Black voices lost in howl of a hostile media

Thursday, 29 June 2006

ISSUE 108, June 29, 2006:

Ignorance and arrogance pervades the Australian media's coverage of Indigenous affairs, writes BRIAN JOHNSTONE*.

I'm writing this on the eve of the Brough Summit. It will be all over bar the shouting by the time you read this.

One can only hope it leads to some appreciable outcomes... but don't hold your breath.

Regrettably, history is against the summit achieving much.

Government - federal, state and territory - have never delivered for Aboriginal people.

None will acknowledge their abject failure.

None will relinquish any real power to the people with the answers, the countless Aboriginal men and women who live daily with the consequences of dysfunction and those elected and appointed to lead them.

The mainstream media, by and large, will provide the usual sensational, feeble and uninformed coverage.

Regrettably, ignorance will ensure most will fail to ask the right questions and hold those responsible to account.

Ideology will blind the rest.

It all could have been so different.

Australian Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett made an inspired suggestion shortly after the 'emergency' summit was announced way back in the second week of May. He backed the idea of a summit but suggested it be 'run very differently from the usual Ministerial talk-fest'.

'I suggest we have a summit in the House of Representatives where all politicians and media just sit and listen, while as many Indigenous leaders are given the opportunity to give their views on what needs to be done and what has failed in the past,' he said.

'This may take a few days, but after such a long legacy of major failure, I think we can afford a week or two to properly hear Indigenous views on the issue for the first time.

Politicians and press have spoken ad nauseam on the issue, but we have collectively failed to address it.

The House of (un)Representatives has heard speeches from politicians for over 100 years, reported on by the media, including speeches from Presidents of the USA and the top dictator of China, yet it has never in all that time heard an Indigenous voice.

Indigenous women have been the most vocal in the community for decades seeking help for violence, hopelessness and substance abuse. Yet there has never been an Indigenous woman in either house of Australian Parliament. They must have a voice.

Many people already know of the reports, inquiries, recommendations, programs and promises that have been directed towards these issues for many years. The fact is that governments, Parliaments and the mainstream media have had the most control and influence over these matters over all that time.

'Unless we start to acknowledge that we have all failed to fix this problem, we will not find the pathway to working better with the only people who can finally fix it, which is the Indigenous people and the communities themselves,' concluded Senator Bartlett.

Bartlett's call was lost in the howl of a largely hostile media.

Regrettably, it was ignored by federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough who made it clear the Commonwealth would not be inviting any Aboriginal leaders.

In fact, he went one step further, decreeing that any Aboriginal representatives (other than Ministers, presumably) accompanying delegations from the states and territories would not be 'sitting at the table'.

It was to be a summit, he said, of Commonwealth and state 'leaders'.

What a pity.

Just before sitting down to write this column NIT editor, Chris Graham and I filed a story to the NIT website.

It pointed out that Prime Minister John Howard was given a dire warning from Aboriginal leaders three years ago that state and territory child protection systems were failing to meet the needs of Indigenous children and families as they struggled to cope with a crisis of family violence and child abuse. The warning, and a series of recommendations calling for urgent action, are contained in a short but damning report to the Prime Minister from a working group of Aboriginal leaders and senior officials formed after a national summit on family violence was convened by Howard in Canberra on July 23, 2003.

NIT had obtained a copy of the three-year-old report which clearly stated that Indigenous leaders, along with governments and the broader Australian community are '... appalled at the violence in some Indigenous communities and seek immediate intervention'.

'An agreed national approach on strategic interventions is required, over and above existing initiatives, to effectively address family violence and child abuse in Indigenous communities,' it said.

The report warned of '... concern among many Indigenous leaders that state and territory child protection systems are failing to meet the needs of Indigenous children and families'.

It was 'essential' to provide a child protection system which is '... responsive and provides protection and support to Indigenous children and families'.

The report also contained the following warnings to the Prime Minister:

Communities, particularly in rural and remote areas, were reluctant to report abuse as '... those who speak up face reprisals at the local level and risk being let down by an inadequate or inappropriate response from child welfare authorities'.

While laws relating to the mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse and neglect cases existed in all states and territories, their 'detail varied' and they '... remain under utilised and are not enforceable.'

