My trip with Abbott to Alice
Recently I had the pleasure of attending a meeting with Aboriginal traditional owners and elders from the southern region of the Northern Territory. The meeting was arranged by Aboriginal people who had invited Tony Abbott to meet with them to discuss issues surrounding the circumstances prevalent in their communities. Also discussed was the call by the coalition to increase federal government involvement in Alice Springs in the form of a new intervention.
While there has been considerable discussion and often robust or even heated debate over the measures and the way the 2007 intervention was implemented, going back over the past was not the purpose of this meeting.
The government needed to act in 2007 both in response to the findings in the Little Children are Sacred report as well as the calls for government assistance made by Aboriginal people living in remote communities. Action was needed then and is still needed now as circumstances change or develop as a result of government policies and programs. The coalition acknowledges that no matter how much discussion is held after an announcement is made, we can and must do better in involving and informing the people of the purpose and impact of government policies.
Importantly Aboriginal people themselves want to help drive government programs and plan an active role in reconnecting people back with families and communities.
The recent visit to Alice Springs with Tony Abbott was the first step in establishing a stronger relationship based upon mutual respect. The coalition is determined to improve the lifestyle and opportunity experienced b Aboriginal people and we know that decisions that must be made to achieve this cannot just be made by people who do not live or have experience in the environment that many Aboriginal people find themselves in.
While a particular policy or idea may seem like a good idea from the confines of a Canberra or Sydney office block, unless you truly understand the reality and circumstances present in regional or remote communities the policy may not achieve any positive outcomes.
This is not to say that the intervention launched in 2007 was not well intentioned and did not achieve any positive changes. There were many good outcomes achieved such as reducing alcohol abuse in communities, providing greater access to better quality food and better directing of money into housing and support services. But we still need to do a lot more.
What we have learned is that community leaders and elders must be given a role and that these same leaders must stand strong in guiding or leading their communities.
We have laws that prohibit drinking in public as well as laws banning gambling yet people willingly and deliberately ignore these laws. When this behaviour is displayed in places like Alice Springs or other regional centres it is often, not solely but often, by people who are visitors to town. This behaviour is not only illegal but disrespectful to both residents as well as to traditional owners of the town they are in. What we are in effect witnessing is a patent disregard for both the law as well as traditional culture by largely disconnected individuals. A disregard that leads to community and family breakdown and the resulting flow-on effects of kids not attending school, family violence and general anti-social behaviours.
Unfortunately examples and reports of community dysfunction and anti-social behaviour have been increasing in Northern Territory communities. Alice Springs issues have received national media coverage with the reports prompting great concern from all Alice Springs residents including Aboriginal residents.
In Alice Springs, just like in many other towns and cities, many of the people described or identified in the media reports are essentially visitors who are either away from, or disconnected from, their home community. The problems highlighted in Alice Springs are not a local problem, they are a regional problem, and only a regional solution will provide meaningful and long term solutions.
Aboriginal elders and leaders from central Australia know too well that is it is a regional problem and that is why they have come together to talk about solutions. Meeting with Tony Abbott out bush to talk directly and frankly about what is needed was an important step.
The coalition is clearly on the record with our position that children should be in school, adults in work where work is available or engaged in a meaningful activity that gives back to the community where jobs are currently not available, and the law must be obeyed and enforced. Our policies and programs are designed to achieve what is required to get to these outcomes.
Importantly these goals are also the shared desire of Aboriginal people. We also agree that to achieve these outcomes there will need to be some hard decisions made. Decisions and actions that will only be successful if we all know what is happening and we all have our focus on the end game.
Aboriginal elders must be helped and empowered to step up and take a lead role. By including elders and Aboriginal leaders in the development and implementation of any intervention into Aboriginal affairs, their ‘Cultural Authority’ will strengthen the government and community resolve to make a real difference.
I am not saying that we will always agree on every issue. Nor will all Aboriginal people agree on every point. However if we have a clear goal of what we want to achieve then disagreements along the way can be worked through and the momentum maintained in improving community and individual opportunity.
One issue that receives considerable media and community attention is that of alcohol consumption and availability. There are calls for tougher grog restrictions, shorter hours of alcohol sales and the closure of certain bars and outlets.
In Alice Springs and indeed many Northern Territory towns the call for action to limit access to grog is becoming louder.
These calls are based on the fact that people are drinking or drunk in public places. Some communities or town camps are knee deep in empty alcohol containers with incidents of alcohol-fuelled violence still far too common.
I agree that they system is broken when people can be drunk or be drinking in public, or in private for that matter, every day. Something must be done. Not only to preserve the peace and amenity, but to enable all community members, families and children to visit and enjoy our public places. We must also protect and improve the life of those who are abusing alcohol and neglecting their families.
The fact is that there are existing laws that should be dealing with this. It is illegal drink alcohol in public parks or reserves in most Northern Territory towns. Communities and town camps are declared ‘dry’ areas and pubs, bars and bottle shops must not serve alcohol to intoxicated persons.
It is not that our existing alcohol restrictions are ineffective, the fact that people are drinking in public parks or dry areas means that existing laws and restrictions are not being properly enforced in the first place. We do not need more restrictions or more punitive measures if we are unable or unwilling to enforce the existing laws.
Education of what the law is and then rigid enforcement must be the very first step. Then and only then after a review of the effectiveness of current laws should changes be proposed.
This is just one role that should include the involvement of Aboriginal leaders. By engaging Aboriginal leaders who know and understand where people come from we can find out why people are living homeless and drinking in town and assist them to return home.
A further important issues raised with Tony Abbott in the meeting was the need to develop economic opportunities and jobs in Aboriginal communities. No-one was under any belief that this was an easy task but it is agreed that it is an important outcome to achieve.
There are jobs in communities and there will likely be further opportunities as mining and pastoral interests expand their operations. Unfortunately most Aboriginal people miss out on these job opportunities for a whole range of reasons. Often it is because they are insufficiently trained and the work or activity is very intense over a short period of time or there are only a few jobs at any one time meaning it is easier not to work than to take a job.
This leads back to education and the need for a cultural shift where having a job is the norm. Where business or private enterprise is supported and encouraged to set up in communities or near communities to create an economic base.
These are just some of the issues that were raised by Aboriginal elders in the meeting with Tony Abbott that will be pursued. Importantly though is that this was only the first meeting with everyone agreeing that we must continue to work together to create a stronger and better future for current and future generations of Aboriginal people.
Published in the National Indigenous Times, Issue 225, Vol 10.