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NT intervention: Macklin ignores review board in favour of anecdotes

Minister Macklin has responded very swiftly to reject the key recommendation of the NTER Review Board that she appointed: “that the current application of compulsory income management in the Northern Territory cease” and that it should be available on a voluntary basis to community members who choose to have some of their income quarantined for specific purposes as determined by them.

The NTER Review Board, like everyone else, seems to prefer the term “income management” to “quarantining”, but the bottom line is that this is the most contentious measure in the intervention because it contravenes the Racial Discrimination Act, is blanket and hence makes no distinction between responsible and irresponsible spenders of welfare, and is limited to only Aboriginal people residing in NT prescribed communities and not, for example, to those participating in the Cape York trials.

Where is the horizontal equity even between Aboriginal people?

In the NTER Review Report’s Foreword the Board highlighted that “there is intense hurt and anger [in prescribed communities] at being isolated on the basis of race and subjected to collective measures that would never be applied to other Australians. The Intervention was received with a sense of betrayal and disbelief. Resistance to its imposition undercut the potential effectiveness of its substantive measures.”

These are very powerful words uttered by a distinguished Board of three, supported by a team of eleven experts, all hand-picked by the Minister and other independent advisers.

The NTER Review Board’s recommendations were based on visits to 31 communities, meetings with representatives of 56 communities and overall consultation with over 140 different organisations over three months. On top of this, the Board received 222 submissions including mine and commissioned its own consultancy research much of which has not, as yet, been made public.

Against this, the Minister is pitting her evidence base which seems to consist of two elements. The first is information from stores which indicates that Aboriginal people in prescribed communities are spending more on food, especially fresh fruit and vegetables, and other basics and less on grog. The Minister contends that this is resulting in early evidence of better health outcomes for children.

If there are stores or household expenditure surveys that can convincingly demonstrate such outcomes then it is incumbent on the Minister to make them publicly available for critical scrutiny. It is surprising that such surveys were not mentioned by the Review Board. The Minister does not countenance the possibility that such increased expenditure, especially on fresh food and vegetables, might result from greater availability of such produce now that community stores need to be licenced to meet minimum Australian standards rather than income quarantining.

The second source of evidence is anecdotal, representations made by unnamed women to the Minister to retain compulsory quarantining because of their fear that if it were made voluntary they would be bullied, presumably by men, to bypass such voluntary options. Such statements are reminiscent of how Mal Brough used to construct his moral authority in order to support his pre-determined actions via shadowy anonymous anecdote.

This is not only a poor basis for evidence based policy making to which the Minister is committed, but it is also demeaning of Aboriginal women’s agency, demeaning of men to suggest that they would force their own kin to act against their wishes, and demeaning of the Review Board that tables no such evidence despite widespread consultations.

One can only speculate on why Minister Macklin has taken this surprising route to extend the stabilisation phase and this most draconian and paternalistic measure for a further 12 months. Perhaps she is just being pragmatic knowing how difficult it will be to pass amendment through a hostile senate?

Or else she hopes that in 12 months time there will be such a major turnaround in favour of quarantining in prescribed communities so that it becomes a positive special measure that is popularly sought and hence not in contravention of the RDA. Or perhaps she is still looking for bipartisanship, Opposition spokesperson Tony Abbott has certainly been first out of the blocks to support this decision.

One has to wonder why a considerable amount of public money, over $2 million according to Senate Estimates, has been spent on an independent review if the Minister was just going to cherry-pick from its recommendations? In terms of future reviews and evidence-based policy making the Minister sends a very negative signal, choosing to continue the Howard government’s approach of jettisoning expert opinion, in this case a hand-picked expert Review Board, in favour of the ‘person in the street’, in this case the Minister.

This is very worrying for the development of effective public policy in an area of enormous complexity that needs hard evidence, transparent and widespread community consultation and the advice of experts; and not recourse to selective anecdote and unsubstantiated generalisations at best, or mere ideology at worst.

