Intervention’s strongest supporters abandon a failing policy

Like rats fleeing a sinking ship, many of the NT Intervention’s staunchest supporters are now admitting it has failed and distancing themselves from Aboriginal Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin and the Intervention’s record. Their answer of more extreme Intervention-style measures will solve nothing. But the divisions open up renewed space for the Aboriginal rights movement to have the policy scrapped.

The architect of the Intervention, former Liberal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Mal Brough says the policy is “stagnant”. Conservative Aboriginal figures Warren Mundine and Alison Anderson now call for the repeal of the legislation, while journalist Paul Toohey’s latest sensationalist article about dysfunction in Aboriginal communities in The Monthly is titled “Life after the Intervention”.
Tony Abbott claims that the Intervention has produced results in remote communities, but is calling for a “new Intervention” in towns like Alice Springs, Katherine, Darwin and Tennant Creek. For the first time Abbott is prepared to recognise that the 2007 Intervention was “top-down” and didn’t consult with Aboriginal leaders.
Their admission that the Intervention is failing reflects the unavoidable fact that, by the government’s own assessment, living standards have declined under the policy.
The Intervention promised to “normalise” Aboriginal communities—to reduce alcohol consumption and family violence, and put food in the bellies of Aboriginal children. The fact that alcohol related violence, incarceration, and domestic violence have increased under the Intervention, along with child malnutrition rates, makes a mockery of this.
The new round of criticism began when The Australian published a series of features on crime and social dysfunction in Alice Springs. In February and March they ran a number of hysterical “reports” declaring that homeless Aboriginal people were rampaging out of control on the streets of Alice Springs. The episode is a re-run of the paper’s role in whipping up the moral panic over child sexual abuse and social dysfunction that accompanied the passage of the Intervention legislation in 2007.
It also reflects an increasingly organised racist backlash in Alice Springs. As predicted, the Intervention has created an influx into town centres. Cuts to Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) have decimated jobs and services in remote communities, and dealing with the BasicsCard has forced many people into town.
This has led business owners and the Country Liberal Party in Alice Springs to start a racist campaign against the growing numbers of visitors from remote communities. A TV ad paid for by a group calling itself “Action for Alice” shows footage of Aboriginal people wandering the streets after dark, describing them as “gangs of rampaging youths” “terrorising” the community and creating a crime wave. The ad calls for a youth curfew and harsher sentencing.

More extreme measures
Abbott and Brough have seized on the reporting to call for various measures to deepen the Intervention. Brough argues that the Intervention has failed because Labor has gone soft, and failed to clear out the remote “unviable communities”. He calls for a prison-farm to rehabilitate drug addicts and alcoholics in Alice Springs. 
Abbott, on the other hand, thinks the problem is in the towns and wants a ban on visitors from communities staying in the Alice Springs Town Camps. He calls for more police patrols to enforce the Intervention’s alcohol bans, for cutting people off welfare unless they work for the dole, and fines for parents whose children don’t go to school.
Jenny Macklin is rightly indignant that Abbott and Brough suggest she’s deviated from the Intervention’s plan—in fact she’s followed it to a tee.
This in-fighting in the pro-Intervention camp is an opportunity for the Aboriginal rights movement to push to scrap the policy entirely.
At the same time, calls for a return to genuine self-determination are growing. On March 3 the National Indigenous Times published statements by 27 Aboriginal leaders from across the country about the Intervention. All but one or two call for a break with the Intervention’s assimilation agenda.
Increasingly the fight against this agenda means putting forward an alternative response to what the media calls the “social dysfunction” in Aboriginal communities. This starts by recognising that such problems are not due to a lack of “responsibility” by Aboriginal people, but are the direct result of government policies that, over generations, have kept Aboriginal communities under-funded, with inadequate housing and services, and subject to ever-changing government measures which displace and control populations.
The first step in reversing the damage done by the Intervention is to reinstate the locally controlled community councils. Basic self-determination must be accompanied by government funding to allow real job creation, housing and service provision under the control of community councils.
As we approach four years of failed policy in the NT, this alternative to the Intervention must be at the forefront of the fight to end it.

Jean Parker


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