2. Flawed foundations of the NTER
Political motivations behind the NTER
It is clear from the LCAS report, and indeed, any of the recent similar reports on the sexual abuse of Indigenous children, such as NSW's Breaking the Silence report,3 exactly the kinds of responses that are required from governments.
The most critical aspects of a comprehensive response include genuine consultation and engagement with Aboriginal communities around the issues, and cooperation and coordination between the different levels of government, in this case the Northern Territory and Australian governments. Why? Because in order to be successful, solutions require the active support and engagement of affected communities backed up by the concerted action and resources of governments.
Indeed, the very first recommendation of the LCAS report urged the NT and Australian governments to establish an immediate collaborative partnership and to commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal communities in designing responses.
So, at the outset, we must ask why the Howard Government's NT Emergency Response utterly failed to meet these most important pre-conditions? Regrettably, the answer appears to lie in political considerations unrelated to the issue of tackling child abuse. Instead, the Australian Government's response was at least in part based on calculations regarding the then upcoming federal election4 and prompted counter-moves by the Rudd Opposition to avoid being ‘wedged' in the lead-up to the election. Such a political agenda required hairy-chested responses couched in language such as "national emergency" and "intervention", and the mobilisation of army personnel - designed to resonate with (read "dog whistle") the electorate at large. In contrast, the LCAS report had less emotively urged the issue be regarded as of "urgent national significance" and that a consultative, evidence-based rather than prescriptive approach, that genuinely empowered Aboriginal communities, be adopted.
The wrong turns resulting from those early politically-motivated decisions continue to negatively impact on and impede progress in achieving the objectives of the NTER. It is for this reason, together with that of reinforcing the fundamental importance of adopting evidence-based policy processes, that AMSANT urges the Review Panel to give consideration to, and provide findings with respect to the flawed foundations of the NTER [See Recommendation 1].
Lack of relevance and evidence for NTER measures
The LCAS report urged strong action from governments and detailed a suite of evidence-based measures to tackle the issue. The problem is that many of the measures adopted by the Australian Government bear little resemblance to those advocated in the report, while other measures addressed key areas identified in the report, such as alcohol, in ways that were not envisaged and are not evidence based. This is not surprising considering the political motivations behind the NTER and the fact, admitted by then Indigenous Affairs Minister, Mal Brough, that the Australian Government's response was thrown together in 48 hours5 with almost no consultation.
The result was a grab bag of measures many of which are unrelated to, or lack evidence as effective solutions to child neglect and child sexual abuse. This includes the removal of the permit system for entry to prescribed communities, and the take-over of control of Aboriginal community land by the Australian Government, compulsory health and sexual abuse checks of children (see below), and compulsory income quarantining. None of these measures are supported by evidence that they are effective or appropriate responses to addressing child sexual abuse.
Counter-productive aspects of the NTER
If we look at the evidence around child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities it is clear that some of the NTER measures not only lack an evidence base, but in fact are likely to exacerbate the factors that contribute to it.
The LCAS report emphasised the direct relationship between societal breakdowns and the incidence of child sexual abuse, summarised as:
"...the cumulative effects of poor health, alcohol, drug abuse, gambling, pornography, unemployment, poor education and housing and general disempowerment lead inexorably to family and other violence and then on to sexual abuse of men and women and, finally, of children."6
The Breaking the Silence report identified similar factors influencing the incidence of child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities:
Social and economic disadvantage
Exposure to pornography and a sexualised society
‘Normalisation' of violence (or intergenerational cycle of violence)
The presence of family violence
Unresolved trauma and grief
Breakdown of family and community structures
Lack of community engagement with the issue
Lack of support for community driven solutions
Inadequate responses from service providers.7
Against these factors, which highlight the need to address the drivers of individual, family and community dysfunction, many of the measures and processes of the NTER have been counter-productive. The indiscriminate, demonising language of the government's public justification for declaring a "national emergency" implied that all Aboriginal communities were rife with sexual abuse and all Aboriginal men were child abusers. The lack of consultation, the imposition of paternalistic, racially-discriminatory, blanket measures such as income quarantining, the removal of permits for entry onto Aboriginal land, the compulsory take-over of communities on Aboriginal land, and the installing of paternalistic administrators (Government Business Managers or GBMs) in communities, have contributed to the sense of powerlessness and social exclusion felt by Aboriginal people in affected communities. There have been many reports of the shame and humiliation felt by Aboriginal people in public at feeling regarded as child abusers or at having to use store cards because their incomes were quarantined. Thousands of people employed through CDEP have lost their jobs and have had their incomes reduced through being forced onto ‘work-for-the-dole' welfare. Many community organisations reliant on CDEP workers found their programs, including essential services such as night patrols and stores, put in jeopardy. The list goes on. Such measures, along with their implementation processes, have contributed to the erosion of the very social capital within communities that successive reports have identified as essential to tackling child sexual abuse.
