My unsung heroes – Marion Scrymgour’s NAIDOC speech
I am honoured to have been given this 2010 NAIDOC award. I remember like it was yesterday being in the audience at this event in 2007 when my former colleague Jack Ah Kit spoke after receiving the same award. It was only weeks after John Howard and Mal Brough had made their shock-and-awe Intervention announcement in 2007.
Marion Scrymgour is the member for Arafura in the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly. Arafura is an electorate of more than 200,000 square kilometres that covers her homelands on the Tiwi Islands north of Darwin and large tracts of western and southern Arnhem land. Marion was first elected in 2001 and has held the seat since then.
This is the text prepared for her acceptance speech for the NAIDOC Lifetime Achievement Award in Darwin last Saturday, July 10. NAIDOC originally stood for ‘National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee‘. This committee was once responsible for organising national activities during NAIDOC Week and its acronym has since become the name of the week itself. To find out more about the origins of NAIDOC Week, visit NAIDOC history.
Growing up as an Aboriginal person in Darwin part of my cultural education and orientation was to become aware at an early age that there were certain Larrakia families who were actively trying to achieve recognition and proper acknowledgment of their ancient connections to this city. Already by the mid-1970’s land rights champions like Bobby Secretary, Dolly Garinyi, Victor Williams, and members of some of the other families (I won’t name them all) were making their voices heard, at land rights rallies and elsewhere.
Every now and then there would be photos of these unsung heroes of mine in the local newspaper. This was all before the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act was passed by the Commonwealth and before recognition as a traditional owner carried with it any potential benefits.
At a time when there has been recent questioning by some of the meaningfulness of welcomes to country and acknowledgments to traditional owners, I have no hesitation in paying my respects to the surviving members of those families who stood up to be counted in the years when I was growing up. It is not an empty gesture.
My mother brought me to be proud of my Tiwi heritage, and Tiwi people have always recognised the rights and responsibilities of their nearest neighbours, rights and responsibilities relating to Darwin and its surrounding hinterland, including Cox Peninsula.
My greetings also to all you others in the audience tonight, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, who have gathered together to celebrate survival and pride in a unique Aboriginal identity.
I am honoured to have been given this 2010 NAIDOC award. I remember like it was yesterday being in the audience at this event in 2007 when my former colleague Jack Ah Kit spoke after receiving the same award. It was only weeks after John Howard and Mal Brough had made their shock-and-awe Intervention announcement in 2007. Although in Jack’s first public comments after that announcement he was cautiously open to potential positives, to his great credit by the time of his NAIDOC speech he had clearly already seen the Intervention for the divisive backwards step that it was.
Jack probably spoke for a great many Aboriginal Territorians when he confirmed in his 2007 NAIDOC speech that big changes and urgent action were needed to address the ongoing crisis of Aboriginal disadvantage. He and I both knew that we needed bucket-loads of Commonwealth money to address the various problems. But I am sure Jack spoke for the overwhelming majority of us when he said “but not this way”. But not this way…
An intervention is a situation where one party forcibly coerces another party to submit to its will.
I should make it clear at the outset that when I use the word “Intervention” I am talking about the plethora of imposed Commonwealth control measures that are now in force in the “prescribed communities” and the scrapping of permits and CDEP.
I am not talking about those various collateral and non-contentious initiatives that had the backing of the NT Government and most of the affected communities, measures which did not require coercive enabling legislation to take effect. Examples of measures which fall outside the Intervention in my book include special Commonwealth funding grants for things like safe houses, the restoration of women’s and children’s services (substantially removed or reduced in the earlier years of the Howard Government), additional teachers, and the building of new housing and infrastructure.
Those things cannot be pointed to as justification for the Intervention. They are entirely separate from it.
I should also make it clear that I am not necessarily against interventions on principle. Some situations cry out for coercive action to achieve a humane and beneficial result. I developed a piece of legislation called the Volatile Substance Abuse Prevention Act which enabled firm forcible action to be taken in relation to petrol sniffing, treating it as a health emergency not a criminal justice problem. But if you are going to comprehensively intervene in a way that turns the lives of almost every single remote community N.T. Aboriginal person upside down, you had better get it right.
You are almost certainly not going to get it right if you are planning your shock-and-awe campaign from Canberra, and substantially basing it on Indigenous affairs advice from Cape York.
Once the monster package of bills that made up the Intervention legislation was revealed, it was pretty obvious that Aboriginal people and organisations were going to have to submit to government regulation and control on a range of fronts unrelated to child protection.
I spoke out against the Intervention in October 2007 and copped furious criticism from people who were adamant that the Emperor was wearing some new clothes. The Australian newspaper launched a character assassination campaign, with the assistance of some of its favoured darlings in the Indigenous realm.
My political career has probably been damaged to some extent as a result of the stand I took, but despite some suggestions that have been made to the contrary, I haven’t changed my views. Any pressure I have experienced pales into insignificance in comparison with impact that the economically insane scrapping of CDEP has had on individuals, organisations, and communities.
It is tempting to take this opportunity of having a captive audience to look back over the last three years and make some comments about double talk on rights and “evidence-based” policy, in particular in relation to the blatant double standard in the Commonwealth’s approach to income management in the Territory and Cape York.
But I will restrict myself to just one related topic.
