Bennelong Papers

‘Yabbered’ to death — Part I

“Community safety in remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory has improved in recent years.”
                           — Closing the Gap: Prime Minister’s Report 2013
(No supporting data was provided, other than comments about unspecified community surveys)

Australian governments’ policies towards “closing the gap” of Aboriginal disadvantage generate heaps of flowery prose. The policies’ impacts on domestic violence, child abuse/neglect, and crime, are at best negligible. The violence and abuse have worsened dramatically in the past decade, after also rising significantly in the prior 20 years.

The absurdities of official policies are suggested by SA government spending of $360,000 on 30 motorbikes for youths in the remote South Australian desert (the bikes stayed unused in storage). At $12,000 apiece, each bike was only a tad less expensive than a Harley-Davidson XL883L Superlow, at $14,000. SA bureaucrats also bought for the remote locals five heavy-duty microwaves and six washing machines ($10,000 each); and four baby-change tables imported from the US at $2400 apiece.[1]

These are the same Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjajara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands where Australian Crime Commission figures show women are 67 times more likely than Australian norms to be the victim of domestic homicide, largely from bashings. In a population of 6000, 14 women were killed by partners from 2000-08, including six in 2006-08.[2]

Part I: Yabbered To Death


Part II: A Long Bloody History of Violence

Part III: A Blacked-Out Past

Part IV: When The Horrific Is Mundane


Meanwhile, deep discussions about Reconciliations, constitutional recognitions, treaties, social justice, disadvantage and ‘negative social indicators’ continue, a type of national conversation that Peter Sutton dismisses as "yabber". Professor Sutton is a linguist and anthropologist with a lifetime’s work for Aboriginal progress. He writes, “Such [bureaucratic] language…moves in a territory somewhere between euphemism, banality and propaganda. A murdered mother is not ‘disadvantaged’ – she has lost her life.”[3]

Reconciliation, he says, has now “attracted the hideous Orwellian language of management-speak. In glossy-brochure land, in a galaxy far, far away, we were to read about governance, capacity building, partnerships, whole of government, benchmarks, stakeholders, leadership, targets, measureable outcomes, role models – and so it goes…It is the language of managerialist welfarism. But if you believe the media releases, it’s the Breakfast of Champions. And where is our Kurt Vonnegut when we need him?” [4]

To pad out these official narratives, bureaucrats now insert colorful “Case Studies”, each involving an individual Aborigine who has become a success story thanks to Program XYZ. Of course, there is never a case study involving  failures. Suggested case studies of failure: 

  •   In Alice Springs, there is quite a gap to be closed, with Aboriginal women there 80 times more likely to be hospitalised after assault than women living anywhere else.[5]
  •   There is so much persistent ear disease in the communities that 40% (urban) and 70% (remote) Aborigines have hearing loss and difficulties.[6]
  •    More than a third of the Indigenous children under 14 are in over-crowded housing. In remote communities, more than half the children live over-crowded.[7] About a third of the housing is also deficient in washing, sanitation and food storage and cooking facilities.[8] Even where new building and repair programs were active in the NT, housing occupancy would fall on average only from “the high to the early-teens” – presumably from about 18 to 13 people per house.[9]
  •    The rate of abuse and neglect confirmations nationally for Indigenous children under 17 years has risen from 2.2% of the Indigenous child population in 2002-03 to 4.2% in 2011-12. Protection orders similarly have risen from 2.3% to 5.5%.[10]
  •    In the NT in the decade to 2010, child removals grew from 175 to 555, a 215% increase, including a 40% increase in 2008-10.[11] Worse, removals are forecast to escalate while availability of Aboriginal carers diminishes.[12]

The normally level-headed Productivity Commission cites one bizarre finding that, despite appalling living conditions in remote communities, the settlements “also possessed protective factors that can safeguard children and families from psychological distress, such as spirituality and connection to land, family and culture.”[13]

Bureaucrats and politicians are prone to one-day flying visits to remote settlements. Aborigines smirk at these people ‘tippin’ elbow’ (checking their watches) “as the afternoon of their brief transit in the tropics wears on.” [14]

Sutton says the worst forms of violence are often ignored as too awful to tackle, and staff themselves may be threatened and assaulted, or just suffer burn-out. He concluded, “In the 2000s the statistics are now proving one vital point above all others: approaches to dealing with community violence in the recent past have been a hopeless failure.”[15]

