THE HOWARD Government must look beyond emergency responses to child sexual abuse in the Northern Territory’s Aboriginal communities, peak bodies representing the legal profession have said.
Members of the profession have called on the Government to implement comprehensive, long-term strategies for improved living, education and health standards.
In a strongly-worded letter to Prime Minister John Howard, Law Council of Australia (LCA) president Tim Bugg expressed these and other views on what he feared would be a knee-jerk reaction to the report of the Board of Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in the NT.
“I write to you concerning your recent announcement of an ‘emergency plan’ to address child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities in the [NT],” Bugg began in his letter.
“The [LCA] has long been concerned about the dire circumstances faced by many living in Aboriginal communities and, in particular, the lack of government services available in remote areas, including a lack of adequate police services, health services, education and housing.”
Bugg wrote that aside from more immediate action, the 97 recommendations of the inquiry should all be considered, in consultation and partnership with Aboriginal communities and the NT Government. While short-term efforts are vital, Bugg said that “addressing the social conditions that have led to the deterioration of structures that protected children will be a much more demanding task”.
It is on this issue that the LCA seeks an ongoing commitment from the Federal Government, which “must result in positive and long-term outcomes for Aboriginal people, without fracturing or destroying the culture of the communities the government says it is seeking to save”.
What should not happen, Bugg said, was any change to the permit system; compulsory acquisition of indigenous townships; or limits to the court’s discretion on sentencing and bail.
The Law Society NT strongly supports the views expressed in Bugg’s letter, chief executive officer Barbara Bradshaw said. According to Bradshaw, the Law Society has raised concerns about some the issues discussed by Bugg on a number of occasions in the past.
In fact, Law Society president Allison Robertson wrote separately to the Prime Minister in regard to these issues in late June.
However, “it would be fair to say that the matters came to additional prominence in late last year when Nanette Rogers was interviewed on [ABC television show] Lateline”,” Bradshaw said.
Rogers, a crown prosecutor for central Australia, was interviewed by Lateline regarding her confidential briefing paper intended for a small number of senior police, the transcript of the show reveals. In the television interview broadcast on 15 May 2006, Rogers gave an account of a number of horrific instances of child sexual abuse and murder that had occurred in the NT since 2001.
Bugg welcomed the Federal Government’s proposed action to address child sexual abuse in NT Aboriginal communities, while pointing out that “this has been the situation for some years”.
“The report of [the inquiry], which directly stimulated your government’s emergency plan announcement, clearly identified that the Aboriginal social structures that protect children have been compromised and that government has failed to assist communities to restore or create protective structures for children,” Bugg said.
“Consequently there has been a failure by all relevant law enforcement authorities to prevent and detect child sexual abuse.”
Yet the Federal Government’s suggestion of compulsory medical examinations, including procedures to check for sexual abuse in children, should be abandoned if permission is not sought from either the child or the parents, Bugg said, so as to avoid further potential instances of abuse.
Speaking during a visit with the Malaysian Bar Council in Kuala Lumpur, Bugg also warned of possible breaches of the Racial Discrimination Act 1982, rejecting what he said was Attorney-General Philip Ruddock’s claim that “special measures” exceptions can be applied in this instance.
“These measures are directed at a particular part of the Australian community. We say that the abuse of the nature that the government has been so concerned about as to come out with this set of proposals is prevalent in all communities across Australia. Therefore the measures should apply equally to all Australians, not just those in a small group in an indigenous community.”
Overshadowing all of these points was a need to improve legal services, including the hiring and training of many interpreters.
Yet on the same day that Bugg released his letter, Ruddock put forward the “government’s strong commitment to ensuring access to legal assistance in regional Australia”, by announcing a $1 million grant to pay for a new legal aid office in Kununurra, Western Australia.
Bradshaw praised the funding that has already been given to initiatives such as the North Australian Aboriginal Justice agency and domestic violence organisations, but said there might be a need for further funding in the future.
“If a lot more people get arrested, they will obviously need to have appropriate legal advice. And there needs to be funding to ensure that they do get their rights protected according to law,” she said.
Bugg said that although the government does have a commitment to providing legal services in regional Australia, “across the country generally there are inadequate levels of legal aid funding”.
“We will be raising that as part of policy concerns as the federal election nears,” Bugg said.
As Lawyers Weekly went to press, neither the Federal Government nor the Prime Minister had responded to the LCA letter, sent 4 July 2007, or the Law Society NT letter, sent 29 June 2007. The Prime Minister’s Office told Lawyers Weekly a response will be sent when appropriate.