The Northern Territory In(ter)vasion

ON LINE opinion – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate

Posted Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The Federal Howard Liberal Coalition Government, with Mal Brough as Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, launched the Northern Territory Intervention in Aboriginal communities on June 21, 2007. They claimed to be acting to save the children from alcohol-fueled violence and pedophilia and to be protecting women from violence and being humbugged for money.

The then Federal Government pointed to the failure of the NT Government to respond to The Little Children are Sacred Report as the justification for the intervention. Notably the government needed to suspend the Racial Discrimination Act in order to control welfare payments to Aborigines without affecting white welfare recipients. The army, police, welfare officers and medical staff were rushed in to communities.

It resulted in a tragic farce with Brough threatening to have doctors conduct forced physical examinations of children to see if they had been sexually assaulted. On some communities there were doctors and nurses employed by the intervention examining children who had already seen doctors at the local Indigenous medical clinic just down the street. While other communities, which had no health clinics, were being told they’d have to wait.

Some critics of the intervention saw it as the last throw of the dice of a dying government in the run-up to the 2007 Federal election (Tomlinson, J. (2007) “We are having a ‘save the Aboriginal children’ blitzkrieg”, On Line Opinion). Of the early critical interpretations, the most prescient was Coercive Reconciliation, a collection of essays edited by Jon Altman and Melinda Hinkson: their far-sighted predictions warned of the disruption, dislocation and disappointment to which many Aboriginal communities would be subjected (Tomlinson, J. (2008) February 20 “220 Years of saving the children”, On Line Opinion).

Throughout most of the last 200 years of Australian frontier history (once the invasion of Aboriginal land has resulted in near total dispossession of the original owners) five main sub-themes have been played out:

  • stealing women for sexual and/housekeeping services;
  • forcing men into unpaid or poorly remunerated labour;
  • segregating surplus labour on reserves in order to prevent them becoming an obstacle to white “pioneers” accumulating wealth and land;
  • “dispersing” troublemakers by armed police; and finally
  • saving Aboriginal children from the “savagery” of their community.

From the first decade of the 20th century many of the police and mission “protectors” of Aborigines adopted, what Arthur Daly would describe as “a nice little earner”. They began pocketing much of the money paid by employers into the bank accounts of Aboriginal people which the “protectors” held in trust.

The first three sub-themes have fallen from favour in recent times. The fourth is now left largely to police tactical response units responding to riots that occur in the wake of isolated police killings at places like Redfern and Palm Island. This leaves governments having to fall back on the idea of saving Aboriginal children from the “savagery” of their community.

The Labor Opposition in the run-up to the 2007 election was determined not to frighten the horses. Rudd set out to prove he was a born-again fiscal conservative, a steady hand on the tiller, who would ensure that the unions would not get in the way of capitalist accumulation. Aspirational voters were assured they could sleep soundly in their middle class bedrooms. Rudd even promised to maintain the intervention for at least a year.

It was generally assumed by progressive voters that after a year the moral panic stirred up by Howard and Brough would evaporate and Labor would be able to get on with implementing decent child welfare, housing, employment, community development and self-determination policies in Indigenous communities. It was further assumed that the Rudd Labor Government would be less jackbooted in its implementation of the intervention. How wrong we were.

Rudd is a much cleverer political operator in the area of Indigenous affairs than his predecessor. Unlike Howard, he is not rusted on to long lost symbolic views of colonial Australia. On February 13, 2008, he made a national apology to the “stolen generations” in the Federal Parliament. It was an apology which entailed no promise of compensation thereby avoiding angering the rump of white racists who remain in the Labor Party. He followed this, on April 3, 2009, by endorsing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples yet has done little to honour such commitments.

He runs the danger that he will come to be seen as paying lip service to the symbolic issues but only coming-up with empty gestures.

Rudd appointed Jenny Macklin as his Minister for Indigenous Affairs and she claimed the administration of her portfolio would be based on evidenced-based research. She persevered with the NT Intervention in much the same manner as her Liberal predecessor who, incidentally, lost his seat at the 2007 election. After 12 months she appointed Peter Yu to head a review into the intervention (Gartrell, A. (2008) “Peter Yu to head NT intervention”, The Age, June 6).

The review recommended winding back the hard-line aspects of the intervention particularly ending the compulsory income management system and only quarantining welfare payments of those parents who actually neglected their children. It recommended the reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act and the payment of compensation to those communities who had their land compulsorily acquired. (Karvelas, P. & Toohey, P. (2008) “Pressure on Government to soften the Northern Territory intervention”, October 14).

The Rudd government dug in its heels and said it intended persevering with the intervention in its existing form for at least another year. Macklin claimed that conversations she had had with store managers and some Central Australian women’s groups led her to believe that the intervention was working (Tomlinson, J. (2008) “Mad Macklin follows Mal Brough”, On Line Opinion). It seems to have escaped the Minister’s attention that such anecdotal recollections of conversations do not constitute evidence-based research in the realm of social science.

In August 2009 the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Professor James Anaya completed an 11-day tour of Indigenous communities. He found that the measures of the NT Intervention:

… overtly discriminate against Aboriginal peoples, infringe their right of self-determination and stigmatise already stigmatised communities.

And that:

The emergency response is incompatible with Australia’s obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights; treaties to which Australia is a party. (Hawley, S. (2009) ABC, PM program “UN Official slams NT intervention”, August 27).

