Government Intervention Fails Indigenous Communities in Australia

June 5, 2011 3:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

While the Australian government promotes the rich legacy of Aboriginal myth, art and culture to lure the tourist dollar, its emergency intervention programme aimed at addressing crippling levels of socio-economic disadvantage in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory is generating greater distress and hardship for many First Australians.

In 2007, following the Northern Territory Government’s report, ‘Little Children are Sacred’, which investigated allegations of sexual abuse of Aboriginal children, the Australian Government, led by former Prime Minister, John Howard, rapidly drafted the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) in advance of an approaching 2007 Federal Election and embarked on implementing a wide array of forced measures on Aboriginal communities without any indigenous consultation. These included a large deployment of police to communities, the compulsory takeover of Aboriginal land held under the Native Title Act on five year leases, the reduction of Community Development Employment Projects, suspension of the permit system (whereby visitors request permission to enter indigenous communities), quarantining of a proportion of welfare benefits of indigenous people in specified communities in the name of income management, alcohol restrictions, compulsory medical checks for indigenous children and an investigation into paedophile activity. The government also promised improvements to housing, education and community services in its aim ‘to protect children, make communities safe and build a better future for people living in indigenous communities and town camps.’

However, the government’s over-rule of indigenous rights and land was accomplished controversially with an exemption from the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) in Australia. In undermining the voice and participation of indigenous people, the NTER blatantly ignored key recommendations in the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ Report, such as the empowerment of Aboriginal communities and enabling indigenous people to ‘take more control and make decisions about the future.’ Many of the NTER’s reactive and culturally insensitive measures also disregarded the Inquiry’s findings ‘that sexual abuse of Aboriginal children is happening largely because of the breakdown of Aboriginal culture and society.’

Major factors in social breakdown and cultural dispossession include more than 200 years of damaging colonial and indigenous policies devised by successive Australian governments, poor investment in infrastructure and services for indigenous communities, the forced removal of indigenous children from their families from the late 1860s to the early 1970s, known as the Stolen Generation, and the absence of any Treaty between Aboriginal and non-indigenous Australians.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), which briefly existed from 1990 to 2005, and the new National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples inaugurated in April 2010 are the only indigenous-elected governance bodies through which Aboriginal people have been able to direct and influence their own affairs at the national level.

Today key issues for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, who comprise 2.5% of the Australian population, remain the basic human rights of health, education, justice, housing, land rights and employment. Irene Khan, then Secretary General of Amnesty International, gave international exposure to unacceptable levels of inequality between Aboriginal and non-indigenous Australians when she visited Australia in 2009.

“In the heart of this first world I found scenes more reminiscent of the third world,” she stated, “That indigenous peoples experience human rights violations on a continent of such privilege is not merely disheartening, it is morally outrageous.”

Nearly three and a half years after its enforcement, has life improved in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory under the Intervention?

Barbara Shaw, indigenous resident of Mt Nancy Town Camp near Alice Springs and spokesperson for Roll Back the Intervention Action Group, said in April: “If things are so good, why do government statistics show more children being admitted to hospital for malnutrition and more young people committing suicide and self-harm? Why are more and more children being taken away from parents and put into care?”

In ‘Loss of Rights’, a recent submission to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the organisation, Concerned Australians, reported: “The June 2010 survey shows that only 12% of the Elders surveyed believe that the NTER has made life better for the community, whereas 88% believe it to be worse or much worse (50%).”

Amy McQuire, Editor of the recently launched newspaper, ‘Tracker’, which focuses on issues of indigenous rights in Australia, said:

“We want the NT Intervention gone because we don’t believe that it has delivered anything for Aboriginal people and we believe it has been a detriment to Aboriginal people. We are campaigning for it to end because we can’t see the evidence and international quarters can’t see the evidence. We are running an interview with James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and he said there was no evidence to support things like income management and alcohol bans. The government’s evidence actually went against the alcohol bans. So for the Gillard Government to be saying that it acts on evidence-based policy is just rubbish.”

David Ross, Director of the indigenous-led Central Land Council, which oversees approximately 400,000 km2 of Aboriginal-owned land in the south of the Northern Territory and works closely with Traditional Owners and communities, responded:

“No, we don’t believe there is any real evidence that income management has improved the health and well-being of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory after more than three years.” Although: “there is anecdotal evidence that some people are satisfied with income management as a way of assisting them to manage their domestic spending better.”

