Reports, recommendations, social dysfunction and education

[This post mostly relates to the “Little Children are Sacred” report on child abuse in the Northern Territory of Australia.]

I have just recently submitted my second commissioned report, both co-authored with James Quealy. I have also prepared reports and recommendations within the normal committee framework of two universities (i.e. not as an external consultant). I am still completely confounded by the fact that people commission reports, but fail to read the them. They then take individual recommendations out of context to support whatever decision they were already going to make, or dispute the basis of recommendations without reading the sections of the report from which the recommendations arise. There seems to be complicity all the way to the top to allow the mentality that senior decision-makers don’t have time to read the reports which provide the background to decisions they are making – apparently senior people only have time to read the Executive Summary, and then only if it’s less than a page …

The reports I have co-authored relate to the use of technology in education, and some of what they say relates to the education system as a whole, and therefore to the core values we have as a society. It would be nice if issues raised in the reports were widely discussed but I am sufficiently in touch with the so-called “real world” to know that such reports are ticked off on someone’s checklist of “what are we doing about X …”, and consigned to the bottom of a filing cabinet.

But what is this post really about? In reality, although I am mildly disappointed as to what happens to my own reports, I am completely dismayed by the current legislation in Australia relating to Aboriginal Welfare allegedly arising from the “Little Children are Sacred” Report: Report of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse.

I have been thoroughly perplexed since the government’s first response to the report as to why their response is not immediately seen in the mainstream media as the direct path to a modern-day Stolen Generation. For years, we have been ashamed that John Howard is not prepared to say “Sorry” on behalf of white Australia for the effects of past decisions … and now he is about to begin a new round of paternalistic “white man knows best” intervention allegedly to “protect little children”, but with underlying serious consequences for aboriginal land rights and welfare payments.

And what is the connection of the first two paragraphs with the rest of the post? The government is supposedly acting on the report – John Howard asks how we could fail to be moved by such a disturbing report. Indeed how could we fail to be moved? But I have heard Pat Anderson say emphatically that the government response bears no relationship to any of the recommendations in her report and that resonates deeply with my experience of writing reports and with my feeling of the deep malaise in Australian culture that allows such sloppy decision-making processes the higher we go within ‘the system’.

I have read through the report and note that its proposed solutions are not quick fixes (i.e. think of a timescale around 15 years rather than 15 months). The primary focus is on education, but significantly, on culturally-relevant, inclusive, empowering, community-based education. Child abuse, child neglect, alcoholism, violence, family dysfunction are all seen to be symptoms of a broader societal dysfunction, not isolatable individual problems that can each be addressed. The societal dysfunction is not an indigenous problem alone, but one that is amplified by societal problems in mainstream Australia. Any solutions are inextricably entwined within both cultures.

I’ve not yet finished reading the whole report, but nowhere in the Recommendations or Overview (Executive Sumary) did I see anything about bringing in the Army and a white task force of health workers to save the children.

I was appalled with the approach of the government to tackle the problem of child sexual abuse. Having read the report allegedly inspiring this approach, I am doubly appalled at the response of our government. I am also appalled at the lack of analysis by the media. I am generally appalled at the lack of compassion and the lack of recognition in mainstream Australia that child abuse, alcoholism, family dysfunction and violence are extremely complex, are not just the result of ‘bad’ people, and are not just happening in remote communities. Each instance of family dysfunction has a long and complex history and any intervention must be sensitive to complexity.

Below, I have picked out a few quotes from the report as I looked through it. I have no idea what I’m going to do other than write this small somewhat inconsequential piece – probably nothing specific. I guess I have a strong view that education is the answer, but I have a strong view that the current education system, with its lack of moral fibre, lack of intellectual rigour, lack of any value system, is as much the problem as the solution.

From the “Little Children are Sacred” report:

It’s not just in white man’s law that child abuse is considered wrong.

“The title quote In our Law children are very sacred because they carry the two spring wells of water from our country within them reflects the traditional Aboriginal law of the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, and was provided by a senior Yolngu lawman.”

Child abuse is, more often than not, a symptom of deeper, more complex societal problems.

“the incidence of child sexual abuse, whether in Aboriginal or so-called mainstream communities, is often directly related to other breakdowns in society. Put simply, the cumulative effects of poor health, alcohol, drug abuse, gambling, pornography, unemployment, poor education and housing and general disempowerment lead inexorably to family and other violence and then on to sexual abuse of men and women and, finally, of children. It will be impossible to set our communities on a strong path to recovery in terms of sexual abuse of children without dealing with all these basic services and social evils. Even then, the best that can be hoped for is improvement over a 15 year period – effectively, a generation or longer. “

There needs to be genuine consultation, not paternalistic government intervention

“It is critical that both governments [Northern Territory and Australian] commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities. “

“Our appointment and terms of reference arose out of allegations of sexual abuse of Aboriginal children. Everything we have learned since convinces us that these are just symptoms of a breakdown of Aboriginal culture and society. There is, in our view, little point in an exercise of band-aiding individual and specific problems as each one achieves an appropriate degree of media and political hype. It has not worked in the past and will not work in the future. We are all left wringing our hands. Look at all that money! Where did it go? The answer is, of course, down the plughole.”

Education is the key to the solution, but education needs to be community based and does not just relate to school. Language and cultural barriers are real.