Anthropologist and author Inga Clendinnen, in a rather odd comment, complains, “From the 1970s on, a relative silence promoted and policed by the Left and by a number of Indigenous activists created a vacuum in public discussion on these (violence) issues that in the 1990s began to be filled by those pursuing ideologically conservative agendas”.[16]

Examples of ‘burying’ the violence problem are common. In the mid-1990s, when half of Indigenous children were said to be victims of family violence or abuse, the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Island Commission (ATSIC) was spending only $1.3m out of its billion-dollar budget on programs to curb domestic violence – and even that small amount had to be clawed out of its multi-million-dollar travel and information budgets.[17]

The 1997 Bringing Them Home report of Ronald Wilson is 700 pages. Of those pages, only one page discusses family violence as a cause of child removals.[18] (Incidentally, the NT Families & Children division has been arbitrarily putting Aboriginal children in and out of care, “with very little notice or appreciation of the devastating impacts of such decisions on both the children, the carers, and the natural children of carers.”[19] So much for Kevin Rudd’s apology of 2008: “The injustices of the past must never, never happen again”).

Only two years after Bringing Them Home, the 1999 Queensland Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Women’s Task Force on Violence Report, headed by Professor Boni Robertson, was writing:

"Violence is now overt: murders, bashings and rapes, including sexual violence against children, have reached epidemic proportions with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous being perpetrators.’ The atmosphere in Aboriginal communities was described as one of ‘continuing fear from which there is no escape…Sexual abuse is an inadequate term for the incidence of horrific sexual offences committed against young girls and boys in a number of Community locations in Queensland over the last few years”. [20]

Failure of passive welfarism was predicted by the distinguished anthropologist Professor William Stanner as early as 1968: “Possibly the most dangerous theory, though it is scarcely that, is that things are now going well, that all we need to do is more of what we are already doing, that is, deepen and widen the welfare programs, and the rest will come at a natural pace in its own good time.”[21]

Two decades later anthropologist Colin Tatz was writing of “an abysmal absence of historical perspective in Aboriginal affairs, resulting in a policy and administration myopia that is staggering in its implications and results. No one learns from the past, no one listens, no one learns, and hardly anyone stays around long enough to osmose anything. Everyone re-discovers the wheel.”[22]

Anthropologist Professor Paul Memmott examined 130 remedial violence programs in communities in the 1990s. Only six had ever been formally evaluated. “There was, in fact, a total absence of discussion of program failure in the literature on the programs…”[23]

Remarkably, the same criticisms were made again in June 2011, this time by the House of Representatives standing committee inquiry into Aboriginal over-representation in the justice system.[24]

The committee quoted a Menzies School of Health Research report that interventions continue to be short-term, sporadic, un-rigorous, lacking in corporate memory and hence unable to learn from past successes and failures. Each new failure feeds into the downward spiral of powerlessness and cynicism among providers and clients, the School said.[25]

The committee said continuing government inability to identify what works and why, leads to wasted public money and bad relations between government and non-government providers, as well as with Aborigines. “The Committee insists that Australians cannot wait another twenty years to address this national crisis and urges that the Committee’s recommendations are responded to within six months from the tabling of this report,” it said.[26]

Fat chance. Nearly 24 months have elapsed with no serious response from the Gillard team. The intergenerational effects of the unsafe, violent communities may well be generating new crises in 2033. As just one example, numbers of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care through abuse and neglect at home, are skyrocketing. And there is a very high correlation between out of home care and later entry into the criminal justice system.

A further factor suggesting the problems are going to spiral, is the high annual population growth of around 2% in remote communities. By 2050, Arnhem Land could have more than 34,000 people and now-small communities like Yarrabah, Qld, 6000.[27] This natural increase will be augmented nationally by the compounding increase in Aboriginal self-identifiers. (Between 2006-11, 90,000 more people  identified as Aboriginal).[28]

There are testable targets in Closing the Gap for half a dozen indicators — some important, like early-childhood mortality, and others flakey, such as enrolment in pre-school facilities (whether attended or not. NT Aboriginal children in 2010 comprised 43.3% of the child population, but represented only 10% of children attending early child care services).[29]

