Every picture tells a story …
As a former Northern Territory public servant who spent over 20 years dealing with policy development and program management in a range of fields relating to Indigenous people, I wont dwell on my anger at the way the Brough/Howard plan was announced or my occasional fury at some of the ill informed commentary. Rather, I will look at what experience might tell us about the chances of success of the plan.
Success in this area requires more than dramatic statements. If the Brough/Howard plan had been put up by officers working for me I would have sent them away to come back with:
- a process that offered some chance of a positive result;
- clearly articulated outcomes that relate to the issue at hand; and
- an approach that set out the strategies and actions that would deliver the outcomes sought;
in the context of the cross-cultural environments in which it must operate.
Shared trust and understanding are not notable characteristics of the environment in which governmentsFederal, Territory and localare interacting with Aboriginal people in remote communities. There, the experience is often marked by the development of expectations of government action that either never happens or takes so long that the original undertaking is long forgotten. Some in governments find it hard to appreciate that what works in other parts of society doesn’t achieve the same traction in remote Aboriginal communities, or from one community to another.
The lack of a shared understanding is often at the heart of this lack of shared trust. Many politicians and bureaucrats seem to be unaware that the assessments and judgements they make are based on their own cultural mores. This lack of awareness is, perhaps, one thing that they do share with the Aboriginal people they seek to influence. Both ‘sides’ appreciate that the other mob are different; neither necessarily appreciates the extent to which their own culture dictates their decisions.
Lack of shared knowledge of the systems in place creates another barrier. A politician tells an Aboriginal family ‘I will get you houses if you clean up your houses/get a job/send your kids to school.’ The Aboriginal family knows their house is as clean as it needs to be, the kids go to school a couple of days a week and there are no jobs available. So the houses promised will comesoon. The politician flies off and the program managers move in and make the decisions they are required to on the basis of need. The houses don’t come.
Contrary to some views being put, there have been successes in this environment, albeit too few. A careful process, though, is critical. Muck that up and your chances of successful outcomes are drastically diminished or destroyed.
No sensible person would deny that the situation of children in remote Indigenous communities is serious or that action is overdue. Whether the issue is sexual abuse, a more general maltreatment or a widespread failure to give every kid a chance of a reasonable quality of life, there is a need that is not being effectively addressed. I understand the Federal Government’s desire to intervene – although I am cynical about the timing. Unfortunately their process has been very poor to date.
The Brough/Howard plan, we are told, relies on moving in, taking over, stabilising the communities and then moving to ‘normalise’. We are yet to find out what ‘normalise’ means in detail. Stabilising seems to mean establishing a dictatorship of some nature in each major community, backed by the police.
In my experience, dictatorship and the direct action that it allows can work, at least for a while. Time and again in the NTG I saw the benefit that could be delivered in management and development of a community by strong and direct action, through the installation or support of a ‘dictator’. At times these dictators were CEOs of councils and at other times they were dominant elected people, sometimes traditional owners, from the community. To all appearances things would tick over nicely with services being delivered, infrastructure being managed and people having an apparently reasonable quality of lifeuntil the dictator left, died or lost interest. The collapse that often follows is not inevitable but, for the people living there, it can be extremely destructive. People often vote with their feet. A township of 500 can drop to 150 in a very short time.
It is possible to intervene with direct and possibly harsh action, and move on to something more sustainable but it is critical that you know precisely what you are doing and that you follow a clearly thought out plan. This must have some key elements. You must, for instance, ensure that the people know what is going on, preferably directly from someone in authority. It is both disrespectful and disastrous to achieving the desired outcomes not to engage very early with the people, the human beings, that you are about to shame. And you need to be very clear that it is highly likely that you are shaming people by intervening and that it will hurt them. You therefore run a major risk of rallying support for the thugs, spivs and crookswho are the reason for your interventionif the people don’t know and understand what you are doing. Your targets may be scum but they are part of the groupand you are not.
Communication is at the heart of your engagement with any group of people, and particularly where you are trying to get them to change. Effective communication is not easy if the language and world view of those intervening is very different from that of the people who are the target. In most of the roles I have carried over the last 20 years I have had to communicate with Aboriginal people. I don’t speak an Aboriginal language and certainly not all of the languages spoken in the Territory. There is no doubt that meetings where skilled interpreters are operating are dramatically different from those where we try to use English to get the message across. The establishment of an Aboriginal Interpreter Service in the Northern Territory was extremely difficult and done over strong objections, but it is now available.
Your message must be credible and honest. Your message cannot change or move. If you don’t know what you are doing then admit it up front. Then you have the chance to work with the people to identify the real problem and find solutions. If you know what you are doing, and why, then be honest, but also be aware that any insensitivity can seriously affect your outcomes. Dont shame people unless there is a real value in it and unless you know and can live with the consequences.
I could go on but perhaps it is clear that, if you want to achieve a positive outcome, then you don’t make a shock announcement in Canberraor Darwin for that matterwithout prior advice to the people concerned. You don’t make announcements without having the message clear and the details of the long term plan mapped out. You make sure that all the elements of your plan make sense and can be explained in terms that people understand. And you ensure that, at the earliest opportunity, the people are able to take ownership of the issue and its solutions.
The process is now moving into the hands of the bureaucrats, many of whom have the knowledge, understanding and experience to bring the process around and move to a more positive approach. But then you run into the problems with the ‘product’. What outcomes are actually being sought?
Minister Brough talks passionately of small children being saved from predators tonight. We can all appreciate the sentiment behind the Brough statement but it is clear that he is not able to achieve safety for children being abused ‘tonight’. The statement is obviously made for impact and to demonstrate urgency. How though will it play in remote communities? Is it a promise? It surely must be expected that this is why the police and troops are coming. Will they indiscriminately grab people and lock them up or take kids away? What exactly will the police do that they haven’t been doing all along?
