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Indigenous leader calls for a re-think on Howard’s proposals


Zoe Satherley
22 June 2007
Community activist and Southern Cross University academic Professor Judy Atkinson has ‘grave concerns’ about Prime Minister John Howard’s recently announced emergency measures to tackle child sexual abuse and drug and alcohol abuse in Indigenous communities.

“While we definitely need immediate government support and action to tackle these major issues – which I have repeatedly raised at government level for the past 20 years – Howard’s plan is ill-informed. It is a reactive plan which will only create distrust and further layers of trauma in Indigenous communities,” said Professor Atkinson, head of the University’s Gnibi College of Indigenous Australian Peoples.

“It is not a child-centred approach but a militaristic and punitive approach. Withholding welfare payments and alcohol to certain Indigenous communities will not build on the skills already inherent in these communities, nor will it strengthen networks of people already doing their best with limited resources and support.

“These restrictions may well place greater pressure on the perpetrators of violence and sexual abuse, but research shows that they are unlikely to modify their behaviour without other support, and will simply turn their anger back on themselves, and perhaps create other victims – child sexual assault is one issue in a continuum of issues which all need attention.

“I predict the issues will move from one place to another, and as people move off communities and into Northern Territory towns, despair has the potential to increase harm to self and to others.

“Community and welfare workers, themselves struggling to support victims of violence, will also feel increased despair, feeling unsupported and under-resourced to do impossible jobs. Such despair can lead to suicidal thoughts and actions.”

Professor Atkinson said she could not understand why the alcohol bans were being implemented only on Aboriginal-held land, as people could easily obtain alcohol from local towns and other sources, sometimes in exchange for sexual ‘favours’ from children.

She would like to see the Federal Government develop a more sensible and realistic plan to tackle the underlying issues and put in place measures that strengthen, empower, educate and support Indigenous communities.

As an immediate step she would like to see financial support for women who already provide, at their own expense, ‘safe houses’ for women and children, and extra funding for existing Aboriginal health and welfare service providers already at breaking point and unable to meet community need.

A better national approach, she feels, would be to call for those Indigenous communities who want help – and are prepared to work with multi-disciplinary government teams – to self-nominate and be adequately supported to make social, cultural and economic changes of benefit to the whole community.

“This is a long-term, systemic approach for which I have been seeking funding for many years. There is no quick fix. The problems have been created over many generations and will take many generations to heal,” Professor Atkinson said.

“Education at all levels from pre-school to university is a major key to cultural shift and John Howard’s program does not address this at all.”

Southern Cross University Acting Vice-Chancellor, Professor Bill MacGillivray, said the University was proud of the leadership role that Gnibi and Professor Judy Atkinson have taken both preceding and following the Prime Minister’s declaration of a national emergency in relation to the plight of Indigenous children.

“Professor Atkinson has for many years endeavoured to raise all aspects of the challenges facing Indigenous communities in relation to violence against women, alcohol abuse and the sexual abuse of children, and the potential of education to be a key part of the solution,” he said.

“While this is an issue of leadership for the whole of Southern Cross University, Professor Atkinson is a catalyst for change and the fact that she is one of the pre-eminent voices in national and local media is clear recognition of her work and reputation, and of the important role Gnibi is playing.

“Professor Atkinson and Gnibi have spent many years raising the issues which are only now being highlighted as a ‘national emergency’ and putting in educational and support programs to address some of these challenges.

“The University endorses Professor Atkinson’s role as a leading advocate of change in the nation’s approach to tackling these highly sensitive and yet devastating problems facing Indigenous communities across the nation.

“We will continue to support educational programs which can provide a solid basis for the ongoing and sustainable recovery of these communities and recognise the need for all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to play a role in finding solutions.”

Photo: Professor Judy Atkinson, head of Gnibi College of Indigenous Australian Peoples at Southern Cross University.