Speech by The Hon Mal Brough MP

Alfred Deakin Lecture at Mebourne University on the Federal Government’s intervention into Northern Territory Indigenous Communities

Location: Melbourne Conference Unit - Melbourne University, Melbourne

SPEAKER: Mal Brough, Federal Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.

CONVENOR: Ladies and gentlemen, the Alfred Deakin Lecture Trust is pleased to present the Honourable Mal Brough to deliver the 40th annual Deakin lecture. Please welcome the Minister the Honourable Mal Brough.


MAL BROUGH: Well, good evening ladies and gentlemen and thank you for the welcome; the one inside, the one outside. I actually enjoyed the one outside because that is what I have to deal with in confronting people that are ignorant of the facts, who are ignorant of the pain and the suffering and who really will not take up the challenge of looking some child in the face, as I had to do last week, who was six years of age who had been raped only a couple of weeks earlier, not by an adult but by another child, 11 to 15 year olds.

That is what we’re dealing with. Today we stand at the crossroads. We are at the crossroads of whether we are going to move forward as a nation and we are going to take our entire nation with us, our indigenous population, as part of that, or whether we’re going to ignore it. And that is the – point that I will put to you today is that the election that we’re about to face will be the crossroads as to the path in which we take as a nation.

I’d like to acknowledge David Kemp, my very good friend, who certainly assisted me greatly in my early years in the Parliament – still my early years in the Parliament I would hope – but David, great to see you and thank you for your patronage of this organisation.

But thank you particularly for inviting me here to listen to what I think is the single most important challenge that faces Australia today is, recently I was in South Yarra with about 200 people for breakfast, and I gave them a warning before I spoke that I would be honest with them, I’d be frank with them and, as such, some of them may find that a little difficult to take their breakfast, because there is nothing palatable whatsoever about what you see and hear in indigenous communities. And unless the rest of Australia actually understands that, the depth of despair that people are in, and the loss of culture that is a direct result of that despair, then we are going to lose not only another generation, we are in fact going to lose the last remnants in many places of what was a very rich culture.

The focus has been on the Northern Territory, and there are those who like to think this is just a problem of remote Australia, but last week I was not in the Northern Territory, I was in Western Australia. And I’m here to tell you the circumstances in Western Australia, not just the East Kimberleys, not just the Pilbara, but also the Central Desert and also in the suburbs of Perth, are worse than many of the circumstances in the Northern Territory.

And those who have not read the report, Little Children are Sacred, its two authors visited 45 communities in the Northern Territory. They didn’t find sexual abuse in some of those communities, they didn’t find it in most of those communities, they found it in every single community; 45 out of 45. Think about that, the enormity of that for a moment. People coming forward with the most horrendous stories. We have children as young as three with gonorrhoea, we have twenty-four year old grandmothers, we have so many babies being born with alcohol foetal syndrome that their capacity to pass on the oral history of their people is gone before they’re even born. We have physical and sexual abuse of boys and girls and men and women. It knows no boundaries.

That is the reality in the Territory and it also in South Australia, it is also in Western Australia, it is in New South Wales and Queensland to differing degrees.

The reason that the Federal Government has acted in the Northern Territory is simply because we have the capacity and the power to do so. Let me answer right up front the allegation that is thrown at me and thrown at the Prime Minister as to why didn’t you do this for last 11 years? Well, this time last week I was in South Australia before 700 indigenous childcare workers. And the first question that was thrown at me was by a white woman who said you have stood before us today and said that most of these interventions have come from direct requests from indigenous people to you, and that’s true. And I’ll articulate some of those as we go through.

She said, but tell me who told you to breach the Racial Discrimination Act, the Human Rights Act, and the Land Rights Act? I said, well, funny thing that, no-one, because no-one talks about it in those sort of terms when the children haven’t been fed or they’ve been bashed the night before, or the situation they’re living in is just horrendous. They actually talk about surviving. They talk about not being stabbed. They talk about some form of normality around their circumstances. And the crowd actually all applauded her for asking that question, long and loud, because I have breached the Racial Discrimination Act in a positive sense.

