It’s amazing what a little transparency — or in this case a dirty big leak — can do for a government. I am, of course, referring to the leaked Situation Reports from the Northern Territory Emergency Response intervention (NTER) which have been leaching out of the bowels of the Rudd government over the past few days.

The “SITREPS” reveal in great detail how the federal government is progressing in the NT intervention. What’s startling — at least to me — is that if you read more than one of them, they strongly infer that for the first time since federation, the white bureaucracy might actually be getting somewhere in Indigenous affairs.

In short, some very good things appear to be happening.

The community clean-ups are progressing well. So too is the roll out of breakfast clubs in schools. The health checks are also welcome, although the government needs to put the ‘emergency’ back in the NTER, and get the checks done more quickly. A year down the track, about half (one third if you believe the government) have been missed.

The creation of real government jobs in Indigenous communities — rather than “work for the dole” duties — is also great news.

The progress may well have been slow, but after decades of government neglect of these people, any step forward is worth savouring and applauding, and if you believe the SITREPS there have been many positive outcomes.

On the political front, the appointment by Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin of a group of Indigenous and non Indigenous experts to review the NTER is a very welcome move. It signals that she’s serious about evidence-based policy, a welcome departure from the “Australian-editorial” inspired policies of the previous government.

There are, of course, practical aspects of the NTER which are not working as well.

Three out of every four prescribed communities have received no policing boost whatsoever. Just 187 communities have got extra resources. In the words of John Howard during his press conference, this is “manifestly inadequate”.

Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory and beyond have the right to expect the same level of law and order service provision as every other Australian. Naturally, the police need to be trained to deal with the specific needs of Indigenous Australians, but thus far the NTER has thus far not even achieved the bare minimum in terms of numbers.

The grog bans also need reviewing. In Australian history, prohibition has never worked and the NT intervention won’t break that mould.

In a nutshell, all Rudd and Macklin need do is take the “dog whistle” out of the NTER. They need to continue to focus on the practical measures — the delivery of health, housing and educational services — and dump the “symbolic” laws which were aimed at wedging the ALP at the federal election.

Axing the compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal land provisions is a good place to start, and for two important reasons. Firstly, the laws are racially discriminatory, and impossible to defend. The Rudd government can’t for example, endorse the UN Declaration on the Rights Indigenous Peoples while this disgraceful provision remains.

Secondly, the laws are totally unnecessary — there isn’t a traditional owner in the Territory, let alone the rest of the nation, who doesn’t want to see adequate health, housing, education facilities delivered to their community.

The income management provisions should also be abolished. Brough’s mantra on this has been that Aboriginal people want it. Let’s pretend he’s right. So why make it mandatory? Simply make it voluntary — if an Aboriginal person wants their income managed — and some perhaps will — then give them the capacity to do it of their own volition.

Rudd and Macklin should be mindful that Aboriginal people have always wanted equal access to health, housing, education and law and order. They just don’t accept they should give up their basic human rights to get it. With some simple amendments, the NT intervention might be the first step in the right direction.

If the government can move to restore the basic human rights of Aboriginal people, but keep the bureaucracy focussed on finally providing the same services that every other Australian expects as part of their citizenship rights, then they can expect strong support from black Australia.

There’s one other simple thing the government can do: implement the first recommendation of the Little Children Are Sacred report, namely to “consult” with Aboriginal people about their future.

Now if only Howard and Brough done that in the first place…

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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