Dysfunction and poverty in Aboriginal communities is confronting, and heart-breaking.
But therein lies one of the great dangers in Aboriginal affairs policy-making, and media reporting – a belief that sometimes the ends do really justify the means, and that things are so bad in Aboriginal Australia that basic media ethics and standards can be suspended.
It’s thinking that comes from the ‘at least we’re doing something’ school of government policy, a belief that action – any action – is better than what we’ve collectively been doing, which is nothing. But what if what ‘we’re doing’ is making things worse?
The Little Children Are Sacred report noted, “…. It is a very important point and one which we have made during the course of many of our public discussions of the issues that the problems do not just relate to Aboriginal communities.
“The number of perpetrators is small and there are some communities, it must be thought, where there are no problems at all.
Accepting this to be the case, it is hardly surprising that representatives of communities, and the men in particular, have been unhappy (to say the least) at the media coverage of the whole of the issue.”
For obvious reasons, that ‘unhappiness’ is particularly acute in Mutitjulu, where local elders say their community has virtually emptied since the program.
“They just couldn’t stand the shame of the way they were all cast as paedophiles and abusers,” says Bob Randall.
It’s an unhappiness that is also palpable across the rest of the Northern Territory. A federal government review of the NT intervention released late last year found that incidents of suicide and self-harm in Aboriginal communities have doubled in NTER communities since the launch of the intervention.
It’s hard to imagine the public response if a government policy had achieved the same result in, say, Sydney or Melbourne.
More broadly, school attendance rates across NT intervention communities have actually dropped, down at least five percent on pre-intervention numbers.
At the same time, starvation rates and anaemia rates spiked immediately after the intervention was launched, and reports of alcohol-related violence have more than doubled. The federal government review conceded that child neglect is a bigger problem than abuse in remote communities, which is hardly surprising if you understand the grinding poverty that is the daily reality of Aboriginal life in the Territory.
The review reported 272 referrals for child neglect to welfare agencies in 2010-2011, up from 100 at the start of the intervention.
That neglect is getting worse under the NT intervention surprises no-one who is aware of the policy, and its impact on the ground.
But that Aboriginal mothers and fathers are being blamed for it, while their own needs have been neglected by government for decades, is simply staggering.
As for child sexual assault, the report found the number of convictions remained steady at around 11 per year – the same figure from the start of the intervention.
The report notes: “The number of convictions for child sexual assaults committed in the NTER communities in 2006-07 was 11. In 2007-08 it was 10, in 2008-09 it was 11 and in 2009-10 it was 12. The total number of child sexual assault convictions over the period 1 July 2007 to 30 June 2010 is 33.”
Curiously, it adds: “The conviction rate for child sexual abuse is likely to understate the actual level of abuse and it is misleading to view it in isolation.”
No explanation why, but a remarkable concession none-the-less. Wasn’t the whole point of the NT intervention – the ‘national emergency’ that required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act and the intervention of the army – designed to expose the abuse and catch the perpetrators? And wasn’t that the point of Lateline’s reporting?
Four years on, and several billion dollars later, we’re supposed to accept that it’s all made no impact at all? And that in key areas like education and violence, things have actually gotten worse.
And that’s the central point of this story: Lateline’s style of reporting might get attention, but it does not fix the problem.
Nor does the sorts of government policies that were made possible in an environment of media sensationalism and the demonisation of the nation’s most disadvantaged people.
Bad things may happen when good people stay silent, but the sad reality of Aboriginal affairs is that really bad things can happen when good people speak up.
Sexual abuse is undoubtedly a problem in Aboriginal communities – I’ve never heard anyone actually deny that, despite the vulgar attempts of Lateline and others to portray those who question their methods as supporters of paedophilia. It’s also clear that sexual abuse occurs at higher rates in some Aboriginal communities.
There are many reasons for this, overcrowding being chief among them.
If you have, as is the case across the Territory, more than a dozen people living in a single dwelling (upwards of 30 is not uncommon) then the introduction of a single sexual predator to a household provides access to substantially more children.
The intervention response to this fact was to promise new housing. Michael Brull, writing for The Drum, linked several government reports, with devastating and humiliating results. The average occupancy rate of Aboriginal homes in the Territory prior to the NT intervention was 9.4, reported Brull.
The target post-intervention is 9.3. This despite expenditure on the NT intervention’s housing program of around $700 million.
In short, the whole policy – housing, education, you name it – has been a spectacular failure. It has made things worse. And yet the federal government – with bi-partisan support from the Liberal and National parties – has just extended it for another decade.
Problems in Aboriginal communities in the Territory and beyond are complex and entrenched. They required a considered and calm response.
And as the Little Children Are Sacred Report noted in its first recommendation, what Aboriginal Territorians – among the nation’s most vulnerable people – need above all else is government policy made with the cooperation and consultation of Aboriginal people themselves.
What they got instead was bad government policy made with the cooperation of mainstream media who were more interested in sensationalism parading as serious journalism. That our national broadcaster led the charge is a matter of enduring shame for the ABC.
The last word belongs to Lateline.
In the original interview with Nanette Rogers, Tony Jones asked, “Given what’s in your paper and what you’ve told us here tonight, are you worried that the information itself may be abused by tabloids and racists even, shock jocks – the sort of people who will take information like this and exploit it?”
‘Yes,” answered Rogers.
• LATELINE’S CLAIMS
1. Children were being held as “sex slaves” in Central Australia, traded between communities and given petrol to sniff in exchange for sex.
2. Senior Aboriginal men in the community of Mutitjulu protected an elderly alleged paedophile, and created an environment where children were being sexually abused without sanction.
1. There was some evidence of children being given petrol to sniff, but “no evidence whatsoever” of petrol being given in exchange for sex, said NT Police.
2. The Australian Crime Commission and the NT Police found no evidence of organised paedophile rings, or ‘sex slaves’ in Central Australian Aboriginal communities.
3. There was no evidence of senior Aboriginal men in the community of Mutitjulu protecting an elderly alleged paedophile.
4. One of the chief witnesses in the Lateline story – described as a “youth worker” while his face was filmed in shadow – was in fact a senior official in the Howard government.
5. Another key witness in the Lateline story, a doctor in the community of Mutitjulu, was prescribing Viagra to the elderly alleged paedophile at the centre of the story. This continued for more than four years, despite the doctor expressing written concerns that the man was using Viagra to target young females.
6. Lateline refused to report the revelations regarding the doctor, and suppressed a leaked report which claimed doctors in the community were prescribing Viagra to the man against the wishes of local residents.
7. Lateline also refused to report the outcomes of police investigations into its story. The investigations dismissed Lateline’s claims.
* Chris Graham is the managing editor of Tracker magazine. He was formerly the editor of National Indigenous Times, when the Lateline reporting scandal was first broken.