Originally published in the National Indigenous Times, June 28 2007.
By Chris Graham
Pat Turner, until recently Australia’s most senior Aboriginal bureaucrat, has slammed the Howard Government’s dramatic Northern Territory takeover as “totally unworkable” and a covert ploy to rob Aboriginal people of their land.
Ms Turner, an Arrernte and Guudanji woman, said Aboriginal people in the NT had always endured
“totally inadequate service delivery” from all levels of government and were now facing a military-style intervention.
In an devastating critique of multiple government failures, Ms Turner said that the Howard Government had “cut drastically or totally eliminated” programs for Aboriginal women across Australia.
“We believe that this Government is using child sexual abuse as the Trojan horse to resume total control of our lands,” she told a media conference in Canberra’s Parliament House this week.
“We are totally against tying serious social needs to our hard fought land ownership and land tenure. No compensation will ever, ever replace our land ownership rights.
“We are equally dismayed that (Aboriginal Affairs Minister) Mal Brough is drawing too heavily on his military background to swoop into our communities and do a quick-fix, a quick election ploy fix.”
Ms Turner was speaking on behalf of 13 Alice Springs’ Aboriginal organisations, part of an alliance of more than 100 Aboriginal, religious and welfare groups, that released an open letter to Mr Brough warning that his actions “miss the mark and are unlikely to be effective”.
The alliance welcomed Mr Brough╒s commitment to “tackling violence and abuse in certain Aboriginal communities╙ and said ╥the safety and well being of Indigenous children is paramount”.
“We are deeply concerned at the severity and widespread nature of the problems of child sexual abuse and community breakdown,” it said.
The alliance noted, however, that “services which most Australians take for granted, schools, health services, child protection family support services and police” were “often not delivered to remote Indigenous communities”.
It supported the NT’s Little Children are Sacred report call on the Australian and NT governments to work together urgently to fill these gaps in service and said a longer term plan was also needed “to address the underlying causes of the problem, including community breakdown, joblessness, overcrowding and low levels of education”.
“The (Government’s) proposals go well beyond an “emergency response and will have a profound effect on people’s incomes, land ownership and their ability to decide the kind of medical treatment they receive,” the letter said.
“Some of the measures will weaken communities and families by taking from them the ability to make basic decisions about their lives, thus removing responsibility instead of empowering them.
“There is an over-reliance on top-down and punitive measures, and insufficient indication that additional resources will be mobilised where they are urgently needed; to improve housing, child protection and domestic violence supports, schools, health services, alcohol and drug rehab programs.
“These issues have been raised by many Indigenous leaders over many years.”
Signatories to the letter included former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, Mick Dodson, Dr Lowitja O╒Donoghue, Olga Havnen, Geoff Scott, Larissa Behrendt, Stan Grant, Tracey Holmes and Jeff McMullan.
Organisations represented included ACOSS, the National Council of Churches, Anglicare, Tangentyere Council and the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.
NSWALC’s Chairperson, Bev Manton, said: “As a mother and grandmother I am very concerned about the abuse of children and the strategy that the Howard Government is implementing here”.
“The Government can’t use a military approach in this situation. It’s hard to comprehend how the Government thinks that this can work.”
Ms Turner’s questioning of the credibility of the NT intervention follows a 28-year career with the Australian Public Service, most of it at senior levels, including with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and Centrelink.
Awarded the Order of Australia for public service in 1990, she was also a former Chief Executive Officer of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.
Ms Turner said NT Aboriginal people were “shocked that the Prime Minister and his ministers are finally admitting that there’s a major problem in our communities”.
“Many of the services that we have had in the past, and I am fully aware of this as former CEO of ATSIC until 1998 have been cut drastically by the Howard Government or totally eliminated.
“Women’s programs that we had in communities that were very successful programs, you will now only find a couple of women’s programs supported around Australia, compared to some 30 or 40 we had operating around Australia when I was the CEO of ATSIC.
“What the Prime Minister and his Minister Mal Brough are proposing is, in the view of the Combined Aboriginal Organisations in Alice Springs, totally unworkable.”