Press "Enter" to skip to content

Howard And Brough Announce Northern Territory Intervention

The Federal Government has announced an intervention in the Northern Territory to deal with what it says is a “national emergency” in relation to the abuse of children in indigenous communities.

The intervention was announced at a joint press conference with Prime Minister John Howard and Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough.

The intervention includes a series of measures to link school attendance with welfare payments and to improve law and order.

  • Listen to Howard and Brough (21m)

Transcript of joint press conference with Prime Minister John Howard and Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Mal Brough.

HOWARD: Well ladies and gentlemen, Mr Brough and I have called this news conference to announce a number of major measures to deal with what we can only describe as a national emergency in relation to the abuse of children in indigenous communities in the Northern Territory.

Anybody who’s read or examined the report prepared by Pat Anderson and Rex Wild entitled Little Children Are Sacred will be sickened and horrified by the level of abuse. They will be deeply disturbed at the widespread nature of that abuse and they will be looking for the responsible assumption of authority by a government to deal with the problem. We are unhappy with the response of the Northern Territory Government. It is our view that if it hadn’t been for the persistence of Mr Brough in elevating this as an issue, the inquiry conducted by Rex Wild and Pat Anderson would never have been commissioned. The report was in the hands of the Northern Territory Government for some eight weeks before it was released and subsequently the Chief Minister has indicated that they would have a response in a period of six weeks and it’s only today that I’ve received a letter from the Chief Minister and Mr Brough has, indicating that there is a desire on the part of the Northern Territory Government to work with us to deal with the issue.

We’re very happy to work with the Northern Territory Government, but it will need to be on the terms that I’m about to announce. We regard this as akin to a national emergency. Mr Brough’s put it to me this way; that if this set of circumstances had been disclosed as taking place in the suburb of Dickson, can you imagine what the local response from police, from medical authorities and from the state government would have been? It would have been horror and immediate action and a demand by the community that something be done. That has not happened in relation to the Northern Territory and we therefore believe that the action I’m about to outline is totally justified and warranted given our overarching responsibilities for the welfare of children throughout Australia.

These measures are going to be overseen by a taskforce of eminent Australians. It will include logistics and other specialists and child protection experts. The measures involve a number of actions. Firstly in relation to alcohol the intention is to introduce widespread alcohol restrictions on Northern Territory Aboriginal land for six months. We’ll ban the sale, the possession, the transportation, the consumption and (introduce the) broader monitoring of take away sales across the Northern Territory.

We will provide the resources and we’ll be appealing directly to the Australian Medical Association to assist. We will bear the cost of medical examinations of all indigenous children in the Northern Territory under the age of 16 and we’ll provide the resources to deal with any follow up medical treatment that will be needed. We’re going to introduce a series of welfare reforms designed to stem the flow of cash going towards alcohol abuse and to ensure that the funds meant to be used for children’s welfare are actually used for that purpose. The principal approach here will be to quarantine as from now through Centrelink, to be supported by legislation, 50 per cent of welfare payments to parents of children in the affected areas and the obligation in relation to that will follow the parent wherever that parent may go so the obligation cannot be avoided simply by moving to another part of Australia; and effectively the arrangements will be that that 50 per cent can only be used for the purchase of food and other essentials.

We’re going to enforce school attendance by linking income support and family assistance payments to school attendance for all people living on Aboriginal land. We’ll be ensuring that meals are provided for children at school with parents paying for the meals. The Commonwealth Government will take control of townships through five year leases to ensure that property and public housing can be improved and if that involves the payment of compensation on just terms as required by the Commonwealth Constitution then that compensation will be readily paid.

We’ll require intensive on ground clean up of communities to make them safer and healthier by marshalling local workforces through Work for the Dole arrangements. We will scrap the permit system for common areas and road corridors on Aboriginal lands. We’re going to ban the possession of x-rated pornography in the proscribed areas and we’re going to check all publicly funded computers for evidence of the storage of pornography.

Law and order will be a central focus of the measures I’ve announced. There will be an immediate increase in policing levels, they’re manifestly inadequate. The existing laws even with their shortcomings are not being adequately enforced. We’ll be asking each state police service to provide up to 10 officers who’ll be sworn as police in the Northern Territory. We will provide the additional cost and we’ll provide special incentives and bonuses for the police around Australia to participate in this activity. We’re going to provide additional resources to set up an Australian Government sexual abuse reporting desk and we’ll appoint managers of all government businesses in all communities.

And there are two other very important actions. Next Thursday there’ll be a meeting of the intergovernmental committee on the Australian Crime Commission to formally, and at that meeting, I’m sorry, our Minister will ask the ministerial council to formally refer this issue to the Australian Crime Commission to allow the crime commission to locate and identify perpetrators of sexual abuse of indigenous children in other areas of Australia. And this is will be a precursor we hope to the effective prosecution of those people by the relevant state and territory law enforcement authorities.