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  • 1
    jon altman
    Posted Sunday, 26 October 2008 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    As the person who wrote the original article I want to thank all who made comment. I only want to post a comment to GJL who seems to have some problem with the fact that I am a professor. So let me assure you GJL that I have not always been a professor and that I have resided for very long periods of time in the remotest Aboriginal communities in north Australia in the most difficult circumstances and learnt a great deal. But if I had not, would that disqualify me from having a considered view? Do I have to be homeless to make informed comment about homelessness; or to be unemployed to make comment about the problem of unemployment. At once GJL you seem to be saying that ministers of the crown should and should not take advice from specialists. My main point is that policy should not be based either on anecdote or on the Minister’s interpretation of the views of a privileged few, especially when significant public money and much time and effort has been spent by an appointed Board to review these issues.

  • 2
    NT Roz
    Posted Saturday, 25 October 2008 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    There is no doubt that income quarantining is a blunt instrument, and a mixed blessing. In some places it has made economic prisoners of remote community people, hostage to the high prices and limited availabilities of some remote community stores. The measuring stick of money being spent on “fresh food” disregards the poor practices of some agencies providing “bush orders” - which include charging for goods that are missing once the boxes arrive at the (usually small) communities, meat that is too putrid to eat on arrival at teh community, and inedible fruit and veg. These orders are delivered only once a week, to people who have no capacity to safely store food,and who have to order off a list rather than being able to see what they are buying.
    Anything that reduces the amount of grog going into remote communities will reduce the appalling levels of violence against women and kids, and will make more money available for food, clothing, bedding etc. However, dare I suggest this would be best tackled by supply reduction at the outlets - selling less of the wretched stuff. This has not been mentioned as a strategy, as it is inconceivable to interfere with the rights of the liquor industry to sell as much of their product as they can. There is even some alarming discussion of “wet canteens” being placed back into remote communities in the Central Desert, despite the very strong evidence base that having a wet canteen increases the need for, and cost of providing health services, domestic violence services, kids services, and extra policing. It also guts the social life of communities, as everything revolves around the opening hours of the wet canteen. Macklin, (and NT politicians) - are you listening??? The Aboriginal women in this region DO NOT WANT INCREASED AVAILABILITY OF GROG! They’ve marched in the streets, they’ve written submissions, they’ve met with government and industry reps - and still have to keep fighting the same old battles.

  • 3
    GJL
    Posted Friday, 24 October 2008 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Yes Professor - you obviously know all about how it is to live in the remote communities of the NT, with all the complexities and competing interests that exist in these poverty-stricken, mostly disfunctional communities. Peter Yu too - he would know well??
    But Minister Macklin would only be following the lead of her boss in making decisions and announcing policy without any of the benefit that might spring from getting specialist advice from people who say they know. Rudd and Swan have set wonderful precedents for their fellow ministers in receiving (or not receiving) and following (or not following) the advices of their learned bureaucrats.
    But make no mistake professor - women and children in these remote areas are generally speaking, currently far better of in terms of safety, nutrition, health and welfare since the effects of the intervention have kicked in.

  • 4
    dermot
    Posted Friday, 24 October 2008 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    claret sez ” I have worked in Aboriginal health for many years and can tell you that it is much better to rely on ‘anecdotes’ than ‘expert opinion’”

    funny that whenever the intervention is mentioned another string of anecdotes is put in from someone who claims to work in ‘aboriginal health’ and thereby claims expertise.

    Claret you work as what? an admistrator? a nuse? a doctor? you don’t say.

  • 5
    Kevin Rennie
    Posted Friday, 24 October 2008 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Jenny Macklin referred on radio this morning to the views expressed by women in Wadeye. It seems that policy for the NT is often dictated by the situation there. It is probably one of the least functional communities in the Territory and should not be used as the yardstick for decision-making. Mal Brough always seemed to make the same mistake.

  • 6
    dermot
    Posted Friday, 24 October 2008 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    claret that is better. five years for a failed exercise in policy on the run to prove itself ridiculous

  • 7
    Bev Kilsby
    Posted Saturday, 25 October 2008 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    I once lived in Mission Yirrakala , in the NT. it was 40 yrs ago, then the Methodist Church controlled the
    Mission I learnt alot from the Church about Aborigines, I believe now it is under Govt care.
    While i was their I saw Aboriginies, catch fish, and crabs, and go out hunting, i think now their was no grog
    on the mission, at the time the Church was in controll. I could be wrong, it could have been done in secret.
    Those who drink where their are families, they should be supervised by doctors or trained people. if
    their is any violence. I also did Aboriginal History for year 12,VCE. and that taught me alot about Govt work, and Church influence, I loved the Videos I watched about these people around Austalia, I would advice any one to read and learn more about Aborigines, because some of them I believe are very gifted

