The fix is in. Last week the Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister, Jenny Macklin, hung Peter Yu and his colleagues on the Northern Territory Emergency Response Review Board, out to dry.
The recommendations of the Review Board’s report, received by the Minister on 13 October, were unambiguous and unequivocal in three key areas: The Racial Discrimination Act must be reinstated for Indigenous Territorians living in prescribed communities, blanket welfare quarantining must be abandoned, and the emasculated permit system must be reinstated.
But the Minister’s response has made it clear that, for all intents and purposes, the most draconian aspects of the federal intervention into Indigenous affairs in the Northern Territory are set to continue for some time to come.
In an act of political cunning, the Minister has framed her response in the context of the three "overarching recommendations" offered by the review team and, despite rejecting its key demands, has worded her statement in such a way as to imply basic agreement with the Review’s findings. The Review’s overarching recommendations were:
1. That the Australian and Northern Territory Governments recognise as a matter of urgent national significance the continuing need to address the unacceptably high level of disadvantage and social dislocation experienced by remote communities throughout the NT.
2. That Governments reset their relationship with Indigenous people based on genuine consultation, engagement and partnership.
3. That Government actions affecting Aboriginal communities respect Australia’s human rights obligations and conform with the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) 1975.
The first two of these recommendations are simply motherhood statements. The identification of a "continuing need to address the unacceptably high level of disadvantage" experienced by Aboriginal people is unremarkable. The contention lies in how this noble aim might be achieved.
Similarly, the proposal for Governments to "reset their relationship with Indigenous people based on genuine consultation, engagement and partnership", while a clarion call, is not a prescription for specific action. Once again, the devil must be in the detail. Governments all around the country routinely and happily ascribe language of this kind to their Indigenous affairs policies. But "genuine consultation" must be a process, not a mantra. We need to identify what it looks like: the necessary and sufficient criteria. There is no "Australian Standard" for this animal.
The final overarching recommendation — calling for the Government to conform with the requirements of the RDA — sets the Minister a much more difficult task as she attempts to duck and weave. Nevertheless, Macklin has commenced her response to this third recommendation with the same abruptly encouraging notation used in both earlier cases: "Agreed."
Hidden away in the body of the response is the news that "the current comprehensive income management system will be extended for at least 12 months". Further, the Minister advises of her intention to "design a compulsory income management policy which does not require the suspension of the RDA." This sounds suspiciously like an undertaking to find a way to work within the letter of the law, if not the spirit. In any case, it will not be until late next year that legislation to lift the RDA suspension will even be introduced into parliament.
For its part, the Review Board’s report leaves no room for such finessing. Peter Yu and his colleagues put it plainly "People who do not wish to participate should be free to leave the scheme. It should be available on a voluntary basis and imposed only as a precise part of child protection measures, or where specified by statute, subject to independent review."
Even before formally responding, the Minister had begun to distance herself from the report, and prepare the ground for the Government to diverge substantially from its findings, noting that it was only one of a "number of pieces of evidence".
The recommendations of the Report were further undermined by the decision of two members of the Board’s "independent expert group" to break ranks and criticise the report’s recommendations before the Minister herself had responded. Vicki Gillick, co-ordinator of the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Women’s Council appeared on ABC TV’s Lateline, speaking of a "slow form of genocide" and suggesting that unilateral welfare quarantining should be maintained. Subsequently, Donna Ah Chee, from Central Australian Aboriginal Congress went public with her view that as a default position, compulsory income quarantining should be imposed on all welfare recipients across the country.
As the shockwaves from the Government’s response reverberate, Professor Jon Altman from the ANU asks reasonably enough for the Minister to provide evidence to substantiate her departure from the Review Board’s recommendations. But Macklin has offered only anecdotes and assertions. "I have indicated many times that the evidence shows that many women and children in particular are benefiting from income management" she said, without tabling any hard data. Why the public ought to accept this version of events in preference to the review board’s conclusion that people who do not wish to participate should be free to opt out is unclear.
From day one of the Emergency Response, perceptions of the degree of support for the Intervention among Indigenous Territorians have been distorted by the "Hermannsburg effect". The former Lutheran mission, an hour’s easy drive on bitumen to the west of Alice Springs, is a stronghold of support for the policy. Local Labor MP, Alison Anderson — who hales from this part of the Territory — is a fine, grassroots politician with every right to express her opinion. But views from this quarter have dominated the national media. The equally valid but significantly different opinions of people living in surrounding communities like Yuendumu, Mutitjulu and Titjikala have received little prominence. It is a gross distortion of the truth to suggest that there is overwhelming support for the Intervention among Indigenous Territorians.
The publication of extracts from an earlier draft of the report much more critical of the Intervention than the final document add an overlay of intrigue to the process. Chair Peter Yu responded with a terse three-line media release noting that "the Report which has been published is the report of the independent review board". The media release might have gone on to say that in the normal course of events early drafts may differ quite significantly from the final product. It could have also added that contact between the review team and the minister’s office, is not of itself evidence of anything sinister.
The Review Board report offered a chance for the Rudd Government to undo some of the damage caused by the ruthless and indiscriminate nature of the Howard Government’s policy. But the Minister’s response to the Review Board’s report is remarkable for its head-shaking cynicism. For her to spin the Government’s response as being one of basic agreement with the substance of the review team’s findings is utterly misleading.
The NT’s Anti-discrimination Commissioner, Tony Fitzgerald, made a written submission to the Review proposing that "the NTER in its present form be scrapped, and transformed from a quick-fix, law and order plan into a range of long-term initiatives aimed at overcoming remote Indigenous disadvantage and raising Indigenous quality of life." He makes a compelling case, which is supported in no small measure by the review’s findings.
The Rudd Government may well regard their response to the NTER Review Board as some kind of pragmatic paternalism. They should be aware that a fair chunk of the Aboriginal population of the Northern Territory may well see it as a gross betrayal of trust.
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