Scrymgour sparks NT laws row

Australia's first Aboriginal female Cabinet minister has triggered a fresh debate about the major parties' support for the indigenous intervention in the Northern Territory.


The NT Community Services Minister Marion Scrymgour launched a scathing attack on the intervention in a speech in Sydney.

At the Sydney University forum, Ms Scrymgour described the measures to stop child sexual abuse as a political ploy and she accused Federal Labor of hanging on to the Coalition's political apron strings.

'Back to colonialism days'

The Martin Government minister says the intervention, which began in June, has brought back painful memories of past acts of colonialism.

“Aboriginal Territorians are being hearded back to the primitivism of assimilation and the days of native welfare. It has been a deliberate savage attack on the sanctity of Aboriginal family life and the result has been that they have been flogged by distant, ideologically driven politicians and bureaucrats, remote from the realities of our everyday lives”.

Ms Scrymgour represents the seat of Arafura which has a number of remote communities which have been affected by the intervention.

Three quarters of the electorate are indigenous Australians, in an area covering the Tiwi Islands, Kakadu National Park and the Arnhem land community of Maningrida.

Intervention 'politically motivated'

She questions the motivations behind the federal government's intervention, describing it as the black kids' Tampa, a reference to a key issue during the Coalition's election campaign in 2001.

Ms Scrymgour says the Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough has used remote communities as a political ploy just as Prime Minister John Howard did with asylum seekers in the 2001 campaign.

But Mr Brough says the minister's criticisms are outrageous and he's called for her resignation.

Mr Brough says the intervention has started to have a positive impact in reducing social problems which he says will take many years to solve.

“What we are doing here is dealing with these issues root and branch for the first time and Ms Scrymgour is walking away from her own people. That is unacceptable,” he says.

“There's no leadership from the Chief Minister in dragging her into line and that's why I said that if she can't support her own government, then she should resign and put someone in place who's willing to protect children and do the tough things that are needed to give them a chance”.

Rudd defends government's intervention

Federal Labor Leader Kevin Rudd has also rebuked Ms Scrymgour for her comments.

“She is wrong because the report- the Little Children Are Sacred report- told us of one set of cases of child abuse after another- way in excess of any acceptable national norm,” Mr Rudd says.

“That's why dramatic intervention was necessary. It certainly was controversial- I accept that. But we've got to give a new approach a go because that report was so dramatic in its findings on the abuse of children in those communities”.

New laws 'useless'

But a Northern Territory indigenous elder Olga Havnen has welcomed Marion Scrymgour's comments, saying they reflect the views of many remote communities.

Ms Havnen is the co-ordinator of the Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the Northern Territory which has campaigned strongly against the intervention.

She says social problems like crime and drug abuse have come about in remote communities because of poor access to health and education services.

But Ms Havnen says she hasn't seen any sign yet to show the federal government's intervention has helped address those problems.

“We never ever resile from the fact that urgent action was always necessary for the adequate and proper protection of children,” she says.

“However if the minister is genuinely committed to protecting kids, then you'd have to ask where are we a hundred days or more on from the time this intervention first started with respect to things like child protection workers. Where are the family and child services programs that we need?”

Mr Brough says it's taking longer to address social problems because of the Northern Territory Government's failure to send enough police into some of the troubled communities.


But Marion Scrymgour says what hurts indigenous Australians the most, is the way they have been portrayed over recent months by both sides of politics.

“I've attended the meetings made up of decent, caring fathers, uncles, brothers and grandfathers who feel they have been universally branded as perpetrators. As child abusers”.

“To see these men who are undoubtedly innocent of the horrific charges being bandied about reduced to helplessness and tears speak to me of widespread social damage, not a decent approach to tackling child abuse”.