In Darwin, the build-up to the wet is starting to bite, as tensions grow and tempers fray. Conditions probably aren’t much different in the office of Indigenous Affairs Minister, Jenny Macklin, as the key pillars of the Northern Territory Emergency Response begin to crumble before her eyes.

Macklin has recently released the NTER Review Board report after an unexpected delay. The postponement, unimportant in itself, is characteristic of the whole unhappy intervention adventure.

The review team of Peter Yu, Marcia Ella Duncan, and Bill Gray has gently blown the intervention out of the water, with unequivocal recommendations for the Racial Discrimination Act to be restored, blanket welfare quarantining to be scrapped, and the permit system to be reinstated.

Technically, the review team has called for the intervention to continue, expressing support for uncontentious measures like improved housing and policing. But, in context, this becomes a prescription for dumping the demeaning and punitive aspects of the plan, in favour of refocussing on the long-neglected area of service provision.

The false dichotomy of the intervention — that you must be either “for it” or “against it” as a package — is thrown onto high relief. The measures announced by John Howard and Mal Brough on 21 June last year were spun as inextricably interconnected, but this was never the case.

The recent publication in The Australian of extracts from an earlier draft of the report is a diverting side-show which adds an overlay of intrigue to the affair, and generates further problems for the embattled minister Macklin.

Crikey spoke to Peter Yu late last week and he was adamant that the final report, as released, accurately represents the considered position of the Review Board. Yu had earlier issued a terse three-sentence media statement, observing that “the Report that has been published is the Report of the independent review board.”

Last Thursday Vicki Gillick — coordinator of the NPY Women’s Council and a member of the Review Group’s own expert advisory panel — undermined the report’s recommendations on the ABC’s Lateline program. She spoke of a “slow form of genocide” and suggested that the maintenance of unilateral welfare quarantining was crucial to the success of the intervention.

On the same program, Yu was dismissive of Gillick’s position, observing that “she probably underestimates the nature of the sophisticated understanding of the communities themselves to be able to express their point of view.”

Meanwhile, Macklin is preparing the ground for a departure from the recommendations of the Review Board. She has pointedly observed that, in considering future policy direction, the government would not rely solely on the Yu Report, but would consider “a number of pieces of evidence”.

The Review Board document demonstrates essentially that the Howard Government got things hopelessly wrong, and that its successor has continued to stumble blindly down the same ill-fated path.

The Government’s formal response to the report of the Review Board is keenly awaited. For Minister Macklin, it is a chance to put things right.

Peter Fray

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