Calls for a royal commission into the abuse of children in remote communities ignore important research on the issues and perpetuate toxic tropes about Indigenous men. By Marion Scrymgour.

No to Dutton’s royal commission

A woman with the Aboriginal flag printed across her shirt peaks at a conference.
Marion Scrymgour at the Garma Festival in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory.
Credit: AAP Image / Mick Tsikas

I went to a number of different booths in Alice Springs on referendum day, October 14. I had spent most of the previous three weeks out bush in remote towns and communities where the Voice vote was overwhelmingly for “Yes”. I ended up at the Town Council booth.

Late in the afternoon, a slightly built Caucasian man arrived. He looked as if he was in his early 20s. After spending some minutes yarning with “No” campaign volunteers, he loudly and emphatically declined to take a how-to-vote leaflet from a “Yes” campaign volunteer and then strode into the polling place. When he came out, he gratuitously declared how happy he was to have voted “No”. I asked him why he had voted “No” and he said, “So that Aboriginal kids won’t get raped every night.”

This is the racially stereotypical viewpoint that has comfortably settled into the minds of many in the broader community, largely engendered by the irresponsible narrative driven by Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and her fellow traveller Nyunggai Warren Mundine. It is a viewpoint echoed in the words of comedian Rodney Marks who performed at the CPAC conference that Price attended in August: “I’d like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners: violent black men.” But whereas the comedian subsequently claimed the defence of irony, there is no such appeal made by, or on behalf of, Price.

We have been down this road before. In 2006, Alyawarre woman Pat Anderson was appointed, together with Rex Wild, KC, as a board of inquiry with four terms of reference relating to sexual abuse of Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory.

Despite the comparable incidence of such sexual abuse in the main and regional towns, the focus – at least in the media – was more on remote Aboriginal communities and on the suggestion made by a person initially identified as a “youth worker” that there were paedophile rings in the community in which he had been living and working. Long after, this story unravelled, with confirmation the claimed “youth worker” was in fact an assistant secretary in the Commonwealth government Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination, reporting directly to then Indigenous Affairs minister Mal Brough, and had not been residing in the community in question. After an exhaustive investigation, respected NT police commander Colleen Gwynne – who would go on to become an independent and effective Children’s Commissioner – spoke at a press conference where she reported that, while there was some evidence petrol had been supplied to children, there was “no evidence whatsoever” to support the allegation in the relevant media story.

In the meantime, the inquiry had gone ahead, and Pat Anderson and Rex Wild presented a report, Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle, or Little Children Are Sacred. The foreword made clear that sexual abuse of children happens everywhere, not just in Aboriginal communities, and that “[t]he number of perpetrators is small and there are some communities, it must be thought, where there are no problems at all”.

Nevertheless, the report went on to point out, “Family dysfunctionality, as a catch-all phrase, reflects and encompasses problems of alcohol and drug abuse, poverty, housing shortages, unemployment and the like. All of these issues exist in many Aboriginal communities.”

Little Children Are Sacred did not shy away from the seriousness or urgency of the problem, and set out 97 recommendations. In summary, what was proposed was a comprehensive process whereby governments at both the Territory and the Commonwealth level would work collaboratively with Aboriginal communities, with a view to empowering them and assisting them to overcome their disadvantage-derived dysfunctionality and at the same time helping to directly address and overcome child neglect and child sexual abuse wherever they existed.

That was in mid-2007. The federal government completely ignored the recommendations and instead launched the Northern Territory Intervention with a media blitz reinforcing the sort of malign tropes that were recently recycled by the CPAC conference comedian. Such tropes are toxic and soul-destroying and have resulted in permanent harm. They are a deliberate character assassination of most Aboriginal men, who do not fit the caricatured stereotype.

Over the many subsequent years under the intervention regime, bizarre and hugely destructive actions were taken, such as the scrapping of a worthwhile Territory-wide program enabling employment by local Aboriginal organisations of local people in real jobs. That move condemned the newly unemployed to welfare dependency. Eventually, the door was opened to non-Aboriginal businesses and agencies to come in and profit from the welfare-compliance misery of Aboriginal people who were placed on what had now become a “work for the dole” scheme.

Successful programs undertaken by local Aboriginal organisations aimed at keeping women safe were defunded. The federal government appointed non-Aboriginal ring-ins, many of whom had no experience working with or for Aboriginal Territorians, to take up roles with the grand title of “government business manager”. These GBMs were intended to be the effective bosses for the communities, but on the whole people just learnt to ignore and work around them.

The much-vaunted alcohol measures – claimed to be about stopping the “rivers of grog” – were largely a public relations exercise, given the vast majority of remote communities were already restricted areas under the Territory’s Liquor Act, and the “rivers” were in town. The pre-existing maximum penalty for grog-running was reduced from a prison sentence to a fine.

The report’s recommendations are still a road map for both governments and communities, but the fundamental point to be made is that without communicating with and earning the trust of communities, governments can’t achieve anything. Change agents need to have the hard conversations with our men and boys. There is some good work being done in this space throughout the Territory by a number of Aboriginal men and women, but much more is needed.

The one thing that is not going to help fix these problems is grandstanding to the non-Aboriginal community, purporting to be speaking up for victims but actually making the problems worse with broad, unspecified allegations that target Aboriginal men generically. There is a phrase for this, much beloved by those who are calling for a royal commission – it’s called “virtue signalling”.

There are three dimensions to addressing child sexual abuse.

First, there is the need to work with potential victims and potential perpetrators, and their families within at-risk communities. The challenge is to heighten awareness in such communities of sexual abuse – of children and adults – and to achieve a community consensus that will prevent such abuse from occurring. A royal commission is a mechanism for raising awareness in the non-Aboriginal community and for selling newspapers down south. It will do nothing to fix the problem and it will make it harder to have the conversation in communities because it will further entrench the stereotypes that cruel our chances of getting key people to engage.

Second, there is the investigation and prosecution of offending that has already occurred. Police, counsellors, witness assistance officers and prosecutors need confidentiality and discretion to effectively carry out their important work. Many witnesses need careful and sensitive coaxing to cooperate. Media publicity (in particular on social media) associated with calls for a royal commission, and which would arise from any royal commission itself, is unhelpful and can in some cases be poisonous when it comes to trying to work with reluctant witnesses.

Third, there is the need for ongoing care for and acknowledging of victims post-sentencing and the attempted rehabilitation of offenders. These matters are inherently variable and need to be addressed case by case. A royal commission is a blunt instrument that defers and delays the action required.

First Peoples love their children too. And whether we are Tiwi, or Anmatyerre, or whatever against-the-odds surviving community, we want to protect them.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 4, 2023 as "No to a royal commission".

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