Rescuing the Intervention


One of the few theatrical highlights of Kevin Rudd’s lacklustre acceptance speech was the dramatic pause after his promise to be ‘a Prime Minister for Indigenous Australians’ and the opportunity this presented for the true believers to explode in rapturous applause.  

Rudd’s first opportunity to put this noble undertaking into practice will come as his administration assumes the stewardship of the Emergency Intervention into Indigenous Affairs in the Northern Territory. On Monday former Deputy Leader, Jenny Macklin, was sworn in as Minister for Indigenous Affairs. While a Peter Garrett appointment to the portfolio would have guaranteed a high profile for the issues, the choice of Macklin comes with significant advantages. She has mastered her brief and is well placed to hit the ground running.

And there is much to do, notably the rescue of the Intervention in the face of a potentially hostile Senate. The Howard-Brough driven incursion into the Northern Territory saw the Federal Government at its most punitive and prescriptive. In an unfortunate blunder or carefully calculated move it was uniformed soldiers who lead the charge into the remote communities of Central Australia, ostensibly to help protect the children. Not surprisingly, many Aboriginal people were frightened and confused by the heavy-handedness of this approach.

Rudd’s attitude to the Intervention has generally been one of convenient fait accompli. ‘We have to give this a chance to work,’ he is fond of saying. He has promised to review the Intervention after 12 months in office. However, some of his caucus colleagues closest to the action in the Northern Territory have made it very clear that they find at least some aspects of the Intervention untenable.

A newsletter prepared by Federal Labor MP for Lingiari Warren Snowdon and NT Senator Trish Crossin and widely distributed to bush communities during the Intervention’s rollout made unequivocal statements about the importance of retaining the permit system for remote communities, upholding the Racial Discrimination Act and preserving the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme.

The permit system had long been a Brough hobby-horse, ever since he made the extraordinary and unsubstantiated claim that its abolition would somehow provide greater security for people on communities. Residents of remote communities overwhelmingly rejected the idea, along with the NT Government and the NT Police Association.

The sidelining of the Racial Discrimination Act under the intervention legislation remains a blight on Australia’s human rights record. This legislation underpins Australia’s obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). It simply won’t be a good look for the ALP which rejoices in its pedigree as the nation’s great party of social justice to run a Federal Government under which the human rights of Indigenous Territorians are circumscribed.

One of the more obvious breaches is the unilateral quarantining of welfare benefits to Aboriginal people who live on prescribed communities. Even conservative Cape York Indigenous leader Noel Pearson envisages quarantining only as a last resort to be imposed on those individuals who are demonstrably irresponsible. The Federal Government’s indiscriminate punishment of those Aboriginal people who manage their meagre income thoughtfully is a paternalistic throwback to a bygone era.

The acquisition of five-year leases over prescribed Aboriginal townships occurred automatically upon passage of the Intervention legislation. While the ALP has called for ‘just terms’ compensation to be paid for lands so acquired, they have been less than fulsome in their condemnation of the arbitrary nature of the legislation itself.

The previous Government’s dismantling of the CDEP scheme has been the source of much grief in the Territory, amid dire warnings that land management programs and arts centres may be threatened. The Hermannsburg-based Tjuwanpa Rangers who recently won an NT Landcare Award for their work saw CDEP support withdrawn in late October, throwing the future of the group into doubt.

During Federal parliamentary debates on the Intervention legislation, the ALP moved amendments to retain the permit system and remove the blanket exemption of the new provisions from Part II of the Racial Discrimination Act. It is to be hoped that the party in government will reman true to first principles and take decisive action, rather than shelter behind the possibility of a notional review a year down the track

If the Racial Discrimination Act cannot be restored without amending legislation, nor the five-year leases quashed, there is still considerable scope for the incoming Rudd administration to ameliorate the worst vestiges of the Intervention through immediate administrative action. Permits, welfare quarantining and CDEP would appear to fit squarely into this category. If Rudd really is going to be a ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous Australians’ then he must begin work immediately.

Over to you, Minister Macklin.

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