Tackling Endemic Substance Abuse among Indigenous Australians: The Contribution of Values-Based Family Empowerment Education

By Tsey, Komla; Cook, James | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Tackling Endemic Substance Abuse among Indigenous Australians: The Contribution of Values-Based Family Empowerment Education


Tsey, Komla, Cook, James, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Introduction

My introduction to indigenous health in central Australia from the early '90s was, and in many ways still is, a shock about the white-black divide. Having spent most of my community development life working with my own people in Ghana (Tsey 2008) I found myself trying to practice as an outsider in Indigenous Australia, an entirely different socio-economic environment involving the world's oldest surviving culture. The question that dominated my mind was how to make sense of the stark contradictions between wealthy democratic Australia on the one hand, and small minority Indigenous populations living in relative poverty and deprivation with issues of alcohol and other substance abuse and inter-personal violence so endemic and public on the other hand (Boffa, George and Tsey 1994). As an outsider 'where to start' in the context of such social volatility was and still is clearly a challenge for me (Tsey 1994a; b; c; d; Tsey 1997).

As a group, Indigenous Australians experience higher levels of illness and premature death compared with the rest of the population. Alcohol abuse in particular has a disproportionately high negative impact on Indigenous communities in Australia, at both the individual and community levels, in terms of its contribution to premature mortality, chronic illness, social disruption and economic costs (Ministerial Council on Drugs Strategy 2003; Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2005). Concerns dating back to late 1980s regarding an apparent enthusiasm for descriptions of this excess mortality and morbidity in the research literature, rather than effective interventions (National Aboriginal Health Strategy Working Party 1989) were empirically shown in a 2006 critical review which highlighted a dearth of intervention research in Australian communities compared with Canada and New Zealand (Sanson-Fisher et al 2006). In other words, in Australia, we are good at describing the nature and extent of Indigenous health problems but we are not so good at investing in interventions that work.

In July 2007, the Australian Federal Government under the Liberal Party Prime Minister John Howard, took an unprecedented move to announce a wide range of national emergency measures in the Indigenous communities of the Northern Territory of Australia designed to curb excessive levels of alcohol and other substance abuse and associated inter-personal violence, including child sexual abuse (Commonwealth of Australia 2007). Some of the key elements of the intervention included:

* bans on alcohol and pornography materials;

* increased policing and law enforcement;

* welfare reforms making receipt of state welfare payments contingent on parental responsibility, including school attendance;

* compulsory acquisition of Indigenous land aimed at providing incentives for private investors, including estate developers; and

* compulsory health checks for children.

Although the objectives of the intervention are widely recognised as a necessary and important development in Indigenous affairs, the process has also attracted extensive criticism as evident by thematic analysis of the Weekend Australian coverage of the radical new reforms since July 2007(Bridge, Whiteside and Tsey, unpublished data). According to the influential Indigenous thinker and reformer, Noel Pearson, whose ideas about indigenous substance abuse to which I return later influenced the government decisions in the first place, the focus on alcohol and policing is important, but there must also be a strategy for building Indigenous social and cultural ownership (Pearson 2007). A number of commentators have also condemned the top-down approach that was taken by the Federal Government and the way in which the legislation underpinning the intervention was prepared in great haste with little community consultation or Indigenous input (Havnen 2007).

Australia saw a change in Government in November 2007 and with it another change in policy in Indigenous affairs. …

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