But despite all the recommendations, there are no Closing the Gap targets for reduction of the horrific violence against women, or the vast over-representation of Aboriginals in the criminal justice system. Rates of young Aborigines’ incarcerations are now worse than during the 1991 “Deaths in Custody” hearings, despite huge increases in miscellaneous program funding and bureaucratic resources. Latest Productivity Commission figures show that after age-standardisation, just under one in 50 Indigenes to be in gaol. That is 13.6 times the non-Indigenous rate. [30]

From 2000-10, the rate of Indigenes in prison rose 51% to nearly one in 50 (1891 per 100,000), while rates for non-Indigenes remained steady.
[31] In WA the per capita rate rocketed to about one in 25 in custody, about 24 times the rate for non-Indigenes.[32]

  • From 2000-10, Indigenous males in custody rose 55% and females, 47%.[33] They now comprise a quarter of Australian prisoners.[34]
  • In 2008, over 40 percent of all Indigenous men in Australia reported having been charged formally with an offence by police before they reached the age of 25.[35]
  • Young Aborigines are about 60% of all youths in detention, and their rate of detention is 28 times higher than for non-Indigenous juveniles.[36]About 22% of the young Aboriginals in detention are 14 or under.[37]

A hidden but crucial issue in “Closing the Gap” is the rate of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) among young Aborigines. It is caused by excessive drinking by pregnant women. (Some women manage blood-alcohol readings of 0.4%). The children often suffer life-long brain damage and frequently get into conflicts with police.

Recent findings from Fitzroy Valley community in WA (pop. 4500, 80% Indigenous) involved a sample of 127 children. Half have FASD. The Fitzroy data is a wake-up call, given Indigenous FASD has normally been estimated at a mere 3-5 babies per 1000 births , or 0.05%.[38]

Dr Sharman Stone, (Murray, Liberal Party), chairwoman of Parliamentarians for the Prevention of FASD, suspects Australian Indigenous communities   have the world’s highest rates of FASD. (For comparison, in Western Cape province in South Africa, FASD rates are 68-89 children per 1000 , i.e. under 10%. Those rates have been viewed as high-end). 

June Oscar, Chief Executive Officer, Marninwarntikura Women’s Resource Centre,  who is helping the Fitzroy study, says: ”This is the biggest issue facing the nation and I cannot understand why Australia has been so slow to recognise it as a major public health issue as it is in Canada and the United States.”[39]

The needs of the FASD children alone are sufficient to swamp available health services. Follow-up treatments needed at Fitzroy Valley include occupational therapy, 53 % of children; speech pathology, 53%; psychology, 50%; physiotherapy, 31%; optometry, 10 %; and dietician, 4%.

Sharman Stone says, ”[The disorder] is filling jails with young kids who break the law. It is a drain on the health system and to police, and is linked to high incidence of youth suicide and chronic unemployment.” FASD is even promoting ‘cultural genocide’ as youngsters become incapable of learning their traditions, she says.

The federal government is providing about $7m for FASD work. This compares with $10m gifted towards a campaign by Reconciliation Australia to promote constitutional recognitions, and $63m over four years for the new Indigenous TV channel.

One scourge in remote communities is simply parental neglect. In the NT, the bulk of child removal cases involve parental failure to provide food, shelter, clothing, supervision, hygiene or medical attention. Adult drugs and gambling distract parents from supervising children, and introduce many strangers into homes Environments where there is substance abuse and where gambling is prevalent will also impact on parental vigilance and the supervision of children, and can involve entry of strangers in the home, propagating vice to children.[40]

As a much lesser health issue, a third of Aboriginal adults are obese, compared with a sixth among non-Aboriginals.[41] Aborigines are also smokers at two and a half times the rate of non-Aborigines.[42]  

How “Closing the Gap” can succeed in the face of such data, is a problem. It’s difficult even to get Health departments to cooperate with Justice departments on offenders with FASD.

Many children are growing up without their family. From 2007 to 2012, Aboriginals in out-of-home care increased from 36.3 to 55.1 per 100000 Aboriginal children, whereas non-Aboriginal care cases rose only slightly. [43]

One study found children in care were 68 times more like to face a court than other children. Nearly half the Indigenous adults in NSW prisons in 2009 had been in care. Moreover, high numbers of inmates said a parent had been in care.[44]

In New South Wales, 9.1% of sexual assault victims under the age of 18 years were Indigenous, and 12.6% of under-18 victims of domestic violence were Indigenous.

