Can We Get it Right This Time?


The report of the Northern Territory Emergency Response Review team, headed by West Australian Indigenous leader Peter Yu, has just been released and its findings come as no surprise to anyone who has taken even the most cursory interest in the Intervention’s rollout.

The blanket measures applied to 45,550 Aboriginal people living in the Northern Territory have caused anger, hurt, increased racism and confusion, the Report finds.

As well, it found that the Intervention’s lack of consultation with the very people it was supposed to help has diminished its own effectiveness.

The Report recommends that compulsory income management be scrapped, that the number of police in communities be increased, that rent be paid to Aboriginal owners of land subject to five-year leases, that the Racial Discrimination Act be reinstated, and above all: that Aboriginal people be brought into the consultation process about the policy’s redesign.

These recommendations are all welcome.

The question that now needs to be asked of the Rudd Government is this: did such a hastily designed policy as the Northern Territory Emergency Response even deserve to be reviewed? More time went into the review process than went into the drafting of the legislation in the first place.

If the Rudd Government believed the Intervention to be a good policy, surely it should have given it longer than 12 months to judge whether it was producing positive outcomes. If Rudd believed it to be a bad policy, why didn’t he go to last year’s election pledging to scrap it?

In fact, most if not all of the Review’s findings were abundantly clear prior to the Federal election. The week before the election, reported from Alice Springs on the rollout of compulsory income management in the Aboriginal "Town Camps" around Alice: "It is the blanket nature of the [income]quarantining that has caused the most protest," we wrote.

As with so many of the Intervention’s measures, compulsory income management was welcomed by some Aboriginal people in prescribed areas — but for many it was a deeply insulting gesture, and turned out to be counter-productive.

Earlier this week spoke to filmmaker Vincent Lamberti, whose film Intervention (made in collaboration with Tangentyere Council) presents the most comprehensive picture yet of the effect of the Intervention on Town Campers.

"Because the [Intervention] is an across-the-board measure, and doesn’t discriminate — it does on race, but not according to individual behaviour — you’re essentially being punished because of what your neighbour may have done, or what your neighbour may continue to do," Lamberti told

"That’s a huge disincentive to people who are actually conducting their lives in a functional manner, and know how to look after their kids and don’t drink — and there are a lot of Town Campers who don’t drink."

Yu’s team found "a strong sense of injustice" among Aboriginal people living in Intervention-affected areas that they were being blamed for problems that had in fact arisen from "decades of cumulative neglect by governments in failing to provide the most basic standard of health, housing, education and ancillary services enjoyed by the wider Australian community".

Lamberti agrees: "Always it seems that Aboriginal people living on town camps or in communities have to give away something to gain something: Okay, great, we’re getting this extra police presence, it helps us to control the town camps, we can get rid of drunks more easily, we feel a little bit safer. But on the other hand, police can then indiscriminately use that power, and abuse it. So it’s almost this trade-off that has to take place."

"No other part of Australian society is subjected to that — where to receive basic human rights you have to pass up some freedoms."

Rudd and Macklin were well aware of much of what they have now being officially told by Yu and his team. But in their determination not to be wedged on the issue by the former Howard government, they wouldn’t say it.

Millions of dollars have now been squandered. Once again, Aboriginal people have been used as a political football.

So, Rudd and Macklin, you have your report, which tells you what Aboriginal people have been telling you since Day 1 of the Intervention.

Now what are you going to do to address this "national emergency"?

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.