“To claim any improvement because of the so-called alcohol bans is absurd because they already existed before the Intervention and were just claimed by the Government as its own initiative whereas all along they had been community driven and in place for many years.”

“When the Intervention was before the Australian Parliament, the CLC worked hard to oppose it,” Ross recounted, “We felt that while the situation in Central Australia had become critical, the measures took no account of what the people they were intended to help thought about them. They were blatantly racist and doomed to failure by that very fact alone.”

In July last year, the Australian Government launched a revised NTER Redesign, following what it said were wide and genuine consultations with indigenous people in 2009. However, this diverges from the view of many in affected communities.

According to Barbara Shaw, “The consultations were a farce. The views of our people were ignored and the government continued with discriminatory powers largely unchanged. Under the new laws, we still cannot challenge intervention measures like compulsory land acquisition using the RDA.”

“We didn’t think the consultations were either genuine or wide,” David Ross at the CLC said, “The meetings we went to were poorly attended and designed to lead to particular conclusions. We thought they were an exercise of cynical exploitation to try and get it over the line so that the Intervention could be considered a ‘special measure’ under the Racial Discrimination Act.”

According to Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR), the NTER contravenes Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“Of course, we welcome the injection of additional resources, but millions of dollars have been wasted because of the absolute inability of government to involve Aboriginal organisations and people in the design and implementation of programmes,” Ross continued, “The tragedy is that Aboriginal people will be blamed for this absurd and extraordinary waste of resources, not the bureaucrats and politicians who failed to do the work necessary to make these programmes work. The new government should have instead taken the opportunity to actually reset the relationship with Aboriginal people and it would have achieved three times as much at one third of the cost.”

The Australian Government has funded the NTER with over $1bn since it began, yet the results outlined in its ‘Closing the Gap in the Northern Territory Monitoring Report’ in June 2010 suggest more than a ‘redesign’ is necessary.

Since June 2009, indigenous preschool and primary school enrolments have decreased by 119 students, while secondary school enrolments have increased by 98 students. Preschool attendance declined from 60.2% in January 2008 to 55.4% in June 2009 and remained low at 56.4% in June 2010, while secondary school attendance fluctuated from 59.4% in January 2008 to 60.5% in February 2009 to 56% in June 2010.

In the area of child health, medical examinations of Aboriginal children have not produced the supporting evidence of widespread child sexual abuse presented as the primary reason for the Intervention, although since 2008 approximately 5000 children were identified for specialist dental treatment and 1648 required specialist ear, nose and throat referrals. No evidence has been found of paedophile or pornography rings operating in Aboriginal communities.

Broader child welfare is a critical issue, but the government’s conviction that the NTER would result in safer communities is challenged by its findings that ‘there has been a significant increase in the incidence of abuse relating to child welfare across the NTER communities, from 61 incidents in 2006-07 to 213 in 2009-10.’

In April, Indigenous Affairs Minister, Jenny Macklin, indicated that the Australian Government would consider another federal intervention when the current one ends in August 2012.

David Ross at the CLC believes it is time to move on.

“Aboriginal people need to be able to reclaim some control over their lives and communities,” he said, “We need a fresh approach that delivers greater Aboriginal autonomy, but also provides the support necessary to make this workable and successful. Whatever the government does next must have the support of Aboriginal people here in the Northern Territory or else it will just make the same old mistake.”

“How can they talk about ‘another Intervention’ when the current one is still doing so much damage,” is the view of Barbara Shaw, “Many of our communities have been written off as ‘unviable’ and pushed further into poverty. $1.5 billion has been wasted on the Intervention. That money is badly needed to create properly waged jobs and deliver proper services in all communities.”

This week, Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, is visiting Australia to address a number of human rights issues.

Roll Back the Intervention group intend to present the UN High Commissioner with a proposal, ‘Rebuilding from the Ground Up: An Alternative to the NT Intervention’, which has been developed in consultation with indigenous communities.

The document advocates respect for ‘Aboriginal people’s ability to deal with the issues confronting them and give them the time, resources and cultural space to find the solutions’, and calls for a range of reforms, including reinstatement of indigenous community governance, development based on self-determination and Land Rights, clear application of the Racial Discrimination Act to all laws governing Aboriginal communities, creation of real jobs with award wages and significant investment in bilingual education and the training and employment of Aboriginal teachers for properly resourced remote Aboriginal schools.


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This post was written by Catherine Wilson

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