very wary of what Howard & Co are doing. Some are frightened and others (a majority) just think it’s another whitefella program that will last all of five minutes and then vanish in a cloud of Toyota dust.

    But I beg, implore, pleade with you to PLEASE, please, please come out here and start listening to people before dismissing the need to do something. Please! It would be the best thing you could possibly do. Come out here. Talk to people. See for yourself since you don’t believe.

    That I have lived (and still live) in Aboriginal communities and experienced firsthand violence and abuse was the reason I bothered to speak up when I have never spoken up before.

    I did not expect to arrogantly dismissed by someone who has written extensively on human rights issues. I could suggest a touch of hypocracy on your behalf, but why bother.

    I don’t think I will ever bother posting again.

    So in effect, Ms Sometimes, you are silencing another voice, another alternative point of view. Silencing debate.

    Well done.

  12. There is a significant body of empirical evidence on the prevalance of STIs in remote Aboriginal communities at higher rates than those found elsewhere in the Australian population.

    The issue is dealt with in Anderson & Wild on pgs.238 & 239. They also make the following conclusion drawn from detailed clinical and social health studies:

    On the basis of the available data, NT sexual health
    practitioners have developed the view that sexual activity:

    • in a person under 12 years is highly likely to
    indicate abuse

    If one investigates the studies on which they’ve based their conclusions, it is very hard to draw anything other than the same conclusion about the higher prevalence of sexual abuse in some -certainly not all- NT Aboriginal communities. The empirical evidence from clinical studies clearly supports the claims made by Anderson & Wild.

    I strongly caution against a dismissive attitude to what is a serious social, moral, and legal matter, given the weight of empirical, clinical evidence available. This is not mere ‘extrapolation’ as one person on this forum has put it, based upon the blogged opinion of another, it is documented extensively within a literature that many commenting on these matters appear to have not bothered to consult.

    There are a significant number of clinical studies regarding these matters. Here are just two examples:

    FJ Bowden, BA Paterson, J Mein, J Savage, CK Fairley, SM Garland and SN Tabrizi (1999).Estimating the prevalence of Trichomonas vaginalis, Chlamydia trachomatis, Neisseria gonorrhoeae, and human papillomavirus infection in indigenous women in northern Australia.Sexually Transmitted Infections, Vol 75, Issue 6: 431-434

    Kildea S, Bowden FJ. (2000).Reproductive health, infertility and sexually transmitted infections in indigenous women in a remote community in the Northern Territory. Aust N Z J Public Health. 24(4):382-6.

    This leads me to another point. Several commentators here, indeed, the entire original post on the Savage Minds website, appears to be based upon observations from within the ‘tabloid media’ and the blogs of others. This raises another issue: that of being able to credibly deny or confirm the existence of such a ‘crisis’ without first-hand experience, expertise, knowledge of the literature, and understanding of the socio-historical context inwhich the claims for and against are based.

    From my investigations, some of the bloggers commenting on this topic do not appear to have a great deal of academic or employment-related background in Aboriginal communities. They are bloggers who network intensely with each other, and are largely interested in applying post-colonial critiques to a very diverse, complex and highly contextual situation. There is nothing wrong with that, however, they must be willing to verify their claims against previous studies, and accept that the literature does not support their claims, or state that their arguments are based ‘opinion’ rather than any detailed knowledge of or experience of the situation.

    This is belied by an apparent unfamiliarity with the literature documenting serious problems in remote Aboriginal health and socio-economic outcomes, and the crisis of such in Aboriginal communities which has arisen over several decades. I politely refer them to CAEPR’s (Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research) work on this as a beginning point.

    Lastly, I recommend Peter Sutton’s excellent commentary on this issue from a number of years ago.

    Readers should note that there is a response from Cowlishaw to Sutton’s paper and, a further reply to Cowlishaw’s critique from Sutton as well, but these aren’t as readly available.

  13. I’m far from an expert on Australia, but I find it interesting that none of the defenders of the government’s policy have actually engaged with the substance of the criticisms linked to in the above mentioned articles and blog posts, choosing instead to dismiss them as inauthentic and elitist.

  14. Hi Kerim,

    I was not commenting on the criticism of the government raised by the blogs above -this is another issue altogether with its own serious moral, legal and historical issues. I am criticising the poor scholarship shown by some commentators in this and other blogs, seeking to deny the existence of very well documented social problems in order to criticise the government (and one blogger in particular above), rather than criticising the government on account of, for example, not consulting Aboriginal people on what would be the more appropriate steps to take to address these problems.

    There are several other issues I would like to see all readers of this blog debate in a serious manner:

    1. The history of Commonwealth & Northern Territory political relations and their influence upon present issue

    2. The academic and cultural divide between those living in South-east Australia and those living in the NT. An offshoot of this -I have written in this forum on this subject before- is the divide in Australia between applied and academic anthropology

    3. The issue of blog content being taken as scholarship or fact.



  15. Rebecca, you mean p. 240 of the report. No one has denied a higher rate of STIs. The problem, as I see it, is in what one decides this is an index of and how.

