Polarised debate on the NT Intervention

There’s a very noisy left-leaning opposition group to the Gillard government’s modified version of the NTER or Indigenous Intervention (which Minister Macklin has variously renamed “Closing the Gap” or “Stronger Futures”).  No doubt they’re sincere in their opposition to current policy, but their rhetorical style is shrill to say the least.

If you read only publications like Crikey or the Fairfax press, you might well be convinced that the Gillard government’s Indigenous affairs policies are just cynical, racist paternalism.  A typical example is a piece in today’s Crikey newsletter by Dr Hilary Tyler and Paddy Gibson.  It deals with some of the research underpinning the Commonwealth’s recently released 400-page evaluation of the NTER, in particular the Community Safety and Wellbeing Research Study.

The reasons why opponents of current policies might wish to discredit this research are apparent from a brief perusal of the executive summary:

Survey responses showed consistent agreement that the key positive changes perceived to have taken place over the last three years are in schools (83.3%), Centrelink (80.6%), clinics (78.3%), police (76.3%) and stores (76.2%). Services that have contributed to an improvement in safety at the community level are Night Patrols (74.8%) and more activities for young people (65.4%). In addition to the survey responses, the participative voting process identified that the most highly regarded change over the last three years was the increase in police presence. In addition, the Basics Card, improved housing and the school nutrition programs were voted into the list of the top five changes across the sample. (These issues were not covered by the survey tool). Improvement in opportunities for employment and training were also identified as a significant positive change. These data provide strong evidence that survey participants identify improvements to service delivery as being the most important changes that have taken place over the last three years. A very strong finding was that some of the positive changes, particularly those around community functioning and safety, were much less marked in larger communities.

The majority of survey respondents (58.7%) reported that their own lives were on the ‘way up’. The most common reasons cited were getting a job, living in improved housing, and having more money. Fewer people thought that their community was on the ‘way up’ (47.4%); however more people judged ‘way up’ than ‘no change’ (42.1%) or ‘way down’ (7.6%). The most common reasons for citing ‘no change’ or ‘way down’ were that people are still living in overcrowded housing, find it hard to get a job, there is still a lot of family fighting and unhappiness about both the Intervention and the loss of Community Councils through the change to governance through the Shires.

Strong negative changes that have taken place over the last three years are perceived to be the loss of control at the community level and resulting disempowerment of local leaders, and the increase in marijuana use.

Our anonymous Alice Springs informant reflects on Gibson and Tyler’s critique of the Community Safety and Wellbeing Research Study:

Paddy Gibson & Hilary Tyler spend the first part of their article disparaging the accuracy, credibility and objectivity of the Community Safety & Wellbeing Research Study (CSWRS), but then proceed to use its findings as seriously credible evidence for  attacks on some aspects of Macklin’s policies etc. So do they think it’s credible or not?

The great majority of these pilot interviews were carried out by Aboriginal speakers fluent in local languages who had been trained professionally in research techniques in a stridently anti-Intervention organisation. These researchers were definitely not pro-Intervention, but they understood and honoured the duty of researchers to do their work in a scrupulously unbiased and non-directive manner.

The reason the ‘17-page survey form used in communities does not once refer to “the intervention” or the “Northern Territory Emergency Response”’ is that hardly any of the randomly-chosen interviewees in remote communities knew what the terms “the intervention” or “Northern Territory Emergency Response” meant.

Therefore the survey form was modified, and interviewees were asked to compare their lives to the period before three years ago, before the intervention, but also using concrete illustrations such as ‘before the introduction of Income Management’, the arrival of GBMs, the arrival of extra police, and the changes to CDEP and alcohol regulations, to ensure they understood what was being asked.

Also: most NTER programs were introduced into most communities in the period Oct. 2007 to May 2008. The intervention was not “in full swing” in late 2007 – many communities did not yet have Income Management, or changes to shops, CDEP, police and other things in late 2007.