  • 8
    Jon Hunt
    Posted Monday, 27 October 2008 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    Hello, well I can sympathise with some comments. I do have a problem with the minister ignoring some recommendations and choosing whatever she feels is right. You could then argue what’s the point of a review if you are only going to ignore it. However, I can also see that the imposition of compulsory welfare on what may be the majority of well-behaved people is something that is not insignificant. As Claret has mentioned, the problem is that it is often the case that people are bullied out of their money which is then spent on grog, dope and pokies leaving an empty wallet and an empty fridge. However, I would have thought that the review board would have given this due consideration.

  • 9
    Mirek
    Posted Sunday, 26 October 2008 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    It seems that Rudd`s Labour party is caught up in a bind: how to justify their enthusiastic support and endorsement for Howard`s July 2007 political intervention, and still appear before the punters as being somewhat different to the widely despised Liberal regime. We know how difficult it can be, but Jenny Macklin is trying her best!

  • 10
    a concerned student of this difficult situation
    Posted Monday, 27 October 2008 at 12:10 am | Permalink

    Prof Altman levels damaging criticism at Macklin’s disregard for the independent policy procedure she herself set up, which she appears to have countered by weak appeals to limited anecdotal evidence. And he is to be commended for his long running advocacy of the subaltern, his post-colonial defence of the self-determination of those marginalised and disaffected communities that populate our remote areas. But he also makes his case by way of denials of Macklin’s claims, and some of his counter claims simply aren’t true.

    Demand-sharing’, where the gains of individual enterprise and labour become distributed under pressures of obligation to kin, is widely acknowledged to be a major impediment to sustained engagement in work. In regrettable cases, regrettably many in some communities, this turns into ‘humbugging’, where the demands that wealth be ‘shared’ are made by intimidation and violence, especially on older people and on women. This is one collateral reason why income management or quarantining might be a good idea. Prof Altman’s proposal that it should be voluntary only also ignores problems. In many communities it is considered shameful to request income management. You have to specifically go into an office, ask for forms and so on, word gets around, and so it never happens.

    The reality is different in every community. But it cannot be ignored, no matter how noble the intentions behind the advocacy. Consultation and advocacy is important but articulation and negotiation on the ground is paramount at present. The onus is precisely on those people with experience living and working intimately with those communities affected to help them understand why the policies have been put in place — even if they disagree with it. This is also important because people in these communities might think, or with open discussion come to think that, for example, mandatory income management is necessary for their community and others, even if not good for them personally.

  • 11
    Claret
    Posted Friday, 24 October 2008 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Dermot,
    I worked as a nurse in Aboriginal communities for 13 years with my wife and am now recently retired. I had to deal first hand with the bashings that happened on a daily basis and the neglected and abused kids. It has now got to the stage that kids are abusing kids because they think it’s normal behaviour. You don’t have to take my word for it - look at the health status of Aboriginal people, nothing has changed (in fact the gap has widened) in the last 20 years. If we keep on with the same old policies then it will carry on for the next 20 years too. We have to break the cycle and we should let the intervention run for 5 years at least before it is called a failure. If the intervention is wound back then what do we replace it with, the same old failed policies? Once we get the kids an education and a safe environment then we can teach them their real Indigenous culture not grog, gambling and violence.

  • 12
    Claret
    Posted Friday, 24 October 2008 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    I have worked in Aboriginal health for many years and can tell you that it is much better to rely on ‘anecdotes’ than ‘expert opinion’. These experts are usually either fly-in fly-out academics, with no idea of the realities of living in an Aboriginal community, or the usual ‘leaders’ who have their own agenda for keeping the status quo. The reality is that ‘voluntary’ income management would be a joke and shows the complete naivety of the board. The women who wanted income management would be subject to severe and often violent pressure not to choose such an option as it would limit the amount of grog and gambling money available. It would lead to increased domestic violence at the very least. I often had Aboriginal commmunity people ask me to send them an ‘official letter’ banning use by the community of government project funds or vehicles etc otherwise they would be humbugged into handing the resources over for grog and drug runs. The ‘hurt and anger’ over the introduction of these measures is mainly from the people who are losing their grog and gambling money. ‘Consultation’ is often with people who want the money to keep rolling in unchecked - community members, especially women, in favour of the intervention are far too scared to speak up. If we are serious about changing the situation for Aboriginal people then we have to get real about the true situation and stop living in some false cultural ideal. The only criticism I have of the intervention is that it should be universal across the country and for all races alike. Government hand outs should have strings attached and if child allowance is spent on grog whilst the kids are neglected then it has to be withdrawn and redirected to assist the kids have a better life.

