The Fitzgerald Report on Cape York Justice

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Articles (in reverse date order)

The Aboriginal Coordinating Committee criticized the state government’s response to the Fitzgerald inquiry into Cape York justice issues – mainly on the grounds that it had not been consulted. However the problems of alcohol abuse etc have been known for some time, and nothing has been done through the ACC (Koch T. ‘Critics lack commitment’, Courier Mail, 13/4/02)

Indigenous community councils will be stripped of control of alcohol canteens in a state government bid to wipe out alcohol-driven violence on Cape York. There was concern about councils' vested interest in maximizing alcohol sales because of the impact on councils' finances (Franklin M. 'State fights horror of grog abuse',  Courier Mail,11/4/02

To properly control alcohol abuse on Cape York indigenous communities requires both action and each community to own the action (take responsibility for its own problem). A regional strategy formed through the Cape York health body, Apunipima, involves: building intolerance of abusing behaviour; controlling supply; managing money / time; treatment and rehabilitation; and improving home / community environment.  Law can't control control abusing behaviour unless there is also indigenous social and cultural intolerance.  It is clear from the Justice study that the majority of indigenous people recognize the grog problem - but then do not support strategies to control it because (a) there is widespread misunderstanding of substance abuse (b) alcohol abuse is seen to be a symptom of many other problems that need to be fixed first (c) addictions create their own defenses (d) this confuses sober families and governments as well (e) the threat of violence makes it hard for people to stand against substance abuse (f) 'rights' have been claimed to defend addiction. There are confusions and inconsistencies everywhere in the response to this.  For example, communities claim that sly groggers are the real problem - but then won't help prosecute them. Councilors are themselves in sly-grogging. Councils claim that their management of canteens improves the situation, when they are 'pig-sties'. How can they claim that profits on grog sales are important to the community - when there are offsetting costs. Intolerance of abuse requires building a culturally appropriate refutation of the false arguments that support it (Pearson N. 'Call for intolerance', i Courier Mail,  6/4/02)

Aboriginal groups were angry about the State Government’s commissioning of an inquiry (by Tony Fitzgerald) into alcohol abuse and violence after a similar 1999 report by an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander’s Women’s Task-force. It was seen as an imposed solution in which aboriginal communities had inadequate involvement. The problems that the review addressed are not insignificant – and it has been suggested that the communities are not moving to deal with the problems themselves. The problem is how recommendations are to be implemented. Aboriginal Community Councils can’t levy rates to provide a source of funding – and have been said to have a vested interest in continuing to provide canteen services to raise revenue – a claim that causes resentment. The communities are supposed to be receiving government help – but requests at meetings do not result in action. A respected community administrator, Aurukun CEO Gary Kleidon, pointed out that many faculties had been provided through canteen profits – and that what was required was a new beginning. There must be a shift from passive welfare – and this requires a genuine partnership between communities and government which involves negotiation and action rather than consultation and imposition (Wenham Margaret, ‘Thirst for self-rule’, Courier Mail. 23/3/02)

The $500,000 cost of the Fitzgerald inquiry into violence in Cape York aboriginal communities was condemned by aboriginal leaders and the Opposition - on the grounds that it made no meaningful gain on an indigenous women's taskforce (Wenham M. 'Inquiry Cost an insult', Courier Mail,  2/2/01) Also - similar criticism was offered by the Liberal Party - which said that the Fitzgerald report was merely a duplication and a delaying tactic to avoid having to implement the earlier proposal (Jones C. 'Grog study labelled ludicrous', Courier Mail, 2/1/02) [CPDS comment: The difference that the Fitzgerald inquiry was intended to make was presumably to present a modernising vision of aboriginal culture, which the indigenous women's taskforce had not sought as indicated in article by Saunders

Queensland indigenous leaders criticized the Fitzgerald report as a 'political strategy' which undermined indigenous solutions. The Government was asked why Fitzgerald's report was commissioned, before the report of the 1999 indigenous women's task force was implemented. The latter had given a resounding message on the impact of alcohol - and there had been a need for action, not more inquiries. The Fitzgerald report was very similar to the 1999 report - and was just a waste of public funds. (Wenham M. 'Leaders point to ignored report', Courier Mail,  24/12/01)        

