When the Prime Minister, Premiers, the Chief Ministers of the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory and the President of the Australian Local Government Association sat down in Canberra back on 13 April for “detailed discussions on significant areas of national interest” child abuse in indigenous communities was on the agenda but there was no hint of crisis.

The official release after this meeting of the Council of Australian Governments noted “progress on actions arising from COAG’s July 2006 agreement on tackling violence and child abuse” and a request that a further progress report be provided to it by December 2007.

Achievements, the country’s political heads reported, included the launch of a National Indigenous Violence and Child Abuse Intelligence Taskforce, establishment of a Joint Strike Team in the Northern Territory, and the accelerated roll-out of the Indigenous Child Health Check.

As the head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Dr Peter Shergold, chairs the Commonwealth Departmental Secretaries’ Group on Indigenous Affairs which advises the Ministerial Taskforce on Indigenous Affairs and provides leadership to the Australian Public Service on indigenous issues. Prime Minister John Howard was presumably well briefed before this meeting that the progress on tackling violence and child abuse in truth amounted to very little.

It was after-all, as the COAG statement noted, a “Joint Strike Team” tackling the problem in the Northern Territory. The urgency in dealing with the problem would thus seem to be a very recent development.

At least there was a hint in the COAG decisions that young people were to be a priority area for future attention. The Canberra meeting made the following decisions about what was described as “Indigenous Generational Reform”:

  • COAG reaffirmed its commitment to closing the outcomes gap between Indigenous people and other Australians over a generation and resolved that the initial priority for joint action should be on ensuring that young Indigenous children get a good start in life.
  • COAG requested that the Indigenous Generational Reform Working Group prepare a detailed set of specific, practical proposals for the first stage of cumulative generational reform for consideration by COAG as soon as practicable in December 2007. National initiatives will be supported by additional bi-lateral and jurisdiction specific initiatives as required to improve the life outcomes of young Indigenous Australians and their families.
  • COAG also agreed that urgent action was required to address data gaps to enable reliable evaluation of progress and transparent national and jurisdictional reporting on outcomes. COAG also agreed to establish a jointly-funded clearing house for reliable evidence and information about best practice and success factors.
  • COAG requested that arrangements be made as soon as possible for consultation with jurisdictional Indigenous advisory bodies and relevant Indigenous peak organisations.

That Mr Howard and the other leaders did not need the recent report on child abuse to the Northern Territory Government to know that there was a serious problem was clear from statements after the previous COAG meeting back in July 2006.

Dealing with a report from the “Intergovernmental Summit on Violence and Child Abuse in Indigenous Communities” held on 26 June 2006, the country’s leaders:

…expressed concern that some Indigenous communities suffer from high levels of family violence and child abuse. Leaders agreed that this is unacceptable. Its magnitude demands an immediate national targeted response focused on improving the safety of Indigenous Australians. Despite all jurisdictions having taken steps over recent years to address this problem, improved resourcing and a concerted, long-term joint effort are essential to achieve significant change. COAG understands that these issues exist for Indigenous communities throughout Australia in urban, rural and remote areas.

That the information on which COAG makes its judgments is not always accurate was suggested by the encouraging conclusion contained in the minutes of the COAG meeting earlier in 2006 which noted the continuation of its Indigenous trials, announced at the April 2002 meeting, “which are demonstrating that a partnership approach between governments and communities can make a real difference for Indigenous Australians.”

One of those trials was at Wadeye in the Northern Territory about which the ABC’s Lateline reported in May that:

…there are fears the gang violence that’s sweeping the Northern Territory’s largest Aboriginal community will spill over into Darwin. People have already fled Wadeye, becoming virtual refugees in the capital, and hundreds more could soon follow. But among those who’ve fled are some of the very gang members who’ve rioted in their town, torching buildings and cars in a spree of tit-for-tat violence.

For evidence that the difficulties in dealing with Aboriginal policy are not confined to relations being split between Federal and State Governments, the report to COAG back in April 2002 called COAG Reconciliation Framework: Report on Progress in 2001 is worth looking at.

It lists the activities of 23 separate ministerial councils involving different Federal departments whose activities need to be co-ordinated.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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