So the last question that was put to me on that morning was from a woman from Darwin. She said the first thing I want to say is thank you for what you’ve done. Then she went on to ask why didn’t your government do this some time in the last 11 eleven years. And there was the same raucous applause, and I thought isn’t it interesting the same audience can have two totally different perspectives. One, why did you breach the Racial Discrimination Act, and say that that’s wrong, and then 15 minutes later applaud when challenged about why I didn’t breach it 10 years ago.

Now, that is what we get every single day. People dress up self-determination, they dress up land rights, they dress up all sorts of nuances of arguments. Really in their heart they are saying that the right of a child to be born and to be safe and to have an education and to have an opportunity in this country is somehow below that of these other niceties that don’t even reflect anything of what occurs in their life.

Do you know how many times that I’ve had raised with me the issues of the stolen generation? Once in the Northern Territory in Darwin by a woman who wanted to be connected to family. The other time was at ANU by people who are not part of the stolen generation. Treaties: never is it raised by me by Aboriginal people in the communities, it’s raised by white people in universities. They don’t seem to understand the disconnect between where people are today and where they want to be and the fog that they’re living in. Most of you probably don’t realise that there is a thing called kava. Kava is used in the South Pacific for ceremonies, and it is coma inducing. That’s what it does. People sip it. But no, in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory it’s been legal for years. Why? Because it stops people having violent outbursts. Instead, they’re just comatosed under trees, they don’t feed their children. Their children don’t go to school and white fellas thought that was a better outcome because there were less people going to hospital.

When I discussed that with Galarrwuy Yunupingu, who was one of the champions of land rights, who is one of the most powerful lawmen in the Northern Territory, and I said, well, I understand why they did it, is to protect people from the violence of alcohol, and he said that’s rubbish. I said, how do you mean? He said this is another insidious drug that white man has inflicted upon us that needs to go. Alcohol needs to go, marijuana or ganja, as it’s known, needs to go. Kava needs to go.

Let me take you to Kalumburu. Kalumburu is up in the East Kimberleys. It is a town of about 300. There are only 90 males in Kalumburu. It’s isolated by the wet for a good part of every year. The wet will set in some time this month.

Of those 90 men, in the last two months 15 have been charged with child sex offences. Fifteen out of 90 men. These are the charge sheets. Not one page, not two pages, not three pages, four pages.

They’re all an offence against a child, predominantly penetrating a girl or a boy under the age of 13. Who were these 15 men? They were the mayor, the deputy mayor, two other councillors, the police liaison officer, a truancy officer, two wardens.

What does that tell you? These are people of authority. These are the people that white fellas like me and bureaucrats turn to, who go to consult with about answers to their communities, who we give money and more empowerment to and we walk away saying, haven’t we done a good thing.

I was one of them. I went there 18 months ago and I thought that this place had a smell of decay about it. It worried me.

But you talk to the leaders. One of those leaders, who was the police liaison officer, was a man who I had great faith in. He was a man that the local police sergeant had great faith in and thought he would be an indigenous sworn police officer soon.

He and his wife were doing good things. They asked for money from me to assist them to take young boys out of the community who had been truant or had brushes with the law to take them back onto the homelands to teach them cultural ways. We provided that money to him.

He has been charged with procuring children as young as five and six. He sat before the police sergeant who he had worked with – and you need to hear this – and said to him, and by the way, there are no paedophile rings in these places they tell me. But you tell me what this is.

He said, a friend of mine told me how to procure children. He said, what you do is you say to a six year old, a seven year old, a 12 year old, here’s some cigarettes, here is some ganja, come with me. And they came with me, he said, and it worked. I tried it and it worked, so I did it.

The depths of depravity, if you wish to look at them, are in these charge sheets. That’s bad enough.

