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Isolated aboriginal centres under fire in Oz

Violence toward children and ballooning ranks of kids in care spark an inquiry

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BRISBANE -- Australian aboriginal communities have an ingrained violence which predates European settlement and leaves thousands of indigenous women and children vulnerable to physical attack.

That, at least, is a theory outlined in a book by Australian writer Stephanie Jarrett, Liberating Aboriginal People from Violence, which has received some attention in Australia in recent weeks.

Jarrett's theory, comprehensively rejected in many quarters, is that the nation can't go on blaming an 18th-century European invasion for violence in aboriginal settlements.

She suggests that policy makers take a bold step away from accepting and honouring indigenous culture and, in the case of violence, encourage a clean break with the past.

"It is important to acknowledge this link between today's aboriginal violence and a violent, pre-contact tradition because, until policy makers are honest in their assessment of the causes, aboriginal people can never be liberated from violence,'' Jarrett wrote in the The Australian.

Jarrett believes Australia needs to understand that in order to liberate aboriginal people from violence, deep cultural changes that move them away from traditional norms and practices of violence are necessary.

"Such fundamental change is unlikely to occur in separate, self-determined communities which are premised on maintaining traditional culture.''

Indigenous politics has shifted sharply in Australia in the past two decades, from promoting traditional lifestyles and language in various out-stations and isolated communities, towards a powerful push to participate in mainstream economic life.

One of Australia's most high profile indigenous leaders, Noel Pearson, is the most visible proponent of aborigines sharing in the nation's wealth without cutting themselves from their cultural heritage.

Pearson has long argued that indigenous Australia was robbed of a choice when it came to embracing the values of the white middle class.

"You've got to empower people with education, but also all of the other capabilities such as health, infrastructure, law and order in the community, safe environments and so on,'' he said in an interview with the national broadcaster, the ABC, nearly a decade ago.

"It is those capabilities which produce indigenous peoples who will have then a full range of choice. And some of those choices might be a mixture of maintaining a link with community but also being mobile and engaging in the wider world.''

Supporting a thesis of ingrained violence in an indigenous community which was subject to an often murderous brutality by white settlers may be a bridge too far for many indigenous leaders.

But in the northern Australian state of Queensland, where a $9-million inquiry into child protection is underway, a lawyer this week was courageous enough to ventilate the idea as he struggles to hammer out a more effective approach to protecting the state's most vulnerable kids.

The Carmody Inquiry into child protection, headed by lawyer Tim Carmody, has been tasked with providing solutions to the massive growth of children in state care -- children removed from parents deemed unfit to parent.

This week, as the inquiry turned its attention to the over-representation of indigenous kids in state care, Carmody displayed an admirable determination to confront the most serious issue impacting children in aboriginal communities -- violence.

Carmody, quoting extensively from Jarrett's book, put the theory of ingrained aboriginal violence to an executive from one indigenous organization. It was rejected emphatically as "sensationalizing" and "unhelpful'' while maintaining indigenous violence was shaped by historical forces.

But Carmody, a former family court judge given the unenviable task of formulating public policy destined to make him a target of criticism and attack, is clearly determined to frame effective recommendations to the Queensland government to better protect kids.

Physical attacks and criminal assaults (whether fuelled by alcohol or not) are unacceptable in the white community but were becoming so commonplace in many Queensland indigenous communities that they were seen as "institutionalized, almost a cultural norm,'' he said.

Jarrett's book, to be launched at the end of the month, includes a foreword by one of Australia's few indigenous parliamentarians, Bess Price.

Jarrett writes that "serious interpersonal violence" in remote aboriginal communities is catastrophically high while Aborigines commit and suffer less violence in mainstream locations, amidst mainstream cultures.

"These facts sit uncomfortably with the ideology that aboriginal suffering can be alleviated by returning to a more traditional lifestyle in self-determined communities,'' she wrote.

"Such discomfort is blunting critical scrutiny of aboriginal violence statistics even at the highest echelons of data analysis and report writing.

"This is a national travesty.''


Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2013 A10

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