Australia: If John Howard were truly sorry & really cared about the country's Indigenous children... Print E-mail

One response to our Prime Minister’s plan to address child abuse in the Northern Territory:

Or how do we make this an opportunity to properly address and reduce child abuse and prioritise the human rights of children in Australia

By Patmalar Ambikapathy
Barrister and Human Rights Consultant for Children

I confess that I usually listen to music on ABC FM to soothe my soul, but occasionally to debrief, I vegetate in front of TV and luxuriate in cooking and lifestyle programs and avidly watch Oz soapies where the characters are much more troubled by trivia than I am. When I am really tired, paradoxically I stay awake to watch ABC Lateline, as TV has such a powerful soporific impact on my ability to stay awake. This means I have to really make an effort to watch Lateline and to wait for the music and visuals that I quite like in the beginning too. Aren’t little things pleasing to divert our serious thoughts?

Imagine the rude interruption to my late night reverie on 21st June (how can I ever forget that day), as I was relaxing after a really good day in court. My colleagues and I persuaded a magistrate to order separate independent, legal representation for a child who had just turned 5. The court deemed she was mature enough to give instructions, and it was a great human rights moment for little children, who are usually silenced by legal and other systems. This includes the arm of government that is charged with child welfare, as they opposed the application. Some in government, have a persistent belief they have the monopoly of knowledge on what is best for a child, and that they are the best vehicle for transmitting what a child has expressed to the court. Strange how a child’s independent legal representative can help a court when they get a different perspective from a child. When children are empowered to express independent views they can challenge the prevailing paradigm, so no wonder striving for this right for children that we as adults take for granted, has been a long hard road.

Imagine how all of us who have worked long years for and with children, often against systems, are reeling from the Prime Minister’s (PM) firmly announced plans of what he was going to do “for” the little children who are and were abused in the Northern Territory. Lo fellow activists, behold a new form of systems abuse of children - a political one to add to the list. How can a PM that I did not vote for (no I am not a member of the Labor party), in one breath say what many of us in the electorate want to believe in our hearts, but to many of us also, his words look, feel and smell like a stunning blow against the rights of abused children? Allow me to offer my jaded views that have been established after around 25 years of striving for the rights of abused children. We learned the bitter lesson early that there is more than one way to abuse a child - inaction is inexcusable, especially when many have cried out for help and we have not responded. To look away /to ignore/ to minimise/ to marginalise is also an action that we may have chosen to take. No amount of doing “something” is going save or salve a stricken conscience. Let other professionals speak the truth of what could be another betrayal:-

  •  The Australian Indigenous Doctors Association say that Aboriginal children are dying three times more often than non Aboriginal children and so why has this not been an emergency now and in the past?
  • Why have pleas from Muriel Bamblett representing Aboriginal children’s groups and recommendations in numerous reports been so parsimoniously responded to during the decade in which John Howard has been in power?
  • Does it take the Royal College of Paediatricians to warn that medical examinations for children suspected of being abused needs to be professionally carried out by forensic paediatricians, before it is announced medical checks of all Aboriginal children are not going to be compulsory but voluntary?
  • How did this compulsory medical examination plan come into being when this was not part of any of the 97 recommendations made by Rex Wilde and Pat Anderson? Who suggested this, we need to know?
  • How are we to deal with the PM’s plan for Land Councils when Pat Turner asks if the PM’s proposals in the NT is a Trojan horse for clawing back land rights Aboriginals have fought so hard for?
  • Why did the PM not listen to Professor Mick Dodson author of the “Stolen Generation” report about the desperate plight of Aboriginal children in 2003 and to Senator Aden Ridgeway during his term in Parliament?
  • Why did the PM not declare an emergency in 2003 for Aboriginal children and for all children in 2004? Just before the last election Bill Glasson the former president of the AMA provided him with a resolution from a child abuse summit we attended. This noted that in Feb 2004, the figure for child abuse notifications was 40,000+ children a year and if this was a disease, it would constitute a pandemic for all our children. The response after the elections was to abolish the Ministry for Children and to subsume it within the families portfolio. Did this show contempt or commitment?
  • Where is the funding for basic services, like maternal child heath centres, child care facilities, schools and school transport, not to mention adequate housing, clean water and sewerage systems for all Aboriginal communities?
  • Why has the emergency declared in Mutitjulu resulted in no police, no clinic and no child care services? How many specialist trained staff to deal with child abuse are there compared to police and army in the PM’s plan? Western Australia has offered these, and where is the plan for compulsory checks for all paid and voluntary workers?
  • What training in prevention and dealing with child abuse do those that the PM intends to “deploy” in this “mission“ have? Really need we use military language?

If we are turn this sorry and ill conceived dark episode in our history into something positive for our children, we need to make our elected representatives accountable for all that is happening now. Despite the government’s inaction till last week, we need to insist that this government and any other incumbent one, adhere to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC) that we ratified in December 1990 after extensive Australia wide consultation.

May I ask, does the PM intend in accordance with Article 12 of the UNCROC, to ask the little children of the Northern Territory what their views are? Perhaps what they say will be too intimidating, but they have a right to be heard. A state of emergency needs to be declared for all children now, as we have fallen short of the benchmarks we were expected to reach in the decade after UNCROC and the World Declaration on the Survival, Protection and Development of children. This Declaration needs to be implemented urgently for Aboriginal children living in third world conditions, when apparently our economy is booming. Let us unravel what is going on now and learn how we can all be effective in assisting our most marginalised of children, the first Australians.

For a start, we need a comprehensive early childhood strategy that has worked overseas and in NSW (“Brighter Futures” program) to reduce abuse and other social harms. The Perry Pre School project in America showed that for every dollar spent on early childhood services, seven was saved downstream in public spending. Let us use what looks like a cynical political exercise, to actually advance the rights of all children in Australia both Aboriginal and non Aboriginal. As we said at the 2004 summit, this will take “new money” to support and sustain our most precious beings and to begin to address the damage that we have done to them by our inaction. There is no fanciful quick fix to seduce the electorate with Mr PM and Mr Rudd. It is time for bipartisan determination to do what it takes to help children - show us real political will and commitment, decent policies and “core” promises before the elections ie now to save our children and safe guard their future and ours. Anything less will be a betrayal of monumental proportions by all who can help but choose not to.
Patmalar Ambikapathy
Barrister and Human Rights Consultant for Children

BA ( Durham) Barrister ( London), M.Phil ( Cambridge)

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