I have to declare my interest. I opposed the so called “national emergency” intervention from 21 June 2007, the afternoon it was announced (see
Crikey piece 22 June 2007
). It looked to me like political opportunism by a government that had become increasingly oppositional to Indigenous interests.
On 25 November 2007, in an undisciplined and gloomy post-election moment on the ABC’s
Alexander Downer revealed that the intervention’s aim was to generate electoral bounce. Downer thought the intervention was popular, but not in the opinion polls, nor it now seems among Aboriginal voters in Lingiari where all 73 prescribed communities are located.
This raises worrying questions about with whom it was popular: the uninformed? Those who condone racially discriminatory measures? Those who are conspicuously compassionate about the nationally significant issue of Indigenous disadvantage, like ex-Minister Mal Brough?
By September 2007, about $1.4 billion had been committed to the intervention but, in the five months since 21 June, little has been achieved on the ground. If this is a national emergency, the response has been implemented in an ad hoc and unsystematic manner at a snail’s pace.
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A survey I conducted with five communities last month indicated that the only areas where there had been consistent implementation was in conducting voluntary health checks (with generally incomplete coverage and no reporting of child s-x abuse); in appointing government business managers with unfettered “emergency” powers; and in constructing expensive, but unsightly, housing for intervention staff from converted sea containers.
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Quarantining people’s welfare payments without proper processing systems in place is a disaster in some situations; and moving people from work to welfare by abolishing the CDEP scheme and without alternative employment is unconscionable.
Fortunately, the full intervention fiasco has only been rolled out to a handful of communities. This was not because of thoughtfulness or caution by the Intervention Task Force, but the result of incompetence arising from lack of adequate consultation and reluctance to collaborate with effective community-based Indigenous organisations.
The incoming Rudd government has committed to stop the nonsensical abolition of CDEP and to reinstate the permit system (that has not yet been effectively abolished anywhere) because neither has anything to do with the protection of children. Other measures might quickly follow: the proposed compulsory acquisition of prescribed communities that will be legally contested; the quarantining of welfare that will be expensive to administer, that is racist and will prove ineffective; and the appointment of government business managers with dictatorial powers. How many spokes of the intervention wheel will need to be removed before it collapses?
Only two tests need to be applied to intervention measures to see which should go and which should stay. The racial inequality test should dictate that any blanket measures that would not be applied to non-Indigenous Australians (e.g. income quarantining and alcohol prohibition) should go immediately, or at the very least be modified to introduce defensible discretion in implementation. The racial equality test should dictate that elements like adequate community policing and funding commitments to enhanced housing, education, health and employment should stay to provide citizenship entitlements to Indigenous people on an equitable needs basis.
What should also disappear as quickly as possible from public discourse is the offensive and carefully crafted negative language of ‘national emergency’ and ‘intervention’. Instead, we should talk about urgent policy focus and adequate resourcing to address the disadvantage experienced by Indigenous Australians in the NT and elsewhere.
The focus on one jurisdiction only is both demeaning and statistically indefensible. Such language also demeans the NT polity. It is little wonder that Clare Martin found her position untenable with over 30 per cent of the NT constituency and 50 per cent of the NT geographic jurisdiction being administered remotely by bureaucrats in Canberra. As the Memorandum of Understanding signed between the NT and Commonwealth on 17 September for nearly $800 million recognizes, it is NT
Commonwealth agencies that will need to deliver programs and services.
Ultimately, it is Indigenous community-based organisations that will do the real on the ground delivery of programs and services. This reality provides the principal reason for halting the intervention immediately—before too many of these organisations and key staff disappear. Fortunately, much of the ALP’s Indigenous economic development strategy released on 7 November (see
) recognises this; on top of the $1.4 billion already committed, there are additional resources to facilitate innovative and sustainable development opportunities.
The intervention is unravelling, but a national focus and considerable goodwill and funding commitment remains. Five requirements, based on principles of participatory development, will be essential if we are to see progress in the NT:
- Recognising Indigenous diversity and difference as a positive that benefits the Australian nation
- Partnerships with communities and the establishment of appropriate channels to hear Indigenous aspirations
- Building local intercultural organizations and institutions and capabilities
- Realistic investments, in catch up to close the gaps and to support innovative programs to enable local livelihood opportunity
- Planning for sustainable outcomes based on rigorous needs-based analysis with ongoing and transparent evaluation.