Such outcomes also run counter to the very strong evidence that health and well-being are closely associated with the level of control that individuals and communities are able to exert over their lives.8 Undermining or removing control will worsen, not improve, health and wellbeing outcomes.
For example, the importance of meaningful employment and job control for health improvement has been well documented by Marmot (1999).9 Marmot's research has also shown how low self esteem is a significant public health issue, especially for marginalised populations. This work has been reinforced by research in Canadian Indigenous communities10 which has shown that communities characterised by high levels of cultural continuity (defined by a set of eight factors including obtaining certain rights to self-government, securing title to traditional lands and initiating some degree of control over services within their community)11 experience few to no suicides. In fact, those communities that have achieved some degree of self-determination have experienced a reduction in suicides by 85%.12
Chandler and Lalonde's research was achieved by noting the significant differences in the circumstances and conditions of communities with high levels of suicide compared with those with little or no suicide. In other words, they adopted the approach of studying the factors that contribute to strong, resilient communities as these point the way to providing solutions for communities in trouble. This insight and approach has been entirely lacking in the Australian Government's Emergency Response. The blanket denigration of communities as dysfunctional has served to obscure and devalue existing strengths which we know can provide communities with a path out of the current social crises. As a result, communities which experience little or no sexual abuse and family violence and other indices of social dysfunction are being treated the same as those with severe dysfunction, and no attempt is being made to identify and support the factors that underpin their strengths and resilience.
It is also clear that where NTER measures address significant aspects of disadvantage or dysfunction, such as housing, education, police, alcohol and pornography, the effectiveness of these measures has been greatly reduced by the overall lack of effective consultation and engagement with communities and the NT government. A number of our member services have reported that community members regard the NTER as "government humbugging" and remain disengaged from it, or are uninformed or confused about the nature and intent of some of the measures. On the other hand, some community members are supportive of aspects of the measures.
The initial lack of engagement with the NT government in developing and implementing the initiative was also counter-productive because it is the sphere of government that ultimately holds ongoing responsibility for administering these policy areas at the Territory and community levels. Fortunately, coordination between the two levels of government has improved since the change of Federal Government.
Finally, while acknowledging the importance of social determinants such as access to health services, housing and education, the NTER has still not provided an adequate response to the critical lack of basic services and infrastructure in communities and other underlying issues. The failure to provide a plan or commit to adequate long-term funding to bring such services and infrastructure up to equitable standards based on need, is a consequence of framing the Australian Government's response as an "emergency" and will serve to limit and undermine the goals of the NTER. In contrast, the submission by the Combined Aboriginal Organisations (CAO) of the Northern Territory proposed a two-stage response including both urgent measures together with a comprehensive, long-term community development plan.13
Analysis of the progress of the NTER has provided support for the kind of approach proposed by the CAO and highlights the need for detailed plans to ensure the linking and transition of each NTER measure to an appropriate, long-term, sustainable service delivery strategy and plan. AMSANT urges the Review Panel to recommend that such plans be developed in relation to each NTER measure. [See Recommendation 2].
Lack of a monitoring and evaluation plan
A further significant flaw in the foundations of the NTER was its failure to design a monitoring and evaluation plan at the beginning of the initiative. This is further complicated by the lack of baseline data to assess the processes, progress and impact for many of the key aspects of the NTER. For example, in terms of monitoring child sexual abuse, the Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) indicator used to evidence cases not only indicates adult to child sexual activity, but also adult to adolescent and adolescent to adolescent sexual activity. Child sexual abuse also frequently occurs without STI infection (see Section 8, Child Protection). As a consequence it will be difficult to determine the effectiveness not only of much of the NTER measures, but also the accuracy of data collected to date, making the task of the Review Panel in this respect all the more difficult. It will be necessary, amongst other things, to ensure that there is proper ongoing monitoring and evaluation of NTER measures in place so that it can be determined if the measures are achieving effective outcomes. [See Recommendation 3].