National Indigenous Times reported on September 16 that no new houses have been built in the Northern Territory since the 2007 election despite expenditure of $45 million. Now that is what I consider is evidence-based research.

Running in parallel with the NT Intervention is the Queensland Government’s own version of a “welfare reform” experiment. The $48 million experiment (funded by Queensland and Federal governments) has been championed by Noel Pearson from the Cape York Institute. On April 2, 2008, doctoral student Philip Martin suggested that, “By focusing primarily on community dysfunctions and individuals’ deficits …and imposing … behavioural obligations which tie Aboriginal people to services they already know to be … inappropriate, Pearson’s Family Responsibilities Commissions (FRCs) threaten to add yet another complicating factor to the bizarre daily spectacle of law and order in communities.”

On September 30, 2009, Noel Pearson declared the welfare experiment to be a success because the Family Responsibilities Commissions’ review had found that:

… school attendance has increased in Aurukun, which had an average attendance rate of 37 per cent 12 months ago and now is achieving an average rate of 63 per cent, while Mossman Gorge rose from 60.9 per cent to 81.6 per cent.

Attendance at schools in Coen and Hope Vale have experienced a slight reduction, with Coen’s attendance rate falling from 96.8 per cent to 93.6 per cent, and Hope Vale’s attendance falling marginally from 87.6 per cent to 86.9 per cent. Those two communities have remarkably high rates of indigenous attendance compared with poor attendance rates in remote schools across the nation. (Robinson, N. & Elks, S. “Welfare tough love works as quarantining parent payments cuts indigenous truancy”, The Australian.)

Responding to exactly the same report Dr Chris Sarra, an Indigenous educator, who had substantially increased Indigenous children’s attendance when he was the Principal of Cherbourg Community School, questioned Pearson’s analysis of the review.

He said: “If you focus on Aurukun, there are serious questions there about whether the improvement in attendance is the result of the welfare reforms or whether it’s the result of the injection or the investment in quality leadership and quality teaching”, which was part of the stronger, smarter educational program Dr Sarra is helping to implement at Aurukun and some other communities in Queensland.

The “stronger, smarter way is about developing exciting school cultures that embrace the positive sense of Aboriginal student identity, it’s about working cooperatively and respectfully with communities, it’s about high expectations of … teacher-student relations. (Guest, A. 2009 “Dispute over improved school attendance”, The World Today, ABC, September 30)

Such diametrically opposed interpretations of social welfare experiments are not uncommon and this is all the more reason why the public should be very wary when ideologically driven Ministers claim to be making policy decisions based on “evidence”. They are often simply choosing the most politically convenient interpretation of the statistics. To pretend that Macklin’s interpretation of the intervention is based on evidenced-based research is simply a nonsense.

On October 1, Natasha Robinson revealed that “Not one parent who chronically fails to send their child to school has had their welfare payment suspended under a federal government trial aimed at lifting woeful school attendance” at six schools in the Northern Territory. This trial has been proceeding all this year. (“No welfare cuts for parental slackers”, The Australian). It would seem that the public servants are smarter than Minister Macklin who announced the intended punitive action against truancy in January.

The intervention has resulted in thousands of Indigenous Territorians having half their welfare payments “income managed” despite the fact that they properly care for their children and ensure they go to school. Governments can only apply such policies in Aboriginal communities because they have suspended the Racial Discrimination Act.

The great pity is that no one in authority in the Rudd government has bothered to investigate a very different welfare trial being conducted by the Lutheran Church in co-operation with other national Namibian non government agencies. They selected the small township of Otjivero-Omitara largely populated by displaced farm workers where alcoholism, petty crime, poverty and low school attendance was rife. In this trial “All residents below the age of 60 years receive a Basic Income Grant of Namibian $100 per person per month, without any conditions attached (p. 2).” (Haarmann, C., Haarmann, D., Jauch, H., Shindondola-Mote, H., Nattrass, N., van Niekerk, I. & Samson, M. (2009) Making the Difference! The BIG in Namibia. Basic Income Grant Coalition, Windhoek.) People over 60 get a government aged pension.

After the first year “food poverty” in the community fell from 76 per cent of residents to 37 per cent, the rate of those engaged in income-generating activities rose from 44 per cent to 55 per cent and underweight children declined from 42 per cent to 17 per cent. Before the payment of the Basic Income grant almost half the children did not attend school now the parents of 90 per cent of children have paid their school fees, substantially more residents visit the local health clinic than before, average household debt has fallen from N$1215 to N$ 772 and crime rates fell by 42 per cent. The criticism that the Basic Income Grant is leading to increased alcoholism is not supported by the empirical evidence (ibid pp. 13-15). These remarkable results were obtained without any form of compulsion.

The leading social scientists conducting this evidence-based research in Namibia would, no doubt, feel that we have a long way to go in Australia while our welfare Ministers are tied to concepts of reciprocal obligation deriving from a 19th century poor law mentality.

The saga of the Intervention will continue until Prime Minister Rudd appoints a competent Minister for Indigenous Affairs who can relate to Aborigines in a way which respects their dignity, listens to what it is they have to say, and upholds their rights to have the same protection against racial discrimination as other Australians. Such a Minister might even try to act in ways which are compatible with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.