  • 13
    s teve martin
    Posted Friday, 24 October 2008 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Claret the fact that you dedicated 13 years of your life as a nurse at aboriginal communities must give your opinion more weight than the average writer here. But I wonder how objective you are- It is widely reported that most aboriginals do not drink alcohol,so the bashings to which you refer are by a minority. Although no doubt horrific.
    No doubt a similar opinion would be expressed by staff at the Royal Darwin Hospital regarding the bashings and mayhem that appear to be a daily part of the night life in Darwin’s Mitchell Street.

  • 14
    Milangka
    Posted Friday, 24 October 2008 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Macklin continues to waste money on implementing flawed policy that is doomed to fail (if indeed the aim is to ‘close the gap’ and make the children safer.). How can people take or learn responsibility when their lives are managed for them? Meanwhile, they are frustrated, ashamed, disempowered and even the little children are suffering racism due to the demonising of Aboriginal people who are negatively labelled by the huge blue and white signs at community entrances, by the segregated queues for ‘basics card’ shopping and so on.
    Macklin’s evidence of welfare quarantining’s success is also flawed. Her store data is based on a flimsy survey (with no baseline data) of ringing up store managers, many of them new to the community and its shopping habits. Surely if you had freedom to shop anywhere and then you’re forced to shop at one shop only, the amount of purchases at that shop will increase. Surely the increased number of bureaucrats and ad hoc services providers must lead to more purchasing at community stores?
    I question Macklin’s statement that she has visited many NT communities. I question her reiteration that many women in the NT like income management. How were questions asked? What language was used?
    The Intervention Rollback Action Group working from Alice Springs has conducted hundreds of surveys in Darwin, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs as well as remote communities and town camps. Overwhelmingly people dislike the blanket approach to welfare quarantining. Some people do like the banking facility that it provides, that is being able to save up for goods. This facility could be provided without the racist imposition of income management on everyone including blind and aged pensioners, single people without children and persons quite capable of managing their own affairs.
    Shame on Minister Macklin for continuing this flawed policy of the previous government. Let’s revisit the “Little Children Are Sacred” report.

  • 15
    Sad Barry
    Posted Friday, 24 October 2008 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    Minister Macklin exhibits a very poor (disturbingly poor) decision making process!! Will Federal Govts ever learn to listen to independant expert reports or advice? Jon Altman hits the nail on the head!! Federal Labor stoops to new low! This has Howard Govt written all over it!! Come to think of it - were Tony Blair and George Bush involved in this decision making? This is typical Govt balony!! We deserve the truth as Australian citizens & human beings!!

  • 16
    Bev Kilsby
    Posted Saturday, 25 October 2008 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    My dear friends 49 yrs ago I had the privelege to live on a Mission field called Yirrakala where now it is called the Gove, when I was their in Church men sat one side and the AboriginaL women on the other I guess they had their reasons it was controlled by the Methodist Chuch in those days and now I think it controlled by the Govt, Aborigine use to go fishing and hunting for their food and some food, I think drink was not on the mission
    those days, but I believe in a family situation, where their is strife, doctors, or proffesional staff should administer counselling. I also learnt alot about Aborigines doing VCE, HISTORY,.

  • 17
    steve martin
    Posted Friday, 24 October 2008 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    I listened to jenny Macklin speaking from Wadeye from where she said women were pleading with her retain the system of quarantining income. This may well be true at Wadeye which must be the most dysfunctional community in the NT. It doesn’t address the recommendation of her own committee. It just goes to highlight the arrogance of politicians in ignoring the advise of her expert committee. What is her expertise in aboriginal affairs I wonder.

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