Shouldn't we just be thankful that strong action was taken?
Strong action should not be confused with correct action. AMSANT welcomes the increased priority and resources that have been made available as a result of the NTER, but laments the fact that so much money has been wasted on inappropriate, ill-thought out and poorly-implemented measures.
In fact, the casting of the Australian Government's response as an "emergency" has encouraged an attitude whereby getting things in place and being seen to be responding has often taken priority over ensuring that the responses are appropriate and properly implemented.
This also underlies one of the most commonly expressed criticisms of the NTER from within our sector – that its genesis was based on and has perpetuated the misconception that all that had gone before in Indigenous affairs policy had been a failure involving the massive waste of money with little to show for it. It has encouraged an attitude amongst some of those associated with the NTER (many of whom had no previous experience of working with Aboriginal communities) that there is nothing to learn from those with existing experience and nothing of value in pre-existing processes, structures and programs.
Nothing could be further from the truth and it is AMSANT's opinion that one of the biggest failures of the NTER has been to ignore the experience and evidence about what works. As a consequence much done in the name of the NTER has involved "reinventing the wheel" and along the way falling into the same traps and errors that were already well-understood and entirely avoidable. Aboriginal communities and community-based organisations have been relegated to the sideline.
AMSANT believes on the available evidence that the first twelve months of the NTER will itself be regarded as substantially misconceived, resulting, in many instances, in the significant waste of money and sub-optimal outcomes. Much more could have been achieved. However, there is also a view that, notwithstanding its short-comings, it has provided a previously-absent catalyst for significant change. AMSANT takes the view that we must use this opportunity to ‘get it right', and to ensure from this point on that all the measures will be appropriate and achieve the outcomes that Aboriginal communities and the broader community expect and deserve.
However, AMSANT is also deeply concerned that those who have conceived and championed the racially-discriminatory, interventionist approach adopted by the NTER will continue to attempt to justify it by shifting blame for failures back onto Aboriginal communities. Having already endured an unrelenting period of negative stereotyping from commentators, the media and government, such an outcome, if successful, would be a further injustice to Aboriginal people that AMSANT strongly urges the Review Panel to give careful consideration to.
3. Attorney General's Department NSW (2006), Breaking the Silence: Creating the Future. Addressing child sexual assault in Aboriginal communities in NSW. Report of the Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce.
7. Attorney General's Department NSW (2006), Breaking the Silence: Creating the Future. Addressing child sexual assault in Aboriginal communities in NSW. Report of the Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce. Pp 58-65.
9. Marmot MG (1999). The importance of psychosocial factors in the workplace to the development of disease. In Social determinants of health edited by Marmot MG and Wilkinson RG. New York: Oxford University Press. 1999.
10. Chandler, M. J. & Lalonde, C. E. (in press). Cultural continuity as a moderator of suicide risk among Canada's First Nations. In L.J. Kirmayer & G. Valaskakis (Eds.). The Mental Health of Canadian Aboriginal Peoples: Transformations, Identity, and Community. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
11. Ibid. pp18-19. The eight factors are: a) evidence of taking steps to secure aboriginal title to their traditional lands; b) evidence of having taken back from government agencies certain rights of self-government; evidence of having secured some degree of community control over c) educational services; d) police and fire protection services; e) health delivery services; f) evidence of having established officially-recognised "cultural facilities" to preserve and enrich their cultural lives; g) the participation of women in local governance; and h) the provision of child and family services within the community.
12. BridgeWorks Consulting Inc. (2007), Social Determinants of Health: First Nations, Inuit and Métis Perspectives, draft paper for the National Collaborating Centre For Aboriginal Health, University of Northern British Columbia.
13. Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the Northern Territory (2007), A proposed Emergency Response and Development Plan to protect Aboriginal Children in the Northern Territory: A preliminary response to the Australian Government's proposals.