Last week I went back to Kalumburu because Magistrate, Dr Sue Gordon, who’s heading up our work in the NT and is dealing with all the women’s groups, she is a children’s magistrate in Western Australia.

She said to me, the problem with Kalumburu is that so many adults have just left their children behind. The adults have gone and left their children behind, just blown through. She said we can’t actually find the parents to deal with these issues. This community needs some of your support. They need to know that you care, they need to know that even though we’ve got these criminals out of there, that we can do more.

We organised for So Professor Judy Atkinson to do some healing work up there over the next few years. I organised for the Australian Football League, to go up and to actually do work with the kids.

But on Monday of last week, the one child protection officer discovered that the six and seven year olds in the community were running amok in a really unreasonable fashion. And it came to light on Monday of last week that eight six and seven year olds had been sexually penetrated by 11 to 15 year olds. They’ve been charged this week.

What that tells you about the society in that town, is that not only has it been passed from one generation to another, but it’s been seen to be so normal that it is happening between children. Not just when they’re becoming adults, but child to child.

This is not part of indigenous culture. This is not part of any sane culture. This is a culture that is being destroyed. And the protestors that stood outside here today were not prepared to come in here and hear this, because they’re confronted by it. We should all be confronted by it.

I am appalled by the fact that this week, when we had eight Australian children sexually molested by other children it did not make the front page of every newspaper, it did not make the six o’clock news.

What did was Catherine being left on the steps of a hospital here in Melbourne, or the child that has disappeared in Spain making a half hour television program, yet these other children don’t actually count enough.

Now, we have to confront ourselves and say, why is that. Why is it that in communities like Galiwinku in the Northern Territory, where there are over 3000 people, where they make their own DVDs in their own language on petrol sniffing and sexual and domestic violence, the Northern Territory Government said that’s a good community and it doesn’t need a policeman. The nearest policeman is half an hour’s flight away.

These are the things that we’re dealing with. And if we don’t confront this now, and if we don’t take and sweep away the issues, then we are going to be condemned.

ATSIC didn’t do it. Reinventing another ATSIC is not the answer. That’s not self-determination.

I challenge us all in this room to undertake the following. For the next 10 years, we’ll all be totally dependent on social welfare. None of you will be able to own your own home. If you have a job, it’ll be at the bequest of one or two strong people and they’ll determine what house you live in and under what condition you live in it.

You’ll have nothing to look forward to. The social norms will be destroyed. You’ll have no police here, and we’ll revisit you in 10 years time, let alone in two or three generations time and see what will have happened.

That is what we’ve done. There has to be a turning point, and the turning point is now.

The Federal Government has legislated to enable those who want to in the Northern Territory to actually change direction. Not forcing anyone. The lunatics say I’m forcing people and taking people’s land away. Quite the opposite.

What I’ve actually done is legislated to say to people, if you want to unlock the value of your land, if you want to again – have the chance to be able to aspire to something – home ownership, jobs, cultural awareness, bringing up a child in a healthy environment – then you can do so.

And in the Tiwi Islands, they’ve taken up that chance. And everyone from the politicians, to Michael Mansell in Tasmania, who’s probably never been to Bathurst Island told us what we were doing was wrong.

Yet one of the elders up there was reported to me as saying that 12 months ago he was walking around nearly dead. Today, he walks around with his head held high and pride in his chest, because for the first time in 100 years, he, as a traditional owner of Nguiu on Bathurst Island, is going to have a real say over what happens on his land, and his people can actually have a chance of owning a piece of turf and doing something with it and building a future for their own children in building jobs, in giving a purpose for going to school.

It will make a turnaround from the 2000 children in the Northern Territory who have never been enrolled at school Two thousand children today of school age that have never been enrolled at school.

So they have actually stared down the nay-sayers. They have taken up the cudgels, and it is now a done deal. They are moving forward. They’re building their own motel. They’re starting – they’re actually entering the NT AFL competition and getting pride in who they are. And they’re now driving to have their own high school, which the Federal Government is funding.

