The roll-out of the NT Intervention in remote communities happened at a speed that was unprecedented in recent history, for such large scale administrative and bureaucratic change. And it proceeded without any meaningful policy design occurring, before the Intervention was announced.

Take a look at the chapter headings in Centre for Independent Studies Helen Hughes’ “Lands of Shame” and you will see where the blueprint for much of the Intervention measures came from. This $1.4 billion package of measures was not the product of careful policy design, it was a hastily brought together package of measures designed by a handful of political minders and very senior public servants.

This is not to say that some Intervention in the NT was not needed. Nor does it mean that all outcomes from the Intervention are bad. What it means is that some Aboriginal people have been caught in the administrative chaos that followed the announcement, particularly in its early stages.

Aboriginal people in remote communities in central Australia have been extremely critical of the lack of information provided by government about the Intervention. The result of this lack of information, coupled with an approach devoid of consultation with communities, has meant unnecessary distress was caused amongst people in communities, in the early stages of the Intervention.

One of the earliest communities to experience a visit from the Intervention’s Operations Taskforce in the weeks following the announcement was the community of Titjikala. People in Titjikala have reported being ‘scared’, ‘angry’, ‘frightened’ and ‘nervous’ at the announcement of the Intervention, and at the meeting with the Operations Taskforce in Titjikala, accompanied by Norforce and army staff.

Whatever we think about these concerns, in retrospect, it is clear that people in a number of communities were deeply worried in the initial stages of the Intervention.

These concerns could have been mitigated by better policy planning and design, improved communication with people in communities and, above all, a level of community consultation.

In Titjikala, community anxiety about the Intervention measures appears to have manifest itself in people binge drinking, en masse. People in Titjikala and some agency representatives have reported that when the Intervention was first announced, the community was awash with drinking for three weeks, in part due to people’s fear about the Intervention.

Health clinic staff in Titjikala also reported drinking levels were out of control following the Intervention announcement:

In Titjikala drinking went out of control so we shut down the clinic. People were getting knifed every day. It happened just after the Intervention visited because no-one knew what was happening and they were really demoralised.

Similarly, the Titjikala Arts Centre Manager reported that:

In the first three weeks after the Intervention the drinking tripled in the community. The clinic just had to fix up alcohol-related stabbings all the time. There was lots of noise and screaming across the community and a lot of people ran away to town.

These reports demonstrate the detrimental human costs associated with the poor process. Any evaluation of the impact of the Intervention in remote communities must attempt to take into account the very real, human costs associated with the anxiety experienced by people living in prescribed communities and town camps, particularly in the early stages of the roll-out.

And we must put in place a better process in the future. The Intervention in the NT is needed, and it is promoting some good outcomes. Let’s engage in serious evaluation of the Intervention measures to date and what they have achieved, and begin a process of policy design that will bring meaningful, long-term outcomes for Aboriginal people in remote communities. 

Siobhan McDonnell is a consultant who has spent the last 10 years working as an academic and policy advisor in Indigenous affairs.

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