The Little Children are Sacred report presents a disturbing picture of child abuse in indigenous communities in the Northern Territory.

However, what is perhaps most disturbing is that, as the authors themselves note, nothing in the report is new or unexpected. While this time the spotlight is on child s-xual abuse, over the years there have been numerous reports in to the social problems affecting indigenous Australians. S-xual abuse is yet another symptom of communities in distress. Indigenous communities have been calling for help for many, many years and their pleas have gone unheeded.

The Little Children are Sacred report recommends that the issue be treated as urgent and as being of national significance, and the Howard Government has taken on this part of the report.

The report also states that “it is critical that both governments (federal and NT) commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities”. However, indigenous people have not been consulted, and individual communities have not been given an opportunity to raise concerns specific to their communities or to suggest solutions that might work for them.

The report recommends improving basic services and tackling social evils over the long term, “a generation or longer” is how long the report anticipates it will take to see results. However, the Federal Government has likened the situation to dealing with a natural disaster, where emergency crews march in and swiftly clean things up. But, we are not talking here about clearing debris or repairing power lines. We are talking about mending people’s lives and rebuilding communities, and this cannot be done unless the Government works in partnership with communities and with a genuine commitment to support them over the long term.

One of the most worrying aspects of the Government’s proposal is the plan to further amend the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NT) so as to scrap the permit system to enter Aboriginal land and to allow the Federal Government to acquire whichever Aboriginal townships it chooses under five-year leases. There is nothing in the Little Children are Sacred report which suggests that these measures are necessary to stamp out child abuse.

In fact, it seems contrary to what the report suggests. There is evidence in the report that some of the perpetrators of s-xual abuse are in fact non-indigenous people (specific reference was made to miners and taxi drivers) who are trading money, petrol and drugs for s-x. Removal of the permit system will only increase the opportunity for undesirables to enter Aboriginal land and exploit vulnerable people. Why ban alcohol and pornography in indigenous communities on the one hand, and then open the gates for these to flood in?

Each indigenous community is different. They have different problems and different ideas for solutions.

Here, on the Tiwi islands, people speak of the “three Gs” – grog, gunja and gambling – as being the main challenges facing the community. These addictions are having a harmful effect on families. The local clinics and police stations are under-staffed and under-resourced to cope with the social problems that affect a large segment of the community. Tiwi elders, community leaders and organisations have been battling to overcome the problems in their communities for years, and it is disappointing that these groups who have the knowledge of local issues will not have a say in designing the solutions.

Losing the ability to control who enters their land is something that no Tiwi wants. The issue of 99-year leasing has divided the Tiwi community because they are concerned about losing control of their land and are fearful of outside influences that may come in to the community. Recently, the Alice Springs Town Campers rejected an offer of $60 million for a 99-year lease on their land, sending a clear message to the Howard Government that no amount of money will persuade them to give up their land.

And, when the Government last year announced its plan to abolish the permit system, it was met with harsh criticism from indigenous leaders, the Northern and Central Land councils, the Law Council of Australia, and other commentators. But now, under the guise of protecting children, the Government will push ahead to fulfil its own agenda.

Loss of land, culture and identity is at the heart of why indigenous Australians are suffering. So, how will taking authority away from indigenous leaders and eroding land rights help indigenous children?