Retired Children’s Court Magistrate Sue Gordon on closing the gap
ABC TV Stateline Program 3 July 2009
Reporter: Frances Bell
FRANCES BELL, PRESENTER: Retired children’s court magistrate Sue Gordon knows that closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is easier said than done.
The former head of the Northern Territory emergency taskforce has seen her fair share of well-meaning reports on improving the lives of Aboriginal people. But still the chronic alcoholism, child abuse and high incarceration rates continue.
So it comes as no surprise to her that the latest statistics from the Productivity Commissions show that in many cases, outcomes for Aboriginal people are actually getting worse, not better. I caught up with Sue Gordon late today.
The Cape York Indigenous leader Noel Pearson says this is like the movie Groundhog Day, is he right?
SUE GORDON, FORMER HEAD OF NORTHERN TERRITORY EMERGENCY TASKFORCE: Well I agree with most things that Noel says, and I think I agree on this occasion. I’ve seen lots of reports. And I would just go back to even 1964 when the UWA ran a summer school and they were talking about Aboriginal disadvantage.
FRANCES BELL: Almost 50 years on, what do you make of the response from our political leaders to this report? Is it more of the hand-wringing or do you hear some positive thoughts about making change?
SUE GORDON: Well, 12 months ago the same things were said. The words were a bit different. Things were to change. But I haven’t seen a lot of change. In actual fact the area that my interest is most high in – child abuse – has got worse.
FRANCES BELL: How do you feel personally that so little progress has been achieved over the decades?
SUE GORDON: I get frustrated. I’ve seen lots of change – don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen lots of change. I’ve seen some really good Aboriginal people push specific issues. I’ve also seen small groups of Aboriginal people push for symbols, I am not one for symbols. I would rather practical action on the ground.
And I get frustrated because we change governments and then everyone starts again. And I think that’s the frustration for Aboriginal people.
FRANCES BELL: So what is the answer to that? Julie Bishop today is saying there needs to be perhaps a repeat of the Northern Territory intervention in remote Western Australia. What do you think about that?
SUE GORDON: That’s come up a few times and I’ve heard Julie say that. But law and order is really the main issue where child abuse is concerned. In WA we have multifunctional police facilities with co-located child protection workers. Now that is a really good way to go.
But what we need is, we need more Aboriginal community workers as against child protection officers because child protection officers is usually a tertiary-educated person, while Aboriginal community workers can be the eyes and the ears in the community to work with families back to the child protection officers who are not always available.
FRANCES BELL: So do you think that the intervention should be rolled out in places like remote WA?
SUE GORDON: The reason it could be rolled out in the Northern Territory was because of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. Now the 73 prescribed communities are on lands under that legislation. In WA it’s a different thing because it’s either lands trust land or Aboriginal-controlled land, so you can hardly send in people if the community said no.
But it’s not just an intervention per se. Rather, it’s all those agencies specifically: Aboriginal housing, the overcrowding, overcrowding leads to child abuse, overcrowding leads to violence, et cetera, et cetera. So everything needs to be done as a package, whether it’s an intervention or not. I mean you just have to look at what’s happening in the Territory. We’re two years since the intervention started and the housing that was promised by the Howard Government is still not up and running.
FRANCES BELL: So it’s too simplistic to say that the intervention should be rolled out in WA.
SUE GORDON: That’s right. I know what Julie Bishop is saying but it’s a different picture here in WA because we already have the law and order.
FRANCES BELL: Now you’re on the WA Government’s Indigenous implementation board and you’ve said before you’re not going to be shy in holding this Government to account. How are they going so far?
SUE GORDON: Well, I have to say we don’t always have a quorum. I don’t think that’s a secret. We’re due to in August give the Government a report on how things are going.
I think with a lot of boards that deal with Aboriginal people, there’s a lot of talk but I am always one for a bit of action actually rather than words.
Kim Hames, the Minister who is the Deputy Premier is very serious about this. And the Premier Colin Barnett is also very serious about closing the gap. So I think with those two steering the way the board has to be a bit more positive.
FRANCES BELL: And you’ve been pushing for that for some time, so why do you think that that mantra of less talk and more action doesn’t seem to be getting through and we’re continually getting reports like this?
SUE GORDON: We change politicians and we change people who sit on boards, even me. People like to visit and people like to talk to people on the ground. But there comes a time when you can have too many reports and nothing coming from those reports.
I said that actually about the ‘Bringing Them Home’ report and I got shot down when I said it could be another report that sits on the shelf and nothing gets done. And I’ve been proved right, mostly, in respect to that report.
So let’s stop talking about it and work with Aboriginal people because from what I’ve read in today’s paper and what I’ve seen from press release coming out of COAG, it’s, oh we’re getting another report by the end of the year and by this time next year there should be some change. But to me that equates back to: there will be more Aboriginal kids abused by next year.
Full transcript here