The shocking plight of Aboriginal women and children, both boys and
girls, caught in a ceaseless cycle of domestic violence and rape
fuelled by alcohol and other substance abuse, has finally hit the
headlines.

The front page story in The Australian
this morning picks out overcrowding as a factor in endemic violence. It
outlines some recommendations following a review of Aboriginal public
housing by his department ordered by Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal
Brough, such as funding housing through state and territory
governments rather than Aboriginal community organisations, and to
require the latter to undergo training on governance.

In May last year the Centre for Independent Studies published an
article by John Cleary, who was CEO of Tiwi Islands Local Government
from 2002-2005: “Lessons from the Tiwi Islands: The need for radical
improvement in remote Aboriginal communities.” Cleary was a Liberal
member of the Tasmanian Parliament from 1979-1986 and from 1988-1998.
He was variously Minister for Health, Aboriginal Affairs, Local
Government and other portfolios. The article followed a letter to Prime
Minister John Howard on the subject, while the departmental
recommendations could have been taken from his paper.

Cleary writes: “The governance structures created during the last 30
years for remote Aboriginal communities are so dysfunctional that the
many millions of dollars that have been channelled into various
programmes for Indigenous people have failed to deliver any real
outcomes for them. Instead the benefits have flowed almost exclusively
to ‘big men’ and their non-Indigenous administrators.”

While his paper is not about violence, it underpins his 16
recommendations for radical change, and he says many traditional
leaders are “lost in the mire of alcohol, drugs and self-interest.”

Among his recommendations, Cleary advocates:

  • A single, simple, local governance structure.
  • The Land Rights Act be amended to provide more flexible ownership to encourage initiative and responsibility.
  • All operations of Land Councils and Land Trusts to be open and accountable.
  • Child welfare payments to be tied to school attendance.
  • Responsibility for funding and delivery of health services should be moved to local and state governments.

Cleary’s paper is unequivocal about what is needed, and reveals some
shameful behaviour by the “big men” who pocket community funds for
their own gain. He also says: “The personal disposable income in
communities is high. Although most are dependent on welfare payments,
the high number of individuals per household delivers a higher level of
disposable income per household than many other Australians experience.

Unfortunately the majority of this money is often spent on gambling, alcohol and drugs… “

Peter Fray

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