Canberra Times - Saturday, June 21, 2008

The real anniversary of the Howard government's intervention into remote Northern Territory Aboriginal communities is not today a year from when the decision was announced but two days ago, a year from when the Northern Territory Government handed down a report on the sexual abuse of Aboriginal children.

The bookshelves of ministers for Aboriginal affairs, state and federal, including the then-federal one, Mal Brough, are lined with such reports. Typically, they involve much thought, expertise, expense and agonising, in an environment where key players, including Aboriginal people, have been very cynical about the government will for action. Typically, publication produces formal adoption of the report, and general political grandstanding and handwringing. Ministers affect shock, make vague promises of action, announce something minor to indicate good intentions. There are a few days of media publicity and editorial finger-pointing. Then nothing. But this time it was different. Mal Brough had had enough. And not only with evidence of abuse of children, but the whole damn thing. He knew as well, and was being told by many others, that the same policies, or the same polices with more resources, would not much change things in the long run. Many had warned results often took years, but there was no promise of ultimate results, little improvement in the depressing evidence of entrenched disadvantage, or hope that the victims could rise from their torpor. Nor was there much point in considering Aborigines only as victims, or their disadvantage only a function of abuse, discrimination and neglect from outside. Because Aborigines were perpetrators too. And not only of violence, and physical or sexual abuse of women and children, but of denial of, collusion in, silence about, defensiveness and concealment of it. And many were failing to take advantage of opportunities offered them, lying around doing nothing, and often refusing to face their own problems and take charge of their own lives. It was all rights and no responsibilities, all accusation and no action, all wallowing in misery.

Even worse, to those seeing it thus, was that army of people engaged in finger pointing, but actually doing little to cause or promote change. Some were educated professional Aboriginal people an elite who had somehow survived even in such a broken system seeming to make careers of describing the problems and blaming others for them, rather than doing anything about them. And an army, even to the minds of some in Canberra an ''industry'', of whites making careers of doing much the same, the worse because many such people were activists for Labor.

There were others with Brough's perspective. On the Aboriginal side was Noel Pearson , from Cape York, and people who had gathered about him with an increasingly strong critique of welfarism and a new gospel of personal responsibility. Some right-of-centre academics and activists, not least those associated with the Institute of Public Affairs, included two converts, Professor Helen Hughes and former Labor MP Gary Johns, who, like many converts, had a zeal and energy that was a reproach to born believers. There was The Australian newspaper, self- consciously promoting the new critiques and their spokesman, and scourging the doubters.

Wayne Gibbons, chief bureaucrat on indigenous matters, was frankly sick of the bullshit, prevarication, mismanagement, incompetence and even, often, of consultation. He was not a believer in more of the same.

Brough's cabinet colleagues were deeply cynical about Aboriginal affairs. In a vague way, all wanted better outcomes and were prepared to put money into it; some, such as Tony Abbott, then-health minister, were deeply troubled at what they saw and increasingly doubtful about old formulae. But they were exasperated by the lack of results and the bottomless pit. They had revolted, then subsided, a few years before. Then-minister, Amanda Vanstone had brought a fairly routine submission which it had rejected point blank. Instead it had decided, without submission, to disband most existing structures, including ATSIC, and to ''mainstream'' Aboriginal programs. Education would be dealt with by the Education Department. Likewise with Labor market programs, to go to Workplace Relations, and health and infrastructure programs. And yet again, a prime minister would push state and local governments to do more to deliver ordinary services of government, the sort all citizens got, to Aboriginal communities, via the Council of Australian Governments. He also put some of his top bureaucrats to work in setting up coordinated services as an example of what could be done. But all the efforts to focus on improved services on the ground, at the expense of scrupulous attention to symbolism, gestures and rhetoric, all of the clearing-out of the ATSIC rats-nest, even the special projects run by departmental secretaries, had availed little.

What was needed, Brough thought, was a completely new way of doing things. Not new ways of the old way, but an altogether fresh approach. Not with the jaded usual suspects, who had failed, but with fresh faces, minds and ideals. And shock and awe to show he meant business.

The Children are Sacred report brought all of this to a head, the more conveniently for its focus on children. And its reinforcement of the idea that old ways, old approaches were doomed to perpetuate the misery involved. In two days Brough developed enough head of steam to map out and sell to the prime minister an emergency intervention that was a grab-bag of the new ideas floating about, propelled by popular indignation about the abuse of children. He would bring in the army as a grand gesture, not to intimidate the communities but to symbolise decisive action and to harness military skills and experience in logistics and emergencies.

He would bring many more police. Ban alcohol. Ban pornography. Bring in doctors and health workers for immediate action on health issues, such as investigating and following up child abuse. He would force children go to school.

He would change social security legislation to make sure Aboriginal recipients were spending enough money on feeding themselves and, particularly, their children, and on housing and real essentials rather than on grog and gambling. He would close down make-work schemes, and create new schemes based on real work. He would force commerce into communities and attack the hopeless and anti- competitive cooperativism that made food in remote communities expensive yet unprofitable, and of limited range and nutritional value. He would promote home ownership and force communities (or traditional title owners) to lease and create a market for land for housing and commerce, able to be mortgaged, bought and sold. He would make people clean up (the obvious mess in communities gets tidy minds, such as Brough's, particularly outraged), and he would tackle the dilapidated infrastructure, including housing. And he would send people into communities who could take charge and not simply make excuses.

