There’s been considerable discussion of the case of the rape in Aurukun of a 10 year old girl on the Saturday Salon thread. While I agree with those who are arguing that the decision of the judge (and the submissions of the subsequently demoted Crown Prosecutor) is flat out wrong and disgraceful (and see this post at Talk It Out for a summation of why), I also think it’s important to place the case within its wider context and to resist simplistic calls for an extension of the “intervention” to Queensland (which in any case, as those doing the calling may not know, is constitutionally impossible without the co-operation of the Queensland government).
The problems which underlie these most regrettable events in Aurukun are complex, and not amenable to simple solutions such as those advocated by Noel Pearson, whose own “end welfare dependency” experiment in the Cape is in dire trouble. They need to be debated soberly, and with an eye to the facts not to predetermined ideological positions or sloganeering – which is why I was so pleased to see an interview with anthropologist and former resident of Aurukun, David Martin, in today’s Crikey. With permission, I’m reproducing it over the fold. All of it is well worth reading.
David Martin has had close connections with Aurukun for over 30 years, including living there as a community worker for eight years from the mid-1970s, and later spending a further two years there conducting research for his doctoral thesis. He has close family connections with Aurukun, and has raised children there. He gave evidence into the Aurukun hearings of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and provided advice to the Fitzgerald Cape York Justice Inquiry. David is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University and an independent anthropological consultant. He spoke to Thomas Hunter.
Beyond a failure of justice, does this case highlight the failure, more broadly, of the community in which these people live?
This case is not just the tragedy of this little girl, which will be a lifelong tragedy. The bigger tragedy is the one in which both she and her perpetrators are enmeshed. And that’s the tragedy of a truly extraordinary community, as it was in 1975 when I first went there, which has systematically spiralled out of control. By any measure, Aurukun is hugely underinvested in by government in terms of all the things we know are essential to civil society: decent health, decent education, decent housing, decent food, law enforcement. There are insufficient police, and this has been the case ever since the mission period and ever since the introduction of alcohol against majority community wishes in 1985. But it’s not just police. It is a place where dysfunction breeds in no small part not because people are bad, not because they are inherently irresponsible, but because they are abandoned and neglected.
What effect will this judgment and its national coverage have on the Aurukun community?
The most likely reaction is a feeling of deep shame because they have TV and newspapers like the Cairns Post, and there is the internet for those who are literate enough. They will know about the commentary around Australia on it, and there will be a feeling of shame, hurt, and possibly anger at that sort of comment. In terms of the particular event and how Aurukun people feel about it, it’s very likely to be determined by their kinship and family connection to the people involved, the perpetrators or the victim here.
The justice system is only one aspect of the infrastructure that supports civil society. Is it any surprise that the courts cannot deal with cases like this when it appears they are acting virtually alone?
The problem is that because of the political concerns of the wider society, there is this huge weight placed on the justice system to solve problems which have their roots way outside the justice system. In that sense, yes, the justice system has failed, but there is a really important caveat here. The perpetrators of this crime in Aurukun are themselves victims. In saying that, I recognise it’s paramount to keep the ultimate victimhood of this girl at the forefront. The girl is a victim of the same abandonment by the wider society as the boys. It’s she who is the double victim, but the young men themselves are also victims. Aurukun hasn’t just happened because Wik people, the local people, are somehow morally weak or because they are collectively culpable.
From the point of view of the justice system, what can be done about it?
The notion of restorative justice is an admirable one. It needs to be the goal against which much of the impact of our justice system on communities such as Aurukun are based. But we also need to be very aware that in the absence of structures of authority, respect, and widely held norms of social behaviour, restorative justice has no substrate onto which it can be grafted. Aurukun was not always like this. This sort of behaviour was inconceivable in the mid-70s when I went there, at the end of the mission era. It’s now all too commonplace. So what’s happened? What’s gone wrong? To appeal solely to Indigenous mechanisms is another way of abandoning people to a fate in which they have had some role, but which is essentially the creation of neglect clothed by politicians and bureaucrats in the rhetoric of self-determination.
But isn’t self-determination a part of the solution?
A part, yes, but I agree with people like Mick Dodson who say it has never been truly implemented. It has served as a cover, and not only for the supposed chardonnay sipping socialists in the cities to write out their own vision for black Australia. It has served as a device for bureaucracies to avoid taking up their responsibilities to people who are after all citizens of the state. The insistence that a community take responsibility for its problems, whether that be petrol sniffing or alcoholism or car thefts — and Aurukun has had all of those things — is simply abandoning people. The evidence is that it is beyond people’s control. We don’t ask this of people outside Aboriginal communities. Aurukun people have been abandoned, ever since I have known them, as the beggars at the table of one of the richest countries on earth, and indeed in one of the richest States in Australia. The glittering skyscrapers in Brisbane are not reflected in what you see in Aurukun.
Where is the imperative to act within government given that, unlike large sections of white Australia, they are aware of the condition of communities like Aurukun?
The cynical answer is that there are no votes in black fellas. There’s quite a strong view out there, which was given some credence by Alexander Downer, that the Northern Territory intervention was a cynical vote buying exercise. It’s interesting to note that all of the half billion dollars initially committed went to bureaucratic process. There wasn’t a cent of this money to address the well documented infrastructure deficits in those communities, and what’s been promised fails miserably to meet requirements. The politics of apathy and neglect reflect that of the populace as a whole. And there’s a long history of that, especially in Queensland. While we focus on the personal tragedy of this case and the personal culpability of the perpetrators, those personal things take place within structural factors which have helped create the conditions in which these crimes take place. The justice system can’t address that. I’m not sure that justice has been properly done in this case.