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Jenny Macklin to Frank Brennan


Dear Father Brennan,

I refer to your opinion piece 'Interminable Intervention' which was posted on the Eureka Street website on 13 February 2011.

I acknowledge that the instigation of the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) by the previous government was a major shock to many Aboriginal people and communities in the Northern Territory (NT) and was seen as a serious affront. There was no consultation before it was initiated and the nature of some of the measures and coercive tone utilised undoubtedly caused anger, fear, and distrust.

It also needs to be acknowledged, however, that a widespread emergency did exist, and continues to exist, in many remote communities with high levels of family violence, child neglect, appalling health status, low rates of school attendance, and high levels of crime, including violent crime and widespread drug and substance abuse. Any one of these factors has the potential to permanently damage or destroy a person's life opportunities. Taken together, they constitute a fundamental and endemic threat to the human rights not just of individuals, but of whole communities.

The Australian Government has attempted, with some real success, to acknowledge and span both these realities. The Government has retained the NTER because it believes action was, and is, required. The Government has attempted to progressively reshape it to make it more respectful and effective. In doing this, it has acted in good faith, with determination, and in a genuine attempt to further the best interests of both Aboriginal people and families in the NT and the Australian nation as a whole.

Clearly, I do not accept the way you have characterised the Government's actions in relation to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (RDA) and the NTER.

I am concerned that your article could mislead people into considering that the Government's measures in the NT are discriminatory in a way that does not comply with the RDA. I reject the use of the expression 'still discriminates in four ways' because it has a clear potential to mislead.

I am confident that the measures now in place are consistent with the RDA either because they are inherently non-discriminatory or are able to be characterised as special measures for the purposes of the RDA. As you know, the RDA takes the definition of what is a permissible special measure directly from the text of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination.

The Government has fully reinstated people's rights and protections under the RDA in relation to the NTER. Under the legislation that was passed by Parliament on 21 June 2010, all of the provisions in the NTER legislation that suspended the operation of the RDA are removed. In addition, all of the provisions in the NTER legislation that deemed certain measures to be special measures have been repealed.

Your article makes it clear that you accept the need for special measures in relation to alcohol and pornography in certain circumstances. However, you then go on to reject the need for special measures in relation to other elements of the NTER.

A number of commentators have expressed very different views about the need for special measures in the NT. Clearly, this is an area of public policy where there is a wide variety of views and where community consensus is not easy to find or to forge.

In your article, you characterise the Government's acquisition of the five year leases as an acquisition of 'land that is the birthright of Aboriginal people'. This seems to suggest that the compulsory acquisition had the effect of permanently denying Aboriginal people ownership of the land, akin to an acquisition of freehold. I would like to take this opportunity to clarify that the Government's compulsory acquisition does not alter the underlying tenure or ownership and only extends to securing leases for a term of five years. Upon expiration of these leases, the land will revert to the control of the Aboriginal owners unless further voluntary leases are agreed.

You also argue that leases to support service delivery and government investment should be negotiated freely. The Government has undertaken that there will be no new compulsory leases. It is committed to negotiating voluntary leasing arrangements to underpin all major capital investments on Indigenous land. Security of tenure will ensure that government investments in fixed assets are effectively managed and maintained and continue to be used for their intended benefit.

As your article points out, the views of those affected by the NTER are of critical importance. Before introducing its legislation to redesign the NTER, the Government undertook extensive consultations with Aboriginal people across the NT on future directions for the NTER. The consultation process included over 100 whole-of-community meetings covering all communities and town camps affected by the NTER, 11 workshops with regional leaders and key stakeholder organisations, and over 440 face-to-face discussions between Government Business Managers and individuals and small groups in communities. This was the most comprehensive engagement ever undertaken by government with Indigenous people in Australia.

The Government engaged independent consultants to assess whether people in the consultation meetings were given a fair opportunity to put forward their views and whether the consultations were open and accountable. The consultants' report has been made public on my Department's website.

The Government was influenced significantly by what it heard in the consultations and by the feedback from individuals and communities. A common theme expressed was that children, the elderly and women were now feeling safer, were better fed and clothed, were getting a better night's sleep, and there was less inappropriate pressure on income support recipients for money. People felt that this was due to the combined effects of various NTER measures, including income management, alcohol restrictions, community stores licensing and an increased police presence in remote communities.