The people of Groote Eylandt are doing the same, the people of Tennant Creek are doing the same, and yesterday in Queensland in Yarrabah, which is just south of Cairns, I signed with the largest single indigenous community in this country to a welfare and housing reform package which will take them out of the dependency on welfare that they’ve had in the past, put the norms in that if you damage your house you’re responsible for it, that alcohol can’t be abused and you can’t have running brawls and parties all night and neglect your children. They did that.

I offered them the tools and they did that. They have done it. Hope Vale’s done it with Noel Pearson. Tiwi Islands, Groote Eylandt, Tennant Creek. I have here today a joint open letter to the Prime Minister from Wednesday, 26 September from the people of Fitzroy Crossing in Western Australia. And some of the words in here from the women are just so powerful, so I’d just like to – bear with me while I … if you bear with me while I read one small paragraph.

Someone have said that children of this nature will not be able to capture nor store stories as told of their elders for its intended use of passing it down to the next generation. This is children with alcohol foetal syndrome.

“Their mental capabilities will be such that the culture of their forefathers will be lost forever, never to be regained. My plea is, please understand my story. Save at least one half of my generation from total physical and mental annihilation.” There’s just story after story from a two-day get together, pleading for governments to do something. To do what?

In Western Australia what they’re asking for is welfare reform, they’re asking for alcohol management and they’re asking for police. That community of Kalumburu. It’s not unique; there’s about 40 men that have now been charged in the Halls Creek region. But there are communities all over this country that no young person can walk into and tell their story, because there is no person of authority. And can you imagine walking in somewhere if you don’t speak English?

These are the things that we as Australians have to face up to. This is what we’ve allowed to occur over the last 30 years. When you listen to the old women, it’s the grandmothers who are now the ones who are holding it together. Interesting that the grandmothers and the grandfathers are often still healthy. They haven’t got diabetes, they’re not dying of renal failure, they have an education, they’ve worked, and they’re holding the next two generations together.

It has been our responsibility, as legislators over the last 30 years, starting with sit down money with Gough Whitlam and land rights under the Fraser Government. Those two single things did more to harm indigenous culture and destroy it than any two other legislative instruments ever put into the Parliament. And people look at me and say, land rights. Let me explain. You see, you can be land rich but be absolutely poor in every other way.

Galarrwuy Yunupingu. I mentioned him earlier. For those who don’t know, the reason he is such a powerful man is as a champion and a pioneer of land rights. As a very young man, he was the interpreter for the Northern Territory’s indigenous people in the first major land claim. He learnt the law at a very young age. That means he is a powerful man in every sense. He’s a law man across the Territory. And he was a champion of land rights in the way it was articulated by the Fraser Government.

He sat with me for six hours on his homeland, overlooking a beautiful piece of beach – at his homelands. And he and I and Noel Pearson spoke and we listened. And as he said, we connected as parents, as fathers. He opened dialogue with me that day and I told him what we were trying to achieve. We sat and no one spoke for 10 minutes. Seemed like a lot longer; there wasn’t a word.

And then he opened and said, kava is killing my people. He pointed across the waterway and said the people over there will not have fed their children today. Those children will not go to school. Alcohol, you haven’t restricted it enough. Your welfare payments, you need to go further; CDEP must go. And my eyes opened. I said, where have you been? A month ago you just ridiculed me for everything I did. He said, now I understand why you’re doing it. He said, now let’s talk about land reform because the next stage – this is about where we’re at – the next stage is unlocking the value in our land so the next generation actually has job opportunities.

And he said, what I want to do is not have this collective, where all of us here own the land, but no one individually. And because it cannot be turned into any value, inalienable freehold, I want to change that. I don’t want to lose my native title rights, I don’t want to lose the underlying title – what my forefathers gave me, but I actually want to unleash its value. And we’re able to do that for him. He can walk in both worlds and in doing so embrace going forward. And he can do that because he knows the next generation hasn’t got a chance if he doesn’t do it.

