Where's the Intervention Train Going?


I’ve just been on the road with the Senate Inquiry into the NT Emergency Response Consolidation Bill – the Government’s proposed changes to Howard’s original legislation.

It has been obvious for a while that there are some serious flaws with the NT Intervention and some alarming unintended consequences of the emergency response – but now it is becoming increasingly so.

It has become particularly apparent what a mistake the new Government made in Opposition, when they unreservedly and enthusiastically signed up to the Intervention without knowing the detail.

Despite a commitment, as part of the national apology to the Stolen Generations, to an evidence-based approach to Indigenous affairs – and assurances that never again would such an injustice be perpetrated on Aboriginal Australians – the Rudd Government has done little to date to moderate or curtail the Intervention juggernaut. Instead, everything still hangs on the promise of a 12 month review, to take place post June this year.

The NT Emergency Response Consolidation Bill makes limited changes to a couple of elements of the Intervention legislation (the permit system, licensing roadhouses as community stores and adult programs on satellite TV), when it is very clear that a major overhaul of the Intervention is what is really needed.

While the current Inquiry is meant to focus on these narrow terms of reference, it has been very clear that witnesses wanted to talk about the bigger picture.

We heard in Alice Springs that there are more people drinking in town (with some previously dry town camps now having problems with illegal drinking) and that there has been a large increase in ‘urban drift’ from remote communities. The Alice Springs Town Council reported that their regular patrols were noticing increasing numbers of makeshift camps on the town fringe.

With the wet season approaching, we are concerned for the well-being of the children of these families living rough in the ‘long grass’, and cannot see how this can be a good outcome for their health, their access to educational opportunities, or their protection and safety.

Not-for-profit community welfare organisations providing support services and emergency relief in the Territory have reported a massive increase in demand for services. At the Darwin hearings a witness reported a 300 per cent increase in demand for support services.

Witnesses to the Inquiry raised their concerns about the huge amount of money that was being wasted by people not understanding how to use store cards to access their quarantined funds – and were discarding cards which still had some money on them when they were told it wasn’t enough for what they wanted to purchase.

There are also reports of a significant increase in legal aid and consumer advice being sought as a result of the income quarantining.

Legal advocates expressed a concern that the result of the strong focus of public and media concern on child sexual abuse had lead to an increase in the number of young men being charged with underage sex offences, rather than any increase in prosecutions of adult paedophiles preying on young children.

These age of consent issues are indeed a matter for concern, but a more appropriate response would be a greater focus on education and counselling – rather than exclusively focusing on a legal approach.

All of this is outside the scope of the current inquiry but shouldn’t be unexpected, as these are the type of concerns that were raised at the time this legislation was introduced into the Parliament.

It is important to acknowledge that the proposed changes in the Rudd Government’s NT Emergency Response Consolidation Bill do not seek exemption from the Racial Discrimination Act, which is a step in the right direction. However, at this stage the Government is doing nothing to remedy the existing exemptions from the Act in Howard’s original Intervention legislation.

The evidence given by the Law Council of the information they obtained (a week after November’s Federal election!) through a Freedom of Information request for the report used by former Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough to justify revoking the permit system is particularly interesting.

The Law Council revealed that 38 Indigenous organisations and individuals made written submissions to the review of the permit system and a further 42 field consultations were conducted by FaCSIA. Most importantly, all 80 consultations revealed unanimous support among Aboriginal communities, individuals and organisations for no change to the permit system;

In his second reading speech presenting the NT Intervention Bill, Brough stated that:

"The government has been considering changing the system since it announced a review in September 2006 and the changes follow the release of a discussion paper in October 2006 and the receipt of almost 100 submissions."

"Over 40 communities were visited during consultations following the release of the discussion paper. It was disturbing to hear from officials conducting the consultations that numerous people came up to them after the consultations, saying that the permit system should be removed. They were afraid to say this in the public meetings."

Put simply, the evidence the report compiled did not show community support for the abolition of the permit system, neither did the report recommend getting rid of it.

The most interesting stories we’ve heard as part of this Inquiry have been some of the things people want to tell you outside of the formal hearings.

We’ve heard a lot of anecdotal evidence of medical staff resigning and the high turnaround rate of Centrelink staff.

I heard a couple of stories of dedicated medical staff from the Territory who’ve become frustrated by the "parallel system" created by the Intervention and are chucking it in to work elsewhere.

We’ve heard stories from teachers fed up with bureaucracy quitting after years in remote communities – and the Territory is now embroiled in a teachers’ dispute in which the NT Labor Government is hypocritically invoking the provisions of Howard’s WorkChoices legislation and refusing to negotiate on anything but the rate of pay, while some of the teachers’ biggest worries are with classroom conditions.

I have been told of Centrelink staff on secondment from the south were celebrating what they saw as an all-expenses-paid semi holiday – complete with travel allowance and a flash room in a hotel. One wonders how much of the $72.4 million spent on administration of the income quarantining component (between July 2006 and January 2007) has been spent on accommodation for staff. With the increased population strain as a result of the Intervention, it is hard to find accommodation in Darwin these days.

Two separate communities have told us about Government-appointed business managers who don’t interact with the community, stay behind the barbed wire fence in their compound and only seem to want to listen to the white staff.

What gets the goat of many of the people who provided evidence and others who spoke to us off the record, is the fact that so little resources have actually gone into what should be priority areas such as providing more child protection officers, family support and counselling.

Yes, the Intervention is going to supply some safe houses – but they still aren’t in place nearly 10 months down the track. Instead, sea shipping containers are being used as temporary safe houses, in a mad rush to spend the money before the end of the financial year. Yes that’s right – it’s use it by end of June, or lose it. What a stupid approach to allocating limited resources to such a pressing problem, and what a terrible waste of opportunity this is.

After a decade of going cap-in-hand to the Federal Government begging for meagre resources to continue successful but chronically under-funded community projects, how can anyone look on at the stupid way resources are now being squandered without thinking, "Imagine what our community could have done with the $72.4 million they’ve wasted on administering the welfare quarantining"?

How many schools and teachers, doctors and clinics, safe houses and child protection workers we could have paid for? How many real jobs and enterprises we could have created? What kind of education program could we have created to promote good nutrition and sound financial management?

How can we look at this profligate spending after so many years of scarcity and think anything but: what a terrible, terrible waste?

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.