Thursday 21 June 2007 was an important day for me. It marked the final episode of a criminal trial in which I had been involved for over four years. I telephoned my wife to tell her the news. She asked, ‘Are you near a television?’ I assumed, with some surprise, that the news of this particular case’s conclusion in the High Court that day was being announced. ‘No,’ she said, ‘John Howard is taking over the Territory’.

The weeks and months that followed involved Pat Anderson and myself fielding numerous calls from the media. In my case at least, it has provided that fifteen seconds (or so) of fame that Andy Warhol allocated
to each of us. The most commonly asked question, although put somewhat differently at times, has been ‘What do you think of the Commonwealth Government’s response to your report?’

I will endeavour to answer that question here, as far as possible, speaking as well for my co-chair of the Little Children are Sacred report, Pat Anderson, by whom I am authorised to speak. This explains the ‘royal we’ that follows, but also acknowledges the input of the small but dedicated team who assisted our investigation…

…In framing the recommendations, we were conscious of and referred to the critical importance of governments committing to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities, whether in remote, regional or urban settings. Thus the thrust of the recommendations was for consultation with and, ultimately, community ownership of the suggested means for solving child abuse.

The underlying dysfunctionality in circumstances where child s-xual abuse flourishes needs to be attacked and the strength returned to Aboriginal people. It was our view that prevention was the key. We understood the necessity of dealing with offenders and perpetrators, where they were identified, but the underlying root causes needed to be attacked and eradicated. We accepted that this might take a long time. Our recommendations nevertheless provided for some short-term and immediate steps.

It was always our hope, in presenting the report to the Chief Minister, that it would find its way to Canberra and, we hoped, land on the Prime Minister’s desk. It was obvious, from our perspective, that this was a matter of national significance and required the co-operation of the Commonwealth and NT governments (as well as other governments throughout Australia). Immediately after it was launched, there was a burst of media interest and Pat and I spoke separately and together to the media. We saw it as part of our role as co-chairs of the Inquiry to ensure that the recommendations and findings were given substantial coverage.

It was important in our view that the goodwill established with Aboriginal people, and the exposure of the curse of s-xual abuse, be the basis and starting point for an attack upon it.

Published by Arena Publications, Coercive Reconciliation: Stabilise, Normalise, Exit Aboriginal Australia is a series of essays edited by Jon Altman and Melinda Hinkson and is the first book to cover the Northern Territory Intervention. Crikey will be publishing a series of extracts of the book, due to hit bookshelves on the 1st of October, over the next week.

It was our earnest hope that the matter would receive sufficient national coverage to interest the Prime Minister and his government in addressing it as a matter of urgency. We expressed ourselves in this way
in the report overview:

What we have attempted to do in this final part of this Overview
is nominate a set of priorities through which matters would be
managed. However, it must be said again that the problems that
we — and anyone else who has investigated or even visited
Aboriginal communities — have encountered are so
fundamental that nothing short of a massive reform effort,
coupled with a long-term injection of funds, can hope to turn
them around.

In Australian Government terms, the money is clearly available.
What is required is committed long-term funding. So the
question we pose for the Northern Territory Government and
Australian Government (the latter holding the bigger
chequebook) is what will it take to make you, on behalf of the
people of the Territory and Australia, realise the national shame
and racial disorder existing in this lucky country and what will
you do about it?

It is against this background that we have now considered the Commonwealth Government’s response. So although as the co-authors of the report we were ‘very, very happy that our report had landed on
the Prime Minister’s desk’, and that it has played, apparently, some part in him deciding to do something about the plight of Aboriginal people, it seems to us that the government has missed the central point of our recommendations.

The first recommendation, set out above, was absolutely clear: no solution should be imposed from above. We regarded it as critically important that governments commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for their communities. That recommendation was in line with the findings of every other study prior to ours. That is, community involvement of Indigenous people with government should be a ‘bottom-up’ rather than ‘top-down’ process. When the Prime Minister and his Indigenous Affairs Minister initially announced their emergency response, which included the imminent mobilisation of the military, they had not consulted with, as we understand it, the NT Government, and certainly not with the authors of the report. 

Published by Arena Publications, Coercive Reconciliation: Stabilise, Normalise, Exit Aboriginal Australia is a series of essays edited by Jon Altman and Melinda Hinkson and is the first book to cover the Northern Territory Intervention. Crikey will be publishing a series of extracts of the book, due to hit bookshelves on the 1st of October, over the next week.

Peter Fray

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