The Fitzgerald report on justice issues in Cape York communities dealt with issues that others have examined in detail before - and it was criticized for this, and for a lack of realism. The Government has suggested that (after discussion) the report will be implemented - and that resources will be transferred from departments to indigenous communities if problems arise. The report reflects the modern mood to do something real for aborigines - and identifies alcohol as the key problem - because unless this is solved nothing else will have any effect. The emergence of the welfare economy in the 1960s and 1970s is also identified as a problem. Training wages introduced in 1968 were far too low, and (while the previous ration system had entrenched poverty and deadened employment initiatives) forced a reconfiguration of the social fabric - ie households lost their male figureheads, and a large floating population of aimless and rootless individuals emerged who were easy prey to alcohol and violence. Children lost their network of carers. Alcohol dependency and hopelessness led to appalling violence - mostly directed against family members. Solutions suggested include: banning alcohol sales; stopping sly grogging (or sales at inflated prices) perhaps using 'traditional laws'. The biggest problem is to get the bureaucracy to accept change. Pauline Hanson was correct in identifying the aboriginal industry (Koch T. 'Facing the demon', Courier Mail,  24/12/01). [[This included a quote from a May 2001 paper by Noel Pearson "A very great proportion of the violence in our communities is associated with grog ... the court convictions and clinic records show this clearly. If we get on top of our grog and drug problems we will get on top of the worst of our violence problem. What we are doing now is creating the optimal conditions for our addicts who don't want to change, to consume all of our resources and to disrupt our society. What abusive members of our communities experience is not a determined rejection of that behaviour, it is (i) unconditional financial support for nothing (ii) endless nonsense talk to give the impression that something is being done (iii) limitless understanding and care when the complications of abusive behaviour become annoying and (iv) ideology production for the defense of abusive lifestyles. The 'progressive' response to illicit hard drugs in the wider community is not at all different to the response of our own community to grog abuse"]]       

Recently 9 assaulted and neglected children (mostly suffering brain damage from fetal alcohol syndrome) were taken from 2 families at Kowanyama Aboriginal Community. Yet recently trucks brought in huge quantities of beer to last through the wet season. A social worker pointed out that a large Commonwealth wage compensation payment had caused the community to be awash with alcohol. The community's people are being destroyed by alcohol, welfare, violence and abuse. The government constantly studies the problem - yet nothing changes and the communities are gripped by alcohol. (Koch T. 'Truckloads of destruction', Courier Mail,  8/12/01) 

".... In 1999, Griffith University academic Boni Robertson headed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women's Taskforce on Violence in Indigenous Communities, which, after extensive interviews, released 126 recommendations for immediate action. The taskforce was commissioned by the Beattie Labor government. The Robertson report found that the underlying cause of community dysfunction were the breakdown of traditional Aboriginal family values, and the erosion of traditional law and cultural identity within communities. The failure of consecutive governments to acknowledge and act on this, and address the economic dispossession of the Aboriginal people, is at the root of alcoholism, drug use and violence in Aboriginal communities. Indigenous activist, academic and Socialist Alliance Senate candidate in the November 10 federal election Sam Watson sees the Fitzgerald inquiry as another political stunt by governments in the name of Aboriginal people. "These inquiries that successive governments have convened are pure window dressing to soothe the concerns of certain sections of the electorate. They are never designed to deliver real change or real reform”, Watson said. “The Aboriginal people have within themselves the capacity to make those changes and they need to be given the opportunities to do that." Watson explained that it is the dispossession of Aboriginal people that is the root cause of alcoholism. “These Aboriginal communities are legacies of a by-gone colonial era. The land on which they are situated is not the tribal lands of the people. The people have no spiritual connection with that land. “The communities are not based on tribal structures, they're not based on dreaming, and they're not based on particular cultures... These people have been stripped of land, of cultural values and shotgunned into these places; they no longer have the capacity to express themselves as spiritual beings, as Aboriginal people. ”Saunders E 'Alcohol abuse: Beattie blames the victims', Green Left Weekly, December 5, 2001.

In a remote aboriginal community of 900 people, over the past 25 years there have been 8 suicides, 13 murders (and 12 murderers) - mostly between 1986 and 2001. A wet canteen opened in the community in 1985. A recent report by Tony Fitzgerald has suggested prohibiting alcohol in Cape York's indigenous communities. However only one aboriginal leader (Noel Pearson) has supported this - and political leaders outside Queensland are indifferent (Neil R., 'Uphill slog to turn off grog', Courier Mail, 4/12/01) 

The ATSIC chairman has indicated support for recommendation of the Fitzgerald inquiry - about closing liquor outlets in aboriginal communities. However some aboriginal women objected - noting the high cost of taxi fares to travel elsewhere to buy alcohol (Koch T. 'ASTIC backs Cape reforms', Courier Mail,  29/11/01)

Many others have previously said what Fitzgerald's report did - most particularly a report by aboriginal academic Boni Robertson which was also commissioned by the Beattie Government. Why was the Fitzgerald study needed - perhaps because the government needed to be seen to be doing something (Wenham M. 'Yet another inquiry begs the question', Courier mail,  27/11/01)

There was virtually no coverage of Tony Fitzgerald's Cape York Justice Study by media outside Queensland.  There is little understanding by people in southern states of what life is like in aboriginal communities. There is concern with reconciliation and the stolen generation - yet the destructive impact of alcohol is unreported (Charlton P. 'Shouting to be heard', Courier mail,  21/11/01)