It’s now a matter of infamy that on June 21, 2007 – just a year after Lateline began its coverage of dysfunction in NT Aboriginal communities – Prime Minister John Howard and Indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough staged an impromptu press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, at which they announced Australia was confronting a “national emergency”.
There had, of course, been a “national emergency” in Aboriginal communities in the NT and beyond since Howard won office in 1996.
That the PM and his Aboriginal affairs minister had only just discovered it was quite remarkable. But it was nowhere near as shocking as what the two men were about to unveil.
The NT government had failed to act on the recommendations of the Little Children Are Sacred report, said Howard and Brough, and so the federal government was using its executive powers to intervene.
The Australian Army would be used to ‘stabilise’ Aboriginal communities, with extra police brought in to tackle the ‘endemic levels of child sexual assault’.
Land in and around Aboriginal townships would be compulsorily acquired for five years, to ensure no interruptions by Traditional Owners.
Howard even noted he might introduce “mandatory” sexual health checks of Aboriginal children, apparently believing that at the time his powers as Prime Minister extended to the legal rape of children.
After warning media the NT intervention would cost “some tens of millions” of dollars, and setting in train media coverage that would bounce around the globe, the serious business of unrolling the Northern Territory Emergency Response got underway.
The outcomes of the NT intervention are obviously important, but we’ll get to them shortly because there’s some background that is crucial to understanding how the intervention came about.
Lateline’s interest began in early 2006, a full year before the intervention was unveiled, when it broadcast an interview with Central Australian prosecutor Nanette Rogers.
Ms Rogers, an experienced and respected legal practitioner, outlined shocking cases of sexual abuse of Aboriginal children which, over a period of more than a decade, had made their way through Territory courts.
She described toddlers and babies being raped; she described incest; men using traditional law to escape serious punishment; she even referenced a case in which an 18-year-old petrol sniffer simultaneously drowned a young girl while he raped her.
Rogers’ interview was ‘out of the blue’ – it came essentially without warning – but it sparked massive media interest, some of which still endures today.
That is perplexing for anyone with any brief knowledge of the history of government reports in Aboriginal affairs. Because the sorts of revelations that Rogers’ had unveiled were nothing new.
In 1989, Judy Atkinson wrote a landmark report on Aboriginal violence, and in particular child sexual abuse. She wrote another one for the Prime Minister in 1991.
Boni Robertson also completed substantial reports throughout the 1990s, and headed a major inquiry in 1999 which involved 50 senior Aboriginal women and represented every community in Queensland.
Between her and Atkinson, they warned politicians on numerous occasions of the problems in Aboriginal communities, and showed that the causes of family violence were rooted in a failure of government to provide adequate services and infrastructure.
ATSIC also completed numerous reports in the 1990s, and in 1999 Dr Paul Memmott released a major report into Aboriginal violence, revealing precisely the sorts of cases detailed by Rogers, including the rape of young babies.
Memmott’s report went virtually unreported by media, due in no small part to the fact that when it was finally made public it was already old news.
The Howard government – courtesy of then Justice Minister Amanda Vanstone (later the Indigenous affairs minister) had suppressed the report for 18 months.
In July 2003, John Howard staged a ‘roundtable summit’ of Aboriginal leaders to address the issue of family violence. It turned out to be another stunt, with no follow through.
Aboriginal communities themselves, of course, had been screaming for assistance for decades.
Whatever the reasons, in 2006 the Australian media – and the Australian Government – suddenly found violence among Aboriginal people compelling.
But as Aboriginal violence gained more air-time, Lateline turned things up a notch.
Night after night, Jones and his team revisited the issue, filing 17 stories in just eight nights.
It culminated in a June 21 report, in which Lateline unveiled perhaps the most shocking revelation of them all.
The story, headlined Sexual slavery reported in Indigenous community, took things to a whole new level.
Lateline alleged that young Aboriginal children were being held against their will in Central Australia, and traded between communities as sex slaves.
Other children were being given petrol to sniff, in exchange for sex with senior Aboriginal men.
The story centred on the community of Mutitjulu, a tiny town of around 400 situated, literally, in the shadow of Uluru.
Lateline claimed senior men in the community had created an environment where a predatory paedophile was able to abuse women and children without sanction.
He relied on his family and kinship connections for protection, claimed Lateline, and was one of the men trading petrol for sex with young children.
Media coverage had thus far been feverish, but with Lateline’s fresh ‘revelations’ it went into overdrive. And so did the Northern Territory government, which was bearing the brunt of critical media reporting, while the Howard government – in office for more than a decade – was escaping largely unscathed.
The morning after Lateline’s scoop, Clare Martin announced her government would hold a major inquiry into violence against children in Aboriginal communities.
The resulting report, Little Children Are Sacred, took almost a year to complete, ran to more than 300 pages, and contained 91 recommendations.
It was released publicly on June 15, six weeks after completion. The Howard government, which had sat on the Memmott report for 18 months, pounced.
On June 21, 2007 – less than a week after the public release of the report – the Howard government announced the NT government was dragging the chain on child abuse, and so the feds would have to intervene.
It was exactly one year to the day since Lateline had broken ‘sexual slavery in Central Australia’ story.
And this is the point where things begin to fall apart from the national broadcaster.