Reviewing the Northern Territory intervention

One year, 810 federal public servants, $900 million on—Jean Parker’s intervention report-card

ON SEPTEMBER 30 the review commissioned by the Federal Government into the Northern Territory intervention will be released. Despite the intervention’s clear racism, and mounting evidence of its devastating impact on communities, the review board has been stacked with supporters of the intervention and will be under enormous pressure to justify the policy.

It is clear that Rudd has thoroughly committed his government to the intervention, presiding over its implementation and already committing over $300 million to an ongoing roll-out over the coming year. On June 21 Rudd stated, “[The NT intervention’s] effectiveness is critical to the change that’s essential if Indigenous children are to be safe and healthy, growing up in families and communities which nurture and protect them.”

Here Solidarity refutes some of the claims being made by supporters of the intervention. Eight hundred and ten federal public servants have been employed to enforce this policy thus far and more than $900 million spent by government. The result has been severe disruption to community life, the undermining of programs and governance structures which provide real support, widespread racism and disempowerment.

Safe communities?

Protection of Aboriginal women and children from abuse and violence remains a central rationale for the intervention. In June FaHCSIA (Jenny Macklin’s Department of Family, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs) produced a report into their own progress one year in. It claims “prescribed” communities have been made safer by increasing police and alcohol bans:

“People feel safer and there has been a positive impact on the numbers of intoxicated people in the community and incidents of domestic violence and substance abuse… A number of people have expressed the view that, as a result of the policing services provided, they feel they are regaining control of their community.”

In fact the intervention has seen people driven out of remote communities by the “welfare quarantine”, creating a crisis of homelessness and overcrowding in urban centres like Alice Springs and leading to sharp spikes in violence and substance abuse there. The quarantine requires consistent negotiation with Centrelink, restricts spending to certain shops (often major chains) and takes away money needed to travel back to remote areas. Once people move away from their families and support networks they are isolated, stressed and more likely to be involved in violence. As Dianne Stokes, a local from Tennant Creek explains:

“All the community mob had biggest brawl here. Every night we saw them walk with nulla-nulla, boomerang everything. Everyone here in this town got really scared”.

An even more worrying trend has been documented by the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, who report an “astronomical” increase in murders and manslaughter cases within prescribed communities in Darwin due to “urban drift”.

Well-fed children?

The government often claims that the blanket “welfare quarantine”, or “income management” has led to an improvement in the amount of food being eaten by children. However, the only “research” done to substantiate this claim has been a handful of interviews with store managers:

“Store operators report that income management has been positive for their businesses. Many stores have reported an increase in turnover, which has enabled them to provide fresher produce and a wider range of goods.”

Even the taskforce reports admits that their research is “based on the operators’ subjective observations and perceptions of the situation within their communities, and did not include any examination of financial records or direct field reports”

In reality, welfare quarantining is making it harder to get food. Many communities placed under the quarantine have had no explanation in local languages. The system itself is extremely hard to negotiate resulting in lost funds. Restricted access to cash can make buying food impossible when moving between communities.

Interviews by the Intervention Rollback Action Group based in Alice Springs have found evidence of people starving because they are unable to access their quarantined money. Jimmy from Ti Tree spoke about the disaster of a “bush orders” system imposed by Centrelink:

“We are getting food delivered which has been packed with detergent so can’t be eaten. The meat has often gone green. People are actually going hungry there now because they’ve had their rights taken away from them. They want to do their own shopping.”

Health checks

Claims of an epidemic of child sexual abuse led intervention staff to perform nearly 11,000 mandatory health checks on children. Each check costs $600—money desperately needed for ongoing health services to deal with ear infections and dental problems that have been identified many times over by communities and health workers.

Submissions to the review board by 28 medical specialists from Alice Springs hospital and by the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association (AIDA) have been scathing of the intervention. Doctor Hilary Tyler, who compiled a submission on behalf of the Alice Springs doctors has said:

“[The Intervention health-checks] merely duplicated information that was already known, at great cost, with little benefit… to our knowledge only one child in Central Australia has been identified with significant health problems that were not already known… there needs to be better funding of existing services, and funding of new services after appropriate consultation with both communities and experts.”

The AIDA submission noted: “Culture is an important determinant of health. Community consultations emphasise that disrespect for language, culture and law, evident within the intervention, has and will continue to lead to poor health outcomes for Aboriginal Australians”.

So why not scrap the intervention?

The fact that Rudd’s Labor is not moving to scrap the intervention, but instead rolling it further, shows what kind of struggle is needed to regain rights.

Despite the rhetoric, Rudd is not interested in providing genuine support to remote communities. Forcing a large population shift into urban areas was at the centre of Howard’s “mainstreaming”, assimilationist agenda now being carried on by the Rudd government.

The Intervention taskforce’s NTER—Final Report To Government—June 2008 discusses this aim openly, recommending the denial of government services to many communities, forcing further migration:

“The Taskforce recommends that communities assessed as being viable (emphasis added) should be provided with at least the following: adequate housing; a police station; a health clinic; an early childhood education centre; a primary school; a store; independent employment opportunities; and access to a secondary school (which may not be in the community).”

This policy is a blatant attack on Aboriginal self-determination and land rights. It shows no recognition of traditional Aboriginal culture and language, nor of the important role in “caring for country” and environmental management that the communities continue to play.

