Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, has now delivered her response to the Northern Territory Emergency Response (“NTER”) Review Board’s report. Her decision to keep the Intervention in place and the Racial Discrimination Act suspended for another 12 months is a rejection of the Board’s findings and the considered submissions of experts such as the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association.

As Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma, observed in his Charles Perkins Oration last week, protecting the rights of children and protecting their families from racial discrimination have been presented as a false dichotomy. But there are ways of protecting children from abuse that do not require them to be treated in a racially discriminatory way.

On the surface, the Review Board endorsed the NTER, subject to caveats such as the need to achieve consistency with Australia’s international human rights obligations. The debate around the board’s report has focused mostly on the compulsory income management regime and at times, has been emotive and dangerously simplistic; with proponents such as Vicki Gillick describing the recommendations as genocidal and by implication, painting her opponents as war criminals. In reality however, the report is a far more complex document than The Australian and its pundits suggest.

Although the primary goal of the NTER was the protection of Indigenous children from s-xual abuse, the Board found no evidence of increased confidence in reporting child maltreatment in Aboriginal communities.” Indeed, Indigenous children have gained little from the NTER — sixty percent of the children who received health checks are still waiting for follow-up treatment and up to eighty percent remain in need of follow-up dental treatment.

Although the Board visited 31 Aboriginal communities, their report revealed surprisingly little about the consultations. However, much of what does appear affirms the futility of the NTER’s top-down approach. A case in point was the use of steel shipping containers for women’s safe houses. Many Aboriginal women consulted by the Board expressed reluctance to use such facilities because of their similarity to detention centres; a fact that presumably could have been ascertained earlier if anyone had bothered to ask them.

It was not only the architects of the NTER who failed to comprehend the importance of consultation with Indigenous people. In one community, the members of the Board were actually compelled to introduce the Government Business Manager to the staff at the health clinic.

Perhaps just as alarming as such content, was what was missing from the report. In particular, the Review Board did not fully respond to the submission of the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association and its revelation that the new welfare arrangements have, in some cases, resulted in starvation and permanent cultural harm.

Another glaring omission was discussion about the NTER’s legislative machinery, which is riddled with provisions inimical to Australia’s democratic traditions. By way of example, Part 5 of the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007 gives the Minister coercive powers over Indigenous community organisations, including the discretion to unilaterally vary funding agreements, strip them of their assets and appoint ‘observers’ to their meetings.

The Act also prevents scrutiny by the Parliamentary Public Works Committee and deprives native title holders of their procedural rights under the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth), including the right to negotiate. We concede that we have no evidence that such provisions have in fact been subject to abuse, but shouldn’t the aim be to reform the law before that happens?

Macklin’s response leaves none of these problems unchecked. She asked for an independent review and, when she didn’t like the findings, the submissions and the mounting evidence that highlight the hardships created by the blanket quarantining approach, she rejected it out of hand.

The history of Indigenous affairs is littered with failure and in one sense we have some sympathy for those who are now tasked with rectifying the legacies of decades of neglect. But at the very least, the Australian people deserved a mature public debate about the Review Board’s report.

Instead, we were given a Government and Opposition who failed to engage with the totality of the report, and civil libertarians who appear to view Indigenous Australians as a sacrificial lamb in the face of their broader agenda. Although the differences between them may be stark, all now share at least one thing in common — a failure to look at Indigenous Territorians and truly grasp the meaning of the words, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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