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Ending the Intervention


Over three and a half years since the Northern Territory Emergency Response ('the Intervention') was launched, it has ceased to be front-page news.

Although criticism of the Federal Government's Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP) still regularly makes the headlines, the day-to-day realities of living under the Intervention remain somewhat mysterious.

Originally, the Intervention was premised on the notion that, where 'self-determination' policies had 'failed', decisive action would enable the Government to 'stabilise, normalise and exit' remote Aboriginal communities. In other words, it would storm in, fix the problem, and leave when its radical solutions were no longer needed.

(Continues below)

The Intervention was announced by John Howard and Mal Brough on 21 June 2007. The question hovers: what is the endpoint? When, and by what measures, will remote Aboriginal communities be deemed to be 'normalised'?

Boyd Hunter, a Fellow at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, wrote in 2007 that the Intervention had been launched in such a hurried fashion that there had been no lead time to prepare an evaluation framework.

'It will now be very difficult to evaluate the outcomes,' Hunter wrote, 'because no groundwork was laid to establish credible benchmarks for what existed before the policy shift.

'Consequently, the NT intervention is unlikely to be held to account and the Government can make almost any claim it wants about what happens as a result of its policy.'

Boyd has proven to be prescient: arguments about the Intervention's effectiveness have largely become a matter of competing anecdotes, contested legitimacy and ad hominem attacks — who has the right to speak?

On 7 February 2011, a non-partisan group of 'concerned Australians' — including former prime minister Malcolm Fraser, Professor Larissa Behrendt, Reverend Dr Djiniyini Gondarra OAM, the Hon. Alastair Nicholson, Reverend Alistair Macrae, The Hon. Elizabeth Evatt AC, Professor Fiona Stanley, Julian Burnside QC and Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne Phillip Freiere — released a statement expressing their concerns about 'the failure of the Federal Government, with the tacit support of the Opposition, to properly address problems facing Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory'.

These signatories note that the Intervention 'has been progressed without credible consultation with, or the approval of, Aboriginal people'.

It is important to note that there is no one homogenous view of the Intervention within Aboriginal Australia. Prominent figures such as Marcia Langton, Noel Pearson and Bess Nungarrayi Price have welcomed it as a long-awaited initiative to help vulnerable children.

In 2009, Price wrote 'I am one of those people who embraced the Government's move. To me it meant at last somebody was acknowledging that there was a crisis and that it needed to be addressed.'

The 'concerned Australians' note that there 'are some limited aspects of the Intervention that have been viewed positively in some Aboriginal communities' and make it clear that 'it is the compulsory nature of the policies which are of concern'.

They argue that positive change 'requires respect and genuine engagement with the people themselves at the local level, rather than an isolated policy development in Canberra'.

Importantly, the non-indigenous members of the 'concerned Australians' do not seek to speak for Aboriginal people; the statement coincided with an event at Melbourne Law School where elders from remote NT communities spoke on 'the impact of living under the Intervention'.

The Intervention necessitated suspending the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) which it clearly contravened; the legislation imposed restrictions — such as compulsory income management for welfare recipients — only on 'prescribed [Aboriginal] communities'.

The Rudd/Gillard Government reinstated the RDA, but did not remove these restrictions. Instead, the relevant legislation was extended to all Northern Territory citizens. The 'concerned Australians' characterise this move as a mere 'veneer of non-discrimination' and 'call upon the Government to start afresh'.

In addition to concerns about discrimination, the statement suggests the Intervention is failing on its own terms. For instance, the signatories note that despite the removal of the welfare entitlements of those whose children fail to attend school, 'recent figures from the NT Department of Education show a steady fall in attendance at schools in very remote areas between 2006-7 and 2009-10'.

They charge, in effect, that the Intervention is being maintained in spite of evidence as to its counter-productiveness.

Similarly, Professor Jon Altman of the ANU argued last year that the 'state policy of normalisation is not delivering even by its own benchmarks. This is unconscionable policy failure without any apparent policy risk assessment or contingency planning.'

The 'concerned Australians' conclude that the 'policy approach must move from one of bureaucratic control by Canberra to one of recognition of Aboriginal leadership, negotiation, capacity building and direct input by Aboriginal people ... Without the direct engagement with Aboriginal people, policy changes will fail.'

