During a three-day conference here on Indigenous health, the message has come loud and clear from doctors, lawyers, researchers, public servants, economists and Aboriginal leaders. Not a single voice has been raised in defence of the Federal Government’s plans for the NT.

The consensus is that the interventions, especially seizing land and quaranting welfare, are certain to worsen Aboriginal health, and that any initiatives to tackle child abuse, or other health and social problems, are doomed to fail without the support and input of Aboriginal people.

The other overwhelming message is that there is plenty of evidence about what measures are effective in improving Aboriginal health; what has been lacking is the political will and funding to implement them.

Here are some random selections from the conference:

Retired Justice Murray Wilcox: “The way the Federal Government has gone down this route appalls me because it is just making all the mistakes of the past.” He also said that the Government’s failure to apologise to Aboriginal people is “a running sore” and that its bad-mouthing of The Stolen Generation report was “one of the most shameful episodes in Australian history”.

Professor Helen Milroy, Aboriginal psychiatrist in Perth: “At the moment our Government is making us sick. Nobody cares more about Aboriginal children than Aboriginal people.”

Jackie Huggins, Reconciliation Australia: “No one should ever suggest that those who question aspects of the Government’s plan do not want an end to child abuse. The last 40 years have shown what doesn’t work (in Aboriginal health): centralised programs driven from Canberra or capital cities.”

Dr Ngiare Brown, of the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association: “It is patent fiction to link land rights to child protection.”

Rex Wild, QC, coauthor of the Little Children are Sacred report: “The title of the report reflects that everywhere we went, Aboriginal people made it clear that Aboriginal children are sacred. Ninety-nine per cent of Aboriginal people are willing and committed to helping the children.”

Pat Anderson, coauthor of the Little Children are Sacred report: “There is no relationship between the Federal response and our recommendations. We feel betrayed and disappointed and hurt and angry and pretty pissed off at the same time.”

Professor Gavin Mooney, professor of health economics at Curtin University, Perth: “Aboriginal health and wellbeing are as bad as they are because no one in power gives a shit. No one in power is prepared to give enough money or enough power to Aboriginal people to improve things.”

That anger is not only being directed at the Federal Government. Jenny Macklin’s performance, dodging questions about whether Labor would support the legislation, left many unimpressed. ”Labor won’t be able to count on the black vote,” was a common comment. And watch out MPs in marginal seats: an angry mob is heading your way.

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Peter Fray

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