In relation to income management, I should note that this is a key part of the Government's commitment to protecting and providing for children and vulnerable people. It ensures that money is available for life essentials and provides a tool to stabilise people's circumstances, easing immediate financial stress. Income management limits expenditure of income support payments on excluded items, including alcohol, tobacco, pornography, gambling goods and activities.

The Government's new non-discriminatory model of income management came into effect on 1 July 2010 in the NT. This has been tailored to apply to welfare recipients in at-risk groups, including those with a high risk of social isolation, poor money management skills and those likely to participate in risky behaviours. Exemptions from income management are available for those who satisfy certain criteria. This generally includes people in full-time study, people with a sustained history of workforce participation and parents who can demonstrate proper care and education of their children.

People who are not subject to compulsory income management have the option to volunteer for income management and can receive an incentive payment for every six months they remain on income management. Under the roll-out of the new income management scheme in the NT, around 60 per cent of people who are no longer subject to compulsory income management have decided to continue to receive budgeting support through voluntary income management rather than exit the system.

Participants of the recent evaluation of the child protection and voluntary income management measures in Western Australia reported improvements in their budgeting and savings, with up to 80 per cent indicating that they were more likely to save money regularly and less likely to run out of money to pay rent and bills. The operation of the new model of income management in the NT will be rigorously evaluated to guide the next steps in a progressive implementation to other locations across Australia.

I trust that this clarifies some of the issues raised in your article.

Yours sincerely,


Jenny MacklinJenny Macklin MP is the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.

Topic tags: Jenny Macklin, Intervention, Frank Brennan, Indigenous Affairs, open letter



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Existing comments

In light of Minister Macklin's letter I suggest it would be timely and helpful to reflect on the history of the current federal government's continuation of the former Howard government's decisions, and the responses from both the Indigenous community (mixed),the broader Australian community (muted, but concerned) and the international community (mostly, and correctly, alarmed).

I encourage Eureka Street to continue to draw attention to the continuing plight of Indigenous communities.

Although the minister points to reinstatement of rights, the fact remains that the intervention sent and continues to send the strongest of parochial message to Aboriginal Australians. 'You are lax, addicted, unreliable, sexually deviant people who do not know what is good for you - we are the pure, all-wise pundits; you are children who we cannot trust.'

Pending the proposed national roll-out of the intervention's income management scheme to all vulnerable Australians (presumably minus the government's acquisition of land that so indelibly marks its response to the Aboriginal communities), I see no evidence in her letter to dispute Frank Brennan's assertions of discriminatory treatment of Indigenous Australians.

His is far from the sole voice raised in this country, let alone by international bodies that exist to encourage equity and fair treatment for all human beings.

Consider the condemnation expressed by James Anaya, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples.

Consider the appeals against the intervention from reputable bodies such as Amnesty International.

Consider the recent condemnation of the intervention by World Council of Churches (last month), which described the action as discriminatory, oppressive and racist.

The glaringly obvious fact remains that Minister Macklin's neighbours would not have the troopers sent into their suburbs if the government decided there were instances of child abuse being perpetrated. Nor would 'normal' Aussies be refused the capacity to choose how to spend their income, even if they are on benefits. (As said, that may change if the federal government has its way.)

But even if income management does get applied to widows, to the unemployed, to students, single parents, carers, disabled people, aged pensioners, etc., that treatment will not be accompanied by the raft of racist, draconian steps the government has taken in Aborignial communities.

'Control' cannot and should not be mistakenly accepted as reform. Indigenous Australians don't confuse the reek of racism and paternalism with the perfume of high ideals and best intentions. They have had centuries to distinguish between the two.

Barry G | 16 March 2011  

Jenny Macklin seemed at first to be the voice of a government genuinely committed to the welfare of Aboriginal people but she long ago lost my confidence. She routinely chose to accept the advice of staff who were very free with the truth about, for example, the nature and the findings of the "extensive consultations" with Aboriginal people about their response to, and their satisfaction with, the NT Emergency. For years she has chosen not to hear the cries of pain from Aboriginal people most recently presented on John Cleary's ABC programme, about the shame and humiliation they feel at their segregation into discriminatory queues when using the Basics Card in Supermarkets; at their having to travel impossible and unaffordable distances to use them in "approved" stores; at people with perfect work and behaviour records being humiliated by unsympathetic Centrelink staff. And now there is the nonsense of extra Government assistance for the geniuses who can "save" $500 from the poverty line payments they receive. And simply hiding the injury behind extending income management to non-Aboriginal welfare recipients is a further dishonesty and changes nothing. The Minister has too much to do to do this job well. Replace her please.

