Sunday, 16 December 2007
Apathy and Tragedy
Today’s featured column comes from the Sunday Mail, and is written by Mal Brough.
I don’t always agree with him, but on this issue, he hits the nail on the head.
I worked in communities like Aurukun for a while in the nineties, and have a basic understanding of the conditions these kids are growing up in. The situation is completely disgraceful, but not as disgraceful as the behaviour of the majority of Australians who couldn’t give a proverbial.
What’s to be done? How about a form of compulsory service for all twenty year olds – men and women – to be spent on designated communities enhancing the quality of life of the residents? It was OK thirty-five years ago to keep an obscure Asian nation free of the grasp of Communism. What’s wrong with dealing with a tragedy on our own soil that is happening now, rather than trying to prevent something that might occur in the future?
I cannot accept for one minute that any reasonable person reading this today would accept the scenes I have described here to occur in their community, let alone tolerate the pack rape of a 10-year-old girl.
Ask yourself this: do you recall the public outrage at the crimes committed to this little girl two years ago? You won't, because there wasn't any.
We should all be ashamed that for whatever reason we either didn't hear about it due to media indifference or perhaps it was just too far away to really notice, or maybe it is just too hard for most of us to comprehend or deal with.
I have heard all the excuses and delaying tactics as to why immediate action isn't prudent — you must consult, communities must come up with their own solutions, the situation is somehow different in remote communities, or that cultural differences must be taken into account.
I visited Aurukun, in far north Queensland, as federal minister for indigenous affairs on only one occasion, as part of a tour of Cape communities to talk with locals about their situation and how we could work together. This was a planned visit with all the departmental arrangements put in place well before the allotted time. On arrival by charter aircraft, there was no visiting party to greet us, no transport, nothing.
It became abundantly clear that apathy was not in short supply at Aurukun. A meeting of the Community Council did not eventuate, as only one councillor arrived.
Here was the bright spot A young woman, who clearly had drive, was visibly upset by the behaviour and attitudes of the people of her town. Her description of the drinking and fighting was all too familiar only now, I thought, at least we have a person we can support and work with to improve the situation. However, when I asked for her contact details so the department could working with her, she abruptly informed us she wasn't staying in Aurukun any longer as it was not the sort of place she felt she could raise the child in her care.
I guess this simple experience says it all: a town seen as unsuitable to raise a child by a community leader of that very town. On this same visit, police explained how the grog runners arrange disturbances on one side of town to draw the police off while they deliver their cargo without police interference. The same police spoke of illegal card games that go on for more than 24 hours with thousands of dollars changing lands. Welfare money, provided by the taxpayer for food and clothing for the children, is being gambled away at great cost to these same children. Imagine for a moment two extended families, 100 or 200 people, squaring off in the main street of your suburb or town 'with sticks, stones and other assorted makeshift weaponry.
This is the situation in Aurukun. This is the environment that we are allowing these children to be raised in.
We are talking about the destruction of another generation and what is called for here is urgent, direct action that is measured by positive outcomes. This includes outcomes such as full school attendance, massive reduction in domestic violence, and the complete protection of children. It starts with law and order. The police in these communities generally work incredibly hard. They often know who the criminals are, but they simply don't have the resources to do what is necessary to protect those who need the most protection — the children. There is only one reason for this. The State Government does not have this as a high enough priority and we, the public, don't hold them to account for this lack of commitment.
Only when we stop thinking of these children as Aboriginal and start to think of them as Australian, only when we stop making excuses because of the
challenges of the remote localities, and only when we value every child's life equally will we see the necessary changes being made by government. The good news is that these crimes are preventable, these communities can function in an appropriate and safe manner and children can grow up feeling safe. It just takes an acknowledgement that the policies of the past have failed.
It is at this point that most people contend that you must form working groups, work up discussion papers, consult widely and gain broad support before taking action. If these crimes were committed in Brisbane, every resource would be brought to bear immediately and this is just what must happen here. Longer-term solutions are necessary but must not be used again to delay the sort of response that is urgently demanded.
His comment about the different value placed on the lives of the Aurukun kids is illuminating. Perhaps our kids could do something to help - even if they have to be conscripted to it. Let's put our most precious resource - our offspring - into a situation where they make a positive difference. At least there would be fewer casualties than there were forty years ago.
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