    The relevant part of the report reads, in part:

    _On the basis of the available data, NT sexual health
    practitioners have developed the view that sexual activity:
    • in a person under 12 years is highly likely to indicate abuse
    • in a person aged 12-13 years is a “grey area” requiring close examination of the situation
    • in a person 14 years or older is often consensual
    in nature, but may still indicate abuse (additional
    information from DHCS, received 28 August 2006)._

    According to this, then, what distinguishes child sexual abuse from sexual activity is age.

    Before this, the report notes:

    _In the general Australian population, 26% of Year 10 students (15-16 years) and 48% of Year 12 students (17- 18 years) were sexually experienced (i.e. had had sexual intercourse). In the West Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey (2002), 33% of 15-year-olds, 44% 16-year-olds and 74% of 17-year-olds had had sexual intercourse. Having had sexual intercourse was independently associated with having left school, drinking alcohol and using marijuana at least weekly (Blair, Zubrick & Cox 2005). While no comparable NT data is available, there is an impression among many sexual health and primary care practitioners in the NT that young Aboriginal people in remote communities are beginning sexual activity earlier than their urban and non-Aboriginal peers (additional information from DHCS, received 28 August 2006), as is evident from data on young mothers and sexually transmitted diseases._

  16. Hi Sometimes,

    I was indeed referring to the pages of the report I quoted above (238 & 239) in relation to the matter of higher rates of incidence of STIs in remote Aboriginal communites in Northern Australia.

    Perhaps I misinterpreted a comment of yours above about ‘no higher rates of sexual abuse’ to mean ‘no higher rates of STIs’. My apologies if this is case. I am familiar with a number of other clinical studies reporting that very young children in significant numbers contracting STIs at much higher rates (i.e. the Nganampa Health Study (1996)gives a figure of 105 times the average in non-indigenous populations). Unfortunately, as I suspect you are trying to point out, most clinical studies do not explain how STIs are contracted by babies, toddlers and very small children, and some STIs can certainly be contracted via non-sexual contact. This leaves us to fall back on reporting rates for sexual abuse, which are clearly a matter of shame for many people (regardless of indigeniety) and are not reliable indicators of the extent (or not) of abuse – which Anderson & Wild point out.

    As I said in my reply to Kerim, I am more concerned that people here were not referring to clinical studies or primary evidence in dismissing well-documented health problems, just to each other’s opinion pieces.

    Personally, I am interested in seeing a much stronger debate on the relationship of the Commonwealth to the Territory which permits the Federal government to do almost anything they like in the NT. This certainly has outcomes for Aboriginal people, one of which is the current topic of debate on this blog.

    Anyway that’s enough from me. Now back to the thesis!

  17. Rebecca, no one has dismissed what are, as you put it, well-documented health problems. But the reduction of what are complex sets of issues to the apparently firm evidentiary proof of child abuse is not helpful.

    For instance, evidence of prostitution by minors and adolescents having sex is not the same thing as child sexual abuse. It may well be involved, as background or motivation. But one can only really address prostitution (of any age) by addressing issues of poverty. Adolescent sex continues to be the subject of debate between those who would seek to minimise harm (availability of contraception, condoms, support, etc) and those who advocate abstinence. And so on.

    In the latter case of the age at which young people are sexually active, the comparison the report makes between ‘the general Australian population’ and indig communities is misleading – and lends itself to racialisations. Because there are suburbs within this apparently unitary non-indig population where the age at which children begin to have sex is in fact the same as that which the report gives the impression only obtains in indig communities.

    But, that said, I’m interested in how or whether the Nganampa Health Study you note factors in the overall higher rate of STIs, such that comparisons are indeed accurate. Aside from, as you say, not explaining how those children contracted STIs, I’m wondering how STIs function as a comparative index of anything unless the overall different rates of STI are factored in somehow. I mean, it strikes me that the absence of STIs in children who _have_ been abused merely points to the fact that the perpetrator did not have an STI.

  18. It is a shame Rebecca has gone back to her thesis as her comments leave very serious questions unanswered. The fact is that the Anderson & Wild report acknowledged that “Accurate statistics about the incidence of child abuse and other family violence in Aboriginal communities are scarce”. It is also quite clear that the report sees collecting such statistical evidence as secondary to recommending actions to deal with it:

    In the time available, the Inquiry has preferred to concentrate on what is perceived to be the real task – prevention of sexual abuse, rather than a historical cataloguing and statistical analysis of precise incidents (p27).

    This is unacceptable. To claim that there is systematic widespread child abuse is a serious charge. It requires a serious response and the first step is to substantiate that charge. Conclusive statistical evidence must be collated that the problem exists before a course o action can be proposed, if not least because of the distress such false claims will cause indigenous parents. It is simply not good enough to rely on suppositions and speculation over which there is not agreement even among experts (such as the relation between STIs and child abuse, see comments by Professor David Wells and Dr Angela Williams) before acting.