I should also indicate to you that Mr Brough is bringing to Cabinet at its next meeting some proposals to further extend the conditionality of welfare payments to all Australians receiving income support to ensure that these payments are used for the benefit of their children. I should indicate that if necessary Parliament will be convened during the winter break for a special session to deal with the legislation that will be needed to give effect to the announcements I’ve made.

These announcements will involve amendments to the Northern Territory land rights legislation and also amendments to the Territory self government legislation. They do represent very dramatic and significant Commonwealth intervention. We’re doing this because we do not think the Territory has responded to the crisis affecting the children in the Territory and we believe that our responsibility to those children overrides any sensitivities of Commonwealth Territory relations. In the end the duty of care to the young of this country is paramount and nobody who has any acquaintance with that report could be other than appalled by its contents, appalled by what it reveals, appalled by the cumulative neglect of many over a long period of time and frustrated in the extreme at the inability of governments to come to terms with an effective response to deal with this problem.

We are dealing with children of the tenderest age who’ve been exposed to the most terrible abuse from the time of their birth virtually and any semblance of maintaining the innocence of childhood is a myth in so many of these communities and we feel very strongly that action of this kind is needed; it is interventionist, it does push aside the role of the Territory to some degree, I accept that, but what matters more: the constitutional niceties or the care and protection of young children? We believe the latter is overwhelmingly more important. We hope that the Northern Territory Government will cooperate and see the wisdom of working with the Commonwealth Government, but our resolve to implement these measures is firm and we intend to set about them from the time of this announcement.

Can I pay tribute to Mr Brough for the way in which he has identified this issue, and pursued it, and as a result ensured that the Northern Territory Government appointed the inquiry and his contribution to this has been immense and without his efforts I wouldn’t be making the announcement I just have. Any questions?

JOURNALIST: …I mean this is clearly directed at the Northern Territory but is this a problem in Aboriginal communities elsewhere?

HOWARD: Yes it is but we have the power to do something in the Northern Territory. And can I say, Michael, I hope as a result of the announcement I’ve made today the Premiers of Western Australia, and of New South Wales and Queensland, where there are similar problems, will announce the same measures that I have announced. We don’t have the power to do these things in other parts of Australia but those Premiers do and I’m asking them to do what we have said we will do and we will cooperate with them. And let me make it clear any additional expense involved in what I’ve announced we will carry.

BROUGH: Can I just add one thing, you should be aware that New South Wales had its own report, and it’s been sitting on it for nine months, which went to the core of these issues and found the same sort of findings and to date we have still seen no substantive action. So here is a chance to actually step up to the plate, but the in the event that they don’t, by the referrals by the Minister for Justice to the crime commission, we can give those people the power to go beyond the Territory, that is something practical we can do.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister why have you judged it necessary to take control of land bestowed under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act as part….

HOWARD: Because we don’t believe we can effectively implement these changes without taking that authority. Having decided to do something in this area you’ve got to make sure you have the authority to implement your decisions and unfortunately this is an area which has been bedevilled by the falling-between-the-stools phenomenon of federal state relations in this country where you have a desire and a will at a federal level to do something, you don’t have a sufficiency of power and you can’t complete it and you end up with a lowest common denominator response. Now we don’t, because it’s the Territory, we do not have to accept that as an outcome and that is why we are taking the action we are. And I mean I’m quite blunt in saying that if the response of the Northern Territory Government had been different then I wouldn’t be saying what I am today.

JOURNALIST: Are there estimates of the total cost?

HOWARD: No, no, no, I mean it will be some tens of millions of dollars. It’s not huge but there could be some costs in relation to the extra police. There’ll be costs in relation to the medical examinations of children, that is very extensive task and I’ll be asking directly the AMA, which has spoken very strongly about this, to encourage doctors, and I believe there’ll be many doctors in Australia who will be more than ready to help in regard to this.

JOURNALIST: Mr Brough do you expect that the extension of conditionality of welfare payments to other Australians would be on the same terms as the Prime Minister’s indicated in the Aboriginal communities?

BROUGH: We’ll discuss that in Cabinet. I’ve made my points very clear and that when you provide payments for the benefit of children, particularly through the Family Tax Benefit, the Australian population has a real desire to see that money only spent in the welfare of children. That has been our clear objective, that is what I’ve been working up, in addition to that is, of course, school education. It shouldn’t have a black or white boundary every child should be going to school and if this can help do that then they are two areas which we are currently examining and will have further to say after the Cabinet.

JOURNALIST: I was thinking you were only meaning unemployment benefit payments but you are talking about Family Tax Benefit payments as well.

BROUGH: Indeed, we are talking about the payments that are directed to the benefit of children.

JOURNALIST: And how would you police that, how would you know?

BROUGH: Well you’ll have to wait a little while because we are still going before Cabinet, we have numerous discussions with state authorities on this issue, to deal with their court system for child protection to do with the education system to see what is practical, what is possible and what we can deliver in the interests of the Australian population.

HOWARD: The point should be made that, Lenore, that and you may be getting it that this is in the end we are prepared to apply the same principle to all sections of the Australian community, it’s just that the grosser examples and the more concentrated examples of this problem are to be found in Aboriginal communities. I am not saying for a moment that there wouldn’t be some other areas of Australia where Australians who aren’t indigenous are just as neglectful of their children, I accept that.

JOURNALIST: Would you still call it a national emergency?


JOURNALIST: But across the whole country?

HOWARD: No, no. You can have a national emergency in Far North Queensland, an emergency in North Queensland where there is a cyclone, I mean…

JOURNALIST: (inaudible) in relation to…

HOWARD: They are separate issues those two. Look let’s not misstate the situation, the grossest examples of this problem, sadly, are to be found in indigenous communities particularly in the Northern Territory. There are examples of it in other indigenous communities in other parts of Australia. There are examples of this sort of thing in many parts of Australia, not as concentrated and therefore not as apparently gross and as distressing as can be found in the Northern Territory. And the point I am making is that the principle will be applied without discrimination but the particular problem and the emergency of which I am speaking is the emergency effecting young Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory which has been identified in this very graphic report.

JOURNALIST: After the medical examinations take place, will doctors be able to recommend that children are removed?

HOWARD: Well the doctors will do what they think is professionally appropriate.

JOURNALIST: Will that be the kind of power…

HOWARD: Well the doctors will report on the condition of the children, I am not going to pre-empt what the doctors are going to say and…I am certainly not going to do that, but I think the first thing we ought to do is to find out how the children are that’s the very first thing we should do. We will bear all of the cost of that, we will bear all of the cost of any follow up medical treatment. Obviously we will listen to what doctors have got to say.

JOURNALIST: Will these tests be compulsory and do you think you would have the power to actually force children under 16 to have a medical examination?

HOWARD: Well we would hope that communities will cooperate and let’s hope that compulsion and the like is not necessary but all parents have responsibilities to allow medical examination of their children where there is a good need for that and I hope the commonsense of the Australian people will understand that in the end parent’s responsibility for the welfare of their children is the greatest responsibility of all.

BROUGH: You must understand that the conditions will have changed fundamentally. The fear that people may have today if we said we were to do it when grog flows in, drugs flow in and that the strong men prevail, won’t be there. We’ll have our people on the ground, we’ll have additional police so they will have the protection to actually be able to have their children…the women have their children examined knowing that they are not going to have any repercussions from someone who wants that evidence protected.

JOURNALIST: Mr Brough, in your mind’s eye the acquisition of these townships, how will they operate if everything goes through today. What kind of extra resources, what kind of extra administration?

BROUGH: Look right now the problem we experience in Wadeye, which as you know not little of 12 months ago there were 300 men rioting in the streets, and women I might add and children, houses being destroyed, men being speared, they were real circumstances happening in Australia today. When we tried to clean up the houses because we didn’t have any jurisdictional responsibility, we don’t own the homes, we don’t set the conditions, the cleanliness, the hygiene, the repairs, we had all sorts of barriers, it took a longer than necessary. What we are trying to do is to remove all those artifical barriers, ensure that people live in a clean, hygienic environment, we’ll put the money in to have the houses repaired, people will be part of work for the dole, doing it themselves with professional assistance, we’ll have managers on the ground to do that. So we’ll have managers on the ground to do that and we’ll have adequate policing on the ground as well. They are the fundamentals that we have articulated for 15 months. Law and order, good governance, then you get normality, you can’t have a community with a lot of grog.

HOWARD: One more question, we’ve got to get ready.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister if this program is to be extended to these states what sorts of powers would have to be referred to the Commonwealth?

HOWARD: No, no, we are asking the states who clearly have the power to do all of this within their own jurisdictions, we are asking the states to do within their own areas of responsibility what we are able to do in the Territory.

JOURNALIST: Would you fund that…any extra costs for the states, you said before you’d fund…

HOWARD: We fund everything in the Commonwealth, we talk to the states about cost but you know the states have responsibilities, they’ve got a lot of money. One more.

JOURNALIST: Did you consult with Clare Martin?

HOWARD: I endeavoured to contact Clare Martin earlier today and I was unsuccessful.

BROUGH: As my office attempted to do as well.

HOWARD: Attempted to do as well but, you know, I will be happy to discuss these matters with her but I think it’s very plain that we are unhappy with the response of the Northern Territory Government, they’ve had adequate time. I mean bear in mind this report would not have been commissioned if it hadn’t have been for Mr Brough. They had the report for eight weeks before they released it and then having released it, she said that she was going to take another six weeks to indicate the response and I got a very general letter today saying well we’ve had a look and we are getting ready to say something about it and we’ll happy to talk to you. Well I don’t think that’s a government that regards this as an urgent problem, I don’t think it’s a government that sees it with any sense of crisis or emergency, that’s in a sense a metaphor for the inaction of the Northern Territory Government. That’s why we’ve acted. Thank you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Malcolm Farnsworth
© 1995-2024