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Schwartz, Melanie --- "Policing the Territory: A Comment on the Emergency Response to Little Children are Sacred" [2007] IndigLawB 51; (2007) 6(30) Indigenous Law Bulletin 9

Policing the Territory: A Comment on the Emergency Response to Little Children are Sacred

by Melanie Schwartz

Opponents of the Federal Government’s 21 June response to the Little Children are Sacred[1] report on sexual abuse in the Northern Territory[2],[3] (‘NT’) have called the measures either opportunistic electioneering or a thinly veiled land grab aimed at further disenfranchising communities in crisis. These claims deserve consideration; certainly they reflect the distrust borne out of a decade of Indigenous policy making by the current Government.

But let’s for a moment take the Government’s package on its own terms, and the policing initiatives in particular. The Prime Minister said that these measures will decrease the incidence of child abuse in Indigenous communities. The measures include wide-ranging interventions in welfare, health, education and governance. The policing proposals include utilisation of the Australian Defence Force as well as an increased police presence in communities, partly through officers being sent in to the NT from other states. Policing will also factor as the outlawing of alcohol and pornography, the proposed abolition of the permit system and other aspects of the program take effect.

The Prime Minister explained his rationale thus:

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.[4]

How effective will these measures be in combating child sexual assault? Will extra policing work?

There has long been a deal of scepticism about the use of policing as a tool to stop abuse. Little Children are Sacred builds on the observations of years of inquiries in stressing the need for more effective policing rather than more police. To this end, the Report’s recommendations include a requirement for increased liaison between police and families or clan groups when conducting investigations;[5] more effective communication and partnership between police and child protection authorities;[6] the active recruitment of more Aboriginal police, especially female police;[7] and, crucially, ‘that the Police conduct effective, meaningful and ongoing consultations with individual Aboriginal communities with a view to developing protocols for working with the community and supporting each community’s own efforts at maintaining peace, law and order’.[8]

These recommendations have a very different focus, then, from what the Government intends to do in the NT. They highlight the fact that an effective response to abuse does not call for ‘law and order’ tactics but rather for improved relationships between the community and enforcement agencies. A pilot program along these lines – unusual in its farsightedness – is currently being carried out in Toomelah, New South Wales (‘NSW’), a community with comparably grave abuse issues.[9] A wholly Aboriginal Department of Community Services (‘DoCS’) team has relocated to a nearby town for an initial period of 12 months (extended from six) to foster relationships and build an understanding of the sensitivities and politics of the community. This approach – here in the context of child protection workers but equally applicable to police – acknowledges that only after these relationships are developed can the team start to be effective in their work. More than halfway through the pilot year, people in the Toomelah community could be heard referring to members of the team by their first names with ‘DoCS’ appended to the end. The wariness is difficult to overcome.

This example is evidence of the mistrust in communities of police and child protection authorities arising, in part, from the legacy of the stolen generations and deaths in custody. It also gives some sense of the investment of time and resources required in attempting to overcome these negative associations. The danger in the Commonwealth ‘strong hand’ approach is the likelihood that communities will feel under siege from the same kind of law that has operated to their detriment in the past. The Prime Minister’s announcement that children in compromised situations will be removed from their families will continue to resonate strongly with communities who still have in living memory a time where ‘Aboriginality’ was effectively synonymous with the ‘neglect’ requirement in legislation used to justify the removal of children.[10] These are communities who know the ramifications of the discriminatory application of seemingly neutral laws.

This dynamic is evidenced in the response to the policing measures by a resident of Mutitjulu, when the community near Uluru was marked to receive the first police and troops:

This is bringing back a lot of memories and opening a lot of scars for these old people here, they are running to the hills and hiding… They think the army is coming to grab their kids and the police are coming to help them.[11]

So how effective are the Commonwealth’s policing measures likely to be in the medium- to long-term? Everybody agrees – including the communities themselves – that urgent action is required. But without the cooperation of communities, investigation and enforcement will be extremely difficult. In addition, taking an intimidating, paternalistic approach is certain to provoke hostility and obstruct full cooperation and participation from communities who sense a further loss of control over their own affairs.

The Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the Northern Territory (‘CAO’) put forward a considered response to Little Children are Sacred and a number of MPs urged the Government to heed the criticisms it makes of the Federal strategy. CAO’s message was clear:

Effective child abuse prevention and child protection occurs where local community agencies, police and child protection staff work in a collaborative and coordinated manner…The emergency measures announced by the Australian Government lack insight into effective child protection interventions and in effect seek to strengthen only one partner in the three way partnership – the Northern Territory police.[12]

What does this mean? That governments need to abandon knee-jerk responses that are doomed to exacerbate an already fraught situation, and must support a long-term, comprehensive approach to child protection. They need to promote collaboration by police with community. Of course, beyond policing, governments need to address systemic disadvantage in meaningful ways. They need to promote community education on abuse across all ages. They need to explore more effective ways of dealing with offenders to break cycles of abuse or else ensure that they cannot access vulnerable persons in their communities. And, as the Prime Minister has lately acknowledged, real healing in communities must ultimately take place not only on this practical level, but also in the arena of symbolic national gestures and recognition of past wrongs.[13]

This will begin to create the conditions necessary to encourage ‘a culture of reporting child abuse as opposed to staying silent’,[14] which is often (unforgivably) the default status quo. It will help families to be strong enough to stop the outrages perpetrated in their midst. The stakes are too high to keep getting this wrong.

Melanie Schwartz is a lecturer in Criminal Law at the University of New South Wales.

[1] Rex Wild and Pat Anderson, ‘Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle “Little Children are Sacred”: Report of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse’ (2007), <> at 15 October 2007.

[2] Prime Minister John Howard and Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough, ‘Joint Press Conference with the Hon Mal Brough, Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs’ (Press Release, 21 June 2007), <> at 15 October 2007.

[3] Wild and Anderson, above n 1.

[4] Prime Minister John Howard and Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough, above n 2.

[5] Wild and Anderson, above n 1, 23 (Recommendation 16).

[6] Ibid, 23 (Recommendation 18).

[7] Ibid, 24 (Recommendation 28).

[8] Ibid, 24 (Recommendation 29).

[9] See <> for further information.

[10] See Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Bringing them home: Report of the National Inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families (1997) 33, 266-7.

[11] Adam Gartrell, Drew Cratchley and Tara Ravens, ‘Indigenous fears over “military occupation”’, AAP, 25 June 2007, <,23599,21964663-1702,00.html?from=public_rss> , at 18 June 2007.

[12] Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the Northern Territory, ‘A Proposed Emergency Response and Development Plan to Protect Aboriginal Children in the Northern Territory: A Preliminary Response to the Australian Government’s Proposals, (2007), 10.

[13] The Hon John Howard MP, ‘Address to the Sydney Institute’ (Address delivered at the Sofitel Wentworth Hotel, Sydney, 11 October 2007).

[14] Ibid.

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