Monday, July 09, 2007

Australia: Northern Territories govt failing indigenous children

From ABC News in Australia

The Federal Government has accused Northern Territory Chief Minister Clare Martin of taking the focus away from protecting Indigenous children.

Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough says he is disappointed by the NT Government's decision to oppose his five-year takeover of Indigenous communities.

Ms Martin says the compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal land and ending the permit system will not stop Indigenous child abuse.

But Mr Brough says he remains determined to go ahead with his plan to take over about 60 Aboriginal communities.

"If you can't see the connection between having urgent action about the health, wellbeing, living conditions, the standard of the housing on the ground and removing all of those artificial barriers where people stand in the way quite deliberately to avoid having the changes occur on the ground, then you really aren't serious about addressing the problem," he said.

Mr Brough says the previous experience in the Top End community of Wadeye showed him the best way to improve living conditions is for the Federal Government to take control.

He says he is upset by the NT Government's decision to fight the plan.

"Clearly, the Territory has failed to have a normal standard of care and wellbeing in these communities. That's the reason we're acting," he said.

"This comes from the hard experience of trying to improve living conditions in places like Wadeye with great difficulty.

"That's the only reason that the Commonwealth is moving - so that people can see the urgent action that they so desperately desire."

Legal challenge

The Northern Land Council (NLC) says it is highly likely it will challenge the Federal Government in the High Court over the intervention.

NLC chief executive Norman Fry says while the details of the Government's plan are still unknown, the five-year takeover of leases in some communities could erode land rights and be discriminatory.

Mr Fry says the council has been consulting with Top End traditional owners it represents who want court action to go ahead.

"There is more than an even likelihood that should the Commonwealth's compulsory acquisition take place, there's every indication we'll end up in the High Court," he said.

"Certainly, we've got our senior legal people looking at this issue. Taking away people's land unilaterally is un-Australian, wherever it occurs."

A lawyer for the council says the NLC is waiting to see the details of the federal Bill before taking any action.

Mr Brough says the legal challenge is not unexpected.

"People have the right to oppose things in the courts here," he said.

"I would just say to them, where have they been - any of these people that are out there now complaining - about this decisive action.

"Why weren't they putting High Court challenges in about the human rights of children who have been raped and molested, who have had to put up with enormous degradation of their own quality of life.

"They haven't been there then."

Mr Brough says he is taking over the communities to help the children.

He says it is not a land grab, nor a bid to extinguish native title or open up land to mining and exploration.

"It's about fundamentally, quickly changing the standards and the quality of life that people have and removing the artificial barriers that are preventing these things from happening today, last month and last year," he said.

"If they continue down that track, kids will continue to be hurt while people argue about the niceties of life. That's what I'm trying to avoid."

Compo concerns

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma is calling on the Federal Government to clarify how the Aboriginal land will be compulsorily acquired.

Mr Brough says he intends to pay just compensation to acquire townships using five-year leases.

But Mr Calma says there is ongoing debate over whether the Government is legally required to pay just terms compensation for resumption of land.

"The issue is who are they paying it to, on what land are they talking about it?" he said.

"If they are talking about, for example, land that's been granted under the land claim, then that could be with the traditional owners or some other body.

"Or if they are talking about the town camps, say in Alice Springs, it could could be with the people that have the title over the land."

Mr Calma says there is no precedent to pay compensation for land under native title laws.

He says Mr Brough should allay uncertainty in remote communities and legal circles.

"If the Minister is going to amend the Aboriginal Land Rights Act to facilitate this resumption of leases for five years, he needs to make a clear statement in that legislation to say that the temporary arrangement does not extinguish current and future native title claims," Mr Brough said.

Health checks

A doctor, two nurses and a social worker are due to arrive at Hermannsburg, near Alice Springs, tomorrow to deliver the first round of medical checks on the NT's Indigenous children.

The federal Health Department anticipates it will take up to six months to complete the checks.

Department senior medical officer Tim Williams is overseeing the roll-out and says teams will spend between two and three weeks in each community.

"It's unclear what the duration is going to need to be and it really depends what intensity we put into putting teams on the ground," hes said.

"But given that there are perhaps 11,000 children who would be eligible for these checks in the rural and remote areas of the NT, it could take up to six months for this process to completely roll out."

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