Huge expectations on Australia's first Aboriginal head of government


Can NT's first indigenous chief minister turn back the tide?

Jeff McMullen

As the new boss, the onus is on Adam Giles to bring about much-needed change.


Can Australia's first Aboriginal head of government, Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles, bring a change of heart and tackle the real crisis sweeping the Top End? The Country Liberal Party government in the territory is only seven months old but has already followed Queensland's Campbell Newman in painfully slashing spending on the poorest and most vulnerable Australian citizens.

Dispossession, disempowerment and disrespect have defined the approach of all Australian governments to the forgotten families in this country's heartland.


Consider the cry for help from the mothers and fathers of children who are taking their own lives in a frightening contagion. It is a shameful secret but Australia does not even count the deaths across the Top End of the youngest children who have committed suicide. From the Kimberley, across Arnhem Land and on Cape York, they are brushed from our national conscience by listing them as ''accidental deaths''.


Traditionally, Aboriginal suicide was extremely rare. Even 20 years ago, indigenous all-age suicide made up just 5 per cent of suicides in the Northern Territory. But today the Aboriginal death toll reaches over 50 per cent, according to the federal government's Closing the Gap clearing house. The most alarming rise is among young people aged 10 to 24, climbing from 10 per cent of the total in 1991 to 80 per cent in 2010.


The removal of Aboriginal children from their families is also climbing (according to the peak bodies for child protection and the Australian Bureau of Statistics) - to about 13,000 across the nation, or about one-third of the total number of Australian children in out-of-home care. This is disturbing for Aboriginal communities, when waves of cross-generational trauma are still flowing from the original removal of up to 100,000 children during the stolen generations.


The madness of the past is still the cruelty of today. With the same misguided logic of assimilation, these Aboriginal children are supposedly removed for their well-being. But around the nation about half are removed from kith and kin. Despite the priority principles agreed to by all Australian governments pledging that such vulnerable children would be put with extended family, in the Northern Territory about 66 per cent are taken away from their culture and community.


We already know the pattern of misery that follows such futile attempts to tear the Aboriginal essence from the mind of a child. Yet one-third of the Aboriginal children removed to non-indigenous homes have told the government they had lost all contact with family.


The greatest challenge for this new Aboriginal political leader is to do what other federal and territory governments have failed to do. That is to take stock of the humiliation of Aboriginal families and of the sweeping disempowerment of their community organisations under the Northern Territory Intervention.


An Aboriginal child born in 2007 in one of those 73 occupied communities will spend their first years living under officially sanctioned discrimination. The only three times this nation has removed any of its citizens from the protection of the Racial Discrimination Act, it has been Aboriginal people targeted.

Giles must ask every minister in his cabinet to look closely at the damage caused by this discrimination and then ask: Would you subject your family to such treatment? The hard evidence from the first five years of the calamitous Northern Territory Intervention shows that suicide, self-harm, children at risk and the number of young people going into detention have all increased disturbingly.


This is the burden and the challenge of genuine leadership.


Journalist Jeff McMullen this week received the 2013 Affinity Intercultural Foundation Award for political action to help build a cohesive society.

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Amnesty International's Sarah Marland speaks about the importance of Aboriginal homelands and why government policies fail, calling for an end to the assimilation agenda and the need for government to sit down with diverse groups of Aboriginal people to work out plans together.

Watch her talk by clicking here.