The first decisions by the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, on the intervention in the Northern Territory give a clear indication of the direction the Rudd Labor government is likely to take in this matter.

On Saturday, Rudd and Macklin held a Summit with Aboriginal people from the Northern Territory to discuss the impact of the intervention. After 11 years of Howard government and an intervention strategy of deliberately working around Aboriginal organizations, this consultative approach is refreshing. It is only through listening to Aboriginal people themselves that the government will be able to help people meet the challenges faced by their communities.

The announcement of a moratorium on the transition of Aboriginal people from Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) to Work for the Dole programs speaks to the Minister’s willingness to redress unnecessary distress and to act quickly to address maladministration in the implementation of the intervention.

Her concomitant commitment to rolling out the intervention to quarantine Aboriginal incomes in another thirteen communities speaks to a core commitment to the Labor party pre-election promise to not roll back the intervention. The only hope for a roll-back now will be on the basis of the 12 month review at the end of June, 2008.

Macklin’s moratorium is most welcome as it addresses a serious implementation problem that has left people in a number of Aboriginal communities without income. This was the subject of a phone call I received last week from women in the community in which I have conducted research for 20 years.

People in this community were moved off CDEP on 9th November, to a Work for the Dole program. They were promised that the Work for the Dole money (known as UB locally) would follow on immediately from CDEP money, but this hasn’t happened. When they called me, they were distraught, frustrated, and angry. They wanted me to ‘do something.’

One month later, these women still had no money to buy food. One of them is responsible for seven children. In a world that is over controlled by red tape, they were desperately trying to work their way through a maze of paperwork. Few read and write well, even fewer have the required 100 points of identification-and everyone is dealing with English as a second language.

The ramifications are wider than the individuals concerned. If someone loses their income, they have to be supported by family members, themselves on minimal wages. It is only through calling on extended family that Aboriginal people are able to survive such travesties of justice-but this causes enormous stress within communities.

This happened to most of the working people in the community at the same time, an outcome of a flawed process that targets communities as a whole, rather than individual behaviour. The result is that a substantial number of families in this community were without income for a month.

As the intervention unfolds, more problems like this will emerge: the haste with which the coalition government introduced the intervention means that there are numerous disasters waiting to happen.

These Aboriginal communities have newly appointed General Business Managers, and situations such as I describe here raise obvious questions: Do the business managers know what is happening? If they do know, why aren’t they helping? And if they don’t know, what understanding do they have of the community? What kind of relationships do they have with the people they are supposed to be assisting?

Throughout the Territory, these General Business Managers are failing to come to grips with the realities of working in Aboriginal communities in remote areas. Some are under serious stress as they try and implement an unworkable and damaging process, some stay in a hub community and have made only a single visit to the other communities for which they are responsible, and others lock themselves away from the people they are meant to be assisting.

Their incomes are in the realm of $150,000-160,000. Given the ostensible impetus for the intervention, child s-xual abuse, there is a case for abolishing this unnecessary new layer of administration and replacing the positions with much-needed night patrols and child protection and family welfare workers.

While Macklin’s moratorium is welcome, her decision to extend the roll-out of the intervention through quarantining an additional thirteen communities is disappointing on a number of fronts.

My core concern here is that the basic mechanisms have not changed, so the quarantining is still being applied in a blanket manner-to all members of a community, not just irresponsible individuals. An analogy for this is that of living in a block of flats and having noisy, drunken neighbours, who you endure for years. Finally, the police come and arrest them-but then the police arrest you, too, because you live in the same building! The hurt and confusion that community people feel about being treated in this manner-convicted without a trial-is expressed in the views of my friend, Rachel Willika:

That quarantining is just taking away our rights. We look after our families. We feed our kids and buy them clothes. We are good parents. We should have the right to spend our own money, like everyone else. We want the same rights as everybody else.

Over the coming Christmas period, offence will be compounded by indignity-and may well turn to anger-as people whose income has been quarantined have to negotiate with Centrelink over the type of toys they can buy for their kids-and, indeed, over whether any of their quarantined income can be spent on gifts. Many of these people are on incomes of less than $200 a week, so if $100 per week is quarantined there is not a lot left to spend on Christmas presents.

The Liberal coalition government committed more than $ 1.3 billion dollars to the Northern Territory intervention, with $700 million earmarked for administration, and nothing allocated to assessing its impact on the emotional welfare of the affected people. The intervention is causing disempowerment, frustration and anger in already fragile communities. This results in community violence, such as the recent disturbance at Ngukurr. If we do not do something, incidents such as this will increase-and it will be our fault for not acting.

Throughout the Territory, the intervention is turning functional communities into disfunctional, and exacerbating disfunction, where it exists. While the Rudd Labor government has shown a laudable willingness to redress immediate distress and administrative malfunction, it is also making decisions that are against the wishes of the people most directly affected by these decisions.

There is a serious issue here in regards to the Prime Minister’s commitment to sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This declaration requires “States to consult and co-operate in good faith with the Indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.” Clearly, the signing of this Declaration is inconsistent with the extension of quarantining to an additional thirteen Aboriginal communities without “the free, prior and informed” consent of the people affected.

Associate Professor Claire Smith is a social scientist at Flinders University. She is one of the organisers of the grassroots campaign ‘Women for Wik-Monitoring the Federal Action in the Northern Territory’., [email protected]

Peter Fray

Inoculate yourself against the spin

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey