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Policy that says one thing and does another in an Australian Aboriginal community


Published: 6 Dec 2010

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Policy that says one thing and does another in an Australian Aboriginal community

Source:  Fawcett, B. & Hanlon, M. (2009). Child sexual abuse and Aboriginal communities in Australia: A case study of non-inclusive government intervention. European Journal of Social Work, 12(1), 87-100.

Reviewed by:  Elizabeth Fast

This article critiques an intervention made by the Howard Government in the Northern Aboriginal territory of Australia in 2007. The intervention followed the completion of a report entitled “Little Children are Sacred” which was commissioned by the government after allegations of widespread sexual abuse of children in the territory were made public. The report recommended that sexual abuse be deemed an issue of urgent national attention and attributed the abuse to high poverty rates and unequal access to resources by members in the territory. The report also found that there were a significant number of non-Aboriginal perpetrators and that the problem of sexual abuse in this territory was longstanding.

The report was released against a back-drop of policy shifts including the abolishment of Aboriginal customary law during bail decisions and changes to the 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights Act. The Act had been regarded as a breakthrough piece of legislation that gave Aboriginal communities rights over traditional lands. However changes made in 2006 and 2007 made it possible for an externally appointed Executive Director to grant 99 year leases on Aboriginal land (renewable after 69 years). There is no requirement for the Executive Director to consult with the traditional landowners about the management of their land.

As a result of the commissioned report, the Howard government declared a state of National Emergency which further strengthened this legislation and now makes it possible for the Australian government to take over townships on five year leases. The other key measures included the introduction of compulsory health checks for all Aboriginal children despite the fact that other health concerns related to poverty such as malnutrition, rheumatic heart disease and persistent lung infections were not being targeted as urgent concerns.

The authors note that the nature of the action taken by the government led to widespread speculation about whether the government’s actions were driven by the need to address child sexual abuse, pre-election tactics and/or the desire to control Aboriginal land because of valuable mineral deposits. They argue that long-standing oppression of Aboriginal peoples continues while “evidence” is reframed, repackaged and re-presented to support non-participatory action. The Howard government ignored existing evidence that locally based, resourced and controlled action was imperative to finding long-term solutions. The authors argue that these actions are particularly important for social workers to learn from as policies such as these have the capacity to involve social workers in compromise and appropriation and to implicate them in an increasingly rigid and compliance based framework of policing social problems.


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