Sunday, June 24, 2007

Internet to Empower Indigenous Communities

Painting: Little Children are Sacred by Heather LaughtonA report on Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse was released by the Northern Territory Government 15 June 2007. The Australian Government has responded by proposing to take control of Aboriginal communities in the NT, restricting welfare payments and brining in outside police and welfare workers. This runs counter to the reports recommendations. Perhaps the Internet and the web can be used to empower the local communities and address some of the issues.

The report found that sexual abuse of Aboriginal children is happening largely because of the breakdown of Aboriginal culture and society and made 97 recommendations to address this.

The report recommended improvements in the Aboriginal education systems, including local language development, to make education more effective for Aboriginal children, education campaigns on child sexual abuse, urgent action to reduce alcohol consumption, an Advice Hotline, improved family support services, introduction of community justice groups and a Commissioner for Children and Young People.

A summary of the report is available online and the full report as one PDF document (6.4 mb). Each section of the report is also available individually:

The Australian Government has responded to the report by stating that the situation is akin to a national emergency and proposing to:

"... introduce widespread alcohol restrictions on Northern Territory Aboriginal land for six months ... ban the sale, the possession, the transportation, the consumption and (introduce the) broader monitoring of take away sales across the Northern Territory...

... medical examinations of all indigenous children in the Northern Territory under the age of 16 ...

... 50 per cent of welfare payments to parents of children in the affected areas and the obligation in relation to that will follow the parent wherever that parent may go ... effectively the arrangements will be that that 50 per cent can only be used for the purchase of food and other essentials ...

... enforce school attendance by linking income support and family assistance payments to school attendance for all people living on Aboriginal land ...

The Commonwealth Government will take control of townships through five year leases ...

There will be an immediate increase in policing levels... We'll be asking each state police service to provide up to 10 officers who'll be sworn as police in the Northern Territory ..."

From:"Joint Press Conference with the Hon Mal Brough,Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Canberra", Interview Transcript, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 22 June 2007
The Australian Government proposals would appear a high cost, high risk, short term strategy. By taking control away from the local community, this appears to be the opposite to what was recommended in the report and may make the situation worse, rather than better (as well as contrary to Australian law on discrimination).

Perhaps the Internet and the web can be used to address some of the issues, by empowering the local communities. In the joint press conference announcing the Commonwealth's plans, the Prime Minister drew a parallel with the Canberra suburb of Dickson, arguing that if child abuse had occurred there, immediate action would have resulted:
"... if this set of circumstances had been disclosed as taking place in the suburb of Dickson, can you imagine what the local response from police, from medical authorities and from the state government would have been? It would have been horror and immediate action and a demand by the community that something be done. That has not happened in relation to the Northern Territory and we therefore believe that the action I'm about to outline is totally justified and warranted given our overarching responsibilities for the welfare of children throughout Australia. ..."

From:"Joint Press Conference with the Hon Mal Brough,Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Canberra", Interview Transcript, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 22 June 2007
Drunkenness and violence can occur in any community. As a former resident of Dickson I have seen violent drunken family brawls in the street, requiring police intervention. The PM's suggestion that this only happens in remote aboriginal communities is false. However, the PM has made a valid point: people in a Canberra suburb can be heard much more easily by government, than a geographically remote community. Taking the PM's lead, perhaps the answer is, therefore to give these remote communities a louder voice in government and to the result of the Australian community. The Internet and the Web can provide a way to overcome distance and allow that voice to be heard.

The suburb of Dickson does not rely exclusively on person-to-person communication to get its message across to Government. In November 1996 The Dickson Precinct Community Group was formed as a community consultative group to provide advice to the ACT Government on upgrading facilities in Dickson. As a member, and later chair of the group, I converted the groups newsletters and the master plan prepared for the suburb into a web format. This provided a much higher visibility for the community.

Projects such as the ANU's Bidwern have looked at how social and environmental scientists could work with Indigenous communities to use digital systems for cultural and environmental data. These same technologies could be applied to community planning, addressing social issues and to assisting remotely located government officials and politicians to an understanding of the issues.

dEadly mOb LogoThe Federal Government's Department of Communications, Technology and the Arts (DCITA) e-strategy guide features the Deadly Mob at the Gap Youth Centre in Alice Springs, as an example of creating an online community for young Indigenous people. DCITA also list online collaboration systems such as phbBB,, AMP, and CivicSpace.

The internet and the web can be used directly locally for coordinating the provision of services. This can lower the administrative cost of providing such services while also empowering the community. Remote state and federal governments can meet their obligations to ensure appropriate administration by joining with the local community online. Where the remote government fails to listen to the local community, that community can take their concerns to the Australian community directly via the Internet and via the media.

In finding new ways to come together to make local decisions, indigenous communities can teach the broader Australian community better ways to government themselves.

Online systems could be used by the local communities to consult and make decisions. At a meeting of the Canberra Chapter of the Australia India Business Council on Friday, Richard Andrews talked about his report "India's services sector: unlocking opportunity". One comment he made was that online systems made some types of corruption more difficult, by imposing an independent system in the transaction. He was referring to bribery in India, but this technique might be applied in Australia.

If communities use an online system to administer local government, that system can be used to check that the approved procedures are being followed. This might be a way to keep government officials and politicians happy, without having the expense and cultural problems of imposing outside administrators on the local community. This would not be discrimination, as the rules imposed by the system would be the same which apply to local governments across Australia.

The same system could be used to manage upwards: to keep a check on corruption by the central administration and politicians. If each local community can easily compare notes on what the government is up to and report abuses, it will make manipulation of the political system by state and federal governments much more difficult. Promises made by state and federal politicians for resources for local communities could then easily be compared with what those communities actually got. Any discrepancy could then easily be brought to the attention of the broader Australian community.

NOTE: The NT report is entitled "Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle" ("Little Children are Sacred"). The cover design for the report is by Heather Laughton, of Eastern Arrente (Central Australia):
"The design represents the coming together of different people to help tackle the problem of child sexual abuse: mothers, children, grandmothers at a safe place, fathers and grandfathers at a safe place, and in the middle a resource centre with a mentor/counsellor/educator and family members and other support people. The resource centre represents a place where people can come together to work out their problems as a family or as a community, and also to learn how the mainstream law system and Aboriginal law are both strong ways of protecting children."

From: Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse "Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle" ("Little Children are Sacred"), Northern Territory Government, 15 June 2007.

No comments: