The View from the Summit


Politicians in this country adopt a sliding scale for their public announcements. At the bottom of the propaganda pole is your common or garden press conference, which happily suffices for everyday events. More important issues may warrant the status of a formal ministerial statement. And matters of real gravity demand nothing less than a radio interview with Lawsy.

So it was that in mid-May, Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough duly appeared on the John Laws Morning Show. As luck would have it, the Minister was on the line from Alice Springs Lawsy just called it ‘The Alice’ replete with war stories from his visit to the front line the previous night.


Brough was just back from the Todd River, where he’d spoken with a group of Aboriginal women, one of whom sported a gash on her face as she drank moselle in the early morning sunshine. ‘ We’ve got to get rid of that, that’s destroying you, it’s taking your soul’ the Minister had told them.

He then apologised to Big John for ‘digressing’. (‘No, no, it’s interesting’ offered the gracious radio announcer.) The Minister had, after all, contacted Lawsy to tell him about the Summit on Violence and Child Abuse in Indigenous Communities:

I will be inviting Premiers to send who they think is appropriate from their State and Territory Governments, to an urgent meeting with me, to have a national approach to th[e]devastating impact of violence and child and female abuse.

For spin doctors, the image of the ‘summit’ is irresistible. The Macquarie Dictionary defines the word as ‘the highest point of attainment or aspiration’ very much the kind of language that ministers wish to associate with their political products.

The 26 June meeting in Canberra between Brough and his State and Territory counterparts was intended to explore the reasons behind the violence that wreaks havoc in some remote Indigenous communities.

The Minister dangled the bait: 130 million Commonwealth dollars for law and order, to be met ‘dollar for dollar’ by the States and Territories. But there was a catch. The deal was offered on an ‘all or nothing’ basis, and States would be required to remove any consideration of ‘customary law’ in the sentencing deliberations of their courts.

Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett called it a ‘racially discriminatory diversion from the real problem’.

In his radio interview with Laws, the Minister seemed to encapsulate the Federal Government’s inability to come to grips with Indigenous Australia in one brief utterance. ‘They’re complex issues, but I don’t think they have complex answers’ he said.

To give Brough due credit, there is little doubt that he was genuinely shocked by what he saw in his baptism-of-fire visits to remote communities. Most new arrivals to the Indigenous Affairs portfolio have a similar reaction.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

But it’s desperately unfortunate that the Howard Government seems to view remote Indigenous communities only through the prism of law and order as though it’s simply a matter of catching the criminals and punishing them. If only it were that easy.

Remote communities are entitled to adequate and culturally sensitive policing, and perpetrators of abominable crimes against small children must be met with the full force of the law. These are givens. But, as New South Wales Police Minister Carl Scully pointedly observed, ‘It is very simplistic to talk about parachuting new police stations in’.

In fact, the Brough summit was fatally flawed from the outset by the Minister’s staggering refusal to invite Indigenous Australians to sit at the table. ‘We want to talk about you not to you’, was the unmistakable message, which harkened back to the dark days of the Protector of Aborigines.

Would the Government run a tax summit without inviting accountants?

It’s sexy to have a single-issue summit, but not particularly effective. The myriad of problems that confront Indigenous communities cannot be solved with a set of discrete micro-policy solutions which ignore the interconnectedness of the issues. If the Minister wants a serious discussion about violence and sexual abuse in these communities, he must also talk about housing.

The National Indigenous Times reported recently that the troubled community of Wadeye, about 400 kilometres south-west of Darwin, had 148 habitable houses for 2,500 people. These are surely the most potent preconditions imaginable for anti-social behaviour. Governments would do well to turn their attention from time to time to the less salacious issue of chronic housing shortages in remote communities.

Back in July 2003, John Howard convened his own summit on violence in Indigenous communities. Indigenous Australians were on the guest list this time, and some of Aboriginal Australia’s biggest names duly fronted up to give the PM the good oil.

Following the meeting, Howard declared, commendably enough, that he was ‘determined to change the unacceptable circumstances that blight the lives of so many Indigenous people’.

Three more years of ‘practical reconciliation’ have done little to further this noble aim but it hasn’t been for want of meetings.

In fact, voters may well be suffering from ‘summit fatigue’, as they ask when this political grandstanding will produce change on the ground. Wringing of high-profile hands doesn’t cut it any more.

Perennial voice of reason Tom Calma, who is Social Justice Commissioner for the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, has produced an overview document on family violence and abuse in Indigenous communities that fairly bristles with good sense.

Calma identifies the need to turn government commitments into action, and to work in partnership with Indigenous Australians. He warns against stereotyping all Aboriginal men as abusers and asks the wider community to also acknowledge the success stories of Indigenous Australia.

Australia ‘s three-year election cycle demands that governments seek instant solutions. But the futile search for a silver bullet to cure all the ills of troubled remote communities must be abandoned. The unpalatable truth is that the answers lie in painstaking policy development work that must directly involve Indigenous Australians at every step of the way.

The view from the summit shows just how much remains to be done.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.