Victims of child abuse and adult violence also tend to move on to prisons. About 70% of Indigenous women in NSW gaols said they had suffered sexual abuse as children, 44% had been sexually assaulted as adults, and nearly 80% had been violence victims as adults. Virtually all those sexually assaulted as children now had a drug problem.[45]

The Representatives’ committee concluded by noting that each young Aboriginal now winding up in the justice system, is likely to re-offend and create fractured families with absent kin. (A little-recognised fact is that, for the past five years, Aboriginal deaths in custody have run at only half the rate of non-Aboriginal deaths).[46]

SO WHAT is being done about these community-safety and prison issues?

There was a Council of Australian Governments (COAG) round table on community safety in 2009. Ministers agreed that unless communities could be made safe, the other big Closing the Gap targets in health, education and housing would be unattainable. Understandable, given that Aboriginal women are about 35 times more likely to be hospitalized for domestic assault than non-Aboriginal women.[47]

Through 2011-12, Aboriginal groups were lobbying COAG for targets on safe communities. As the National Congress of First Peoples complained:

“As at June 2012, discussions between the Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments were at a preliminary stage. It is not clear what the timeframe will be for finalisation of the [community safety] Strategy, whether Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations will be consulted, or what might be included in the Strategy. There now appears to be no commitment from the Commonwealth Government to a National Partnership Agreement…”[48]

But at the December 7, 2012 COAG meeting, such targets didn’t even make the agenda for discussion. Fast-forward to the latest COAG meeting on April 19, 2013. It found time to consult and issue communiqués on purchasing locally-made cars and sorting out the States on the Royal Succession, but Safe Communities for Aboriginal Women and Children again failed to get a mention.[49]

Hence there is still no agreed national funding strategy for the community safety issue, despite previous pledges by the Gillard government to negotiate such a strategy. There is only the 2012 Federal “Stronger Futures” deal with the NT involving $620m over ten years. But there are plenty of National Partnership Agreements (with funding commitments) on other topics, including health, housing, early childhood development, and even “Remote Indigenous Public Internet Access”.

Here’s a  glimpse of how things subside in the bureaucracy:

Several years ago, the Federal Attorney-General’s Department, according to First Assistant Secretary Katherine Jones, was supposedly working with state counterparts on closing-the-gap justice targets, for approval in mid-2010. As the House of Representatives committee put it in June 2011:

“At the time of tabling this report, the Attorney-General’s Department informed the Committee that no further developments have been made on Indigenous justice targets.”

This committee then urged that the Commonwealth develop a National Partnership Agreement for Safe Communities and present it to the Council of Australian Governments by December 2011. It is now mid-2013. Action: nil.

Katherine Jones hinted at one aspect of the inertia: not only do the Commonwealth and the States pass the buck rather than cooperate, but within the States there is buckpassing and territorialism among agencies for corrections, police and justice.

Individual workers on Aboriginal programs may be champions, but as a WA Magistrate complained, “Then very soon they are shifted to some other location and all of their good work is lost.”

Katherine Jones at the time was running the AG’s Social Inclusion Division. Her  portfolio ranged from human rights (whatever they are) to wild rivers and distinctions between traditional owners and native title holders. She has since moved sideways to work on combating international crime. A certain Kym Duggan now runs the “Social Inclusion Division” with its forlorn heritage on national cooperation for safe Aboriginal communities.

In February, 2013, Prime Minister Gillard reported that her government is working towards ‘an overarching policy framework’ on community safety, ‘with a view to developing advice to COAG…later in 2013’. Naturally, ‘significant progress continues to be made’.[50] I’m sure Peter Sutton would put all that in his ‘yabber’ category.

