PM John Howard announced on June 28 that his government was "taking control" of up to 80 remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, claiming this was a necessary response to the 320-page Little Children are Sacred report, which detailed high levels of sexual abuse of children on a range of NT Indigenous communities.
The report — commissioned by the NT Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sex Abuse — made many recommendations to the NT and federal governments on combating child abuse in these communities, few of which have made it into Howard's takeover plan.
The Howard government's takeover of NT Aboriginal communities has been met with opposition from many Indigenous groups.
At the heart of most of the criticism of Howard's intervention plan is the announcement made by Indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough that the permit system — under which non-residents must obtain permission from the holders of freehold native title to enter Indigenous communities — will be abolished.
Brough's argument for doing this is that such permits hinder the ability of police to enter Indigenous communities and thus to combat child abuse. However, the Little Children report pointed out that NT Aboriginal communities had used the permit system to restrict white perpetrators of child abuse from entering Aboriginal communities as well as to enforce many communities' self-imposed alcohol restrictions.
It is the abolition of the permit system — as well as Brough's cavalier mentioning of the government's intent to amend the NT Land Rights Act (1975) to legalise Canberra's takeover of Aboriginal townships— that has stirred resistance to the intervention plan.
Thousands of supporters of Indigenous rights rallied across Australia on July 14 in protest against the Howard-Brough plan, as well as continuing black deaths in police custody.
At the Sydney rally, National Indigenous Television chief executive Pat Turner, who is also a member of the Combined Aboriginal Organisation (CAO), said: "We will not say yes to removing the permit system and we will never agree to the removal of inalienable freehold title."
The CAO, which represents more than 40 NT Indigenous organisations, released an initial response on July 10 to the Howard-Brough intervention plan, arguing that effective solutions to the child abuse problem need to focus on fixing the lack of basic services in Indigenous communities, rather than stripping away land rights.
Part of the intervention plan involves quarantining up to 50% of parents' welfare payments or family tax benefits if their children do not regularly attend school. The CAO argues that schools on remote Aboriginal communities in the NT are under resourced and that this is a major reason why children choose not to attend them.
The Little Children report points out that 94% of Aboriginal communities in the NT have no preschool, 56% have no secondary school and 27% have a local primary school located more than 50 kilometres away.
Where schools have altered their curricula to relate to Aboriginal students' interests, their attendance rates have increased by up to 92%. But the main problem remains that there are too few teachers, often as result of a lack of housing.
The intervention plan includes health check-ups for all Aboriginal children. These were originally announced as being compulsory, but this was dropped after it was found not to be legal.
The CAO points out that there are no long-term provisions in the intervention plan to improve Indigenous health services. The Little Children report notes that 99% of NT Aboriginal communities have no substance abuse service and 99% have no dental service. Only 54% have government-funded primary care services and 47% have an Aboriginal primary health care service centre located more than 50km away.
Without substance abuse facilities to help alcoholics break their addition, the Howard government's proposed widespread ban is doomed to failure.
The Little Children report identified housing as a key area for concern, stating: "The main problem with housing in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, and its main contribution to child sexual abuse, is overcrowding. It is common for 20-30 people to live in a single building, without a capacity to stop perpetrators from gaining access to different parts of the house. There is an estimated shortfall of at least 4000 homes, which the Northern Territory government conservatively estimates would cost $1.4 billion to provide.
"The construction of these homes could provide jobs for many community members, if they are trained in advance. This would also help resolve shortages of skilled construction workers in rural and remote areas."
The report stressed the need for Aboriginal communities to be able to take control of their own affairs in order to counter abuse and poverty, but the Howard intervention plan does the exact opposite by placing all control in the hands of bureaucrats from the federal Aboriginal affairs ministry.
"We believe that this government is using child sexual abuse as the Trojan horse to resume total control of our lands", Turner told a June 25 media conference.