“I’D actually challenge them on that – how have they been progressive when they have one of the highest, disproportionate rates of indigenous incarceration in the country…
“How can the government make statements like that?
“The government needs to be careful about these claims.”
So said Ross Fowler, chairman of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elected Body, the peak Aboriginal advisory body in the ACT.
Mr Fowler made these comments in the week following the decision by the ACT government to not proceed with a decision to establish an indigenous-specific drug and alcohol residential rehabilitation service. The service has been planned for the last decade and construction of a purpose-built facility was completed, at a cost of many millions of dollars, in the middle of last year.
The government had also been in detailed negotiations with Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service for much of the last year on the terms of a service delivery agreement for the management of the service.
As part of this process, the government had also engaged the Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Association (ATODA) to work with Winnunga Nimmityjah on the development of a model of care specifically for an indigenous drug and alcohol residential rehabilitation facility. It is understood that ATODA was paid more than a quarter of a million dollars for this work.
Despite all this, on May 8 the ACT Health Directorate confirmed, apparently on the basis of advice that the Territory Plan did not permit the operation of a drug and alcohol residential rehabilitation facility on the land on which it had been constructed, that it had abandoned the plan for aresidential drug rehabilitation service and was initiating a process to decide on an alternative use for the facility.
Unsurprisingly, the local Aboriginal community responded in anger and frustration at what it saw as a major betrayal of a long-standing commitment by the government to meet the needs of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community for focused and specialised drug and alcohol rehabilitation.
Attempts by ACT government ministers to deflect responsibility for their own shortcomings by insisting that the Aboriginal community was “confused” or had “misunderstood” the intended purpose of the facility simply inflamed the situation.
One aspect of the condemnation of the government emanating from within the Aboriginal community that should be particularly concerning for the government was the decision by Ms Jo Chivers, the current president of the ACT Branch of the Labor Party, to publicly join Ross Fowler in his stinging criticism of the decision by the government to walk away from the urgent needs of the Aboriginal community for more and better drug and alcohol services.
In addition to the quite remarkable but appropriate decision of the president of the ACT Branch of the Labor Party to take her Assembly colleagues to task for ignoring the needs of the Canberra Aboriginal community, I imagine that Ross Fowler’s questioning of the regular boast of the ACT government as being “progressive” would also have struck a nerve.
I was particularly interested in Mr Fowler’s challenge to the “progressive” credentials of the ACT government because I was coincidentally also, in the last few weeks, challenged by a friend who insisted that the actions of the ACT government in clearing public housing tenants out of the Northbourne corridor to permit the creation of a further enclave of privilege for the well-off were not consistent with those of a progressive government.
My friend went on to insist that the government’s now entrenched policy of restricting the supply of greenfield land to force up prices and so maximise returns was, along with the decision to relocate public and social housing tenants to the nether regions of the city, in fact pure neo-liberalism.
One swallow does not a summer make but I would be nervous if I was in government and the genie that Ross Fowler has let out of the bottle took wings.
Jon Stanhope is an advisor at Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service. He was Chief Minister from 2001 to 2011 and represented Ginninderra for the Labor Party from 1998.