Another quirk: they are billed as being “NT indigenous workers”.  Neither is Indigenous, and Paddy lives in Sydney, working at UTS’s Jumbunna House & I think also enrolled for  PhD on the NTER at Sydney U. He is a leading light in the Sydney Stop the Intervention Collective (STIC) and also I think still in the Working Group on Aboriginal Rights (WGAR) and the campaign to stop Income Management being implemented in Bankstown. Dr Hilary Tyler works at Alice Springs Hospital, has worked in Emergency there for the last few years. She is heavily involved in the Intervention Rollback Action Group (IRAG), and may now be on the Public Health Association Australia (PHAA) executive.

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8 thoughts on “Polarised debate on the NT Intervention”

  1. Although I fully support the intervention, in my view it’s a bit of a band aid and won’t solve the core problem. The problem in my view is that many (not all) of these communities have been set up or created where there’s no economic base. Many were created originally as part of the ‘homeland’ movement which, although achieving its aim in allowing people to re-engage with their traditional country, has also created micro welfare states, totally devoid of meaningful productivity.There have been some attempts at creating a local economy, mostly through arts and tourism, and while generally successful, in themselves they can not support the larger populations. When a person (or people) have no purpose, no reason to get up in the morning, life quickly deteriorates into boredom, violence, alcohol and drug abuse and ultimately disfunction. In mainstream Australia, when communities or towns no longer have a strong economic base, people leave and the community declines and eventually dies. Perhaps rather than government programs proping up disfunctional communities, they should be dissolved and the people given the opportunity of a meaningful life in mainstream Australia.

  2. I find it abhorrent that, in our modern, ‘civilised’ society, such an overtly racist policy as the NTER is even in existence; I will put those feelings aside in order to attempt a constructive comment.
    One of the measures of the NTER mentioned in this post is the issuing of ‘Basics Cards’, whereby a portion of a person’s Centrelink payments are quarantined and can only be spent at particular stores – i.e. at the supermarket, K-Mart etc. It is my understanding that the purpose of this was to better ensure that Centrelink payments are spent on food and other necessities, thus improving the welfare of affected Indigenous children. According to the findings of the ‘Community Safety and Wellbeing Research Study’ quoted in this piece, the introduction of Basics Cards was one of the top five changes according to the survey response.
    Leaving aside the questions raised about the credibility of the study; it is my strong feeling that if the findings are genuine, then these same changes should have been implemented for all Australians and not just select Indigenous communities. I assert that there are substantial numbers of non-indigenous Australian children who are inadequately cared or provided for. None of the problems seen in these communities are unique to Indigenous Australians. If these policies are meant to protect and improve the status of people, then they should be applied to all people.

  3. I basically agree with you, Phillippa. The intervention is, or at least was, fundamentally racist in that it applied to a particular group of indigenous Australian’s who were residents of certain communities. That’s why the Racial Discrimination Act needed to be suspended. At the time however, what was the greater evil. Not intervening, and allowing the cases of widespread child abuse as identified in the “Little Children Are Sacred” report to continue, introducing a slow moving bureaucratic solution that would have met with all sorts of legal challenges and taken years, or go ahead with the a rapid response that was the intervention. I think the correct decision was taken. It must be noted that the NT government sat on the report for an unacceptably long period whilst it was considering its response. Perhaps it they’d responded with urgency the intervention as we know it might not have been neccessary. Sure, peoples rights might have been infringed a bit but in my view one child saved from abuse is worth it. In respose to the ‘basics card’. I think the income management program of which this is a part has been extended to non-indigenous welfare recipients and the Racial Discrimination Act reinstated. In any event, I’m not confident the intervention will be a long term success for the reasons I’ve stated above.