Joe Castley | 16 March 2011  

How does Jenny Macklin answer the statement by Indigenous Elders of 7th February, 2011? Has she responded to this cry of pain? How does she answer the words, "We are the people of this land. The land is our mother. For more than 40,000 years we gave been caring for this land. We are its natural farmers. . . Under the Intervention we lost our rights as human beings, as Australian citizens, as the First People of the Land.. . Our lands have been compulsorily taken from us. We have been left with nothing." (to read more see the weblink below). How is it that what Jenny Macklin perceives to be"non-discriminatory" measures are experienced by Indigenous Elders as a "nightmare"? http://stoptheintervention.org/uploads/files_to_download/concerned-Australians/Elders-statement-7-2-11.pdf

Janet | 16 March 2011  

It is predictable that the Minister would protest that her intervention does not contravene the Racial Discrimination Act. But how come it feels so much like a racist policy to the people it affects? If policies attempting to assist rape victims were to be reported as contributing to their anguish, surely we would investigate and try to change these policies. And at least, we would accept that they have a right to complain. Countless leaders, objective and sympathetic to Aboriginal Australians, have supported the Aborigines' claims that the intervention is unfair and should be changed. If the Minister cannot hear and refuses to acknowledge that she might be wrong, perhaps she should aim her efforts somewhere else, and leave Indigenous Affairs to a more competent person.

Eveline Goy | 16 March 2011  

Jenny Macklin is well intentioned and fine woman who I believe is being advised by an Industry of people who are not portraying the true realities. This Industry has benefited and grown beyond proportions for decades on the misery of a people who do not truly participate or are engaged in their own solutions. In my significant experience of remote communities people are not being consulted, and are being patronised by good and bad human operators operating within hierarchical and powerfilled human systems. We, mostly unintentionally, malign a group of people and impose our world views and solutions on them. People in air conditioned offices do not have a true grasp of the heat that debilitates our First Peoples. I am personally witnessing misappropriation of tax payers money on a grand scale. My fear is that politics will never offer real solutions until long term, accountable and community driven solutions are sought, respected and honoured by a Bipartisan Parliament that acts for the people and by the people.

Michael Gravener | 16 March 2011  

I fear the Minister protests too much. The concerns raised by Frank Brennan are legitimate and are not explained away here as the Minister might wish. The current Government's efforts in this area may be well intentioned but have been woeful. Assistance with income management, for example, could be beneficial, but its discriminatory application undermines the potential benefits.

Myrna | 16 March 2011  

I agree with all the writers' opinions! What is interesting is that the Minister STILL does not want to face the truth, even when it is looking at her in the face! The famous "consultations", we know, are just a way of "telling" the aborigine people what will happen. It is easy to phrase questions the "right" way, to get the answers the Minister desires. In this way, she can always answer the way she has done in this letter.

Macklin has no ear for the community's feelings, cannot begin to guess how the Australian public feels about the Intervention, she cannot be ahead of public opinion because she is blind and deaf to our feelings about this situation. How to make her listen? Tricky question! I don't think she will ever do so. New advisers? New (independent) consultants?

Fr Brennan, you better go on writing... and we will be right behind you!

Nathalie | 16 March 2011  

This communique highlights the following: Bureaucrats are instigating action based on perceived or real areas of concern; Bureaucrats are dictating the avenues of 'liaison' following this identification of 'concern'; Bureaucrats are devising and delivering their findings based on their own parameters of investigation and feedback; Politicians believe that bureacrats have the full understanding of, or co-operation of, the people/s concerned in these investigations; Politicians believe that bureaucrats understand human rights, including the moral and ethical basis to these rights; The public believes that public servants and politicians are there to 'serve' the public, to act as responsible governors of public needs; The public believes that bureaucrats and politicians are paid by the public for the public; The public believes that bureaucrats know the reasons behind the legislation they are applying to the public. What we believe and what takes place are often two different things. Australia lacks a human rights act as well as an official incorporation of the international expectations in this area; our bureaucrats do not understand what their roles are; our bureaucratic machine has developed frightening strength; politicians respond to bureaucratic findings. The public must start turning this around. Asking for reasons is a simple beginning.