That’s what Noel Pearson’s been advocating and for five years they’ve been fighting the Queensland Government, five years to just give them what they want, that is land rights change. They actually want what’s called DOGIT, deed of grant in trust land, to be able to be used so people can own a home where that is.

You see, we have actually built an apartheid system where we have said if you live separately from us we’ll make people have a permit to go in there and we will hold you responsible for what occurs. We will pour the cash in, every now and then we’ll come in and give you something else and then we’ll tut tut when it all goes wrong.

That will happen in any society. This is not about indigenous Australia. This is about human beings put into a circumstance which has such a false set of parameters that it can’t work. They’re now recognising that. They know that in their hearts, and the women are the answer. The women have said, enough.

One last point before I wrap up, is for those who say I don’t consult.

Consulting is not talking to those people who purport to be indigenous leaders. Consulting is talking to people who don’t have a voice on the ground. That’s what I’ve done as a politician, as a member of parliament in my electorate, talking to people in their houses, talking to people who are not particularly articulate but have worries and concerns about their own areas.

When a 65-year-old woman, Theodora, looks me in the eye and says a lot has changed in our town from the 300 person riots that we used to have and the houses that were being burnt down 18 months ago, but you haven’t helped me enough. I said, what do you want, Theodora? She said, I want to feel safe when I walk up to the ATM in my community to take money out to feed my grandchildren, but when I do the young men come in here and they threaten – get this – they threaten to break my washing machine or my television if I don’t hand them the money over

They take the money, they spend it on ganja, they get high, they come down, they’re hungry and then they take the last food off the table off my grandchildren. You must take that money off me because I get humbugged, I get threatened with that.

Today The Australian, the first bit of evidence at a two day seminar the people of Titjikala, Imanpa and Mutitjulu, got together and said even though it’s only been in for a few weeks it’s making a big difference. Kids are going back to school, the amount of grog, the amount of alcohol, the amount of drugs, the amount of gambling is receding, the domestic violence is down, people start to be able to see again.

Swamp your own mind with alcohol and you won’t remember very much, you won’t be able to make many judgements and if people have been doing that for two generations then you have no hope.

In the past I have been simply saying it must stop. That’s not the answer. We must have the guts to make it stop and the only way we do that is to take really tough decisions, tough decisions which some people don’t like, tough decisions which the Northern Territory Government manages to pay for full one page ads ridiculing the Howard Government about alcohol restrictions in the Northern Territory, Send Howard a Message. How about sending Howard a message about the alcohol foetal syndrome, about a three-month-old being killed in their father’s arms because the mother’s thrown a bottle? How about doing that?

When is the right of a child going to be more important than any other single thing we do?

People say I’m passionate about it. I am. I’m passionate about it because I’ve taken the time to go into the town camps at night and see what is nothing less than a war zone in Australia and say what chance have these people got if we ignore them? It’s going to cost billions of dollars but it’s also going to take the entire Australian community deciding, as one, that when it’s off the front pages it won’t be out of their consciousness, that they will bring these children to have the same opportunity that your children will have. To have the same opportunities for an education but, most importantly, just to be healthy.

We have started that process but it must continue and it must spread across the nation. The kids of South Australia and the APY lands, the kids of the East Kimberley and the kids of the Cape, deserve it as much as the Northern Territory.

If we turn back now, if we blink now, then we will have committed genocide on indigenous communities. That is what it is because their oral history will disappear with alcohol foetal syndrome, abuse gets passed down from generation to generation, as I’ve said in Kalumburu this week with six-year-olds being raped by 10 to 15-year-olds. It’s too much for most people’s senses to take but that is where we’re at and as long as I am the federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, nothing, no amount of cartoon characters out there, no amount of academics who don’t actually want to go and front the reality, or no indigenous activist will actually deter me from doing what these people have asked me to do and I just challenge every Australian to say what can they do. What can you do as an individual to make a difference? Because you in Melbourne, here in Melbourne, can make a difference and the people in this university can and you need to ask that question. If you can’t answer it, which is quite normal, is to go to people around you that want to make that change forever, and participate.

