Aboriginal Australia deserves more than knee-jerk responses

Brian Walters

Just when it seemed the problems in Aboriginal Australia could not get any worse they appeared to do just that. Recently some Federal politicians “discovered” child sexual abuse and domestic violence in Aboriginal communities. The discovery led to renewed calls for ‘law and order’, ‘more policing’, removal of ‘culture’ in sentencing and even calling in the army.

Just a year ago the Federal Government held up the council controlling Wadeye Community as a prime example of “a successful collaboration between Indigenous people living in a remote community and the three tiers of government (Federal, Territory and local) to establish a functional regional council.” Now the same community is notorious worldwide as a shocking example of a community where violence and sexual abuse are out of control.

Whatever else may be said, this demonstrates the profound gulf between government policies and the reality on the ground.

Tragically, the abuse and violence is not new, nor is it confined to Aboriginal Australia.

Even more tragically the suggested solutions are policy ‘on the run’ by men of zeal but without understanding. In truth, the policies do not touch upon any of the underlying causes.

Care must be taken when speaking of Aboriginal Australia – we are discussing many diverse communities, language groups and cultures. Where there are problems, the causes and effective solutions will often be widely differing.

Sexual abuse usually involves ‘one on one’ crimes that often occur in a close relationship or dysfunctional family context. Calls for law and order or extra policing are unlikely to have any significant impact on preventing further sexual abuse. The reason for that is that those supposed solutions have nothing whatsoever to do with resolving the underlying social and substance abuse problems that have led to the sexual abuse. The World Health Organisation has identified overcrowded living conditions, resultant high levels of stress, and poverty as key risk factors associated with child abuse. In the case of Wadeye, where over 2,500 people share just 148 dwellings, and where government expenditure is significantly lower than for other Territorians, all these risk factors are present.

In Wadeye the traditional owners play host to members of many other communities who live with them, a recipe for tension. The local elders have in fact called for more police for years – with no appreciable success. The government says there is nowhere to house them.

Federal leaders insist that parents send their children to school. There are low attendance rates at school in many Aboriginal communities, for a variety of reasons. But what have we done to show that education is really worthwhile for Aboriginal Australians? Will the education be relevant to their needs? Will attendance earn jobs for them? Aboriginal unemployment is at astronomical levels. And is there proper educational infrastructure anyway? In the case of Wadeye, there are not enough desks or even pencils for the young children in the community, and no high school at all.

Traditional Aboriginal customary law in no way condones domestic violence or sexual abuse, and one of the disturbing features of this debate is hearing the Prime Minister assert that the problems arise because the courts have applied misguided notions of customary law rather than Australian law. This is nonsense, but reinforces racist stereotypes which do further violence to the harmony of our community.

When courts impose sentences, they must – under Australian law – take account of all the personal circumstances of the offender. That includes cultural factors. Courts can make mistakes, and there is an appeal process to minimise this. Equality before the law does not mean treating unequals equally – that merely perpetuates inequality. To require that Aboriginal offenders (unlike white offenders) should not have their personal cultural factors considered in sentencing is to doom the criminal justice process to the same kind of irrelevance as the Federal Government’s year old praise for the Wadeye Council.

These calls for greater law and order in Aboriginal Australia are disguised calls for more and longer jail terms for Aboriginal offenders. If any lesson might have been learned from our history, it is that Aboriginal incarceration has not solved problems in Aboriginal communities. This is an invitation to revisit the tragic series of Aboriginal deaths in custody so recently investigated by a Royal Commission. It is apparent that our leaders have not learnt from the careful recommendations of that Royal Commission.

The problems of Aboriginal Australia represent 200 years of political failure in our nation. There are no quick or easy solutions. And the best strategies will vary from community to community. But like all human-created problems, these are capable of human solutions, and there are sensible ways forward.

The best place to find solutions will be within the leadership of our Indigenous communities themselves.

A useful starting point would be to depoliticise the debate. Why not try an independent federal and state Statutory Authority, with both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal representation? An example of that model of governance is the Koorie Heritage Trust here in Melbourne in which a joint, but informed, Koorie and non-Koorie board of trustees has brought together the skills that each individual can offer to create one of Australia’s most successful Aboriginal cultural organizations. The model is able to bring together the understanding, knowledge and compassion that Aboriginal Australia has been denied for so long.

Aboriginal Australia has experienced dispossession, breakdown of traditional culture and leadership, and denial of basic resources. These underlying causes frequently pave the way for domestic violence and sexual abuse (while never excusing them). The task of the Statutory Authority could include seeking, co-ordinating and then implementing proposals from Aboriginal communities for reforms that enhance their communities and tackle problems like sexual abuse and domestic violence. Any solution requires the use of the undoubted expertise and experience that is available to tackle the differing problems besetting so many indigenous Australians, and should be in close touch with real conditions on the ground. When that occurs there may be some real prospect of improvement.

But after 200 years of segregation, then assimilation, then integration, then ASTSIC and then “mainstreaming”, don’t hold your breath for a sudden turnaround.

Brian Walters SC is a Melbourne Senior Counsel and president of Liberty Victoria.