A year ago, my Aboriginal colleagues sometimes struggled to get to work or their kids to school in the mornings because they had to dodge hoon drivers and violent drunks outside their houses. It was often impossible for children, old people and workers to sleep. Domestic violence was at a very high level.
Parts of the community were regularly in a state of bedlam, with terrible consequences for many innocent people. Youths, including young teenagers, constantly wandered the streets in obviously stoned and drunken states. Large mobs of young children roamed about unsupervised into the small hours, often smashing lights with rocks, lighting fires and taking part in other forms of vandalism. Many parents were too off their faces to even be aware of, let alone care about, their children’s whereabouts or activities.
The police faced an impossible situation in trying to maintain law and order, and teachers faced a similarly difficult job. Nurses were exhausted by constant call-outs and night-time evacuations associated with grog and violence.
The changes that have occurred since the NT intervention have been nothing short of remarkable. It is as though a great logjam of problems has been released. Inertia and fatalism have diminished, violence and chaos are down, and there is a sense that real change is possible and happening. The alcohol, ganja and gambling problems still exist, but to a far lesser extent than previously, thanks to income management, improved policing, and other aspects of the intervention.
Food is no longer much of an issue. Now, we rarely get people knocking on our doors and saying “I can’t feed my kids tonight” or “I need a power card, we’ve run out of electricity” whereas 12 months ago there was a lot of that.
Responsible families are now able to budget much more effectively. It’s incredibly refreshing, and a lot easier life for them.
The people who are heavily into the partying lifestyle don’t like it and that’s possibly a majority of younger single people. But from the point of view of the many responsible members of the community, the intervention has brought good changes. Critics preoccupied by the temporary suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act should do a deeper analysis of what’s meant by discrimination.
The introduction of one-size-fits-all welfare, along with laissez-faire approaches to the sale of alcohol and the withdrawal of government administrative support, ignored the realities of remote area Aboriginal lifestyles and economies and systems of reciprocal obligation, and have been incredibly destructive, even genocidal. The intervention is having to deal with the impact of those policies which were in effect highly discriminatory.
As for those who argue that income management removes people’s sense of control, in fact while many people may feel they have lost some control over their welfare income, the really important fact is they also now feel they have much more control over many other aspects of their lives. Many people now seem pretty confident and much more in control of themselves and their households compared to how they used to be on the whole.
From what I’ve seen, the Centrelink workers in Central Australia have done an excellent job in helping people cope with Income Management and learn how to budget more effectively and pay their debts.
That said, I’m sure that not all communities are responding in the same way to the intervention. Much depends on how chaotic and dysfunctional they were beforehand, and whether they have decent storekeepers and a store eligible to receive the quarantined welfare funds.
Maybe in places that didn’t have the same high levels of violence and substance abuse of most communities, the feelings of resentment engendered by the intervention may outweigh the relief.
But I’ve worked in remote communities for 30 years, and I’m pretty confident the intervention is making a positive difference overall.