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Aboriginal Communities Overboard

The writer, Andrew Biven is currently working at Manigrida in Arnhem Land - prior to this he was the Director of the South Australian Network of Drug and Alcohol Services and was well known through this role.

My apologies for contacting you out of the blue - however numbers of us Balanders (whitefellas) up here have decided we needed to contact as many people as possible and begin to get the message out that what Howard and Brough are proposing is not the way to go. Picture sixty Aboriginal communities in the NT floundering in the sea of
national indifference for decades. Suddenly, in a time of political crisis for the ruling party, an emergency that has been slowly emerging during those decades is grasped and radical, ill conceived (and some would say entirely cynical) measures are imposed with expressions of general self righteous indignation and opprobrium at the behaviour of those communities in flinging themselves and particularly their children, into the waters of dysfunction.

Shame and blame are two powerful weapons of the dominant culture and can only spell a further deterioration in the conditions for Aboriginal communities. I urge you to contact your local politician and in all other ways help to bring to light the ill-conceived nature of the responses Howard and Brough announced last week.

Few would question some of the desired outcomes protection of children, greater participation, motivation and self-esteem. However, what has been proposed is short-term, imposed, misdirected and unsupported by decades of evidence of what works and particularly, what patently doesn¹t work. To make impositions on functional as well as supposedly dysfunctional communities make even less sense.

It is, of course, difficult for anyone to speak out as it is so easy to brand them as indifferent to the plight of abused children. It is also so easy and convenient to trample the rights of whole communities in the scramble to remedy a situation that has been known and ignored for at least the last ten years and has it origins 200 years ago.

Let¹s leave aside our cynicism about why this issue suddenly needs such focus and closely examine what is being proposed to see if it can be done and if it will work. First though, a word about situations where perceptions of child sex abuse may in fact be children exposed to sexual situations leading to assumptions that the kids are directly the targets.

This is not to deny that there are not situations of direct physical sexual abuse. However, the more common situation may be less shocking.

The average household occupancy in this community is 17 people. Houses are small, miniscule by McMansion standards. People mostly sleep on foam mattresses scattered around the floors with two, three or more to a mattress. People don't like to be alone anywhere - you don't go out without a couple of family or friends - too scary. Privacy is rare and children from their first years no doubt witness sex occurring in all its manifestations much as they do in all societies where there is communal sleeping. Therefore, the knowledge even very young children have about sexual acts is very much greater than in our single person per room culture.

In those circumstances it would be understandable that some young children might play act the scenes they witness most nights. Its also pretty lively in these homes at night with lots of people coming and going, tvs on, card games, lots of conversations and laughing. Kids don¹t get a lot of sleep sometimes. And it is pretty exciting with half a dozen brothers, sisters, cousins in your bed. If some of those brothers, sisters, cousins happen to be at the age of sexual awakening naturally there will be lots of Œinvestigation¹ and that may involve very young children. Not a good thing, but when you see how and why it arises you have an insight into how to begin to address it. It¹s hard to see how medical examinations will help, easy to see how improving housing will. Certainly pornography doesn¹t help yet we have been slow to do anything about it anywhere. Parent education and support is a big one too the collapse of communities has eroded parent¹s knowledge and authority. Dysfunction is passed from one generation to the next.

Alcohol and other drugs are in the mix and need addressing see below.

So what are the proposals for this emergency of the last decades? Will they work? And if not these proposals, what?

1. Compulsory health checks for all aboriginal children under 16. Doctors and health clinics currently struggle to cope with the burden of chronic disease and primary health care needs. There are severe shortages of all medical staff in remote areas, just as there are in most rural towns across Australia. To draft in the legion of extra staff to conduct these tests requires simple things like accommodation there are no hotels, motels, no available rooms so it will require a building program or a tent city a building program is hardly within the emergency response time proposed. If its hard enough to attract medical staff with current incentives, the prospect of tent city is an unusual strategy to incline minds towards volunteering. So send in the army for maximum publicity, minimum impact.

Medical examination is one tool in identifying sexual abuse, patient and sensitive inquiry a more likely successful one. In many NT communities English is the second, sometimes third or fourth language spoken and not well understood by most people. Effective inquiry requires that the investigator not only speaks the primary language of those being investigated, but speaks it so well and understands the cultural environment so well as to be able to interpret the nuances of oral communication. And what do we do on discovering evidence of possible sexual abuse/activity?

Remove them from these situations? our foster care system for indigenous children is already at the point of collapse due to lack of places. There is no foster care in remote communities another branch of the family steps in but there are 17 or more in their household too! Do we reopen Colebrook and similar institutions of the past? Probably not a good idea.

Intervene in the family situation? Ah counsellingÅ . well yes Mal and John, do we have legions of culturally attuned social workers able to speak an Aboriginal language (at least one of the 13 dialects in this community) and ready to fly in to remote communities with sufficient on-the-ground knowledge to be able to understand the dynamics of the family and to know the best option for the child, motivated to stay in a tent city, and self-assured enough to feel protected from the anger of parents and relatives?

2. Linking welfare payments to school attendance in the long run not such a bad idea but to simply impose it in a short time frame ignores the inability of the education system to cope and the reality of many children who are not attending for very understandable reasons if you don¹t get much sleep the night before because of all the people partying in your room, if you are too shamed to go to school because you don¹t have adequate clothes compared to those who are at school (because you share all your clothes with everyone else your size in the house), if you¹re hungry in the morning and there¹s nothing in the house Œcause all those people eat anything as soon as its bought and anyway you can¹t store it if the fridge isn¹t working and no-one knows how to fix it. And your parents don¹t understand the importance of
school they never went either.

Who will act as the truancy officers? The teachers great for building trust and rapport and great for personal safety too. The police they are going to be both very busy and very unpopular and at the moment community police spend a lot of their time cultivating trust and cooperation as they know that force will never control a community. Well then, let¹s employ truancy officers that would be a popular job likely to attract very suitable characters into a traumatized community wouldn¹t it? Don¹t fantasize that you could get community people to do this they would be even more at risk of reprisal than would an outsider.

If all school-aged kids did all turn up on the same day here, there are nowhere near enough classrooms, chairs, teachers and education resources.

The school needs to double in size. Right John, lets fly in a whole bunch of teachers but where do they stay? Tent city? And where do they teach?

And where are they now because the education system has been trying to recruit them for the last 10 years. Lets getting cracking with the building program, the training of teachers who want to work out here, the support for them doing what must be the most challenging teaching job in Australia. We might get somewhere in about 5 years minimum.

Education is central to improving Aboriginal communities. At present many community organizations struggle to find Aboriginal people with the skills and commitment to work in them. Sadly, after 50 years of schooling, training and apprenticeshipping there are very few young local Aboriginal people working in full wage paying jobs most are in work-for-the-dole CDEP positions and earning a Œtop up¹ for extra hours worked beyond the required 20 per week. CDEP promotes underemployment but it successfully disguises the high levels of unemployment in communities so Mal and John can quote a figure of only 13% unemployment for Indigenous Australians those of you who have visited remote communities - do you believe that? There are some older Aboriginal people who trained in the seventies and eighties who do have the skills and are the Health Workers, Rangers, Works Supervisors of the community. However, they are retiring, getting sick, dying from the burdens of responsibility for their communities. There are so few younger ones coming through to replace them. In this community there are training positions leading to full paid work in most organizations health, council, services, retail, industry and all struggle to get anyone local to apply, let alone complete. Balanders (whitefellas) do most of the work. Again, the reasons are complex and require long-term solutions. Attending, prospering in and completing schooling is the key. Blaming is no solution and only serves to undermine any remaining self-confidence a community may have. Force simply will not work.

3. Banning pornography not too many arguments there, but hey, that opens up a good black market doesn¹t it and with the roads open due to abolition of the permits system, there looks to be a few bucks to be made there. And let¹s not believe trafficking in pornography will be done only by Aboriginal people - there are plenty of very dodgy whitefellas in the Outback and Top End frontierland seems to attract them.