  4. With the differing opinions about the NTER, I am reminded of a TV documentary in about 1994 (possibly shown on the ABC about that time) when Graham Richardson, then a Labor Senator and I believe Minister for Health under the Keating Government, in which he stood near an open septic drain at an Aboriginal Community in the NT. With tears rolling down his face, he made a passionate statement that he was going to fix these terrible conditions immediately upon his return to Canberra and was allocating a billion dollars or so to this problem. An impressive sight indeed.
    Strangely, and I believe under something of a cloud, Richardson resigned from Parliament only a very short time later – and nothing was done to alleviate the terrible conditions he had so passionately and tearfully promised he would fix. Little wonder those communities distrust we white fellas, particularly politicians.
    Having worked from the 1970s to the mid 1980s (on two separate postings as a police officer in the APY Lands of SA), I was appalled at the social conditions that existed in these communities; crime, substance abuse (petrol sniffing, drugs and alcohol) were rife, and the communities were in disarray. I also visited several Aboriginal Communities in the southern areas of the NT and witnessed the same appalling conditions.
    Millions of dollars were poured into these communities during this time but it seemed like a bottomless pit with no sides – I personally saw no improvement over my time in those areas other than perhaps an increase in numbers of well-meaning social workers, but most were recent graduates, full of theory but with little substance and no real experience and having no effect on social problems faced by the communities; they came and went like blowies around a fresh carcass.
    I was also witness to the end of the era of Assimilation, when the now APY Lands were called the ‘North West Aboriginal Reserves’, and saw the beginnings of ‘self-determination’, and the renaming of the areas to the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankuntjatjara (APY) Lands. All that seemed to change were the appointment of new white community advisors – but still under-qualified and seeming to lack direction or even caring, other than to make a quick buck and move on. Cynically, many of the white people in those communities were referred to as the ‘Three Ms – mercenaries, missionaries, and misfits’.
    Although I’ve not had the privilege of being able to return to the APY Lands since 1990, I’ve been reliably informed that nothing of substance has changed – millions of dollars are still being poured into the same bottomless pit.
    Until the NTER, what had changed? One child’s life saved is surely a magnificent bonus, but I can’t help wondering whether, like the contentious knee-jerk firearms control during the Howard era, whether this is yet another knee-jerk reaction, based on little practical research.
    A cynical view perhaps, but if any readers ever have the opportunity to visit any of these extremely remote communities, I strongly recommend you do – it will be an eye-opening experience and one you’ll find difficult to forget.
    I really don’t know what the answer is, but any action to equalise the living conditions and standards of members of these communities is surely worth trying?

  5. Further to my comments above, I realise of course that the NTER does not include the South Australian APY Lands – I was using my own experiences and knowledge of southern NT communities simply as an example and that the same conditions exist/ed in SA as the NT.

  6. For those of us who have worked in organisations exposed to Indigenous issues in Aboriginal communities and town camps, the concerns originally raised by Dr Nanette Rogers (Lateline interview 15/5/06) are not new. If nothing else, what the intervention has achieved is exposure of the problem to the broader community. Whilst I am generally in favour of the intervention legislation, it is not perfect. The current government’s Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2011 seeks to restore some balance to the equation (particularly with the reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act in the Northern Territory). ‘Seagull’ ministers (fly in, fly out) have a limited knowledge of the realities of living in an Aboriginal Community, so numbers and figures are important for policy development. It is imperative that the government seeks, and continues, to consult with Aboriginal people DIRECTLY AFFECTED by its policy (such as Bess Price and Gina Smith). Income management seems to be a sticking point. Cynics may argue that the current government’s intention to introduce Income Management into five ‘disadvantaged centres’ mid this year – Playford (SA), Bankstown (NSW), Logan (QLD), Rockhampton (QLD) and Shepparton (VIC) is a feeble attempt to avoid being labelled as racist for introducing these measures in Indigenous communities. However I disagree. As outlined in the Foreward of the Little Children are Sacred Report ‘Family dysfunctionality …. reflects and encompasses problems of alcohol and drug abuse, poverty, housing shortages, unempolyment and the like.’ If it takes a basics card for families to budget, so be it. Care for the children comes first. On a personal note after working as a legal secretary on the file of ‘HG’ (Little Children are Sacred Report, pg 121) and since having left that employment, it was disturbing to read that ZH had gone on to offend in the same manner. The cycle must stop.

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