Northern Territory Emergency Response – a heavily qualified success

There’s been quite a bit of social media discussion in the last week or two on issues surrounding the Northern Territory Intervention (NTER).  A small group of Territory Aboriginal activists led by Alice Springs’ Barbara Shaw protested the impending implementation of the federal government’s “Stronger Smarter” policy which will link school attendance to welfare benefit removal in extreme cases. That prompted former Family Court Chief Justice and keen Tweeter Alastair Nicholson to observe not unreasonably that stripping welfare payments from parents of truants was “a peculiar way of assisting children”.

It’s a fair point, but equally education, training and ultimately real jobs are the keys to relieving the drastic disadvantage and squalor that characterise nearly all remote Aboriginal communities.  It is incumbent on those who reject “tough love” measures with coercive elements to propose something else that may work.  We are currently dealing with two entire generations of Aboriginal Territorians who are functionally illiterate and innumerate and who mostly cannot even converse in English in any more than the most basic way.

On the other hand, persuading parents in remote communities that there’s any point in making their kids go to school when there is little or no genuine prospect of a real job at the end of it, and when the prevailing culture places little value on education or employment, is a tall order.  Moreover, as even middle class urban parents can discover, forcing a sullen, recalcitrant, unwilling teenager to attend and stay at school is next to impossible.  Should benefits be withdrawn in such situations?  How does a bureaucrat distinguish between irresponsible parents and defeated ones?  Even if that distinction can reliably be made, will there be arrangements to ensure that children from families whose welfare payments have been stopped are still fed, clothed and housed adequately?

On a wider level, Nicholson and others like long-time Intervention opponent Jon Altman have been calling for roll-back of NTER measures generally.  Altman claims that recent figures show the Intervention has simply failed.  But is Altman correct or is he just “cherry-picking” statistics that fit his long-held convictions?  A detailed independent evaluation of the NTER released this week tends to suggest the latter explanation.

The report was prepared under federal government auspices but researched and written by the Australian Institute of Criminology, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the Australian Institute of Family Studies, the Australian Council for Educational Research, Allen Consulting Group, Colmar Brunton Social Research, and KPMG.

The report concludes, albeit with heavy qualifications, that the NTER/Intervention has been a worthwhile exercise and that recent and ongoing reforms to it are mostly on the right track.  I reproduce some key extracts below.

However I should first explain my own perspective and personal biases (we all have them).  I worked closely with Indigenous communities, organisations and individual leaders over almost 20 years as a lawyer in the Northern Territory before “retiring” to academia.  During that time I saw the situation in many if not most communities go backwards.  I don’t have any magical policy prescriptions, but I know from experience that previous ones simply haven’t worked.

The “self-determination” approach to Aboriginal affairs, which prevailed unchallenged from around 1970 until the last decade or so, was based largely on an ethical conviction of the justice and necessity not only of self-determining autonomy for Indigenous people but also on  achievement of symbolic goals like treaties, apologies and recognition of customary law.  However, at least in terms of practical outcomes it was arguably no more successful than earlier assimilationist polices.  The plight of Aboriginal people actually became progressively worse on many measures.  Of course, some supporters of that approach continue to argue that self-determination was only ever tried in a half-hearted, piecemeal, stop-start fashion.  There is probably some truth in those assertions in that ATSIC never had control of a wide range of service areas vital to Aboriginal health and well-being.  Nevertheless, one cannot argue convincingly that self-determination policies were a raging success.

Similarly, the Howard Intervention and its re-badging by the current ALP government as “Closing the Gap” has also enjoyed underwhelming success to date despite multi-billion dollar spending.

Part of the problem is the “top-down”, prescriptive, paternalistic nature of recent and current Federal programs.  Successive Productivity Commission  reports have found that the programs which work successfully in Aboriginal communities are those based on consultation, partnership, mutual respect and communities “taking ownership” of initiatives.  That must not obviate accountability or efficiency, but the two are not incompatible.

The Evaluation Report extracted below makes this and many other important points.  It is well worth reading in its entirety by anyone who aspires to a genuinely informed view of Indigenous policy:


Fourteen Remote Aboriginal and Family Community Workers (RAFCWs) were based in 13 priority communities under the NTER. These workers are providing services to the 13 priority communities and outreach services to an additional 20 communities as part of the priority community service model. Safe houses are also proving to be valuable community assets.

One hundred and ninety-two additional teaching positions have been funded. Additional professional development opportunities for teachers have been provided to improve the quality of teaching, and more housing has been constructed to encourage teachers to stay for longer. Overcrowding in schools has been reduced through the construction of new classrooms. The School Nutrition Program (SNP) has not increased attendance, but may have improved student behaviour and parental engagement with the school. Additional early childhood programs have had moderate take-up and reasonable support from parents.

Income management was supported by many people in the communities who believed that it was bringing about positive outcomes, especially for children although there are still problems in finding out the balance on a BasicsCard. Community stores now stock a wider range of healthy foods. …

Outcomes for health, education, employment, housing and safety showed some improvement but were still well below those for non-Indigenous people. …

In a survey of over 1,300 NTER community members, most people (58.7%) reported that they felt that their lives were better than they had been three years ago. A majority of people surveyed (72.6%) also said that their community was safer now than it had been three years ago.