4. Banning alcohol on the surface it looks promising but our experience over the last half century of dry communities is that:-

**People leave to drink in towns and cities, sometimes leaving children to be looked after by already overburdened extended family. Those who leave are often young to middle-age and who should be the backbone of the community.

**Black markets for alcohol, gunga, kava, petrol and other drugs quickly develop.

**Alcohol remains that elusive substance to be consumed in as great a quantity and at as great a speed as possible because it is expensive, precious, illicit and it does quell the physical, emotional and spiritual hunger, if only briefly.

Rather, we need programs that encourage responsible consumption of alcohol, where there are rewards for sensible drinking and sanctions for irresponsible drinking. We should also encourage (not impose) non-drinking as a best option (wouldn¹t that be a challenge to the alcohol industry in mainstream society). This community has one of the best models I have seen it would of course be a lot better if it had resources to back it up. Here, you can apply for a permit to drink up to two cartons of beer a fortnight, or 8 bottles of wine (for us balanders). You start off on light beer and if you go OK on that you can apply for full-strength after three months. If you bugger up any violence, breech of other rules (such as sharing with people on a ban), neglect, missing work too much, etc., you lose your permit for three months and have to reapply a committee of balanders and locals make the decisions. It¹s not perfect but is a realistic attempt to encourage responsible patterns of drinking. It¹s a long-term process at the moment the role modelling around alcohol consumption is very negative how can kids grow up with a different relationship to alcohol when all they see is binge drinking or their parents leaving them to go and drink in town.

Alcohol is not going away anytime soon so somehow and sometime Aboriginal people are going to have to learn other ways to deal with it.

5. Taking control of Aboriginal land and abolishing the permit system ahah, are we finally getting to the real agenda? Many Aboriginal people believe so and the evidence for them rests with the decision to abolish the permit system. It makes no sense to them to open communities up to a whole lot more people wandering in and out. Trafficking in alcohol, drugs, pornography and sex suddenly becomes a whole lot easier. It certainly makes no sense if indeed it is a ³crisis² normally a time when restrictions are imposed, not lifted. Look at our response to terrorism.

In their announcements Johnny and Mal talked vaguely of removing some of the rights of Traditional Owners, instituting different rent arrangements in remote communities (as distinct from outstations or homelands), moving towards individual land ownership. We all know that relationship to land is the defining difference between Indigenous and mainstream culture. There may be a case for changing some land arrangements in some places. However, there is little evidence available to encourage Aboriginal people to trust Johnny on this one. And there is ample evidence of the conservative agenda to deny the special rights and place of Aboriginal people in Australia .

One would hope that they will treat each community individually as there is such a diversity of experience and relationship in the different parts of Australia some communities may lend themselves to conversion to individual landholdings, in others it could spell the destruction of all traditional relationships and cultural values. Communities in Arnhem Land are very different to Noel Pearson¹s home community on Cape York. Here language is alive, culture is practiced every day. The Queensland Government of the past had a conscious and largely successful policy of
eradicating language and much culture heritage.

The latest calls to arms for volunteers send shivers through communities - the last thing needed are ill-informed, ill-prepared and ill-supported hordes of volunteers descending on these communities to peddle their own brands of concern, judgement and condescension. You can't say this situation has not been known about for years - genuine volunteers are or have been here already.

There are solutions you have no doubt picked some of them up in the course of reading this. There are many more suggested by others more knowledgeable than me. Solutions require patience and cooperation, are long-term, difficult, expensive and achievable. We need a national commitment beyond the electoral cycle.

Please note these thoughts of mine follow barely a month in residence here I don¹t profess to have all the answers, some of what I say may well be misinformed but I, at least, am prepared to stand corrected. If you are in a position to speak out about this situation or to inform others, please grasp it.


Andrew Biven

C/- Malabam Health Board

PO Box 136

Maningrida NT 0822

Source: ALP Soapbox

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