The human right to be born without foetal alcohol syndrome
Updated: May 4
Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar called this week for reinstatement of alcohol bans in the Northern Territory's Indigenous communities. She said “limiting access to and consumption of alcohol in the Alice Springs region will provide communities with the breathing space they need to develop long-term solutions to the systemic problems”. Aboriginal MP, Marion Scrymgour, supports alcohol bans too and has called on the NT Government to abandon its “race based” criticism of alcohol restrictions. Regardless of whether restrictions are racially discriminatory or not, allowing the rivers of alcohol to flow is discriminatory. It disproportionately infringes on the basic human rights of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, especially women and children. It may be a choice Australia doesn't want to face. But choosing not to act has consequences and affects human rights too. As Aboriginal people, we can’t fully exercise our Indigenous and race-based human rights if we can’t live safely and be born and grown up healthy. The human right to be born without foetal alcohol syndrome has to come first.
Addiction and violence are deeply entrenched in the Northern Territory. They are complex and there are no quick fixes. Seventeen years ago, I supported the then Northern Territory Coroner Greg Cavanagh’s inquiry into petrol sniffing and its impacts. In addition to appearing as a witness and assisting with community engagement and consultation, I wrote and submitted a detailed report on the causes of and solutions to the addiction epidemic. I identified deeply entrenched social and economic disadvantage among Aboriginal peoples, ready supply of addictive substances, and the transgenerational nature of the problem as key problems. I also emphasised exclusion of women, passing the buck and blame shifting by governments, ad hoc and reactive policy and program responses, and passive welfare as significant drivers. My major recommendations were (i) for governments to work in partnership with Aboriginal peoples, and (ii) measures to restrict the supply of addictive substances. The Coroner's findings included a comprehensive set of recommendations.
Sadly, none of this is new. I gave similar evidence to a 2006 Senate Inquiry into petrol sniffing and during an appearance with six other people on ABC Lateline. Gaslighting, defamation and abuse I received after the Lateline program aired taught me how costly it can be to speak out publicly in Australia if doing so threatens political powers. There is clearly an urgent need for greater accountability and responsibility in Australia’s political system. The current Royal Commission into Robodebt is showing clearly how politicians can sledge people and ideas that risk their power. Positions, public resources and parliamentary privilege are misused to promulgate false information and counter critique. The 730 Report's Laura Tingle eloquently points out the current dysfunctional culture. Establishment of an Independent Commission Against Corruption will help. But a strong code of conduct for our federal politicians is also essential. Most states and territories, the federal public service, and corporations of substance have codes of conduct to guard against and manage misbehaviour and conflicts of interest. But no overarching code applies to our federal politicians. It is time to formalise a code of conduct for our federal politicians. This would also help reverse growth of the cancerous culture exposed by the Robodebt Royal Commission where public servants avoid giving Ministers bad news and “only tell them what they want to hear”.
There are no quick fixes. But reinstatement of alcohol supply restrictions and greater political accountability and integrity will go a long way. And as Minister for Indigenous Affairs Linda Burney has pointed out, the Indigenous Voice to Parliament will also clearly make positive difference.