PAR FOR the course in government agencies is duplications, gaps, role confusions, and funding by multiple agencies for the same thing in the same place, rather than complementary activity. Planning goes uncoordinated and with unrealistic time frames, such as rushed building of inappropriate housing. Agencies refuse to share their data, putting alleged privacy considerations ahead of client welfare. Huge staff turnovers and inadequate training arise from impossible case-loads, leaving agencies with chronically unfilled positions and poor supervision and morale. Talented staff are ruthlessly headhunted from existing jobs.[51]

One example of gaps in service is the Larrakia Nation Aboriginal Corporation Night Patrol in Darwin, described in the 2011 report. The people manning it were volunteers with no legal power, but they operated seven nights a week and picked up about 150 people per night, mainly drunks and unsupervised children. The patrol was funded by the NT Department of Justice. But there was only one 32-bed sobering up shelter in Darwin, and only two re-hab clinics, each with long waiting lists. The service needed also to operate in daytime, but has great difficulty winning funding tenders from governments. It has limped along but last year the NT mini-budget cut its funding and it was facing closure this June. In April it was rescued with some federal funding.

There are many similar small Aboriginal groups in youth justice work, which are unable to negotiate the government funding labyrinth, against competition from professional white groups.

Peter Sutton’s blueprint for improvement is for governments to scrap the plethora of racial-identity-based programs and simply focus resources on where needs exist: “Aboriginality itself, of course, would not be removed, any more than Jewishness or Greek ethnicity are negated by their absence from the state apparatus. “[52]

He says many, if not most, of the Indigenous elite live in middle-class suburbs, marry non-Indigenes, and enjoy a professional lifestyle.[53] Their common factor is not race or culture but descent from an Aboriginal ancestor, no matter how remotely.

Given the high out-marriage rate with non-Indigenous people (71.4% in 2006), “it will not be too many more generations before most Australians share some Indigenous ancestry. That might defuse the issue if it is still with us. Or will the racial wall be downed by then?”[54]

His priority areas would be early childhood socialization, health and education; communities safe from endemic violence; primary and preventative health care; encouraging job and social mobility between settlements and mainstream Australia; ending of heavy funding of non-viable communities; and seeking reconciliation as a personal matter rather than a collective and bureaucratic one.[55]

Tony Thomas studied anthropology under Professor Ronald Berndt in Perth in 1961, and in 1974 co-authored, with Dr Carl Georg von Brandenstein ,“TARURU – Aboriginal Song Poetry from the Pilbara”. In 2010 he authored “Stolen Generations: The Pocket Windschuttle”.

His research on Indigenous child removals since the Rudd “Stolen Generation” apology appears in May’s Quadrant.


[2] Jarrett, Stephanie, Liberating Aboriginal People from Violence. Connor Court, Ballan, Vic, 2013 p9

[3] Sutton, Peter, The Politics of Suffering. Melbourne University Publishing, 2011 p76

[4] Sutton p211



[7] Doing Time – Time for Doing: Indigenous youth in the criminal justice system. House of Representatives
Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, June 2011 p18

[8] Doing Time p19

[9] Promoting the Safety and Wellbeing of the Northern Territory’s Children : Report of the Board of Inquiry into the Child Protection System in the Northern Territory 2010. P113

[11] Promoting the Safety and Wellbeing of the Northern Territory’s Children : Report of the Board of Inquiry into the Child Protection System in the Northern Territory 2010,p38

[12] ibid p40

[14] Sutton p51

[15] Sutton p74

[16] Sutton p7

[17] Louis Nowra, Bad Dreaming, Pluto Press, North Melbourne, p70

[18] Jarrett p39

[19] Promoting the Safety p42

[20] McGlade, Hannah, Our Greatest Challenge: Aboriginal children and human rights. Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2012. p125-6

[21] Sutton p60

[22] Sutton p52

[23] Sutton p73

[24] Doing Time – Time for Doing. Indigenous youth in the criminal justice system.House of Representatives
Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs

[25] Doing Time p69-70

[26] Doing Time p322

[27] Sutton, p75

[29] Promoting the Safety p17

[31] Ibid PC 4.132

[32] PC Table 8A.45

[33] Doing Time p8

[34] PC Tab le 8A.1


[36] Doing Time p8

[37] Doing Time p11

[40] Promoting the Safety p25

[41] Op cit Productivity Commission EA.16

[42] Productivity EA.19

[43] Productivity 15A.17

[45] Doing Time p46

[46] Productivity 8a.16




[50]  p113

[51] Promoting the Safety p50

[52] Sutton p212

[53] Sutton p57

[54] Sutton p212

[55] Sutton p218-9

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