Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that the Federal Government’s foray into the NT is more about achieving policy goals rather than political objectives. In which case it’s timely, four weeks after the Government announced its “national emergency response” to s-xual abuse of Aboriginal children, to ask: how will we know what difference the initiative has made?

More importantly, how will we know that any potential harms — and it’s hard to think of a health or social welfare intervention which doesn’t involve risks — outweigh the benefits?

Harms are particularly likely when policy is being made on the run and without consultation, careful planning or drawing on the evidence base about what interventions are most likely to be helpful. (If you doubt that’s what’s been happening in the NT, check the Government’s statement of June 21 announcing plans, which were quickly shelved, for “compulsory health checks for all Aboriginal children.”)

These are important questions, deserving serious attention. But there are no signs the Government has any intention of putting in place an independent, credible evaluation process.

Professor Ian Anderson, Director of the Centre for Health and Society and the Onemda VicHealth Koori Health Unit at the University of Melbourne, is one of the country’s gurus of Indigenous program evaluation. If any evaluation was planned, he would likely know about it. But he hasn’t heard a whisper.

Anderson supports some of the Federal strategies, including ensuring a police presence in remote communities, but worries that pressing children to disclose s-xual abuse without providing long term follow-up may lead to harm.

“Any focus which brings a child to disclosure without having in place adequate and sound referral and follow-up services is quite risky,” he says. “Children are at risk of suicide for some time after disclosure.

“Suicide is one of the extreme consequences but there is a whole range of possible emotional harm that results from well-intentioned interventions by people without the appropriate experience.”

Anderson says enforced alcohol bans are “bad policy” when they are not linked to a more comprehensive strategy and are likely just to transplant problems — he has already heard of groups of people moving across the NT border — rather than solve them. They also encourage sly grogging and more risky forms of drinking, and many also encourage the use of other drugs, such as cannabis.

Evaluating the initiative wouldn’t be easy — an increase in child s-xual abuse notification rates in the NT might be a positive development if it means, not a real increase in cases, but an increase in children and families getting help. But Anderson says there are plenty of existing health and criminal justice data systems to provide a basis for evaluation.

The main problem in evaluating the initiative would be its lack of forethought, he says. “In evaluation we identify program logic and the over-arching goals of a program,” he says. “This is a policy initiative that doesn’t necessarily have a coherent program goal.”

If the Government really wants to understand the impact of its initiative, it should be speaking to people like Ian Anderson. But he’s not expecting that call anytime soon. “There’s been no talk of evaluation at this stage and, to be frank, I’m not sure the Australian Government is that interested in it,” he says.

Which suggests that the opinion polls may provide the only measure that really counts in the current political climate. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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