Mr Howard told the assembled media after the 2003 summit he agreed with the view of Aboriginal leaders that curbing violence was the '... number one issue facing communities'. He later announced a 'commitment' to address what he called '... the tragic consequences of violence and child abuse in our communities' and announced Commonwealth funding of $20 million which he described as a 'down-payment'.

This included funding of $3 million for what he called the Communities in Crisis program.

The announcement was made on the eve of a meeting of the Council of Australian Governments and followed his receipt of the 10-page report from the Aboriginal leaders which asked the key question: How can the cycle of family violence and child abuse be broken?

The report recommended a holistic approach which included '... education, employment, health care, law enforcement, substance misuse services, as well as family violence prevention programs'.

It emphasised shared responsibility between Aboriginal people and governments.

Howard's package was piecemeal. His 'down-payment' interest free.

He's since said little about the number one crisis in Aboriginal communities. He did not plan to attend the Brough summit.

Recent Senate Estimates hearings have revealed much of the Commonwealth funds devoted to family violence programs have not been spent.

The report to Howard was provided by a group which comprised then ATSIC Commissioner Alison Anderson, inaugural chair of ATSIC, Lowitja O'Donohue, co-chair of Reconciliation Australia, Jackie Huggins and Associate Professor Ian Anderson, Director of the VicHealth Koori Health Research and Community Development Unit, plus senior officials.

Aboriginal leaders who attended the Howard summit included those named above plus Mick Dodson, Noel Pearson, Evelyn Scott, Kerry Arabena, Bonnie Robertson, then Senator Aden Ridgeway and a number of others.

Regrettably, none were scheduled to be in attendance this time around.

One assumes the decision to exclude them was motivated by the fear they may have asked the federal, state and territory 'leaders' some embarrassing questions or reminded the media minions they've all been there before.

Take Pearson.

He expressed the fear on the ABC'S 7.30 Report on the eve of the Brough summit that it would be another 'groundhog day'.

'...We come together every four or five years to discuss the ongoing Aboriginal crisis and we actually don't do anything in the wake of it,' he said.

'I certainly think there is a crisis in many of our communities, that government must take action on the problems and assist communities with the opportunities,' he added.

'But I've got to say, just in the last 10 years, I've participated in at least two crisis sessions and I don't see that we have made a lot of progress in the wake of them.'

Alison Anderson, now a Northern Territory MLA and a curious omission from the delegation to the Brough Summit, told NIT she had told PM Howard a number of 'horror stories' about violence and child abuse in Central Australia at the July 2003 summit.

'I told him some of the communities were swimming in violence. Black people and black women told him directly about some of the stories that (Crown prosecutor) Nannette Rogers told the ABC a couple of weeks ago... but nothing much has been done since.'

All of the above continues to escape much of the mainstream media, particularly The Australian.

As late as last Friday it was still banging on about the '... hidden tragedy of child abuse' in an article put together by no less than six journalists.

On Saturday it was proclaiming in an editorial that everything in the bush must change. Here's a taste from the introduction:

For year's, this newspaper has demanded a new approach to protect the rights of indigenous Australians. But politicians and public servants failed to protect Aborigines in remote settlements, who endure plagues of substance abuse and sexual violence.

Those shamed leaders of the discredited ATSIC, Geoff Clark and “Sugar” Ray Robinson, did not adequately address endemic problems in remote indigenous communities. And instead of accepting that communities where law and order have collapsed are inevitably corrupt and violent, self-appointed allies of indigenous Australians said it was all due to the aftermath of the so-called stolen generation or whatever popular piety was in fashion.

But in the past month, more evidence has emerged, thanks to ABC TV's Lateline program, that makes it impossible to ignore the way a generation of Australians is being consigned to a Hobbesian horror of addiction and abuse, perpetrated by powerful black men on women and children....

The night before this self-serving garbage was published Kerry O'Brien wound up his 7.30 Report interview with Pearson by asking: how much power do you feel you and other leaders of your community have? Real power?

Pearson: 'I think the problem of Indigenous leaders is that, in terms of time, we spend 95 percent of our time thinking about these problems, 95 percent of our knowledge is dedicated to the resolution of these problems but we have 5 percent of the power. Conversely, politicians - this problem is only five percent of their attention, three percent of their knowledge and yet they possess 95 percent of the power. That's the paradox in which we labour.'

Spot on.
* Brian Johnstone is a Walkley award-winning and Human Rights Award winning writer and a fortnightly columnist for NIT.