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Sensitivity Warning

First Peoples

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this resource may contain images or names of people who have since passed away.


On 21 June the Prime Minister and the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs announced a series of measures in response to Pat Anderson and Rex Wild’s report, Little Children Are Sacred: Report of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse. This comprehensive report, which includes 97 recommendations to combat this distressing problem, canvassed a broad range of relevant issues including: leadership, government responses, the role of the Northern Territory Department of Health and Community Services (DHCS), health and community service delivery, police, the prosecutions’ process, bail, offender rehabilitation, education, community education and awareness, educational services, alcohol, employment, housing, community justice process, pornography, gambling, and the role of communities. In their first recommendation the authors stressed the “critical importance of governments committing to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in design initiatives for Aboriginal community, whether these are in remote, regional or urban settings.”

The Anderson/Wild report found that Aboriginal people wanted to engage with this process and were “committed to solving problems and helping their children” in the face of a serious, widespread and often unreported problem of sexual abuse. They found the situation to be a “reflection of past, current and continuing social problems which have developed over many decades,” and that the “combined effects of poor health, alcohol and drug abuse, unemployment, gambling, pornography, poor education and housing, and a general loss of identity and control have contributed to violence and to sexual abuse in many forms”. They highlighted the need for existing programs to work more efficiently to “break the cycle of poverty and violence,” and to improve “coordination and communication between government departments and agencies” to end the current “breakdown in services and poor crisis intervention.” Further, they declared that these programs must have adequate resources and a long-term commitment from all governments if they are to succeed.

A number of recommendations were specific to Northern Territory institutions. For example, recommendations were made with respect to the structural reorganisation of the DHCS Family and Community Services Program, and the creation of a Commissioner for Children and Young People. The report also focused considerable attention on problems concerning the connection between disclosure and the legal processes. Attention was also given to dealing with some of the social determinants of health such as the lack of employment opportunities and inadequate housing as well as strategies to produce more resilient communities with a particular focus on the role of education.

The Australian government’s response to the report came without warning - nor apparently any discussion with the Northern Territory government. Details of the plan were “high level” and, despite the haste, further clarity has not emerged. The measures announced at this time included:

  • Creating a taskforce of eminent Australians to oversee the implementation of the measures.Introducing widespread alcohol restrictions on
  • Northern Territory Aboriginal land for six months - including bans on alcohol sale, possession, transportation, consumption and monitoring of take-away sales across the Northern Territory.
  • Medical examinations of all Indigenous children in the Northern Territory under the age of 16.
  • Welfare reforms that will see 50 per cent of welfare payments to parents quarantined (in the affected areas) for food and other essentials, an obligation that will follow parents wherever they may go.
  • Enforcing school attendance by linking children’s attendance to income support and family assistance payments for all families living on Aboriginal land. These measures will also including ensuring that meals are provided for children at school with parents paying for the meals.
  • Assuming control, by the Australian government, of Aboriginal townships through five-year leases to ensure improvements in property and public housing.
  • Initiating an intensive on-ground clean up of communities to make them safer and healthier by marshalling local workforces through Work for the Dole arrangements.
  • Scrapping the permit system for common areas and road corridors on Aboriginal lands.
  • Banning the possession of x-rated pornography in the proscribed areas, and checking publicly funded computers for evidence of the storage of pornography.

None of the above measures announced by Prime Minister Howard are, however, to be found in the strategies recommended by the Anderson/Wild report. The reasons for this policy disconnect are unclear - although there has been some speculation in the press about the government’s response being more about electioneering or using it as a “Trojan horse” for other policy agendas, particularly in relation to land rights.

The Australian government response is framed as a top-down crisis intervention with a campaign approach to the intervention. It is characterised as a short-term response to be followed by medium- and long-term strategies - none of which are clear at this stage. So, for example, whilst the Anderson/Wild report recommended strategies to increase policing in remote communities in the long term the Howard plan only extends for six months. Such an approach has been framed by thinking around a “new paternalism” - in clear contradiction to the recommendations in the Anderson/Wild report that relate to a more engaged, consultative process with Aboriginal communities.

Many of the government’s proposals - for instance, scrapping the permit system, assuming control of Aboriginal land and instituting welfare reform - are simply not raised in the Anderson/Wild report. No reason is given as to how measures such as scrapping the permit system will address the problem of child sexual abuse. Conversely, a number of the issues that are raised in the report - in relation to community justice process, education/awareness campaigns in relation to sexual abuse, employment, reform of the legal processes, offender rehabilitation, family support services or the role of communities, for example - have not, as yet, been addressed by the Australian government response.

There are significant differences in the recommendations that relate to those issues that are canvassed both in the Australian government approach and the Anderson/Wild report. For example, there are nine recommendations in the Anderson/Wild report - with numerous sub-components in relation to alcohol - none of which include an immediate introduction of widespread alcohol restrictions. Many remote communities are already dry and this strategy could be incorporated into the recommended development of community alcohol plans. Current evidence suggests that enforced alcohol restrictions, in the absence of broader strategies to deal with addictions, simply reduce supply and tend to shift problem drinking into unregulated areas, such as Alice Springs town camps. As a result, a single measure such as enforced alcohol restriction may, in fact, result in increased harm from violence and abuse in these communities.

The measures announced by the Australian government are lacking detail at this stage and there is some evidence that early thinking has shifted. Child health checks, for example, are no longer mandatory but wellness focused and voluntary. This is fortunate as many experts in this field caution against the possible traumas caused by mandatory health checks focused on detecting child sexual abuse. This is clearly an evolving agenda.

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