Action was swift. Even if both Brough and Howard had calculated that there were political pluses involved, it would be unfair to say this is what it was all about. But it could wedge federal Labor, which had long tended to avoid any detail on what it would do in Aboriginal affairs, and which had been rather more the creature of the Aboriginal ''industry'' and its fixations on and critiques of Howard.

Riding on the paedophilia bandwagon also meant one could suggest that any doubters could, and would be, righteously accused of supporting or condoning child abuse. This was an accusation not embarrassed by the fact that Brough did not follow any of the recommendations of the Children are Sacred report. Likewise any doubt was an insulting reflection on his sincerity. It was clear that Brough was sincere and meant well; but then again, so had all of his predecessors, those he thought had caused so much damage. Moreover, the focus on children allowed the slipping into the package old agenda matters that had nothing whatever to do with saving children. These could never, otherwise, have got through Parliament.

Perhaps it was the fact that Labor did not much bite, or make a fight of it, that kept the temperature down. Just as now, the fact that Labor has more or less continued with the intervention has meant that it is still too early to describe its successes, or to document all of its failures.

Labor has commissioned a review, to be led by Peter Yu (an Aboriginal who is a general supporter of the intervention), which is to report in September. It will have the job of going past output figures (records of number of children attended by doctors, people now on managed welfare benefits, number of broken windows fixed etc) lovingly collected by the review's taskforce to assess if the big gamble made a difference. It's not a story that can be told by such statistics, nor by scads of anecdotes from passionate supporters about women who have declared that the intervention led to peace on earth. Yet even most of the instinctive critics, from far away or close up on the ground, are deeply ambivalent, if only because they see in the intervention, and its drama, some hope and commitment to extra money, resources going into communities, focus on very difficult problems of law and order, attendance at school and improved housing and infrastructure. They may want some of the ideology, or some of the rough points, removed, not least the almost complete (and continuing) lack of local consultation and ownership. But there is the fear that completely dropping the program could send Aboriginal affairs back into a black hole from which it might never re-emerge.

Yet things are not as promising, a year on, as some suggest. Very little has actually changed in most communities. Neither the army, nor the army of bureaucrats have shown themselves more competent in delivering new services, let alone more cheaply or efficiently, than the last lot. Most of the hundreds of millions spent has gone into white salaries hundreds of them and into providing accommodation and vehicles for these new people.

The PR industry has benefited: both the chairman of the taskforce, Sue Gordon, and the operational commander, Major-General Dave Chalmers, have personal media advisers paid to promote them rather than the intervention itself (the taskforce has PR people for that). The affable Chalmers is a specialist in folksy anecdotes, but not in data or detail, and is quick to disclaim ownership of anything tricky. Beyond the spin and the cute pictures is very little accounting for expenditure, or objective, as opposed to hopeful, analysis of outcomes. The new minister, Jenny Macklin, keeps her distance, and has difficulty getting briefed. Many of the federal departments involved are so bogged down in paperwork that they scarcely have time for fleeting ''managed'' visits to communities, even if the number of such foreign (and generally useless and counter- productive) visitations has probably tripled over the past year. Much rubbish has been picked up, for what that is worth. Some windows may have been fixed, some houses painted, but the vague promise of new houses and services never strictly a formal part of the program depends on other things. The new army of bureaucrats have been keen and zealous, but, often, woefully ignorant of history, local cultures and experience, and have been busy replicating many past mistakes. The health checks have almost been patchy and of little epidemiological or long-term health value, primarily a picnic for those involved. Half the money devoted to upgrading existing services would have produced better results. There has been a lot less improvement in school attendance than claimed. More police have been welcomed (that had been called for long before the intervention), but propagandists have greatly exaggerated the difference that has made, particularly in relation to crime (including child abuse) rather than general disorder. Most communities had long banned grog, and in only a few if a very publicised few was in-community alcohol-abuse right out of control. Some talk of the effects has disguised the fact that the intervention has simply sent a lot of drunks (and sometimes their families) into towns, such as Alice Springs, and shifted the centre of the crisis elsewhere.

And the presence of police and social workers and medical examinations has uncovered, or at least prosecuted, very few cases of sexual abuse, particularly of prepubescent children. Nor can they do much about the promiscuity of young teenagers, the fact that many are bored, or the widespread use of marijuana.

The trumpeted new jobs for Aboriginal people are chiefly accounting tricks, involving transference from one scheme to another; the managed incomes are facing many ''teething problems'' and petty injustices, and accompanying action to licence and control stores has had little effect in making food more cheap or available. School feeding programs may serve some purpose, but also reinforce a failure to take responsibility.

Out on the ground, in most places, is the same dreary hell of prospects for the young Aboriginal child. If hope is on the horizon, there's still no roads from here to there.