Dealing with specific instances of sexual abuse of children is a specialised task. It requires an understanding of children, the nature of abuse, family relationships and wider interactions within a community along with knowledge of the law and of the ways that a child who has been abused can be helped to deal with the issues they face in the future. Unfortunately I suppose that an announcement that squads of social workers would be formed to move into remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory would not have had the impact of troops and police who, with as much good will as they undoubtedly have, are unlikely to have the skills.
A ban on alcohol. Again it sounds good. That’s about it. Prohibition is a strategy that has not delivered in the past. Tight regulation of alcohol supply can reduce consumption by opportunistic drinkers but those dedicated to the cause will continue to drink until the desire is reduced or removed. And if they can’t get grog, then we know they will simply move on to another product. Prohibiting everything is a never-ending task and incredibly wasteful of time, resourcesand lives. But an attack on the desire of drinkers to get and stay drunk requires careful, multi-faceted programs rather than something nice and simple like a ban.
The Territory Living With Alcohol Program was working once. It reduced consumption over time, gave power and capacity to communities and didn’t simply shift the problem to other substances or other places. Action by the Federal Government to assist with the legal impediments and allow this proven program to operate again would not be dramatic, but it could provide success.
Linking welfare payments to school attendance and care of kids. An excellent idea if it can be done in a way that doesn’t discriminate against Aboriginal people and if it is very carefully introduced so it affects only those who are irresponsible. Treat responsible people, or even people who believe they are being responsible, as irresponsible and you run the risk of greater anger, greater shame and less success. Just imagine how you would feel if you had spent years doing the right thing against the odds only to find that you are being lumped in with those who you have battled for years.
The ‘takeover’ of communities. Yet again, to those without background, it sounds good. It might even be a good idea, but we are not sure yet what it means. It could be a wholesale sacking of all councils and the appointment of administrators or managers. This would be possible under the Northern Territory Local Government Act. There is even a reform process underway already that is heading down a similar path, aimed at providing effective administration and governance for all communities.
But this may not be what the Federal Government has in mind. It is starting to sound as if they really mean they will put a person, or people, in place to ensure that ‘their’ programs are run effectively. If this is it, then it could be very useful for councils in removing the underfunded responsibility they currently carry for delivering a range of programs. Some councils have been calling for the move for many years.
Five year leases of communities. There is a possible connection with looking after children if this leads to better housing and infrastructure. It is difficult though to escape the conclusion that this is actually something that the Feds simply see as a good thing to do. And, in my view, it could be a good thing to do if the leases were taken by an institution which operated as a planning body for the community, if the majority membership of the body holding the lease were traditional owners for the land concerned and providing that proper financial compensation was paid.
The removal of the permit system. Sorry but I can’t find even a vague connection to the abuse or maltreatment of children.
How Can It Be Made to Work
The reaction of the Territory Government to the announcement of the Brough/Howard plan shocked many who expected a strong reaction to an apparent takeover of Territory responsibilities and powers. My first reaction was that the Chief Minister had refused to be part of a wedge on the issue. But then you need also to consider the situation facing the Territory.
A physical infrastructure deficit that existed at self government in 1978 and was not addressed during the days when the money was available. When I had responsibility for the Indigenous Housing program in the mid- to late 90s the deficit was $800million on the basis of 6 people per house. It is now $1.5 billion, and growing. In 2001, with the first change of government in the Territory’s history, there was just one high school in a remote community. There are more now but really, shouldn’t any community or group of communities with the population have a high school?
My advice to a Territory Government in the face of the shock announcement would have been to go with it, offer support and try to get some positives out of the level of interest and expectation the Federal Government has created. After all, we have finally got the Federal Governments attention.
The Brough/Howard plan can possibly be made to work. If they want outcomes rather than publicity, then the priorities now should be:
- Engage effectively with the people. Start by treating them with respect and dignity and establish structures to work with them to achieve solutions.
- Pursue the abusers. The expectation has been created and, even if all else fails, this one must be met. So it is vital that child protection workers skilled in dealing in Indigenous communities are quickly in place. Reduce the emphasis on police and troops but keep coppers in place to support the work of the child protection teams.
- Ramp up the education effort. Make school attendance compulsory by supporting all families effectively and exacting a penalty from those who, initially, require more encouragement. Put resources into the support of the education system to ensure that every child has a place in a school;
- Refine the leasing arrangements. Make the body taking the leases a structure with a majority of traditional owners of the land involved. Remove the force of the ‘land grab’ allegation.
- Drop the attack on the permit system. The need for its removal has not been established and is not linked to sexual abuse of children in any real way.
- Get real money on the table for housing and a program to, once and for all, deal with the backlog.
For me, the most heartening and positive aspect of this whole affair is that the lid may have been lifted. It may no longer be possible for a Federal Government to duck the issues of dysfunction on remote Aboriginal communities. An incoming Rudd government or a continuing Howard government will notcannotbe allowed to ignore the issues.
*David Coles left government 2 years ago as Executive Director Local Government and Regional Development with the Northern Territory government and over his time in public service managed the Indigenous Housing program and led the DCM Aboriginal Development Branch as well as being a senior Ministerial Officer to the CLP Minister for Health and Community Services at one stage. David was also appointed in May 2006 by current NT Chief Minister Clare Martin as co-ordinator of government responses for the Wadeye community in the wake of the major riots there, which in considerable part (along with Dr Nanette Rogers’ revelations on ABC Lateline) stimulated the current national focus on matters indigenous in the Northern Territory.