The Intervention, One Year On


Last Saturday marked the first anniversary of the Northern Territory Intervention, but it is far from something we should be celebrating. It has been a long year for those living with this paternalistic, top down policy; one that will no doubt make future generations ashamed.

This legislation was a knee-jerk reaction that seemed designed purely to gain an election bounce for the Coalition (made even more ludicrous by the recent admission from former Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough that the whole plan was thought up in one 48-hour session), but it is the Rudd Government’s decision to "stay the course" that has been most disappointing. Frankly, we expected better.

A quick scan of the recently released Northern Territory Emergency Response: One Year On report shows a fanciful set of claims boasting dramatic improvements, without the figures to back them up.

For example, during the last session of Senate Estimates, it was revealed that just one of the safe houses promised under the Intervention was operational as of Tuesday 3 June. The One Year On report states that as at Wednesday 18 June, 10 safe houses had been completed in eight communities. How credible is it that in just two weeks there were suddenly another nine fully operational safe houses?

Similarly, we are told to believe that Indigenous communities are now safer, with increased numbers of police. But a large proportion of these police (33 of 51) have been shipped in temporarily from interstate. How are Indigenous communities to build any kind of trust in a police force that is likely to be shipped back home at the end of their term? And what will happen when they leave?

For the whole of Australian history, the resources committed to addressing the problems in Aboriginal communities have been totally inadequate for the scale of the disadvantage they face. Now, after so many years of crying out for more resources, it is frustrating and soul destroying for those struggling on the ground that the resources finally forthcoming are being squandered on unnecessary, ill-conceived and ineffective measures while successful Aboriginal programs and organisations still go begging.

The money poured into the NT Intervention has the potential to turn around lives in remote communities, but more needs to be done to ensure it is spent on things that actually make a difference, such as the Safe Families program, a project of the Tangentyere Council in Alice Springs.

This program focuses on reducing family violence and preventing kids from needing to enter the child protection system. It is staffed only by members of the local indigenous community, employing 10 full time Indigenous residential care staff.

The Federal Government used to contribute to this vital program under the Family Violence Partnership Program, but it now faces losing staff and resources due to funding cutbacks. Ironically, this program would be a perfect candidate for Intervention funding. Without support from the Federal Government, the community will lose a successful, effective child protection program.

Image thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

The initial justification for the Intervention, of course, was concerns about the child sexual abuse illustrated in the Little Children are Sacred report. As part of the Intervention, the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) was given broad powers to investigate allegations of child sexual abuse and violence in Indigenous communities. During Senate Estimates in May, the ACC reported that it had found no evidence to date of organised paedophile rings in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities, contrary to claims made by the then Minister.

They did indicate that a significant proportion of the intelligence they gathered in the Territory related to underage sexual activity. This is consistent with the evidence given to Senate Inquiry hearings in the Northern Territory, which suggested that few charges have been brought for child sexual abuse in the Northern Territory since the Intervention commenced last year. It is also in keeping with anecdotal reports we have received from Aboriginal communities.

Child sexual abuse is recognised as prevalent across the Australian community, and there is absolutely no doubt that there remains serious concern for the safety of children in Aboriginal communities. Yet only one coordinator and seven child protection officers have been put in place as a result of the Intervention. You would have thought more resources would have been put into this vital area.

Underage sexual activity is also a significant issue in many Indigenous communities, and one that creates a range of social problems that need to be addressed. It is a problem of a different nature to child abuse and requires an entirely different response.

A community education campaign is needed to ensure teenagers and young people understand and abide by age of consent laws, respect community standards, and appreciate the harm inappropriate underage sexual activity can cause.

Perhaps the greatest issue any Intervention in the Northern Territory must address if it wants to deliver better health and education outcomes and ensure children’s safety is the lack of safe and appropriate housing in many communities. Overcrowded housing and sleeping rough are arguably the biggest contributors to poor health outcomes for Aboriginal people, particularly for high rates of infectious diseases.

If the Rudd Government is going to close the gap on life expectancy within a generation, there needs to be a huge amount of work undertaken to fix this issue – as well as ensuring existing houses have working power and plumbing, functioning bathrooms and kitchens.

Labor has already made a big funding commitment, putting aside $813 million to build new houses in the NT. While this is less than the estimated $2.3 billion needed to address the current level of unmet need for housing, let alone for projected population growth (42.4 per cent of the Aboriginal population in the NT is under the age of 17), it is a step in the right direction.

However, we remain concerned that adequate resources have not been committed to repairs and ongoing maintenance, despite the fact that this has been the key finding of all studies into the sustainability of Indigenous housing.

The heavy handed and paternalistic approach of the NT Intervention isn’t working and very clearly was never going to work. Labor has always held a commitment to evidence-based policy in Indigenous Affairs and yet it is still pushing on with these ill-conceived Howard-era policies, for which there was never an evidence base.

The suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act remains a sticking point and an international embarrassment for Labor. We do not need the upcoming review to tell us that this aspect of the Intervention is and always will be morally wrong and ethically unjustifiable.

When the quarantining period comes to an end, those affected won’t have been empowered to take control of their own finances, because that has not been a focus of the Intervention, and there still won’t be jobs for them to go to. Much more of these resources need to be focused on delivering basic health services and protecting at risk children, on fixing existing houses and building safe new homes for the future.

The Australian Greens remain united and steadfast in our opposition to the approach taken by the NT Intervention. We were the only Party to stand up as one in the Australian Parliament to condemn the Intervention when it was announced, and we continue to maintain our opposition to the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, the compulsory seizures of lands, the indiscriminate quarantining of welfare, and the trampling of the human rights of Aboriginal people in the NT.

We’ve had one whole year of this racist policy; of ill-targeted spending with a total disregard for the basic human rights of Aboriginal people in the NT. We would much rather see these resources spent on truly delivering for Aboriginal communities.

It is high time that the ALP admit they made a mistake in backing the Intervention and commit to an evidence-based, community-development approach to Indigenous Affairs that respects human rights and empowers Aboriginal people.

One year of the NT Intervention is not an anniversary to celebrate – it is a call to action.

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.