The departure from politics of the Northern Territory Labor Government’s Minister for Central Australia, Peter Toyne also Attorney-General, Minister for Justice and Minister for Health makes the Martin Government’s authority and credibility in the Centre dangerously fragile.
Toyne’s resignation comes only a fortnight after a whistleblower alleged, in the pages of the newspaper I write for, the Alice Springs News, that the Chief Minister Clare Martin and Police Minister Paul Henderson knew in November 2004 if not earlier about children prostituting themselves for petrol to sniff in the Central Desert community of Mutitjulu.
The NT Government has refused to either confirm or deny the allegations. This head-in-the-sand reaction has become a hallmark of the Martin Government and I speculate that it had become intolerable to Toyne, or at least to the Toyne of the earlier half of Labor’s first term, who said that this Government would ‘stand or fall on the outcomes’ of its Safe Families strategy. (The official reasons given for Toyne’s resignation were health and family.)
The whistleblower known to the Alice Springs News and deemed highly credible noted that Martin claimed to have been ‘shocked’ to hear about the child abuse on the ABC TV program Lateline in May this year.
In a letter, and later confirmed verbally, the whistleblower said in part:
In November 2004, Chief Minister [Martin] wrote to Paul Henderson, the NT Minister for Police, about the social dysfunction and substance abuse epidemic in Mutitjulu and significant human harm that it was causing.
She emphasised the extent of sexual abuse and child neglect and informed Minister Henderson that children as young as five had contracted STDs and that young girls were prostituting themselves for petrol.
She also informed Minister Henderson that two thirds of children in Mutijulu were malnourished.
In December 2004, well before the NT Coronial Inquest [into petrol sniffing]that was held in August 2005, the NT Chief Minister’s Department briefed Ms Martin about ongoing violence and sexual abuse, including of children, occurring at Mutitjulu.
The Chief Minister was also informed that, according to [the local]Yulara Police, petrol sniffing was rife and that no one in Mutitjulu, including its leaders, was willing to confront the sniffers who were wandering around the community with petrol tins tied to their faces.
In April 2005, ahead of an NT Community Cabinet meeting, the Chief Minister and her fellow Cabinet members were briefed by the Chief Minister’s Department about the alcohol, marijuana and petrol epidemic in Mutijulu that was resulting in significant human rights abuses, self harm, violence against others, sexual abuse and child neglect.
Last month the Martin Government established the Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse, which is co-chaired by Rex Wild QC and prominent Indigenous woman and health professional Pat Anderson.
Following the publication of the whistleblower’s allegations, Editor of Alice Springs News, Erwin Chlanda, asked Rex Wild what was the point of putting information on such matters before the Government when it fails to act on them. Wild responded that he and Anderson had ‘taken on the job in good faith, on the basis that the Government has asked us to give it advice and make recommendations, and I assume they will be acted on.’
Police investigations at Mutitjulu have not resulted in any prosecutions for want of sufficient evidence, it is claimed and the Inquiry will not be going into individual cases.
Wild told the Chlanda: ‘We’re not interested as much in what might have happened in the past except as a guide to help us with what has failed in the past. What we want to do is provide something that will succeed in the future. We’re being optimistic and forward-looking.’ He did not reject the Alice Springs News ‘s suggestion of buck-passing by Ministers on this issue, saying:
There can be in such cases, because there are very difficult issues. These are matters we’ll be trying to get a grasp on and see if we can suggest a solution. My own experience [as Director of Public Prosecutions in NT from 1996 until January this year]leads me to believe that from time to time we haven’t applied enough resources to resolving these terrible situations.
This is a much franker acknowledgement that there is a problem than the contributions by Warren Snowdon, member for Lingiari, the Federal electorate for the whole of the Territory outside of Darwin, and President of the NT Labor Party.
Snowdon is now the only senior Labor figure based in the Centre, but fights a rearguard action on almost every issue of current relevance, from reforms attacking welfare dependency (including an overhaul of the Community Development Employment Program), to community governance, economic development in the bush and the now widely acknowledged social dysfunction in communities like Mutitjulu.
In responding to the uproar around the allegations of child sexual abuse in Mutitjulu, Snowdon’s central concern has been to shoot the messenger, in this case senior public servant in the Federal Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination and former project manager at Mutitjulu, Gregory Andrews. Andrews was a source for the ABC’s Lateline program which brought the sex abuse issue at Mutitjulu to the fore, but more importantly, in light of Snowdon’s reaction, is the author of some highly relevant policy initiatives in Snowdon’s backyard.
During his time at Mutitjulu, Andrews, whose background is in international development, began to make inroads on dismantling welfare dependency in the community, and laid out a blueprint for how it could be further achieved. Welfare dependency has been part and parcel of those separate worlds that are Aboriginal homelands in the Territory and which Snowdon has spent much of his political energy defending during his near 20-year political career. Perhaps little wonder then that that he so vigorously, together with Labor Senator Trish Crossin, attacked Andrews. It served to hide the dearth of fresh ideas on Indigenous policy from the Labor camp.
The leadership vacuum in the Centre, to which Toyne contributed well before his resignation, does not look likely to end any time soon. The Country Liberal Party (CLP) is massively weakened and struggling to provide effective opposition, while the Central Land Council, once an oppositional force during the CLP’s long hold on power in the Territory, is now a dead weight when it comes to policy innovation and the economic and social advancement of Indigenous people.
The most constructive, forward-looking voices in the public debate in the Centre have been that of Andrews; veteran Indigenous Affairs public servant Bob Beadman, (now retired but still chairing the NT Grants Commission); anthropologist Peter Sutton, backed by the courageous NPY Women’s Council; and, in all modesty, the Alice Springs News.
The influence of the ideas of the first two, at least on the current Federal approaches to Indigenous affairs, is apparent. There is tension in the Territory about the Federal Government’s reform agenda, not least because of poor communication. However there are signs that the package of welfare reforms is beginning to bite. Tackling welfare dependency and its intimate relationship to alcohol and other substance abuse will impact on just about all the indicators of Indigenous well-being.
Karl Hampton a member of a prominent Indigenous family who has been groomed for politics within the Territory Government’s Office of Central Australia but has failed to achieve any profile in the wider community will stand in Toyne’s former electorate of Stuart, which is heavily gerrymandered and considered safe Labor territory,
although the CLP promises to contest it vigorously.
Elliott McAdam, Member for Barkly (the electorate centred on Tennant Creek to the north of Alice), has taken over as Minister for Central Australia. To date he has made little impact as Minister for Housing (beyond calling for a ‘Marshall Plan’ for the currently bottomless pit of Indigenous housing), nor as Minister for Local Government. And as Minister assisting the Chief Minister in Indigenous Affairs, McAdam has had little constructive input into the controversies raging in that portfolio.
That leaves controversial MLA, Alison Anderson, representing the Territory Government in the Centre. Anderson is a former ATSIC Commissioner and CEO of Papunya Community Council, who is trying to stay out of the limelight after being in it too often for the wrong reasons, during her first months in Parliament.
Anderson and McAdam are two of five Indigenous members of the Territory Parliament (Hampton will be the sixth) who, unfortunately, have yet to contribute any depth to today’s most important Indigenous debates.
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