Smallbone report: Past wrongs to blame for Aurukun crisis

, - March 19, 2016

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AURUKUN is again in the news and though the news is not new, it is not good.

A report by researchers from Griffith University, led by Professor Stephen Smallbone, on youth sexual violence in Aurukun sat idle through three years of the Newman government before being released by Treasurer Curtis Pitt last weekend.

Ostensibly, then-premier Campbell Newman did not release the report because Aurukun Mayor Derek Walpo objected on the basis it would compromise the confidentiality of the children and families involved in the research. This may have been understandable but the failure to respond to the report is appalling. It was provided to the state more than two years ago.

How did things come to this tragic state? Many readers will think this is just the way things are in Aurukun. But it has not always been this way. In fact, things were once very different and how and why things deteriorated so badly is an important backstory.

We can talk about the many proximate causes of the crisis in Aurukun (grog, welfare dependency, unemployment) but its ultimate explanation lies in government violence starting with the Aurukun Takeover in 1978 by the Queensland government under then-premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

The takeover resulted in the Presbyterian Church being kicked out of Aurukun and replaced by the Queensland government. The Smallbone report is the bitter harvest of this original violence at the hands of the state.

Before the takeover respectful kinship relationships meant everything to the Wik people of Western Cape York. A hybrid of traditional and missionary authority and paternalism gave an order to the Aurukun mission that was shattered, and not replaced. Child neglect, homicides, suicides, violence and abuse were virtually unknown before 1985 when then local government minister Russ Hinze finally forced a canteen to open up against the objections of elders.

The first instalment of the state’s takeover was the imposition of the local government structure. The second was the imposition of the canteen. This story of state violence began when Bjelke-Petersen’s government seized control of the Aurukun’s extensive bauxite reserves in 1975 and gave it to a French multinational, Pechiney. The Church supported legal and political campaigns by the Wik people against the state’s actions. This is why Bjelke-Petersen and Hinze removed the Church and took over Aurukun.

Aurukun was no longer a mission. It was now a shire. But what was a shire?

A shire needed revenue. The only viable source of revenue was to convert unemployment benefits received from the Commonwealth Government into canteen revenues for the shire council. The bodies of the Wik people would be the means through which this conversion of Commonwealth funding into state revenue, would take place. The young bodies and brains of infants would be victims of this money laundering.

Minus the paternalistic protection of the church, the Aurukun people were powerless to resist the shire council’s introduction of a wet canteen. This was opposed by many in Aurukun, particular by a strong group of Wik women, but the battle was lost.

The rivers of grog started to flow and they flowed for two decades.

The painful story of the collapse of family and clan relationships was now set in train. Serious assaults became commonplace. There were nine homicides in the five years after the opening of the local canteen. The Four Corners report by David Marr in 1990 declared the crime rate at Aurukun far worse than notorious American cities.

The actions of Bjelke-Peterson and Hinze were a form of state violence. The cycle of abuse and neglect that followed the grog chaos from 1985 was imprinted on the young children who were born in its wake.

The sexual violence and abuse occurring between children and young people outlined in the Smallbone report is a third and fourth-generation inheritance of problems that have their roots in the opening of the canteen. Parents were lost to alcohol addiction and became absent figures, unable to ensure the safety and development of their children, children who then grew up poorly equipped to break the cycle for their own offspring. These are the young people that are now at the centre of this woeful tale of early sexualisation and violence.

This tragedy is shameful. The response has been likewise shameful. The Queensland Government has done nothing effective though Aurukun continues to hit the headlines consistently. The usual response, where government announces more services to try to fix the problem for the people of Aurukun, will not work.

Although I support the establishment of the Smallbone report steering committee led by former Queensland Supreme Court justice Stanley Jones, it will take far more than a committee of eminent outsiders to put this right.

For that committee to have any real impact we must first have faith in the mothers, fathers, aunties, uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers of Aurukun.

It’s important to not let the scale of the problem obscure the fact that there are many upstanding individuals and families in Aurukun. The parents who send their kids to school every day, families that nurture and support their children, people who are seeking out a better life for their families, the very parents and grandparents that now stand proud as their children graduate from high school and university. Among them are strong natural leaders in Aurukun. And female leaders are the key.

This active leadership should buoy us and this ground-up movement must not be squashed by bureaucracy and service delivery jargon. These women, with the right support, are Aurukun’s last best hope.

The history that I name as state violence should stand as a reminder of what happens when governments take over and smother local leadership and structures. The colonisation of service delivery has not worked to date and will not work in the future.