  19. I want to thank commentators on this thread. My own impression of the apparent dispute presented here is that some folks seem to believe that s0metim3s and others are denying the suffering of indigenous Australians by criticizing Howard’s program of intervention. I don’t see this to be the case, although s0metim3s and others do wish to be very critical of rhetorics of crisis and emergency, especially when they are used to justify certain kinds of state interventions in the lives of very poor and disenfranchised people, and especially when the seem to play into or reproduce racist ideology. My impression is *not* that s0metim3s does not want anything to be done. Quite the contrary. The question is whether the sort of strong-arm, authoritarian, right-wing John Howard-type of solution is viable and whether the well-being of indigenous Australians is really at the root of Howard’s motivations.

  20. But there is the more important question: whether the premise for this intervention, either authoritarian or not, is valid, or whether we are looking at yet another unfounded chid abuse panic that is being used for electoral purposes by Howard or as a means of lobbying for funding by those who claim to oppose him.

  21. Hi all,

    I’m sorry I just don’t have time to respond to everyone’s comments here, so I will just reiterate my concern for the need to explore and debate the **underlying** constitutional & historical conditions that allow the Commonwealth government to dismantle any territory laws (such as the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, which Howard is on record as saying he would repeal back in 1983), and take control. Quite simply put, I believe the ‘moral panic’ we are having would not exist if the NT was a state.

    I also urge more complex, critical and, most importantly, well researched debate on the blogs (esp. Pipingshrike & S0metim3s) in regard to the history and nature of Commonwealth/Territory relations and the history of the entire issue of government responses to Aboriginal social conditions. This debate is much more than simply those ‘for Howard’ and those ‘against Howard’. There are shades of grey and alternate voices (for example, why not find out what Aboriginal people on these communities want?) but these are not being heard because of the polemical Left/Right stance which many bloggers are taking. This issue has a long, complex and very particular history which deserve far more space than they have been given space at present.

    However, that is really all I can say because I have a deadline looming! Sorry guys.


  22. If, hypothetically (and as seems to be indicated by at least some reports), child abuse occurs in Aboriginal communities at aprox the same rate per capita as mainstream communities, and if the Aboriginal adults had a higher rate of STIs for whatever reason, (maybe inadequate or innapropriate health regimes as mentioned by sOmetim3s), then would this not mean that there would be a higher incidence of STIs in children within Aboriginal communities than mainstream for this reason alone?

    If a nice, clean white pedophile molested a child then their would be less detectible evidence without STIs. Also nice clean white families keep secrets better as children are isolated in nuclear families.

    It is clear that Howard and Brough have tried to convince everyone that Aborigines are bad people who mistreat their children, just like Muslims who throw their children off boats. There is a real and definite attempt to demonise Aboriginal people, in particular Aboriginal men.

    A natural empathy and concern for women and children and the reality of family violence is being used to whip up fear and hatred, not solutions.

    This hysterical demonising and its knee jerk policies are not designed to do anything about child abuse but to simply look like they are doing something in a spectacular way.

    All of the people who cry and call for urgent action will continue to cry and call for urgent action when the “Emergency Intervention” has been well established.

    There has been no explaination anywhere, in particular in the parliament, as to how or why this plan is going to work.

    We are told over and over again about how determined the government is, but I challenge anyone to explain how life in Aboriginal communities is better now than before the emergency intervention. I similarly challenge anyone to point at just one bright point on the horizon that might have a faint chance of achieving something out of this plan.

    I do not dismiss the urgency. This plan is a very expensive and time consuming distraction from getting on with the specific solutions being demanded by every Aboriginal community in the country about their own situations. If urgency is an issue we should immediately disregard the Howard/Brough plan.

    p.s. I am an Irish man in a Qld. Aboriginal family. This is no detatched observation.

  23. How do you stop child abuse in Aboriginal communities?

    1/ Better, more appropriate and just more housing so that children have their own room with a door. At least a girls room and a boys room.

    It should be noted that many perpetraters of child abuse are children themselves, often family. My guess this is more the case than adult predation.

    The drunken people should be sleeping well away from where the children are sleeping, preferably a different building.

    2/ Take the focus of funding and program design in areas of domestic violence and child abuse away from the women and empower the men to deal with it.

    Most perpetrators are men, it is mens business. The women cannot change the behaviours and value systems of the men, the best they can do is provide institutional protection such as shelters which are bandaids after the fact. The violence needs to stop, not be compensated for or accomodated.

    3/ Acknowledge and empower customary law so that communities can deal with their own problems rather than going the police and courts path which takes years, is traumatic for the victim and convictions are very hard to achieve. Families are torn asunder when the experience could actually strengthen and unite them if done properly.

    1,2,3 is obviously simplistic and incomplete, but unless there is a major change of direction of the present failing strategies and paradims, nothing will change. A Boosting of status-quo paradigms such as the NT intervention only reinforces the structural dysfunction.

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