This Is Not Working

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As he testified before the Senate Community Affairs Committee hearing in Darwin this week, one speaker showed just how simple the legal issues around the ongoing Intervention really are.

"The laws as they existed prior to the Intervention should be reinstated," said Jared Sharp from the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), regarding the Government’s proposed changes to the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA). In saying that, he also demonstrated succinctly how unnecessarily complex and suspect the Government’s approach to the whole issue has been.

Currently the Government is attempting a confidence trick involving a raft of legislation with two key planks. It wants to partially restore the operation of the RDA in prescribed communities in the Northern Territory where it has been suspended and to substantially expand the operation of the income management system. Just why these two distinct proposals are conflated into a single legislative package is not clear.

A cynical view of the situation would predict that the Government will seek to generate momentum for the partial restoration of the RDA for "social justice" reasons and will hope that the impetus it generates around this move will be enough to get its proposed changes to the welfare quarantining regime through as well. In this way the Rudd Labor Government — which has watched impassively for two years while 15,000 Indigenous Territorians have been denied fundamental human rights under the RDA — will suddenly clothe itself in the garb of virtue and ride to the rescue. Or so they will have us believe.

In any case, the Government faces a mighty struggle to cobble together a "coalition of the willing" which would ensure the bill’s safe passage through the Senate. The opposition finds the Government’s porridge too hot, suggesting that any strengthening of the RDA will reduce the effectiveness of the Intervention measures. Conversely the Greens find the offerings decidedly cool and will not support the reintroduction of a half-baked version of the RDA. The twain are distant and the prospects of reaching agreement remote.

There is no doubt that Aboriginal people in the NT want to see the full reinstatement of the RDA. But many have serious reservations about accepting the Government’s offer of "RDA lite" which will see the rights of residents of prescribed communities under the Act continue to be limited.

That’s why Jared Sharp’s words to the Senate Community Affairs Committee meeting in Darwin this week were so on the money.

The validity of the second plank in the Government’s dodgy double — the expansion of the income management scheme — is nowhere near as problematic. In this case, the Government has simply failed to provide objective evidence to demonstrate that welfare quarantining in remote communities has been a success. Without an evidence base this proposal is fundamentally flawed and is nothing more than a speculative extension of the scheme. Indeed, the desultory attempts by the Government to justify the proposed changes serve only to highlight the doubt that surrounds their case.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin’s recent policy statement advises that "from 1 July 2010, a new scheme of income management will commence across the Northern Territory as a first step in a future national rollout of income management to disadvantaged regions". These proposed new arrangements will target four main groups: people aged 15 to 24 who have been unemployed for 13 weeks in the last 26 weeks; longer-term unemployed people aged over 24; particular individuals assessed by Centrelink as needing income management; and people referred for income management by child protection authorities.

These proposals have attracted plenty of criticism and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s Report on the evaluation of income management in the Northern Territory is damning. It notes that "the research studies used in the income management evaluation would all sit towards the bottom of an evidence hierarchy." The report goes on to identify the difficulty in assessing the effectiveness of income management in isolation from other Intervention measures and refers to "data quality issues" regarding the research conducted for the evaluation.

The Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) has noted that the Government is committed to spending $352 million over four years in the NT to manage the income of 20,000 people (disclosure: I work for the Northern Territory Council of Social Service). Reasonably enough, ACOSS suggests that these resources could be more fruitfully applied to improving income support payments and providing better services for struggling families. Evidence from the Cape York trials also suggests that it is case management support, rather than the income management restrictions, which are of most benefit.

Indeed the evidence that Government offers for the success of its policy is extraordinarily flimsy. It is incomprehensible that a government which insists that welfare quarantining has resulted in increased sales of fresh fruit and vegetables would substantiate that assertion using only a telephone survey recording the perceptions of store managers about changes to their sales. What is the wider community entitled to conclude from the Government’s failure to provide hard data? They may well suspect that ideology has again triumphed over evidence, to the detriment of the single most disadvantaged group of Australian citizens.

If Australia wishes to stand tall in the world community then our government cannot afford to sideline fundamental human rights legislation simply for political expediency. The first order must be the restoration of the full force of the RDA across the Northern Territory, accompanied by a clear statement that the RDA is to prevail over the provisions of the Intervention legislation. Similarly the tortuous justification for income management measures which are "not racially based" but happen to impact with overwhelming disproportion on Aboriginal people must be dispensed with. Particularly when these measures don’t appear to work.

Since it gained office, the Rudd Government has presented itself as a champion of Indigenous justice despite the evidence of a yawning chasm between that image and the reality. Colour and movement can’t substitute for actual results forever. The "high political kudos/low dollar-cost" actions have all been taken long ago and every last drop of credit has been wrung from them. Yes, the apology was a Good Thing but two years have ebbed away and it is notable that, post-euphoria, few Indigenous organisations are prepared to throw their weight squarely behind the administration of Kevin Michael Rudd. There’s a reason for that.

Over the journey, this Government has simply failed to produce the goods. The Prime Minister’s "hand on heart" promise to report on progress towards "closing the gap" of Indigenous disadvantage on the first parliamentary sitting day of each year has fallen by the wayside. The delay in the delivery of these reports, while not in itself critical, is symptomatic of a government which relies more on rhetoric than results.

The parlous state of Indigenous housing in remote communities offers a prominent and painful example of this contrast. The Rudd Government’s fateful decision to place the delivery of the $672 million Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP) in the hands of the NT administration has seen two years tick by and $45 million spent. Opinions differ as to whether the grand total of new houses constructed under the program stands at two or zero but there is no doubt that large Top End communities like Maningrida and Wadeye have been plunged into another wet season with houses groaning under the weight of 17 or more occupants.

Many Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory live in conditions which residents of this country’s eastern-seaboard suburbia would find barely believable. The forgotten people of remote Australia are confronted by almost insurmountable difficulties. Nevertheless they have a key role to play in working with governments to haul themselves out of this trough. Genuine, long-term collaboration is the way forward.

Pea-and-thimble tricks from the Government like the current legislative package serve only to distract from the monumental task at hand.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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