In August, the organisation representing Australia’s Indigenous doctors and medical students raised concerns that the negative consequences of the Federal Government’s rushed NT intervention would last for generations.

Last month, in a statement that didn’t attract much media attention, the organisation representing Indigenous nurses expressed dismay that children were being used as “an excuse for an invention that is disempowering the very communities it purports to assist”.

Now, Indigenous researchers with expertise in Aboriginal child protection have made their concerns public, warning that the intervention may do more harm than good.

In the latest Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, they ask:

What rationalisation can the Australian Government give, either in a state of crisis or in its day to day operations, for expanding the use of paternalistic and overly bureaucratic methods that have already been shown historically to cause harm to Aboriginal people?

They also argue that the intervention breaches National Health and Medical Research guidelines for the ethical conduct of health research involving Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

The researchers, from Curtin University, the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research and the University of Western Australia, argue that the intervention:

  • breaches the guidelines principle that Aboriginal people be treated as equal partners in initiatives affecting their lives. Instead, it is “bureaucratic and directional”
  • fails “miserably” to meet the principle that Aboriginal people be treated with respect
  • risks compromising children’s safety by removing Aboriginal peoples’ control over who can come onto their lands
  • cannot meet the obligation to do no harm as the medical checks are “ill-conceived at best and at worst could inflict secondary trauma on yet another generation of Aboriginal children”.

The researchers say there is ample evidence of effective, respectful practices with Aboriginal communities across Australia that could be applied in the NT.

“The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development has shown that in North America when Indigenous communities are given the sovereignty to legitimately make their own decisions about what development approaches to take in their communities, they consistently perform better than external decision makers,” they add.

“Positive change can only occur if Aboriginal people are included in a meaningful way in the initiative. Paternalism, aggressive domination and imposed control did not work in the past and it will not work in 2007.”

It’s not quite true, as I’ve heard said around the traps recently, that the only people alarmed by the intervention are armchair critics in Melbourne who’ve never been to an Indigenous community.

Peter Fray

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