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View from The Hill: Albanese should not try to make the Voice the only game in town in Indigenous affairs

There are two huge issues in Indigenous affairs at the moment: the Voice and the problems in Northern Territory Indigenous communities, especially but not only in Alice Springs.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s attention is laser-like on the Voice, and trying to get up a yes vote. Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, for a mix of motives, is focusing on the NT situation, as he campaigns against the Voice.

The issues are intertwined, not least because the government argues the Voice would help solve problems on the ground. But they are also separate, and in the near term they should be treated as such.

Newly appointed shadow Indigenous Affairs minister Jacinta Nampijinpa Price. Michael Errey/AAP

Dutton’s Tuesday appointment of NT Indigenous Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, as tough an opponent of the Voice as you could get, will probably assist the opposition leader’s no campaign. (That is not to say the no side will prevail – it’s far too early for predictions.)

Price, who will attract a lot of media, will put doubts into the minds of some voters, who may think that if this prominent Aboriginal figure sees no merits in the Voice, perhaps they should vote against it. On the other hand, Price is inexperienced and so a risk, if she lets her emotions get the better of her when provoked. And she will be countered by many Indigenous advocates for the yes case.

As matters stand, of the two leaders, Dutton and the prime minister, it is Dutton who is losing more skin in the referendum fight.

The most recent attacks on him, by Labor and other critics, are over his latest claims, after his trip to Alice Springs last week, of widespread child sexual abuse of Indigenous children – allegations critics see as a ploy in the battle over the Voice.

That said, the government’s wish to downplay the NT’s array of horrendous problems is both wrong in principle and perhaps ultimately a mistake tactically.

Albanese and other Labor figures have invoked a common line: if Dutton knows of cases of child sexual abuse, he should report them to the police.

This really doesn’t pass muster. It’s clear Dutton was not dealing forensically with particular cases (how could any visiting politician?), but with general information (accurate or not) he gathered during his latest visit to Alice Springs. He has said his information was “anecdotal” and that he’d spoken with police and social workers.


Read more: Your questions answered on the Voice to Parliament


Dutton says that, earlier, he passed on information directly to Albanese, something the PM denies.

On November 30, Dutton canvassed the issue in a question to Albanese in parliament. He referenced a recent meeting with the PM “to discuss the unprecedented and tragic levels of sexual abuse of children in Alice Springs and elsewhere in the Northern Territory.” He asked Albanese to support a royal commission into the “sexual abuse of Indigenous Australians”.

But when Albanese was asked this week on the ABC’s 7:30 whether any information had been brought to him by Dutton “about children abused, children being returned to their abusers” he said “No. Not that I’m aware of. That is the first I’ve heard of it.”

Albanese went on to say he had no idea what Dutton’s recent assertions were based on. “I don’t know what the basis of it is. But certainly he has not raised any specific issue about any claim, about any individual circumstance with me. If he did, I would say to him that he should report that to the police.”

This does seem a deliberate avoidance of the issue.

Albanese’s own backbencher, Marion Scrymgour, formerly NT deputy chief minister, this week highlighted two issues – child protection and youth crime.

While very critical of Dutton for “irresponsible publicity-seeking claims” which cast suspicion on everyone, she said child neglect threw up “really high-risk issues”.

“If a child is being neglected, then they are more likely to be at risk of sexual abuse. So we need to unpack all of that and have a look at what is happening with those children that are falling into that category of neglect, because those numbers are increasing and not just in Alice Springs, but right throughout the Northern Territory,” she told Sky.

This, surely, is what Albanese and his government should be acknowledging.

The Voice is important. But there are serious problems here and now, and the government is negligent, or worse, if it doesn’t admit and confront that reality. The situation is obviously beyond the NT (Labor) government.

The extent of the problems needs to be assessed (and that would reveal, incidentally, whether Dutton is exaggerating). Then a strategy needs to be determined.


Read more: People in the Kimberley have spent decades asking for basics like water and homes. Will the Voice make their calls more compelling?


Dutton wants a royal commission; Price has suggested a Commonwealth takeover of child protection responsibility. More modestly, Scrymgour has urged a Family Responsibility Commission, along the lines of the Queensland body, headed by a judicial figure, and with Indigenous leaders on it, to manage dysfunctional family situations, including 100% of their welfare income.

There is resistance to all these ideas, including from some Indigenous figures. The debate has a long way to go.

But it is already clear the Voice issue has taken the scrutiny of Indigenous affairs into areas that make governments uncomfortable. And that’s a good thing.

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