As a result of the NTER, 18 communities gained a resident police presence for the first time. Other communities received more policing resources. Communities that did not have night patrols got them, and alcohol restrictions were more consistently enforced.

Some 10,605 children had at least one health check. A health condition or risk factor was identified for 97 per cent of children checked. Ninety-nine per cent of those children received some form of management during the check. Seventy per cent received at least one referral for follow-up treatment.

Of the children who had multiple checks, all those with trachoma and ringworm, 93 per cent of those suffering from scabies, 91 per cent of those with skin sores and 74 per cent of those suffering from anaemia had recovered by the time of the later check.

The percentage of Year 3 students in NTER schools who were at or above the national minimum standard in reading increased from 18 per cent in 2008 to 41 per cent in 2010.

Since the start of the NTER, 2,241 properly paid jobs have been created and 2,233 positions have been filled. From July 2007 to December 2010, 4,100 job placements were brokered.

According to the Community Safety and Wellbeing Research Study (CSWRS), most NTER residents surveyed said that it was easier to get help from the clinic, Centrelink and the police than it had been three years before. Respondents also reported that schools were better, and that youth schemes provided valuable activities for young people.

The number of simultaneous activities (many unrelated to the NTER), the long lag time between actions and outcomes, and the short duration of the NTER mean it is rarely possible to attribute outcomes to individual measures.

Acknowledging shortcomings

Educational attainment remains a key challenge. Average school attendance rates were low and have not improved since the start of the NTER. There has been some improvement in National Assessment Program—Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) results for Year 3 reading in NTER schools since 2008, but most children in NTER schools do not meet national minimum standards for reading, writing and numeracy.

Problems with the implementation of the NTER relate primarily to poor consultation and the blanket imposition of a small number of initiatives. The initial rollout was marked by a sense of crisis that favoured short-term approaches with little consultation. This delivered much needed additional government services, such as police, teachers, night patrols and classrooms. Communities generally welcomed these additional government services despite short consultation periods.

However, for initiatives specific to the NTER communities—such as income management and signage outside communities referring to the alcohol and pornography bans—the abrupt, imposition broke trust and made some people feel that they had been unfairly labelled. Many people valued the measures, but the manner in which they were implemented caused problems. … [An earlier FaHCSIA report claimed strong majority community support for income management (around 2/3 support), but another report prepared by a body called Equality Rights Alliance reached an almost opposite conclusion]

Income management

But certain community specific measures were resented at first. One of the most controversial aspects of the NTER was the introduction of compulsory income management. Income management was initially imposed according to place of residence, and only communities on Aboriginal-owned areas within the Northern Territory were selected.

The income management measure is now seen as beneficial by many people, especially women. However, the initial selection of only Indigenous communities caused ‘widespread disillusionment, resentment and anger in a significant segment of the Indigenous community’.

Even in its original form, income management generated a mixed reaction. In a 2008 survey in six NTER communities commissioned by the Central Land Council, local residents were almost evenly divided between those in favour (51%) and those opposed (46%) to income management.

Significant changes to income management were introduced in 2010. Under the changes, a new scheme of income management was commenced across the Northern Territory—in urban, regional and remote areas—as a first step in a future rollout of income management to disadvantaged regions. The Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) applied in relation to the new scheme from its implementation in July 2010.

The future

Looking forward, new measures to improve enrolment and attendance at school and the extent and sustainability of the economic base are needed if the NTER is to fulfil its objectives. Education and jobs are critical to the wellbeing of communities. Housing also remains an issue of prime importance to communities.

Workforce shortfalls, especially shortfalls of suitably skilled Indigenous people, are evident in health, education, policing and governance. Yet there is low employment and low school attendance. There is potential for more Indigenous people to pursue careers that would assist their communities, particularly if they succeed in school.

Longevity of both programs and personnel has been demonstrated to work better than rapid change. Long-term commitment and evolution in accordance with community strengths and on timeframes agreed with communities have the greatest chance of bringing about sustained improvement.

The capacity of communities to build on government services will be essential to sustained improvement. Dodson and Smith have identified Indigenous governance as the key factor for the sustainable development of Indigenous communities: ‘Without improved governance capacity, there is unlikely to be sustained development, and valuable opportunities will be squandered.’

My conclusion?

In my humble opinion, there were two fundamental problems with the NTER as it was initially conceived and implemented.

The first was the excessively coercive, “top down”, confrontational approach that was adopted.  No doubt it reflected the military background of Minister Mal Brough.  His sincerity is undoubted, and he was equally undoubtedly right that drastic action was needed.  Moreover, maybe it needed someone like Brough to shock people out of entrenched postures and acknowledge that the Indigenous Policy Emperor really did have no clothes.  However the way Brough went about the task was the antithesis of the approach of consultation, partnership and mutual respect which both research and experience have shown is what actually works.

Brough’s second mistake was to label the situation and the government response to it as an “emergency”.  That created expectations of a “quick fix” which could never be realised.  It is more accurate to view the situation in remote Aboriginal communities as one of long-term, endemic chaos and dysfunction on just about every level.  Solutions will correspondingly be difficult, multi-dimensional, expensive and take a very long time to realise decisively positive results.  Anyone who claims to have all or even most of the answers is either naive, dishonest or both.


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