I have been calling for governments to turn commitments into action, so I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to tackle violence and child and alcohol abuse in indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. I, like all indigenous and non-indigenous people, want to see every indigenous child enjoying the basic right to live free from violence in a safe and supportive home and community.

I acknowledge the finding of the Anderson/Wild report that violence and child abuse have reached crisis levels in many indigenous communities. I hope that these latest announcements will lead to an injection of new funding into indigenous communities to provide services that have long been missing – such as policing, adequate housing and health services.

My concern with the Federal Government’s proposal is that it doesn’t put in place the preventative measures that indigenous people need to stop the violence, and then prevent it from reoccurring. Nor does it provide the resources or services to support indigenous people once these changes are made. How will people be assisted to safely come off their alcohol or substance addiction? Where are the rehabilitation services? Where are the trauma counselling and support services for families?

There is a growing use of amphetamines, ice and other drugs in indigenous communities — care must be taken to ensure that these are also tackled and they do not become a substitute if blanket alcohol bans are introduced.

I am also concerned that some of the proposed measures have the potential to do more harm to indigenous communities. For example, the measures to abolish the permit system in the Northern Territory. Permits have never prevented child-care officers or police or any other government official from visiting indigenous communities. The free movement of non-indigenous people through these communities is likely to create a new raft of difficulties for indigenous people. Permits have been a major tool in regulating access to communities – something that will be a key issue in preventing grog running with alcohol restrictions in place.

The real obstacles to ending violence are insufficient professional and support staff, resources and basic infrastructure that indigenous communities need so that they can operate in a functional way.

We have seen this in schools in the Territory. I have a letter on my desk from Mapuru in Arnhem Land, a remote community that has been writing to government for over five years asking for a school to be built for their kids – and they are still waiting. Mapuru is not alone. Only last year, the Senate Estimates process exposed the complete incapacity of Wadeye to provide enough primary places for the indigenous kids that live in that regional centre.

What will happen to the parents of children in towns like Wadeye who can’t get their child into the local school because there isn’t one or it is overcrowded? Under the Government’s proposal they may become subject to controls on 50% of the income-support payments and lose their family-assistance payments.

There are so many questions raised by the Government’s proposal that need to be answered. How are indigenous people going to be made aware of these proposed changes that will so dramatically affect their lives?

Already today, we have seen significant bipartisan and inter-governmental support for working together on these difficult issues with the highest priority. Indigenous peoples should also be part of the conversation. I encourage both the Australian and Northern Territory governments to work with indigenous peoples in identifying the solutions to ensure that any outcomes are sustainable in the longer term.

The stakes are great and protecting our children is of paramount importance, but there are many potentially adverse consequences of implementing a quick response to a complex social problem without widespread consultation with the communities and their leaders and practitioners who can provide professional advice and guidance.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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