13 September 2007

Speaking ethically No. 15

September 2007

by Rod Benson

Last month, the Australian Federal Parliament passed legislation authorising the Howard Government’s unprecedented actions to arrest child abuse and neglect among indigenous communities in the Northern Territory.

These included measures for alcohol restriction; computer auditing to detect prohibited pornographic material; better management of community stores to deliver healthier and more affordable food; five-year leases on some communities to enable better management of investments and improved living conditions; land tenure changes for town camps; and removal of customary law as a relevant mitigating factor for bail and sentencing conditions.

This is an issue of immense significance to our nation, and to our churches and mission agencies working alongside indigenous Australians. There has been cautious support but also strong criticism from church leaders. Many have welcomed the government’s commitment to tackling violence and abuse in indigenous communities, but have expressed grave concerns with the substance and process of the planned reforms.

In my view, more emphasis needs to be placed on sustainable solutions and long-term planning, developing programs to strengthen families and communities and empower them to confront problems (rather than an over-reliance on top-down and punitive measures), and adequate consultation with indigenous communities.

There is a great deal more of value still to be said on the legislation, its implementation in the diverse communities affected, and the responses by those communities.

Careful attention also needs to be paid to the degree to which these policies actually resolve problems of child abuse and neglect; the ways in which alcohol and drug abuse, petrol sniffing and access to pornography increase the risk of abuse and neglect; and the extent to which the problems extend beyond remote indigenous communities into thousands of supposedly “safer” Australian suburbs, homes and families.

Our Baptist churches need to contribute more to the debate, and, where possible, to the solutions. And the people directly affected, all of them Australian citizens with their own hopes and fears, aspirations and perspectives, need our ongoing prayers and our genuine care. They too are our neighbours.

Rev Rod Benson is Director of the Centre for Christian Ethics at Morling College, Sydney.

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