While Australia’s political focus is currently on The Voice, we need to also look at the context surrounding the ‘No campaign’ and those opposed to an Indigenous Voice to parliament.
This includes understanding the ways in which politics is currently being ‘played’ in the Northern Territory to draw attention to child welfare issues.
Coalition senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price has called for yet another Inquiry into protecting vulnerable children and young people in the Northern Territory.
This is from a representative of the political party that formed Australia’s Coalition Government, which was in power for 10 years. During that time, the welfare of children in the Northern Territory, particularly Aboriginal children, did not improve.
In fact, the Productivity Commission’s 2020 Report noted that children in the Northern Territory were three times more likely to come in contact with the child protection system than in other Australian states.
There is great cynicism in the Northern Territory about the role of inquiries.
In 2007, the NT government commissioned a major Inquiry into children’s welfare in the Northern Territory called Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle: Little Children are Sacred.
This was then used by the Howard Government to declare a “national emergency” and launch the so-called Northern Territory Emergency Response, also known as The Intervention. It saw the Federal Government mobilise the Australian Army to more than 70 remote Aboriginal communities to “protect children from sexual abuse”.
Many of the people involved in the Little Children are Sacred Inquiry had travelled over 35,000 kilometres by air and car, undertaken 45 community visits and conducted more than 260 meetings with local people.
Time was taken to build the trust of Aboriginal communities to discuss issues of great sensitivity.
One of the key recommendations stated: It is critical that both governments commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities.
Nothing could have been further from the subsequent process of implementing ‘The Intervention’.
Those involved in the Inquiry were left devastated by the betrayal of Aboriginal people and communities that had trusted them. The report co-chair, Rex Wild QC, said: “I think that Canberra seized upon [the report] for political reasons and that precipitated the invasion of the Northern Territory.”
The Minister for Indigenous Affairs at the time, Mal Brough, faced United Nations’ criticism that the measures taken by The Intervention were “overtly racist” and, with his army background, used the carefully conducted Inquiry to justify his ‘Intervention’.
It’s worth noting that, once in government, Australia’s Labor Party continued aspects of The Intervention, and took intervention-based policies forward in the form of Stronger Futures.
In 2023, Australia’s opposition leader, Peter Dutton (with his policing background) sounds similar. As an Indigenous affairs journalist has pointed out, Dutton is re-using old scripts.
The imposition of law and order on Aboriginal communities and highlighting lawlessness amongst Aboriginal youth (remember his claims about African gangs) plays well to the conservative base.
It allows him to raise questions about the effectiveness of the proposed Voice to Parliament.
It does little to address the issues of homelessness, poverty, unemployment, culturally appropriate education, poor health, problems with alcohol and other drugs and racial discrimination that lie at the heart of long-term disadvantage for children and their families in Aboriginal communities.
Indeed, there is little evidence that the very strong report by the Productivity Commission, Expenditure on Children in the Northern Territory, which followed on from 2017’s Youth Detention Royal Commission, had its recommendations to overcome short-term, fragmented funding for children and youth services implemented.
Senator Price seems to have had what can only be referred to as ‘a thought bubble’ when she suggested that the National Government should take over state child protection functions.
Nowhere in any of the many, many inquiries based on extensive consultations into child protection in the Northern Territory has this recommendation been made (e.g. 2007, 2010, 2017, 2020).
While it’s easy to criticise state child protection systems in Australia, the national government has not done historically well as a service provider.
The Robodebt scandal, the rorting of the NDIS, the parlous state of aged care provision, the politics played with the Federal-state housing agreements, the intense distress created by the lack of attention to child abuse and family violence by the Family Law Courts (also the subject of many inquiries) point to the failure of our national government in these areas – particularly in the provision of services for the most vulnerable.
This ‘thought’ from Senator Price is yet another example of politicians thinking they know best without undertaking rigorous consultation about the consequences of their misplaced ideas despite an invitation “for a considered, evidence-based discussion of the issue of child sexual abuse and the over-representation of Aboriginal children in the child protection system”.
While the many unimplemented recommendations from previous inquiries languish, it looks like opponents to The Voice are using the crisis in Alice Springs to indirectly raise questions about the effectiveness of the proposed Voice and whether it will make a difference to the people in communities where the impacts of Aboriginal disadvantage are being felt.
There may be more thought bubbles along the way (more inquiries, a national child protection system), but the key message from opponents is to question ‘the model’ proposed for the referendum.
Peter Dutton, with the help of Senator Price, is using the crisis in Alice Springs to question the role of The Voice in responding to local problems by using a real issue and twisting it for political gain – this is the context for the politics and politicians behind the No Campaign.