Child protection has become a political football in a way that I couldn’t have imagined when I was still working in the health sector. One of my peers in that sector the mid-1990’s, and a person who like me at that time held the position of Director of an Aboriginal Medical Service, was Pat Anderson. We worked closely with each other, in particular in relation to the establishment of AMSANT, (the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance of the Northern Territory) and became good friends. In the wake of sensationalised reporting of a speech given by a particular Crown Prosecutor about child sex cases over a 10 year period, and allegations regarding child sexual abuse at Mutitjulu, Pat was appointed the Co-Chair of a Board Of Inquiry into child sexual abuse in the Territory.
The cases which the Crown Prosecutor had detailed in her speech were not cases that had been swept under the carpet but rather cases which had been successfully prosecuted with the perpetrators sentenced to prison terms. Much if not most of the offending had occurred not in remote communities but in Alice Springs. Apparent suggestions in the speech that Aboriginal culture and society was partly to blame for the offending was seized upon by the usual suspects and led to a national media feeding frenzy.
The approach adopted by Pat and her Co-Chair Rex Wild QC was to treat as a given the uncontentious proposition (the wording for which they took from a submission to them from a victims of crime committee) that Aboriginal child sex abuse in the NT was widespread and under-reported. The proposition is uncontentious because, unfortunately, child sex abuse is widespread and under-reported throughout Australia generally. While the incidence may be higher in disadvantaged communities it is a phenomenon which is not restricted to disadvantaged communities.
From that starting point Pat and Rex Wild inquired into what measures could be taken to address relevant underlying issues. They did not undertake any independent research or investigation into specific cases, and there was no fresh or independent forensic or other reliable data in the Little Children Are Sacred Report relating to the extent of Aboriginal child sex abuse in the Territory.
Anecdotal information (much of it of a kind which investigators could expect to uncover in any disadvantaged community in Australia) set out in the report was pounced on by Mr Brough and others as if it were evidence.
In fact Mr Brough claimed it as proof of a total moral and social breakdown in every single Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory.
Little or no attention was paid to the measured language used by Pat and Rex Wild when they deliberately repeated in the Foreword to the Little Children Are Sacred report the following item from their interim report, and I quote:
Of course, as we have already noted, it is a very important point and one which we have made during the course of many of our public discussions of the issues that the problems do not just relate to Aboriginal communities. The number of perpetrators is small and there are some communities, it must be thought, where there are no problems at all. Accepting this to be the case, it is hardly surprising that representatives of communities, and their men in particular, have been unhappy (to say the least) at the media coverage of the whole of the issue
Notwithstanding, there is, in our view, sufficient anecdotal and forensic and clinical information available to establish that there is a significant problem in the Northern Territory communities in relation to sexual abuse of children. Indeed, it would be remarkable if there was not, given the similar and significant problems that exist elsewhere in Australia and abroad.
There was no way that the Little Children Are Sacred report could have been read as a justification for what Howard and Brough started and that Kevin Rudd and Jenny Macklin have continued. After a long period of dignified silence, Pat Anderson has in more recent times publicly made that point herself in no uncertain terms.
Throughout my life, going back to long before I ever even thought about going into politics, I have fought to protect kids and women from violence and abuse. I know from my two stints as Minister for Families and Children that there have been huge problems in the Territory going back decades. I know that there is no magic bullet to fix them. And I know that working to protect children (whether you are at the coalface or the Minister in whose name policy decisions are made) is a thankless, heart-breaking, never-ending, and incredibly stressful and never-ending endeavour.
I have no time for those who try to make political mileage out of suggestions that Aboriginal children at risk have suffered because of some kind of officially-sanctioned political correctness relating to the Aboriginal child placement principle. I am a child of Stolen Generations parents. Despite that, when I was Minister my unambiguous position on this issue was that if an Aboriginal child was at risk he or she should be removed to a place of safety and if the best and safest option was placement with a non-Aboriginal family then that that was what should happen.
That policy approach is entirely consistent with the Aboriginal child placement principle. It is a discretionary principle which only applies if it is not in conflict with the overriding fundamental requirement of keeping a child safe from harm. Those people who are involved in making the excruciatingly difficult child protection decisions that frequently need to be made will usually be governed by experience and common sense.
Getting the decision right can often be similar to the task faced by a judge in sentencing. Sometimes it is a tricky matter of carefully balancing options. Just as sentences are sometimes fixed up on appeal, when child placement mistakes are made they need to be corrected. But the making of mistakes that involve the over-prioritisation of the Aboriginal child placement principle does not equate to an officially-sanctioned culture of political correctness.
In my experience alleging “political correctness” is a strategy extreme right wing ideologues like to use to transition a debate away from the mundane confusion of real world human flaws and failings so they can take it towards a virtual dimension where everything evil can be easily encapsulated in a single slogan, like “passive welfare”.
Earlier in this NAIDOC week Charlie King urged us all to redouble our efforts to protect Aboriginal women and kids. That is an important message, one which I wholeheartedly support and agree with. But let’s not allow ourselves to be conned into thinking that support and agreement for that message is in any way inconsistent with opposition to things that are the antithesis of what NAIDOC is all about, like the Intervention.
Like many of the unsung heroes in my electorate who are my inspiration and guiding light to never take a step backwards in representing their views I will continue to advocate for change for the better in a more inclusive way.