On Monday February 27, in the afternoon following Labor’s leadership spill, Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory legislation passed through the House of Representatives with Labor and Liberal support.
These laws will extend the disastrous Northern Territory Intervention for a further ten years and give the government increased powers to expand income management around the country.
When Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin introduced the bill, she was speaking to an empty chamber. None of the politicians even bothered to turn up for a debate. They dutifully filed in to vote, facing dissent only from Greens MP Adam Bandt and two independents. In shameful contrast with the beat-up of Tent Embassy protests on January 26, the bill’s passage was not reported by a single mainstream media outlet.
The NT Intervention has essentially re-established the protectionist regime Aboriginal people were forced to live under from the 1930s-1960s.
Under Stronger Futures getting caught with a single can of beer on Aboriginal land could get you six months in jail. Families facing ongoing problems with school attendance will have most of their Centrelink income cut off entirely. Special powers allow police to enter Aboriginal homes without a warrant and in some cases remove the right to silence during investigations—and these are just some of the measures.
Despite a near media blackout, there has been a groundswell against Stronger Futures amongst Aboriginal people, their supporters and a growing number of NGOs. In just two weeks, 25,000 people have signed onto an online campaign Stand for Freedom, demanding withdrawal of the legislation.
Macklin cannot sustain the fiction that her proposals are based on consultation with Aboriginal communities. A report from the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at UTS, Listening but not Hearing, contains damning evidence of the tokenistic nature of the “consultations”. Aboriginal people were not even asked for their opinion on most major Intervention measures.
Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser launched the report, lashing out hard at Minister Macklin: “If you could translate it back over 100 years, I think AO Neville, protector from Western Australia, would be proud of this legislation. It is racist. It is paternalistic.”
A Senate committee visiting Ntaria, Maningrida, Alice Springs and Darwin faced intense opposition.
In Maningrida, Senators heard from respected elders that Stronger Futures would “dehumanise and destroy” their people. Back in Canberra the following week Labor Senator Clare Moore grilled the representatives from Macklin’s department, saying there was no evidence communities had been consulted meaningfully. But Senator Moore will close ranks with her Labor colleagues and pass the legislation in the coming weeks.
A broad range of organisations including the Human Rights Commission all heavily criticised the legislation during the Canberra hearings.
The Australian Lawyers Alliance hosted a screening of Our Generation inside parliament house supported by organisations including Amnesty International. The next day, a 200-strong rally outside parliament in the Canberra rain was addressed by speakers including Dr John Falzon, Chair of the St Vincent De Paul National Council.
Time to fight
Despite this opposition, Stronger Futures will pass the Senate very soon. We’ll need to fight the implementation tooth and nail.
The weakest link in the government’s package is the national expansion of income management. Five sites across Australia, Bankstown in Sydney, Shepparton in Victoria, Rockhampton and Logan in Queensland and Playford in South Australia have been earmarked as “trial sites” where income management will be introduced from July.
In Bankstown the Say No to Government Income Management Campaign Coalition has been campaigning for nine months. It has a strong base amongst community sector workers, the Koori and Arab communities and the endorsement of a broad range of organisations including Unions NSW and the NSW Council of Social Service. The campaign has built bonds of solidarity with NT communities.
The campaign is now discussing how to disrupt the rollout of income management in Bankstown. Community action and the power of organised workers will be crucial for the success of these efforts.
Many community sector organisations have said that they will refuse to refer their clients to Centrelink for income management. Already the Public Service Association supports the campaign. But if their child protection workers, public housing workers and other staff joined the call for a boycott the rollout could be stopped. The Bankstown Coalition and Stop the Intervention Collective Sydney are organising a meeting for affected workers and all supportive unionists, to take place in early June.
Macklin is pushing ahead with Labor’s project to destroy Aboriginal communities in the NT. We need to strike a clear blow in Bankstown and put her onto the back-foot.