I thank you for the opportunity, I thank you for your interest in this subject. To me, it is the single most important human story that Australia is yet to tell. We are at the crossroads and let’s hope and pray that the crossroads lead to the appropriate way forward for kids so they do have a future.

Thank you.

QUESTION: Minister, obviously a paradigm shift but how and when will we be able to assess whether that paradigm shift has actually worked?

MAL BROUGH: There’s two phases to it. The first phase is here and now and it is working because the women on the ground – read The Australian today. It’s not my accounts. Never believe a politician. Believe what the people on the ground tell you. They said we were fearful and we were apprehensive and they had every right to be because they were told that we were coming to shoot their dogs and steal their children, so I’d be pretty scared too if someone told me that, although sometimes with my 21-year-old maybe they could have him.

But the reality is they said today it’s working. But that’s the short term and if we allow that light to go out – so what we actually have to do today is ensure that a child born today doesn’t grow up in fear, doesn’t grow up without an education, doesn’t grow up without English.

They should have the chance to be as mobile as you and I. They can choose to live in Titjikala for the rest of their life and contribute. That’s fine. We can all do that. At the moment they don’t have a choice to choose and, without labouring the point, can I demonstrate by telling you the story of Lavinia?

Lavinia’s a 21-year-old from Papunya. She lives about three hours west of Alice Springs. She sent me the most powerful letter I’ve ever received and as soon as you opened it you could tell. It was hand-written. She’d made the – corrected the punctuation and the spelling along the way. Obviously meant something to her. And in it she said I was standing in front of the television crying, watching myself out there. She said I’m 21, I have seen rape, I have seen suicide, I have seen petrol sniffing and a few other things. And she said I’m too young to have seen it. The word that captivated me, she said, I escaped from Papunya. Like you’re escaping from some war torn country.

As luck would have it, this young girl was living right behind my electorate office in Caboolture and at the time the Dreaming was on at Woodford which is an indigenous folk festival. So I picked her up with my wife and we went out – and she had a baby. And we talked to her and I said, tell me your story, and she said, well, I was lucky, she said, (a) I had English, because I’d spent 12 months in a boarding school in Darwin and (b) my estranged father lives here and I had to rebuild that connection. She said but I was living in the town camps at Alice Springs and she said every night I would cry myself to sleep thinking, was tonight the night I would be stabbed to death by my partner? She said the reason I escaped was when I found myself pregnant I knew my baby would die if that baby was born in the town camps of Alice Springs.

It is, after all, the stabbing capital of the world, Alice Springs.

And I just – she said every cousin and every brother and every sister is on ganja or petrol at that time. We’ve almost stamped out petrol. We can stop those things now but if we don’t actually build the economic opportunities and be honest with people about where some of them are living and the circumstances they’re in, then it will once again fall back into the sort of circumstances it’s currently in.

You can’t just replace one substance with another substance and hope that it’s going to get away with it. It is a generational change and there are so many ticking time bombs. The eight boys, predominantly eight boys, six boys and two girls, six years of age in Kalumburu, just using that one community and that’s everywhere else, they’re ticking time bombs and the intervention it takes to prevent them from being perpetrators of the same crimes and repeating the same crimes and the cycle starting again, is enormous.

So it has started, you can see it now, but if we take heart at that and then don’t follow through with the hard yards over generations, we will end up going back to exactly where we’ve been and that has got to be unacceptable to all of us and it means it’s something you’ve got to pass onto your children to make sure that they, in their role as responsible Australians, don’t leave it and let any politician ever do that.

Thank you.

* * End * *