In the weeks before the election, the Northern Territory Intervention was barely spoken of, and the few other Aboriginal issues that had made the agenda were nudged to the side. The last leg of the race was all about working families, tax cuts and unionists.
The controversy and hype surrounding the NT Intervention saw other Indigenous issues take a back seat with both major Parties this year. As the country focused on the NT, the rest of Aboriginal Australia was left off the election agenda altogether.
The former Federal Government spent millions of dollars in rural Northern Territory in the name of tackling child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities. At the same time, the States have suffered dramatic Federal funding cuts in Aboriginal affairs, despite experiencing the same problems.
Federal funding to NSW for Indigenous affairs was cut by over $30 million this year after the Northern Territory Intervention had been announced. Funding for Aboriginal housing alone was cut by $13 million and rent relief was cut by $18 million. This is despite the fact that reports on child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities, such as the NT’s Wild-Anderson Little Children are Sacred and NSW’s Breaking the Silence, identify poor housing as a key factor in child sexual assault.
Thirty per cent of Australia’s Aboriginal population lives in NSW, where only 12.5 per cent lives in the NT. Paul Lynch, NSW Minister for Aboriginal Affairs says, ‘Eighty-five per cent of the Federal Government’s Aboriginal specific programs go outside of NSW. We have 30 per cent of the population but we only get 15 per cent of the funding.’
The idea that child sexual abuse does not occur in urban areas is a myth. In NSW, the area most affected by child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities is Sydney, followed by the Hunter, Northern and North Western r e gions.
Although the former Federal Government denied it, it is accused of taking Aboriginal funding from the States to fund the NT intervention.
Marcia Ella-Duncan, Chair of the Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce, which carried out the Breaking the Silence report, says:
The Australian people need to be reminded that the Howard Government [had]quite strong views about Aboriginal funding for Aboriginal affairs. They espoused for many years that the greatest need is in the NT and that funding should be diverted from States to the NT. That’s happened on a number of fronts; housing is the one that comes to mind.
The Breaking the Silence report, carried out by the Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce (ACSAT), revealed statistics and evidence just as damning as those in Wild-Anderson report. It found that Aboriginal children in NSW were four times as likely to be sexually abused than non-Aboriginal children, that many cases went unreported, that sexual abuse was not understood in some communities and that victims of child sexual assault often participated in anti-social behaviour later in life.
The report was released over a year before the Little Children are Sacred report, which was supposedly the catalyst to the Federal Government’s intervention in the NT. The two reports, similar at their cores, received the most dissimilar responses. The former Howard Government labeled the NT situation an emergency, and planned to spend $1.3 billion to ‘tackle child sexual abuse.’ But in NSW, the Howard Government cut funding by over $30 million.
Perhaps the Coalition chose to intervene in the NT simply because it could.
‘There are different legislative provisions that make the kind of intervention in the NT far more problematic in NSW,’ says Marcia Ella-Duncan, who chaired the ACSAT report. ‘The fact that it’s a Territory and that the Commonwealth has jurisdiction is really quite significant and would make some of the measures seen in the intervention in the NT not possible in NSW.’
In response to the report, the NSW Government created the NSW Interagency Plan to Tackle Child Sexual Assault in Aboriginal Communities, which adopted 88 of the 119 recommendations made by ACSAT. Although Lynch assures that the wheels are in motion, few results have been seen as yet.
The plan in theory has been received well by relevant agencies and bodies like ACSAT, however the NSW Government has hypocritically not allocated any new funding to implement the recommendations. Various bodies and figures such as ACSAT, former Attorney-General Bob Debus, Dawn Fardell and Marcia Ella-Duncan called for the NSW Government to increase funding by $20 million to $40 million a year to implement the recommendations.
Instead of the requested increase in funding, there was a massive 40 per cent funding cut from the NSW Government in Aboriginal programs this year from $49.5 million down to $29.2 million. Agencies such as the Department of Community services (DoCS) were and are still expected to make changes to accommodate the Government’s recommendations with their existing funds and resources.