The political year is still young. Whether 2011 will herald any change, though, remains to be seen. 

Sarah BurnsideSarah Burnside is a Perth-based lawyer and freelance writer. 

Topic tags: Intervention, Racial Discrimination Act, remote communities, former prime minister Malcolm Fraser



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Existing comments

Thank you for this article Sarah Burnside. The statement by "concerned Australians" is measured in tone. The impassioned statement by Indigenous elders, also released on 7th February says it all, very clearly speaking of dispossession, pain, fear and shame: To quote some of it: "Our lands have been compulsorily taken from us. We have been left with nothing. . . As people in our own land, we are shocked by the failure of democratic processes, of the failure to consult with us and of the total disregard for us as human beings." There seems to be a determination by governments and their administrations to go on as they have been, without any change. Perhaps international pressure will force our nation to change.

Janet | 08 February 2011  

"Stabilising" and "normalising" were always going to be unattainable objectives until the inter-generational problems of very low education attainments and very high rates of unemployment, welfare dependency, excessive alcohol/cannabis use and habitual resorting to violence as a means of problem solving and self-expression have been dealt with in some effective fashion. Boyd's point about the lack of an evaluation framework is an important one, but seems to have been forgotten by some of the overly assertive signatories to this statement. Some of them are prone to generalising about the current NT situation, basing their opinions more on emotional responses, hurt feelings, anecdotes and hearsay than on full knowledge of the facts or proper use of logic. For example, the "removal of the welfare entitlements of those whose children fail to attend school" has in fact only been applied to a small number of parents, very recently, in six communities, so it can hardly be expected to have influenced, or blamed for, the tragic reality of "'recent figures from the NT Department of Education show[ing] a steady fall in attendance at schools in very remote areas between 2006-7 and 2009-10'." It is far more complex than that.

Bob Durnan | 08 February 2011  

A splendid article - maintaining the call for the end of the Intervention has to remain a top priority. It was never really anything but an attempt, for electoral purposes, to be thought to be doing something about the "greatest moral challenge of our [Australian] times". But Howard gave as much thought to the cruelties and injustices it inflicted on Aboriginal people as he did to the plight of a more terribly hurt people, the hundreds of thousands of Iraqui people who suffered from the invasion (again for electoral purposes)of their country.

That Jenny Macklin, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have been to have it continue shows how bankrupt their thinking is, how lacking in moral imagination they are.

Joe Castley | 08 February 2011  

Yes, thank you Sarah for providing us with a statement at a critical time. Today's report card on "Closing the Gap" shows how little has been achieved in the area of Aboriginal health. Aboriginal health in the Northern Territory is affected by the impact of the Intervention.

The elders at the gathering spoke of the prevalence of depression in communities from across the territory. They spoke of problems with housing and the development of communities due to leasing arrangements and changes to local government in the area. Also raised was the issue of governmental attempts to rid the Territory of the people's languages and the detrimental impact of this.

Saddest was the toll this work is having on the amazing elders. Their health is clearly suffering. There was an urgency in their addresses to the audience that were heart-wrenching.

It both saddened and angered me to hear the Minister on radio denying the truth of the claims being made by these elders. If only she had to live day to day under the conditions of these dignified, well-qualified, intelligent, compassionate, hard-working people of integrity who travelled so far to cry for help.

tina | 09 February 2011  

Thanks, a well thought article. One thing that has happened is that the more disruptive people from the communities have moved into the towns or cities. This has created a burden on the families and welfare providers in regional centres. Would appreciate comments.

Julian | 10 February 2011  

When we Australians as a population acknowledge our own racism and stop picking on 'dole bludgers' we may get a government that stops playing that card game for political reasons. Have we forgotten the children overboard -disgusting- Howard ploy?
I suspect the intervention is here to stay!

Rosa | 11 February 2011  

your article was excellent and i look forward to hearing more from you. The more articles and media that we can get to the public the better. We need Australians to understand what is really the issues and the paternalistic nature of our Governments

Kerrie F | 13 April 2011  

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