Australia's current Prime Minister and his present Minister for Aboriginal Affairs would have us believe they have Indigenous children's interests at heart in their hastily planned assault upon Indigenous Australian communities in the Northern Territory. This plan attacks also the state and territory governments for their failure to deal effectively with child sexual abuse in Indigenous Australian communities.
Few would deny the horror of sexual invasion and denial of childhood, wellbeing and inherent dignity of the person, nor its breach of the security to which all children are entitled. Nor could many realistically deny the failure of successive governments to effectively affirm in real terms, with real resources, and real consultation and involvement, the rights of Indigenous people to live without violence in their homes and communities.
Some people do, of course, see nothing wrong with this childhood abuse - for they engage in it, seeing their own wants as preeminent and as sufficient to deny the children's own wants, needs and entitlements. As well, some see nothing wrong with denying resources to Indigenous Australians, whilst simultaneously complaining that 'too much' is devoted to Aboriginal people and their communities.
The conduct against which John Howard now speaks out has been occurring over the whole of his ten years in charge of a government with the responsibility for funding Aboriginal Affairs from resources accumulated out of taxes collected from around the country. Failures occurred too under the Fraser government, when Howard was Treasurer.
For ten years the Howard federal government has had responsibility for Indigenous affairs. For these same ten years, the Howard government has had control over the resources needed to put an end to the abusive practice of sexual exploitation of Indigenous children by non-Indigenous Australians - particularly men from mining communities in the Northern Territory, along with the Indigenous men who are implicated in this reprehensible conduct.
Ministers with direct responsibility include the current Attorney-General, Phillip Ruddock, and the now putative Ambassador to Italy, Amanda Vanstone. Each in turn was Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs.
Since 1996, when it came to power, the Howard government has been dismantling advances which had been building-up slowly. These advances had some positive outcomes and a potential for more thorough acceptance of Indigenous leaders such as Pat Dodson, Mick Dodson, Marcia Langton, Lilla Watson, Lillian Holt, Lowitja O'Donaghue, Irene Watson, Jackie Huggins, Marie Andrews, Gracelyn Smallwood and more. All this came to an end with the Howard government's election.
Since 1996, numbers of Indigenous Australians at universities have fallen. Special fee programs to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students would receive a living allowance to complete a course of study were abolished in the first years of the Howard government. The mechanism for enabling Aboriginal people to vote for representatives of their community and so have a direct voice to government (through ATSIC) was removed. A National Indigenous Council, all members vetted and chosen by the government and hence fully dependent upon government support, is the government's answer to Indigenous consultation.
Yet even this Council was not consulted prior to Howard's announcement of his 'plan' to intervene in the Northern Territory. Sue Gordon, head of the Council, is to be involved. Yet how, and how it will sit with her role as Children's Court Magistrate in Western Australia, is not clear. The Australian Medical Association (AMA) was not consulted, although medical practitioners are central to the 'plan'. State governments and Police Commissioners were not consulted, despite Howard's saying that state police will be employed to support federal police in community intervention.
In 1998 the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association (AIDA) was incorporated. A national body, it represents Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander doctors and medical students, and holds a significant place in the medical and health education sector, working with members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and education workforce and other stakeholders. In May 2007, looking toward the fortieth anniversary of the 1967 Referendum on Indigenous Australian rights and recognition, it issued a plea for cooperation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous medical practitioners in working to ensure the good health and wellbeing of Aboriginal children. The Howard government did not consult it.
Since 1988, the United Nations has been working on a Draft Declaration on Indigenous Rights for eventual adoption and proclamation by the UN General Assembly. The Draft Declaration affirms, amongst other rights, that of participating fully in all levels of decision-making and implementation in matters affecting their rights, lives and destinies. It says that Indigenous people have a right to participate fully in devising legislative or administrative measures that may affect them. It enunciates a requirement on states to obtain the consent of Indigenous people before adopting and implementing such measures. None of this was done before Howard's announcement.
Indeed, the Howard government has indicated its lack of will to endorse or support the UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights. The Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has followed Howard in this policy failure. John Howard cannot, on the one hand, profess care about the plight of Indigenous Australian children if, on the other, he sets his government against United Nations' efforts to enhance their status and living conditions. He cannot assume a pose of compassion, when he lobbies other heads of government to oppose the promotion of Indigenous autonomy for themselves and their children. He cannot assert concern about Indigenous Australians, their families, their children and their communities, while ignoring their right to consultation and having the message delivered directly from him to them.
She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.