Indigenous doctors have delivered a scathing assessment of the NT intervention, warning that its impact on the health and wellbeing of communities, families and individuals has been negative.

In its submission to the Federal review of the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER), the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association says that poor communication and lack of consultation have engendered fear, mistrust, anger, despair, and a sense of powerlessness:

… our research shows that the NTER has caused immediate and lasting harm to Indigenous people.

AIDA says interim results from its Health Impact Assessment show the intervention has been disempowering because of its discriminatory nature, disregard for the principles of self-determination and the negative impact on culture and social structures:

Furthermore, our interviews with communities and stakeholders very powerfully evoked a sense of regressing to the ‘old days’: many people referred to the feelings of shame, humiliation and loss of dignity that particularly characterised an earlier ‘protectionist’ period in history when the Government controlled every aspect of Indigenous people’s lives.

Nor does AIDA support the compulsory quarantining of welfare payments:

As medical professionals, we believe that this is akin to medically treating patients without their consent ‘for their own good’; this breaches medical ethics as well as international human-rights principles.

The submission also questions the NTER Taskforce Report claim that communities’ initial suspicion and distrust has lifted.

In contrast, AIDA’s findings have indicated a hardening of mistrust towards the Australian Government and dominant Western culture in Australia, due in large part to inadequate consultation and communication with communities.

AIDA does, however, find some positives in the intervention, including increased political and public awareness of the poor status of Indigenous health and increased awareness within Indigenous communities of the problem of child abuse.

As of last Friday, the NTER Review had received 179 submissions. But it’s not at all clear whether we will find out who else is saying what, despite the initial promise of “an independent and transparent review”.

It’s taken Crikey some days of circuitous phone calls — in which questions about whether the submissions and the review’s report will be made public were flicked from the review secretariat to the review board’s chair, back to the secretariat, to the Minister’s office, and then back to Jenny Macklin’s Department.

Finally, the Department offered this:

We do plan to release submissions once the Board has had a chance to consider them. The Government is likely to take advice from the Board regarding timing of release. As with all submission processes to government reviews and inquiries, before public release we will also need to ensure that there are no privacy issues related to individuals or organisations who might be named in submissions.

And, as to whether the review’s report will be made public in its entirety? “This is a decision for Government.”

If this is an independent and transparent process, then I’m a monkey’s uncle. If the promise for transparency and independence was sincere, then the publication process would have been decided at the outset and there would have been no wriggle room to allow the Federal or NT Governments to avoid releasing information they do not want in the public domain.

Transparency is not an impossible ask. The National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission managed it — advising those making submissions upfront that these would be published unless this was otherwise requested. As of this week, we can now read more than 200 submissions to the Commission, so we will be able to see whose suggestions and concerns have been taken on board and whose haven’t.

Given the murky history of the NT intervention, it’s unlikely that there will be a push for greater transparency from the various agencies and interests involved. We haven’t heard much at all, for example, about the Department of Health and Ageing’s review of the child health checks program, of which many experts have been critical.

Without greater transparency, it’s hard to see how there will be the opportunity for us all to learn from what has happened to date.

Peter Fray

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