In­dige­nous peo­ple can, and do, ad­dress their own prob­lems

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Health - TED WILKES

LET me state at the out­set that I wel­come the fo­cus and de­ter­mi­na­tion of many in gov­ern­ment and the com­mu­nity to pro­tect in­dige­nous chil­dren. There can be no de­bate any more that pro­vid­ing in­dige­nous chil­dren with op­por­tu­ni­ties and en­vi­ron­ments that are safe and se­cure is paramount.

Clearly, we in­dige­nous Aus­tralians are the most dis­ad­van­taged in our na­tion. We have a life­span that is 20 years shorter, and higher rates of chronic dis­ease and of al­co­hol, to­bacco and other drug use. Our ed­u­ca­tion and em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties equate to those of de­vel­op­ing pop­u­la­tions, and we are over­rep­re­sented in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem.

We have a re­spon­si­bil­ity as in­di­vid­u­als, par­ents, com­mu­ni­ties and as a na­tion to en­sure the fu­ture of our chil­dren. They must be pro­tected and nur­tured to be­come our next lead­ers, ed­u­ca­tors, par­ents, role mod­els and work­force.

In­dige­nous chil­dren are prob­a­bly the most vul­ner­a­ble group in Aus­tralian so­ci­ety to­day. How­ever, there is a risk that al­co­hol is­sues and as­so­ci­ated child abuse and vi­o­lence in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory are go­ing to be per­ceived as be­ing in­dige­nous prob­lems only. This view is re­in­forced by the re­cent mea­sures be­ing couched in terms of law and or­der and squarely tar­get­ing in­dige­nous drinkers and com­mu­ni­ties.

In re­al­ity, the prob­lem of sub­stance mis­use, vi­o­lence and child abuse is a prob­lem in all com­mu­ni­ties, in­clud­ing non-Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties.

The Na­tional In­dige­nous Drug and Al­co­hol Com­mit­tee (NIDAC), which I chair, is the lead­ing voice in in­dige­nous al­co­hol and other drug pol­icy and was specif­i­cally set up by the Aus­tralian Na­tional Coun­cil on Drugs to pro­vide ad­vice to the fed­eral Gov­ern­ment on th­ese mat­ters. NIDAC sup­ports the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment’s com­mit­ment to ad­dress al­co­hol mis­use in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory, but it ap­pears that in­dige­nous ex­per­tise and strengths in in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties are be­ing un­der-used.

There are in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory that have al­ready im­ple­mented ef­fec­tive al­co­hol man­age­ment plans. Ad­mit­tedly, some of th­ese sys­tems work bet­ter than oth­ers. How­ever, our best long-term so­lu­tions re­quire con­tin­ued sup­port and re­sources at the lo­cal com­mu­nity level for com­mu­nity peo­ple to work with po­lice, health and liquor li­cens­ing au­thor­i­ties to de­velop lo­cal so­lu­tions.

It is worth not­ing that the dif­fer­ent sys­tems in­tro­duced in Groote Ey­landt and Man­ingrida com­mu­ni­ties have both been ef­fec­tive in re­duc­ing al­co­hol-re­lated prob­lems, in­clud­ing vi­o­lence, be­cause they are sys­tems de­vel­oped with, and thus re­spected by the com­mu­ni­ties. Th­ese com­mu­ni­ties are rightly con­cerned that the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment could now come in and over­ride lo­cally de­vel­oped ini­tia­tives that are work­ing.

We also need to be sure that the new mea­sures do not in­flict a greater, un­in­tended harm. For in­stance, will con­tra­ven­tion of the pro­posed al­co­hol bans re­sult in even more in­dige­nous peo­ple be­ing im­pris­oned? The North­ern Ter­ri­tory in­dige­nous im­pris­on­ment rate is al­ready the high­est in Aus­tralia, with nearly 80 per cent of its pris­oner pop­u­la­tion be­ing in­dige­nous. Surely no one can be­lieve that more in­dige­nous peo­ple in pris­ons can be part of the so­lu­tion.

In­dige­nous drink­ing is best un­der­stood as a group is­sue, not an in­di­vid­ual is­sue, and some re­spon­si­bil­ity has to be placed on liquor li­cens­ing au­thor­i­ties to re­duce the num­ber of out­lets, pro­mote safe drink­ing, and stop sales dis­count­ing and other prac­tices that en­cour­age high con­sump­tion rates. An ex­pert re­view of en­force­ment of li­cens­ing laws in Aus­tralia re­vealed au­thor­i­ties con­cen­trated too much of their re­sources on main­tain­ing pub­lic or­der and pun­ish­ing drinkers in li­censed premises, rather than fo­cus­ing on li­cence breaches and re­spon­si­ble sales.

It would make sense to have an in­de­pen­dent re­view of the al­co­hol man­age­ment plans cur­rently in place and liquor li­cens­ing en­force­ment in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory.

NIDAC is also aware that il­licit drug use is in­creas­ing in a num­ber of re­mote com­mu­ni­ties. As a re­sult, it is im­per­a­tive that those who have al­co­hol and drug prob­lems have ac­cess to treat­ment. As­sist­ing peo­ple back into com­mu­ni­ties af­ter treat­ment also has to be a pri­or­ity. Main­stream Aus­tralia has made great strides in re­duc­ing il­licit drug prob­lems, and it’s be­com­ing clear why. Put sim­ply, greater re­sources di­rected to­wards re­duc­ing the sup­ply of drugs works best when treat­ment ser­vices are also in­creased.

Our chil­dren are some­times wit­nesses to the de­struc­tion that al­co­hol and drug use wreaks on fam­i­lies — their own mother or fa­ther, their sis­ter or their cousin — and how it im­pacts on the en­vi­ron­ment in which they live. We must get se­ri­ous about tack­ling sub­stance mis­use.

NIDAC sup­ports ini­tia­tives that seek to im­prove the ed­u­ca­tion, health and well-be­ing of in­dige­nous chil­dren and fam­i­lies, which is de­tailed quite com­pre­hen­sively in the rec­om­men­da­tions of the Lit­tle Chil­dren are Sa­cred re­port. I can un­der­stand the Gov­ern­ment want­ing to do some­thing about child abuse — it is un­ac­cept­able that chil­dren live in an en­vi­ron­ment where they are not safe.

But it was dis­turb­ing to note that the re­port found that ser­vice providers were ‘‘ ille­quipped to iden­tify, un­der­stand and know what to do about it’’.

The care and pro­tec­tion of in­dige­nous chil­dren is com­plex. The re­spon­si­bil­ity of child-rear­ing in Abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture is shared and di­rectly con­flicts with the Aus­tralian le­gal sys­tem, where rights and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of child-rear­ing are of­ten at­trib­uted solely to par­ents. This has enor­mous im­pli­ca­tions for the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment ini­tia­tive of with­hold­ing wel­fare pay­ments of par­ents in a bid to en­cour­age chil­dren to go to school.

I have spent most of life fight­ing for in­dige­nous health, and In­dige­nous chil­dren de­serve to be given the best start in life, as it is the best chance that In­dige­nous peo­ple will live, grow and pros­per as equals with other Aus­tralians. As­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor Ted Wilkes is chair­man of the Na­tional In­dige­nous Drug and Al­co­hol Com­mit­tee of the Aus­tralian Na­tional Coun­cil on Drugs

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