The news that the much-awaited review into the Northern Territory intervention has been delayed several weeks has stirred a little concern. Theories abound that the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, has sent the review group back to the drawing board in an effort to get a more “palatable” report.

Relax people. We’re not working with the National Indigenous Council here. The review group is not going to simply going to be a rubber-stamp. It is an eminent body, and credit to the Rudd government for choosing it.

Besides, two weeks isn’t much of a delay, particularly not in the interests of getting something so important right.

And it seems the report might be worth the wait. Indigenous affairs watchers should prepare themselves for some staggering revelations of incompetence. Even those already well-versed with government failure after government failure in Indigenous service delivery are going to be shocked. I can smell a Royal Commission on the horizon… and if Jenny Macklin has any sense, she’ll start drawing up its guidelines later this afternoon.

In the area of housing, government bureaucrats have expended millions — and I mean MILLIONS — with nothing (and I mean NOTHING) to show for it. Not a single house has yet been built and the growing fear in Canberra is that none will be before 2011. So much for a “national emergency”.

The review panel is likely to be highly critical of the housing model chosen by Captain Mal Brough. It’s based — no surprises here — on a defence procurement model and has thus ensured that the process is desperately inefficient and ridiculously expensive. The panel is also none-too-pleased at the NT government’s apparent unwillingness to open its books in this area and explain where the money has been going for the past eight years.

Among other things, the review panel will also recommend the reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act. No surprises there. And it will dump on the compulsory welfare controls. No surprises there either. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or even an expert review panel) to know that racism generally makes for bad public policy.

In the area of health, the wastage makes the housing debacle look like spare change. Thousands of Aboriginal children have received a basic health check, which is a good thing. Well done, Australia … give yourself a pat on the back for finally meeting one of your basic obligations. Now here’s the bill. But re-inventing the health wheel, including the creation of an entirely new system for gathering the resulting data, has helped to ensure that a basic health check now costs up to 12 times more than it used to. If Mabo was a lawyer’s picnic, then the intervention was a doctor’s banquet.

I’m not suggesting our medical profession was profiteering from this tragedy, but it should have known better than to get into bed with the Howard government on this issue and did so thanks to the media-driven hysteria that engulfed the intervention in the lead-up to the election.

Which raises one other important question: how will this play out in the fourth estate? When the intervention was announced — replete with soldiers and s-x abuse — newspapers, radio and even television went wild.

But now that media will have to actually read lengthy review papers, interview “people on the ground” and calculate those number thingies in the spreadsheet whatsamadoodles … well, are they going to find something else to sensationalise?

Will they reveal that the intervention turned out to be a $1.6 billion election stunt? Will they editorialise for Mal Brough and John Howard to receive the bill? Indeed, will they even notice?

One paper which almost certainly, probably, possibly … alright, maybe, will is The Australian, press champion of this whole sordid exercise and the outlet with the most invested in it. Some will point to the fact that although they got it wrong, The Oz, in its defence, is the only mainstream broadsheet to devote any significant space to Indigenous issues. Which is true enough. 

But assuming that the intervention report card is marked with a resounding “fail”, how will The Australian extract itself from the mess? Well, when you’re in the habit — as The Oz is — of referring to yourself as “The heart of the nation”, humility is not necessarily your strong point. Thus, I predict that as long as the Rudd government continues to exempt journalists from the NT land permit legislation, internally The Oz will be satisfied the whole exercise was worthwhile, and externally it will feign outrage at the intervention review findings … before claiming it was concerned all along that the intervention had problems.

Surely not, I hear you say? The best way to predict someone’s future behaviour is to look at their past … and in the case of The Oz, we have plenty to go on.

Here’s The Ausralian editorial of May 30, 2007, a piece claiming, thankfully, that the nation had moved on from the “symbolic sorry” debate:

The winds of change are even sweeping through The Sydney Morning Herald, which has editorialised no fewer than 16 times since January 2000 on the need for a national apology to Aborigines from the Prime Minister. It is gratifying, however, to see that in yesterday’s editorial, The Sydney Morning Herald recognised that “apologising — however sincerely — for things for which one cannot possibly be responsible is not only practically useless, (it) trivialises real problems, sanctifying and confirming Aborigines’ victimhood,” negating their reserves of pride and strength and relegating them to a status of “querulous dependence”.

Less than a year later, shortly after the national apology, The Oz editorialised that it had supported an apology to the Stolen Generations for more than a decade:

…we believe that to achieve reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians it is important to take both practical and symbolic measures…

Yesterday was a day for symbols. A day long overdue.

Turning on the excesses and failings of the intervention may not be beyond it.

Peter Fray

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