‘I think it’s appalling,’ says Barry O’Farrell, leader of the NSW Liberal Party. ‘There’s little sense in having a report as comprehensive as Breaking the Silence, having it make specific recommendations and then denying it the funding to get on with doing the job. Then we’ve seen further cutbacks to Aboriginal affairs in this year’s State budget. In contrast to the [former]Federal Liberal Government, we’re seeing the sort of approach by the NSW Government that probably spurred the action in the NT.’
But Ella-Duncan, who ran for a NSW seat in the Senate with the Greens, says that Aboriginal affairs are not just State issues. ‘The Commonwealth should have some responsibilities as well that could enhance a more effective response to Aboriginal communities, for example, in Aboriginal housing. Overcrowding seems to be a factor that contributes to child sexual assault in Aboriginal communities. The unmet housing needs in NSW should be a priority.’
Lynch of the NSW Government agrees. ‘It beggar’s belief that you can try to deal with child sexual assault and not deal with housing,’ he says.
The Aboriginal Housing Office, which assists Indigenous Australians in NSW find appropriate and affordable housing, is one agency that has been hit hard by the funding cuts. Its director, Tom Slockee says:
The funding cuts have had a big impact on people in NSW. First, it means we won’t be able to assist young women with community housing. Often, when a kid is sexually abused, they’ll end up with their mothers living with their grandparents. Then you have grandparents looking after grandchildren and you get more overcrowding. Our resources at the moment are stretched to the limit.
O’Farrell does not think the $13 million fund cut in housing is the problem. ‘A $13 million dollar cut in that area still doesn’t account for the fact that there are DoCS [Department of Community Services] offices closed in Aboriginal communities for the lack of State funding.’
The city of Dubbo in rural NSW has some successful programs in place to deal with child sexual assault but is also stretching its resources to the limit. There were 29 charges of child sexual assault in Dubbo between July 2006 and June 2007, including Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal residents. Many more cases are believed to have gone unreported.
Dawn Fardell, the Independent Minister of Parliament for Dubbo, appealed for more funding last June to help implement recommendations of the Breaking the Silence report. Instead, funding was cut. Today, she struggles to keep programs running like the Red Cross’s breakfast program, which provides a free nutritious breakfast to children.
She says that sexual abuse and the mistreatment of children is something that happens every day but often goes unreported. ‘There still are a lot of children at risk. DoCS are doing a really good job I’m not at all critical of DoCS. They really have a big workload,’ she says. ‘But there are never enough workers. They’re doing the best they can.’
Fardell believes the Coalition’s beloved baby bonus is causing problems for Dubbo.
‘The baby bonus has certainly had a big effect in this area and other areas of Australia. There are little children being born for the sake of money and not for wanting a child,’ she says. ‘Some people should be paid the baby bonus in vouchers or it should be paid over a long period, because it’s spent on drug abuse and plasma TVs in Dubbo.’
Ella-Duncan calls for a more rigorous response to reported child sexual assault. ‘I read just last week that people had reported sexual assault to two agencies on three occasions and were told that there was nothing they could do. That’s just not good enough. There needs to be a mandatory response. It needs to be noted and investigated automatically. We can’t even get past the front desk.’
Lynch thinks the problem lies elsewhere. ‘I’m not sure that a shortage of DoCS workers is the key problem. I think the key problem is the lack of reporting. The key to the entirety of the issue is the level of reporting. Child sexual assault is less reported in the Aboriginal community. We need the levels of reporting to be increased.’
Politicians will always play the blame game. The Liberals say the NSW Government is not doing enough and the NSW Labor Party says that the cases are not being reported enough. The question is, is there a culture of not reporting child sexual abuse or is the system so under-resourced that people feel it is hopeless to report a case that may never be investigated? It’s a chicken-and “egg situation.
And the eggs are all being put into one basket: the Northern Territory. While the former Federal Government tried to convince Australians that it was doing something about child sexual abuse by intervening in the NT, the States have been left to fend for themselves. Perhaps the new Labor Government will spread the bread a little further.
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