Intervention Tension


On 21 June this year, the Prime Minister called a special press conference at Parliament House to announce his barbecue-stopper. After sitting on his hands for the best part of 12 years while much of Indigenous Australia continued its slide into decline, Howard was preparing to take decisive action.

With his can-do Cabinet colleague Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough at his side, the Prime Minister announced a range of draconian measures including widespread alcohol restrictions, quarantining of welfare payments, enforced school attendance, ‘compulsory’ health checks, increased policing, the acquisition of townships and the emasculation of the permit system. The Northern Territory Government’s delayed response to the Little Children are Sacred report was pressed into service as the pretext for these fundamental reforms.

Thanks to Sean Leahy

This was a ‘national emergency’ we were solemnly informed, and the remote communities of Central Australia would be the first to benefit from these tender mercies. Subsequently, there was much colour and movement here in Alice Springs, as troops in camouflage gear arrived alongside police, doctors and administrators to fight the battle for the safety and security of Indigenous children.

But there is a distinct lack of clarity about just how ‘the intervention’ will work in the medium to long term. That the Government is anxious to improve the material existence of Aboriginal people in remote communities is beyond dispute. Whether they have a cohesive plan which has the support of the people concerned is a much more contentious issue.

This week, Federal Parliament resumed from its winter recess, and one of its first items of business was to consider legislation designed to underpin the Government’s unprecedented intervention. Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, didn’t even see the Bill until the evening before it was debated in the House. This high-handedness on the part of the Government smacks of contempt for the critical role of opposition Parties in scrutinising proposed legislation.

Last night, Labor threw its support behind the Bill, but proposed three non-conditional amendments: that it comply more closely with the Racial Discrimination Act, that it allow communities some power to ban untoward visitors and that the legislation be reviewed after 12 months. The amendments were rejected. The Bill will now be subject to a one-day inquiry by the Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

The Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the Northern Territory (CAO) produced a thoughtful and detailed preliminary response to the Government’s intervention proposals. The guiding principle identified by CAO was that ‘relationships with Aboriginal communities must be built on trust and mutual respect.’ The response also noted the importance of building on the knowledge-base which already existed in communities, and of the virtue of ‘flexibility’ and ‘responsiveness to local needs, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.’ The CAOresponse stated unambiguously that ‘all initiatives must be negotiated with the relevant communities.’ Sadly, this is not what has happened.

The level of uncertainty in Indigenous communities is hardly surprising given the yawning credibility gap between the Government’s ostensible motivation and the action it proposes to take. The Little Children are Sacred Report, written for the Northern Territory Government, is a good document. Months of painstaking research and gut-wrenching interviews conducted by a team headed by Pat Anderson and Rex Wild resulted in 97 thoughtful recommendations offering a way forward.

The NT Government entitled to some credit for grasping the nettle and commissioning the report was curiously slow to respond. A formal response has still not been forthcoming, and when it eventually does arrive, the Federal Government will doubtless pillory Clare Martin’s Labor Government for its tardiness all over again. The politics behind this self-imposed silence is mystifying.

In any case, the Prime Minister has seized the day, pointing to the urgency of the situation and the lack of response from the NT Government. His rationale is that the draconian raft of measures announced on 21 June are predicated on the findings of the Little Children report. But this doesn’t stack up.

If the Prime Minister expects the community to believe that his intervention proposals are merited by the Little Children report, then he should be invited to elaborate in some detail. He should, for example, produce justification from this document for acquiring townships, emasculating the permit system, and quarantining income support payments. He should also respond to all 97 recommendations, rather than dipping selectively into the document to contrive support for his new regime of punishment, compliance and control. It is most unlikely that the authors of Little Children would wish to be drafted as unquestioning adherents of the intervention doctrine.

Indefatigable Kungarakan/Iwaidja warrior and HREOC Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma, expressed some serious reservations about the Federal Government’s intervention when he addressed the National Press Club in early July. Calma noted a ‘lack of strategic focus detailing just how the difficult and important jobs are to be done.’ He went on to say that the most significant problem with the Government’s approach was ‘the lack of capacity for engagement and participation of Indigenous peoples.’

Calma also posed some quite specific questions intended to elicit detail heretofore missing from the Government’s plentiful public statements: on what basis will the Government intervene in one community and not another? How will the Government decide the appropriate approach for the specific needs of individual communities? What role does the community have in this process? How will the Government know if and when it has ‘succeeded’? The Commissioner observed that the Government treated Indigenous people as ‘problems to be solved, rather than active partners in creating a positive vision for communities.’

More recently, Minister Brough has announced the axing of the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) Program in the Northern Territory. CDEP participants will be transferred to ‘work for the dole’ programs and paid through Centrelink, rather than directly by providers. Consequently they will become subject to the Government’s welfare-payment quarantining provisions.

Many remote communities appear to feel helpless rather than hostile in the face of an intervention which has not been properly explained. The idea that residents are resolutely opposed to government involvement in their lives is a myth. On the contrary, many are crying out for governments to assist them in planning for the controlled, culturally sensitive development of their communities.

Leaders at the Hermannsburg community, 130 kilometres west of Alice Springs, praised the work of the medical screening teams, once it became apparent that the tests were both non-compulsory and non-intrusive. However, it is crucial that these screening and recording sessions are quickly followed up by th
e arrival of medical teams to actually provide treatment.

Community response to the acquiring of townships and the downgrading of the permit system is likely to be much less favourable.

The intervention ‘solution’ has been imposed on communities without consultation by a Federal administration which is now doing more electioneering than governing. Since the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was so gleefully struck down, Indigenous Australians have been denied a structured avenue to contribute to policy development. Communities have had no input into the design and implementation of the intervention. More troubling still, they are yet to receive specific advice about the exact nature of the changes, the timeframes that are involved, and the evaluation arrangements which must surely be part of this experiment.

It’s almost as though the Government is making it up as it goes along.

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.