Aboriginal affairs minister Jenny Macklin announced her government will ignore two key recommendations of the review commissioned into the Northern Territory intervention.
Macklin will continue blanket quarantining of welfare payments in Aboriginal communities and will continue openly contravening the suspended Racial Discrimination Action 1975 for at least 12 months.
While many have rightly reacted with outrage to Macklin’s rejection of the review, we need to examine how it is the review itself that has left communities vulnerable to further government attacks.
After visiting 31 communities affected by the policy, the report of the review board brings into public view the savage experience of racism inflicted on Aboriginal communities over the past 12 months.
The report states:
Experiences of racial discrimination and humiliation as a result of the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) were told with such passion and such regularity that the board felt compelled to advise the Minister for Indigenous Affairs widespread Aboriginal hostility to the Australian government’s actions should be regarded as a matter for serious concern.
The report demonstrates the complete failure of the $1 billion intervention to bring any improvements in child or broader community welfare across a range of key areas:
- Child protection: The intervention has led to no prosecutions for child sexual abuse, the key rationale for its conception. Further, the board heard a number of recent examples of attempts to report abuse or neglect to child protection authorities where there was no effective response.
- Housing: There is no indication in the review report that any new housing has been built for communities, despite $85 million being appropriated for housing and land reform.
- Family violence: New safe houses and cooling off shelters were built from shipping containers. But none were staffed or being used, and many women told the board they would not use the shelters because they were more like detention centres.
- Education: There has been no improvement in school attendance and in some areas attendance has actually declined.
- Health: The NTER has created “a feeling of collective existential despair ‘feelings characterised by a widespread sense of helplessness, hopelessness and worthlessness, and experienced throughout entire community(s)'”. The child health checks undertaken through the intervention are criticised as entailing a high degree of duplication and a missed opportunity to apply funds more effectively.
- Alcohol bans: No clear statement is made that alcohol consumption amongst affected communities has decreased, though numerous submissions report that large numbers of people have continued to drink outside prescribed areas, exacerbating many other problems such as child safety and over-crowding.
However, in blatant disregard for its own evidence, the review board report states that the NTER should continue, to address the ongoing national emergency of disadvantage in Aboriginal communities.
They recommend only one key shift in the intervention that may require change to its enabling legislation–an end to the widely resented blanket quarantining of welfare and the establishment of a targeted quarantine, modelled on the Family Responsibilities Commission being established in Cape York.
But there is no evidence of positive outcomes from welfare controls such as those imposed by the FRC. Any compulsory quarantine re-enforces the idea that Aboriginal people, rather than racist governments, are to blame for social problems.
The rest of the recommendations are supposedly designed to help the government reset their relationship with Aboriginal people based on genuine consultation, engagement and partnership. But none of these compel legal changes to restore the rights of Aboriginal people.
Importantly, there is a call for government actions to conform to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, a recommendation which has put some pressure on Macklin, but which falls short of the demand coming from Aboriginal communities for a guaranteed protection under the Act.
The report itself acknowledges that the problems with the intervention stem from the complete disregard shown for Aboriginal people, their existing efforts to deal with disadvantage and their capacity to organise vital services if properly resourced.
However, it recommends the maintenance of both the bureaucratic and legal mechanisms that have facilitated this. While documenting the anger at compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal land, the review recommends land be paid for (as an act of goodwill) rather than returned.
Further, the report chastises land councils in the Northern Territory for not hastily negotiating 40 plus year leases currently being demanded by government before they release funds for any housing projects. This again ignores the widespread community opposition to such blackmail. Aboriginal people know that legal rights to control new construction projects are essential for ensuring those projects actually meet community needs.
The report calls for the continued existence of government business managers (GBMs), the highly paid bureaucrats largely responsible for inappropriate developments and wasted funds. They suggest a change of title to community development managers, while issuing no challenge to the extraordinary powers held by GBMs, such as the ability to seize the assets of local organisations.
The report wants community-based alcohol management plans, but recommends the ongoing operation of compulsory, race-based alcohol bans. They want police to be given education in Aboriginal culture to curb the abusive police behaviour detailed in the review, but are silent on the draconian powers granted to them under the intervention.
Responding to the review
While the disastrous facts on the ground detailed in the review could certainly have been presented in a way less embarrassing for Rudd and Macklin, the position of the review board, outlined in their terms of reference, required an acceptance of both the stated intent and operating logic of the intervention. No matter how harsh their criticisms of the past year, their recommendations have dutifully paved the way for the government’s announcement to continue the policy, unchanged, into the future.
The intervention has never been about protecting children. It is a project aimed at fostering racism and breaking the confidence and structures of self-determination held in Aboriginal communities. It is the result of a renewed commitment to the assimilation of Aboriginal people amongst Australia’s rulers, a commitment that crystalised through the Howard years. Powerful think tanks and policy chiefs alike are discussing the need to engineer a population transfer away from remote areas and mainstream Aboriginal people in urban environments with increasing candour.
That is why one widespread response to the review from within the Aboriginal rights movement, to uncritically back its recommendations, has been mistaken. This compromises the demand for an immediate end to the intervention, coming from affected Aboriginal people who understand the stakes in the fight for survival, such as those at the recent 100-strong Prescribed Area Peoples Alliance meeting in Alice Springs.
Also in October, the NT government, citing limitations imposed by federal Labor, announced that no new housing would be built on Aboriginal outstations (small remote communities) and that existing, sub-standard services would be significantly wound back. The federal government unveiled reforms to the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme that would similarly gut the capacity of many communities and force migration. NT education minister Marion Scrimgour announced that teaching in Aboriginal languages would be forbidden for the first four hours of every day and prepared the ground for the de-funding of remote schools.
In completely ignoring both the content of the review and its limited calls for change, Macklin is hardening a public posture that is more closely resembling previous Liberal minister Mal Brough’s stance with each passing day. But stopping the injustices detailed in the review means developing an uncompromising analysis of this posture, and a strong movement confident to force self-determination back onto the agenda right across Australia.
By Paddy Gibson