It is unlikely that any government, Coalition or Labor, will change the date of Australia Day in the foreseeable future. Certainly some Aboriginal leaders object to the achievements of modern Australia being celebrated on the day of European settlement in 1788. Other key figures in the indigenous community are content with, or indifferent to, January 26 as the designated Australia Day.
Many indigenous Australians have one or more European or Asian ancestors who came to this land as a consequence of 1788 and all that. In an address to the Sydney Institute last year, Stan Grant quoted an indigenous colleague who was happy to declare that he was both “invaded” and an “invader”. That’s Australia in 2018.
The current debate was fired up by Greens’ leader Richard Di Natale who heads a party in Canberra which seems very white. The kind of expressive politics engaged in by Greens is primarily about symbols that are often devoid of practical effect.
Ken Wyatt, the Liberal Party member for Hasluck and Minister for Indigenous Health, is more interested in the plight of his fellow indigenous citizens.
In a debate about Australia Day on ABC TV’s 7.30 program on Tuesday, Wyatt said: “I despair sometimes at seeing families living in abject Third World conditions.” He declined “to digress and go off on philosophical debates when a child is hungry or a child is being abused”. Wyatt added that the discussion over January 26 “is a waste of time and energy”.
Indigenous Australian Warren Mundine seems to hold a not dissimilar view. To understand why, it is not necessary to go beyond his recently released autobiography, In Black + White. In a chapter titled “Invasion of Bureaucrats”, Mundine looks at the events that led to the Howard government’s intervention in the Northern Territory — a decision the author supported “in principle”.
When prime minister in July 2007, John Howard undertook the intervention following the release of the Little Children are Sacredreport covering child abuse in the Northern Territory. Mundine was shocked, but not surprised, by the report. He points out that there were three other significant reports, in the decade before, with similar findings about Aboriginal communities in NSW, Western Australia and Queensland.
Mundine also relates to how the Smallbone report in 2016 shocked the nation by “revealing the miserable life of children in two Queensland Aboriginal communities and the absence of parental care and law enforcement”. He writes that all four reports paint a common picture. Namely, “Aboriginal children (are) exposed to some of the worst forms of sexual assault, psychological abuse and neglect imaginable, living in the grip of dysfunction, abuse, family violence and addiction”, with sex offences well above the national average. He describes such reports as “just the tip of an iceberg”.
I was on the ABC TV Insiders panel in late 2012, shortly after prime minister Julia Gillard announced the establishment of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Asked my opinion, I supported the decision. However, I added that such an initiative would do nothing to stop the child sexual abuse that would have occurred the previous night in some indigenous communities.
The royal commission’s report was released on December 15 last year. The previous day, its chairman Peter McClellan gave the opening address at the commission’s final sitting.
The obsession of many journalists with Catholicism led to a situation where there was little focus on McClellan’s final statement. He said most of the 8000 people who came forward had “never been to the police or any person in authority to report the abuse”. McClellan added: “Police often refused to believe children. They refused to investigate their complaints of abuse. Many children who had attempted to escape abuse were returned to unsafe institutions by police.”
And then he made this point: “It is important to remember that, notwithstanding the problems that we have identified, the number of children who are sexually abused in familial or other circumstances far exceeds those who are abused in institutions.”
And that’s the point. The royal commission’s remit was to look into the institutional responses to child sexual abuse. It had no authority with respect to the sexual abuse within families, broadly defined, which continued through its five years of sittings. Including within indigenous communities.
In its wisdom, the Gillard government appointed former Queensland Police Service commissioner Bob Atkinson as one of the members of the commission. This was akin to appointing a retired Catholic or Anglican bishop to sit as commissioner.
In view of McClellan’s final statement, it appears that state and territory police forces received less attention in the royal commission than was warranted. After all, it is the duty of the police to uphold the law. Yet, as the commission chairman pointed out, police officers refused to believe children or even to investigate their complaints of sexual abuse.
Victoria Police were well aware that Monsignor John Day (1904-78) was a pedophile operating in the Catholic diocese of Ballarat. Day’s crimes were as great as those of former Catholic priest Gerald Ridsdale. But he was never charged.
The evidence suggests that state and territory police (Queensland included) by and large escaped the commission’s rigorous inquiry. Yet, as McClellan himself concedes, police forces performed poorly in the past with respect to child sexual abuse in institutions. Moreover, the level of child sexual abuse in indigenous and some other familial communities seems to have continued virtually unabated for decades. This is worth talking about on Australia Day — or at any other time.