SCOTT | 16 March 2011  

"Extensive consultations" says the minister?? Has anyone looked at the report "Will They Be Heard?" in which a few of these "consultations" were videoed? The minister is kidding herself if she really believes that the First Australians have truly been listened to. I'm feeling ashamed to be called an Australian again!

pia | 16 March 2011  

Reading the number of comments by well-meaning Left-of-centre Catholics, it seems that having put up with Howard's miserable record of social welfare and justice for 11 years, this struggling Labor government is expected to reverse all the bad policies of the past government at the wave of a magic wand. It has always been the case that people are less forgiving of a Labor government but seem more benevolent when it comes to the deeds of a Conservative one. So what's the alternative? A government led by a Catholic whose mantra is to "stop the boats"?

The problem of reconciliation, in this instance, is ours, as it has been since we, the good Christians, occupied this continent. And no amount of self-righteous rhetoric will change the tragedy that we have imposed on the indigenous population.

Alex Njoo | 17 March 2011  

Jenny Macklin typifies the putrid, unconscious, paternalistic racism that exists in Australia. Our aboriginal brothers and sisters will never receive justice until the thoughts and views of Fr Brennan make it into the heads of politicians like Jenny Macklin.

John Smith | 17 March 2011  

The problem I have in reading this letter is that there are simply too many half-truths being provided to you by the bureaucrats and the conclusions being drawn are incorrect. It would take too much space to point to all of them. However you say, "Under the roll-out of the new income management scheme in the NT, around 60 per cent of people who are no longer subject to compulsory income management have decided to continue to receive budgeting support through voluntary income management rather than exit the system."

It is this kind of half-truth by Government that has lost it credibility. To tell the full story would have meant revealing that a bonus is offered to people who are no longer subject to Income Management if they are prepared to remain on it. See Centrelink information below:

Q. How does the Voluntary Income Management Incentive Payment work?
A person will be eligible for a payment of $250 for every continuous 26 week period they remain income managed under Voluntary Income Management. The person will not need to apply for this payment as it will be automatically paid to those people who satisfy the criteria. This payment will be income managed at a rate of 100 per cent and paid directly into the person’s income management account.

You see most poor and disadvantaged people will continue receiving budgeting support because they NEED THE ADDITIONAL MONEY that you are offering them.

Many of them will not continue because they need budgeting support and the inconvenience that are a part of the system.

Michele Harris | 17 March 2011  

The Rudd Labor Opposition endorsed the Howard - Brough NT Intervention in 2007 for political reasons, not out of concern or respect for Indigenous communities in the NT. Labor was frightened of losing votes of rednecks, and still is, instead of standing up to them.

Peter Murphy | 17 March 2011  

Living here in the Kimberley, Brennan's naivety and that of many of the correspondents appears profound. Rather than do nothing, we have to do anything, anything at all. And that means no grog, no porn, kids at school, and spending benefits at the shop, not card playing. This problem is not one for chair sitters, or Burke St coffee shops.

It does require compassion, but primarily actions that are unthinkable in Kirribilli. Much damage is done by folk down south pontificating about actions without offering real solutions - not one more opinion without spending 2 months somewhere remote and challenging, either ministering or teaching, but hands-on working with indigenous people anyway. The UN is further away than Melbourne, so please no more appeals to "human rights", unless your post is from the Outback - otherwise, you are just too far away to know. Come up here and do something, please, before trusting "elders" and so forth, whose statements are often mediated through advisors, or are political in nature.

On the ground here, no grog, no porn and kids at school are still mountains to be climbed - not opined about from far away.

Kimberley Local | 17 March 2011  

Perhaps Kimberley Local could refer her/his feedback directly to Jenny Macklin?! Or the bureaucrats who travel where she/he is, in their big cars for a quick 'taking of the pulse' of the indigenous people? You must look at the Canberra Times, sometime. At least once a month, there is a good article on this theme (which includes J. Macklin)you would like to check!?!? We can't all be "there" to see what's going on, as you well know. But we do read and talk to aborigine people where we live.

Nathalie | 17 March 2011  

I'm still waiting to heare from Frank concerning when he thinks we might be able to expect the Big A (Apology)from the Australian Jesuits for the way in which they abandoned the Aboriginal people of the Daly River mission in the 1890's.

Claude Rigney | 22 March 2011  

Simply more evidence of the dishonesty and duplicity of Jenny Macklin in particular and the 'Labor' Government in general.

Gary Foley | 22 March 2011  

Europeans have been, and are still forcing their patriarchal system onto a matriarchal society and in doing so are ruining the matriarchal society.
Aboriginal society doesn't need Big Brother.
Aboriginal society needs their Big Mother.

Greig WIlliams | 04 April 2011  

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