As it introduces new Intervention measures in the Northern Territory, the Government is keen to talk about the effectiveness of existing policies in tackling Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage.
Reports with glossy pages and matching colour schemes cannot hide the reality that the programs they discuss are both costly and ineffective — and that they are not based on sound evidence.
Contrary to selectively published statistics, the collective measures of the Intervention are not delivering better overall outcomes for Aboriginal people living in the Northern Territory. The Closing the Gap in the Northern Territory Monitoring Report shows how much work there is still to do.
The report details how school attendance has declined since 2009. It shows that child hospitalisation rates have increased and that confirmed incidences of personal harm and suicide have more than doubled since 2007. So far, only 44 convictions for child sexual abuse have been recorded, despite this issue being a key justification for rolling out the Intervention back in 2007.
The Government will have to keep spinning to justify poor policies until their approach in the NT changes.
The Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Report on Consultations and Northern Territory Emergency Response Evaluation Report have been released and subsequently used to justify and expand what are essentially "old" policies. This expansion adheres to the long-held and ultimately flawed principle that punishing people will lead to changes in behaviour.
These old approaches are typified by negative measures such as income management and the suspension of welfare payments, justified on the basis of reports that are too often derived from perfunctory consultations and framed to meet a predetermined outcome. They generally lack the quantitative rigour which is necessary.
The consultations that informed the Stronger Futures report, for example, have come under fire for poor process and reporting. Analysis based on independent recordings of the consultations reveals striking discrepancy between opinions expressed by communities and the view of opinions present in the report.
The Government is now in the process of legislating the next wave of the Intervention, with the likely support of the Coalition. They point to some areas they say have improved — things such as personal and community safety — to justify the continuation of the Intervention.
An increased feeling of safety is hardly surprising given that some policies associated with the NT Intervention have seen more money spent on more safe houses, police and Aboriginal liaison officers.
These investments obviously produce results, they improve services and addresses wider community disadvantage.
The key point here is that an emergency Intervention — with its discrimination and punitive approach — is not needed in order to make these investments a reality.
The $1.5 billion spent so far would have delivered significantly better results had it been directed to service investments and programs, rather than signs, bureaucracy and income management.
The School Enrolment and Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure (SEAM) program is another example of an expensive and unnecessarily punitive policy.
SEAM is now being extended, despite the fact that the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations has admitted the trials could not be directly linked to educational outcomes.
It was made clear in Senate Estimates that the positive and more consistent results from SEAM are delivered through case management and personalised involvement with families, rather than any measures that punish parents.
The positive investments contribute to improving school attendance. More teachers, better training, bilingual education, community involvement, better parental engagement with schools, action to address children’s hearing health and more investment in case management — all these policies would deliver better outcomes than SEAM is able to.
It is these suggestions that were most prevalent in the Stronger Futures consultation with communities — not a preference for punitive measures.
These programs are also extremely costly. To this date, the bill for the current income management process in the NT sits at around $450 million and the policy remains one of the most criticised across the NT. The money used to income manage people would produce far better results if it was directed to the services and programs based on collaboration and community involvement and partnership.
Such measures provide communities with the ability and opportunity to control and improve their social and economic conditions — elements that are a key component of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which Australia has endorsed. Engagement in the Northern Territory must be fundamentally altered if the rights set out in the UN declaration are to be honoured. That will happen when we adopt policies that are considered and that originate from real consultative engagement.
When this occurs, a well chosen set of statistics and a well oiled PR machine will not be needed to justify the approach. The benefits for communities and individuals across the Northern Territory will self evident.
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