As medical researcher and University of Melbourne professorial fellow Kerin O’Dea explains, this approach also flies in the face of the scientific findings on Aboriginal health and well-being—supposedly key goals of Kevin Rudd’s government:

“It will be a mistake if [assessments of viable communities] are based purely on economic indicators and fail to take account of the mounting scientific evidence suggesting that there can be very positive health benefits for Aboriginal people who live on their homelands… The study [of two remote communities in Utopia, north-east of Alice Springs] published recently in The Medical Journal of Australia, found that people in these communities were 40 per cent less likely to die prematurely, whether from cardiovascular disease or any other cause, than other Indigenous people in the NT.

These findings are in line with previous work showing this community had lower than expected rates of obesity, diabetes, and smoking.

Because people usually hunt and gather their traditional foods more regularly when they are on their homelands or outstations, not only are they therefore more physically active, their diets are also much higher quality. And because they are living in family groups on their traditional country, they are in supportive and secure environments, and are therefore less stressed than is often the case in the larger settlements—and substance abuse is generally much reduced or absent.”

The intervention is also playing an important role for Rudd, as the sharpest tool in a general attack on welfare rights in Australia. In early September Julia Gillard announced that parents in the “prescribed communities” in the NT, and the largely Aboriginal Western Australian suburb of Cannington would have their Centrelink payments cut for 13 weeks if their children missed too much school. This draconian is being “piloted” in these communities, to be spread across the whole community if “successful”.

School principals in the NT point out that there is already a dire shortage of teachers and buildings to accommodate children who currently attend school, let alone the thousands who are not enrolled. In Halls Creek where welfare was tied to school attendance in a small trial, school attendance failed to increase.

The mounting criticisms of the intervention need to be channeled into a generalised rejection of the agenda at the heart of the package. The campaign continues to grow, and gives us the opportunity to re-establish support for policies which can undo decades of government under-funding and neglect, and in which Aboriginal communities regain control of their affairs and their futures.


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  1. I disagree with your assertion that the review board is stacked with pro-intervention people. I know some of the people on the review board and I can tell you categorically that they are NOT pro-intervention. They have as many concerns about the intervention as any other person capable of critical thinking and analysis. I would have expected better from you (do your homework?) than to make unfounded assertions that clearly display your lack of research into this matter. For the record, I too am appalled and deeply troubled by the intervention, as I am also troubled by the terrible quality of life that Indigenous people suffer in remote Australia, that the intervention has seemingly failed to properly address (although any decent ‘intervention’ is going to take a long-term- 30-40 year- approach, and is going to be heavy on proper consultation with communities and light on paternalism and unilateral punitive approaches). I doubt whether the ‘review’ will truly review the outcomes of the intervention, especially as there was no baseline data (i.e pre-intervention) surveys done before the intervention to compare against now. First and foremost, the review needs to reinstate the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 in relation to the legislation, and then go from there.

  2. I don’t think we are asserting that everyone on the board is pro-intervention. But the board proper is only made up of three people, there are 11 others on a supporting panel.

    The head of the three-person board is Peter Yu, described by the Sydney Morning Herald as “one of the first indigenous leaders to endorse Howard’s intervention”. The Australian, which has run a strong campaign supporting the intervention, described the board as “dominated by pro-intervention thinkers”. So we are hardly making a controversial claim in saying the review board is stacked.

    Governments rarely launch a review without making sure they know pretty well what the result is going to be. And, sadly, there are no indications the Rudd government is backing away from the intervention.

  3. Hello again,

    I think that you are making a controversial claim that the review board is stacked, especially when you cite such spurious resources as The Australian newspaper, which has demonstrated time and again how partisan and biased it is in its reporting of Indigenous issues. I would go as far as to say that The Australian is obsessed with Indigenous issues, obsessed in a totally paternalistic, neo-liberal way. This means that when I read The Australian, I don’t ever believe what I’m reading. They’re too unreliable, using opinion instead of qualified ‘fact’, and Oz reporters like Nicholas Rothwell are without credibility.

    The dominant media is notorious for making claims that are either blatantly untrue (serving a particular ideological/partisan agenda), or unable to be substantiated.

    The one thing I do agree with you about is that the review outcomes might well be what the Rudd Government want to hear. However, should the review board find in their report that the intervention is not working and make recommendations for substantial changes (lets hope so), I doubt whether the Rudd Govt. will listen. Unfortunately governments are really good at commissioning reviews only to ignore their findings if those findings do not accord with the government’s agenda. Look at what happened with the Little Children Are Sacred Report- the very report that allegedly sparked the intervention -the Howard Govt. ignored almost every recommendation (out of 96 I think). They only accepted one recommendation out of that report.

    And the outcome of this intervention has seemed to worsen Indigenous well-being, increase trauma and adverse mental health outcomes, there have been incidences of people going hungry, with store cards not working, and increased problems of drunkenness/violence and associated child neglect in communities where there had been successful alcohol management programs already in place pre-intervention, but which were de-funded with the advent of the intervention.

    Your article of course says more, it was a good article, but I still disagree with you about the stacking of the review board (and I meant all of the supporting cast, not only the three immediate board members).




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