“We are utterly convinced that education (that properly addresses the needs of the local community) provides the path to success. We have been dismayed at the miserable school attendance rates for Aboriginal children and the apparent complacency here (and elsewhere in Australia) with that situation.”

The difficulty is that because of the language and cultural barriers many people never get an opportunity to express their knowledge or their ideas. The impression is given to them that they are idiots and that people outside of their community are more qualified to deal with their problems. As a result of this general attitude people become apathetic and take no interest in dealing with the problems. “

The dominant mainstream white culture as expressed via television, movies etc does not set a high standard with respect to sexual behaviour, alcohol and drug use, and respect.

“The Inquiry was also told that many youth today have an erroneous belief that the wider Australian society is lawless. They believe that: “it is acting within “white fella” law when being abusive. A thinking that began with the systemic undermining of our own law with the colonization of Australia and the atrocities that followed. It is now reinforced by TV, movies, pornography and drugs brought into our community from wider Australia.” (Rev. Djiniyini Gondarra press release, 19 May 2006) It became clear to the Inquiry during its consultations that in many of the communities visited, the “language barrier” and the “cultural gap” was greater in the younger generation. The Inquiry was told that this problem is increasing, then intuitively it might have been assumed the gap was decreasing.”

Academic research into other cultures can be very influential – it is used as a bridge from one culture to another. When academic research is used to drive policy and policy significantly affects the lives of many people, there is a professional duty to ensure that research is supportable, and that it is used within its context of applicability. Even intellectually-rigorous academic research tends to be fairly specific and should not be disembodied from its caveats.

“My alarm bell is that sloppy and questionable academic research has the power to influence many people. Prejudice and ignorance may be reinforced. Media representations may then support such misconceptions, and hence feed into and trigger political action that has the capacity to create more problems. We do need education for early childhood; education for life; education for healing. But please not education that is fatally flawed (Atkinson 2006:22).”

If you break down existing systems whatever they are, you need to replace them with something viable and support the process of change. Better that systemic change occurs gradually towards a commonly agreeed target as inclusively as possible.

“Overall, the constant message passed to the Inquiry was that as traditional Aboriginal and missionary-imposed norms regarding sex broke down, they were being replaced with rampant promiscuity among teenagers. Teenagers no longer saw themselves as bound by the “old ways” and many viewed the modern world as “lawless”. One Yolgnu Elder told the Inquiry: ‘For young people today having sex is like fishing, and they throw that fish back when they finished.’ Such behaviour was seen as being encouraged by the dominant non-Aboriginal culture. The Inquiry was told in one community that the Elders were trying to teach the young people about staying with the “right skin” and getting “married” at the right time. At the same time, the Inquiry was told, the local health centre was distributing condoms and telling them they could have sex with anyone they want at any time as long as they wore a condom. “

As a footnote to this post, I visited the Cook Islands at Christmas and had a wonderful holiday in a beautiful location. I also had the pleasure of meeting local people and spending a lot of time with the family of my daughter’s boyfriend. One striking thing was the complexity of the local culture and family relationships, the significance of family land, the relationships between the different island groups within the Cook Islands, and the multi-layered integration of missionary and island cultures.

And at a level just below the surface were the multifaceted problems arising from lack of job opportunities, poor nutrition, alcohol abuse, and demographic distortion based on most young people leaving the island for “a better life” in New Zealand or Australia. I found it ominous to see Chinese workers being imported to build government buildings and tourist resorts – the influx of money and tourists is great for the economy, but not necessarily for the Islanders in that economy.

There are many complex problems bubbling below the surface in the Cook Islands, but there are also no obvious quick-fix solutions. The more I looked, the more complexity I saw, and the greater the depth of local customs and culture. I also noticed that local Islanders (some of whom had actively chosen to return to the Islands, others of whom had specifically chosen not to leave their home) were deeply aware of the problems and quite capable of articulating them, and were looking to instigate their own community-based solutions. I was very aware that I cannot possibly know more about their needs than they do themselves. A desire to help is one thing – the ability to be helpful is entirely a different thing. A first step is understanding the complexity of the problem. The next would be the willingness to work collaboratively and inclusively – as for any serious undertaking, that would require the time and effort to understand the island culture and be accepted into it. I realise that, although there might be many ways I could “help”, they would mostly be small gestures not lasting contributions. I hope that some of the people we met in our very brief visit (including a policeman and his family, a mountain-tour guide, a bank worker, various cricket teams, a dance group coordinator, a New Zealand ex-nurse, a diving instructor) can find a way to keep the community strong and address some of the underlying problems along the way.

I am finally understanding one of my (very wise) grandmother’s favourite sayings “Charity begins at home”. I used to think it had something to do with looking after family first, as a somewhat ironic justification of not having to give other people your money!! I thought it fitted with another of her sayings: “If you take care of the pennies, the pounds will take care of themselves”, in a penny-pinching, frugal way. I now understand these sayings as they relate to values, not money (as I’m sure my grandmother meant them).

If we show respect and care (charity) for the people in our home (our family, friends and local community), we will not need to rely on the kindness of strangers. Furthermore, if we show respect and care as a habit within our home, this habit is likely to stay with us on a broader scale. And if we share our home with others, we are also beginning our charity at home. As for the second saying: if we take care of the little things (whether they be pennies and pounds, or the small things relating to respect and care), the bigger things (respect and care across the broader community) will take care of themselves. Maybe complex problems really do have simple solutions.

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