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We all want the same thing - an end to child abuse

By Andrew Bartlett - posted Friday, 29 June 2007

I have been one of many people, black and white, who have been calling on governments for a long time to make child abuse and Indigenous issues national priorities. As was noted in the foreword of the recent Northern Territory Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse, it was via my motion that the Senate passed an all-party resolution last year supporting a national strategy to address child sexual assault (for all children, not just Indigenous ones).

So not surprisingly, I believe it is a good thing that priority and focus has been given to this issue by the Prime Minister. I will do what I can to keep it there, and to make sure that this focus produces properly thought-through and fully-resourced policies that will make a long-term difference, rather than a short-term splash.

There has been a fair degree of cynicism among many of the responses to the government’s plan, including from many Indigenous Australians. Given the past history of repeated grand announcements from governments which have not been followed up with adequate resourcing or implementation once the headlines have died down, there is every reason for people to be cynical. However, that should not be a reason to try to tear this plan down; it should be a reason to keep the focus on it, to do everything possible to translate all the current waves of rhetorical flourishes into real and lasting positive change.


Let’s start with a reminder about recommendation No1 from the Northern Territory report, which has been used as the hook for the major federal intervention that has been announced:

That Aboriginal child sexual abuse in the Northern Territory be designated as an issue of urgent national significance by both the Australian and Northern Territory Governments, and both governments immediately establish a collaborative partnership with a Memorandum of Understanding to specifically address the protection of Aboriginal children from sexual abuse. It is critical that both governments commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities (my emphasis).

It looks like we’re on track with the first sentence of that recommendation, but there’s not much sign of the second one even being acknowledged yet, let alone acted on.

As Noel Pearson has said: “Howard and Brough will make a historic mistake if they are contemptuous of the role that a proper and modern articulation of Aboriginal law must play in the social reconstruction of indigenous societies.” He also states: “Aboriginal law, properly understood, is not the problem, it is the solution.”

There has been a wide range of comments about the Prime Minister’s proposals, which are clearly still being developed. Despite the diversity of the comments, there is still a tendency to put people in the “for” or “against” camp, even when people supposedly in separate camps appear to be saying quite similar things.

Given that Noel Pearson is put unquestioningly in the camp of those in favour of the proposals, it is worth highlighting a few of the other concerns he has expressed, some of which are quite close to ones people who are seen as “against” have also voiced.


“The Howard-Brough plan to tackle grog and to provide policing is correct. However, the plan needs to be amended so that there is a concerted strategy to build indigenous social and cultural ownership.”

“The Howard-Brough plan needs to be amended so responsible behaviour is encouraged. Responsible people shouldn’t just be lumped in with irresponsible people.”

“There is a huge implementation challenge. Based on the performance of the federal and provincial bureaucracies up to now, I am not confident they are up to it.”

“The land-related measures are clumsy and ideological, but they are not an attempt at a land grab, and the problems with the land measures are nowhere near as high a priority as action for the welfare of children.”

I agree that action on child welfare is more important, but I have not seen any convincing arguments why the land measures are needed. And my concern is while this may not be as urgent an issue, if Land Rights law is changed to implement these measures, there’s a fair chance it may not be changed back, no matter what the success or otherwise is in regards to child welfare. Years of hard won gains could be lost almost overnight without any clear examination of the issue.

Pearson also says: “If not Brough and Howard’s plan to stop the suffering, then what alternative plan should be pursued? Here most of the critics fall into a deafening silence. They have vociferous views about what will not work, but they are silent about what will work.”

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About the Author

Andrew Bartlett has been active in politics for over 20 years, including as a Queensland Senator from 1997-2008. He graduated from University of Queensland with a degree in social work and has been involved in a wide range of community organisations and issues, including human rights, housing, immigration, Indigneous affairs, environment, animal rights and multiculturalism. He is a member of National Forum. He blogs at Bartlett's Blog.

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