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Jul 7, 2009

The truth about the NT intervention and government consultation

The government's community consultation can never, will never stack up in court as resembling anything like "informed consultation" with Aboriginal people.

For the past few weeks, the Rudd government has been conducting consultations with Aboriginal communities across the Northern Territory about the future of the intervention and, in particular, the reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act.

To growing howls of “rigged”, brave government bureaucrats have shuffled into hostile towns throughout the Top End and Central Australia, armed with fact sheets, travel allowance dockets, and earnest facial expressions. And, as it turns out, a Power Point presentation.

As we now know, courtesy of a juicy government leak, the consultations are being staged, at least in part, to strengthen the Rudd government’s case should it be dragged into court once it meets its promise to reinstate the RDA.

There are more than a dozen slides in the presentation, covering all aspects of the NT intervention from the grog bans and community store reforms to land leasing and pornography.

And while the slides are technically “publicly available” — they are, after all, being shown at public meetings that the media are being prevented from entering — attendees have told NIT that government bureaucrats have been rather cagey about allowing the slides to be copied or distributed.

Fortunately, a set of them fell off the back of a truck. The slide show contains some important information and questions for communities to consider. But it’s perhaps most notable for what it doesn’t say… and for some silly pictures accompanying them.

Firstly, the illustrations.

One of the slides depicts an Aboriginal woman waving at a police car as it drives past. Strangely, the woman’s middle finger appears not to be raised in the drawing, and she has what looks suspiciously like a beaming smile on her face. The illustrator is apparently unfamiliar with police-Aboriginal relations in a jurisdiction where 83 percent of the prison population is black.

Another slide depicts a white man wearing a big coat and waving about some p-rnography. A young Aboriginal child cowers behind his mother’s leg. Viewers might expect the accompanying text to read like a World War II propaganda poster, warning of the evils of the Eros Foundation. Unfortunately, it’s nowhere near as interesting, simply warning that some children in some Aboriginal communities have seen some stuff they shouldn’t have. Hold the presses — a kid somewhere got his hands on some p-rn.

The slide neglects to mention that much of the material emanates from Fyshwick in Canberra, the ACT’s red light district which is situated just a stone’s throw from the very hall where the laws were made which now depict all Northern Territory Aboriginal people as so deviant that they can’t be trusted to shield their children from porn.

The slide also neglects to mention that Fyshwick routinely experiences its busiest times of year when parliament is sitting.

Which brings me nicely to the text, and other glaring omissions.

This is a Clayton’s consultation if ever I’ve seen one. It can never, will never stack up in court as resembling anything like “informed consultation” with Aboriginal people, which is of course its purpose. Macklin has royally botched this process. It should be restarted.

In any case, here’s a punter’s guide to cutting through the spin of an Aboriginal community consultation:

Talking together and working together.

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: The old government brought in the NTER to tackle big problems in NT Aboriginal communities.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: The legislation was introduced by the “old government” and supported unanimously through parliament by the “new government” while in Opposition.

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: The new government is continuing with the NTER, but wants to make some changes.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: The “new” government ignored a suite of recommendations handed down by an expert Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) panel it commissioned to write a report into the intervention. The panel was headed by respected Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and experts. The government’s review cost taxpayers $3 million.

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: We need to talk with community people about these changes.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: The government needs to “talk to you” because legal advice tells it that if it doesn’t, it might lose a legal challenge that may be brought against it. This new government has been in power for two years — you might ask yourself why it is only talking to you now?

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: We want to work closely with Aboriginal people and listen to what you have to say.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: Many Aboriginal people told the government what they wanted through the comprehensive NTER review, which visited more than 30 communities affected by the intervention. The review also attracted more than 200 submissions. But the “new government” ignored key parts of the recommendations. You might like to consider this: If they didn’t listen to you a year ago, why would they listen to you now?

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: Together we will build on the progress of the last two years.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: Numerous expert groups, including the Australian Indigenous Doctor’s Association (AIDA) and the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance of the Northern Territory (AMSANT) have warned that the intervention is doing actual harm to Aboriginal people. In addition to this, a recent report by the Productivity Commission noted that Aboriginal disadvantage has continued to increase in many areas of the Northern Territory (and across the nation).

Safer communities:

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: Good communities are safe communities — where people are not afraid. There are now more police in more communities than before. New police stations have been built in some of the larger communities across the NT.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: The community of Bulman might disagree that they are safer. One of their young men committed suicide after being locked up by police for “child s-x offences”. His crime? He was in a steady relationship with his 15 year-old promised wife. The man was aged 22. Police have since apologised to the community for his death. Overall, there are more police in the Territory — “up to 66” according to the government. However, contrary to their claims, no “new” police stations have been built. Four stations have been upgraded, and 18 communities have had temporary stations established. Money has been allocated to build five new stations in the 2009-2010 financial year.

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: There are now more night patrols with more community people working to make their communities safer.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: Many of the NTER-affected communities already had night patrols.

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: In communities across the NT, there are more safe houses — children, women and men can go there to get away from violence.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: “Children, women and men can go there to get away from violence” if they happen to live in one of the 13 communities where new centres have been built. The vast majority of the 73 communities have thus far missed out.

Leases:

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: The Australian government has five-year leases over some community land. This is so improvements, like housing upgrades, can be made quickly and efficiently.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: The government “has five year leases” because the government forcibly took that land without the owner’s permission. The land was seized primarily so government could construct new houses — two years on, not one home for an Aboriginal family has been built on the seized land.

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: Rent is being paid to traditional owners for these leases. Leased areas have been made as small as possible.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: The Rudd government has reduced the amount of land forcibly acquired by the previous government, but that only occurred two months ago, as the government began preparations to consult with Aboriginal people. It only agreed to pay rent to traditional owners after its review recommended it should do so.

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: Long-term leases give communities a way to work with government to make improvements for the whole community.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: So do short-term leases. Indeed, in white Australia, governments do not require any lease at all as a pre-requisite to investing in people, infrastructure and communities. Politicians do so simply because that’s their job, and they hope in doing it they’ll be voted back into government.

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: Your government business manager will help you talk with the government or land councils about these leases.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: “Your government business manager” is paid to follow the instructions of the government, the very institution that forcibly acquired your land and set aside your rights without consultation. “Your government business manager” receives up to an additional $43,000 per annum on top of his or her normal salary for working in your community. He or she is not an independent adviser. Not even close.

Better housing:

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: The government is working to make better houses.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: The government has still not constructed a single home in the Northern Territory despite compulsorily acquiring land.

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: Many communities will get new housing. A lot of houses will be repaired and upgraded.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: Most communities will not get new housing. Under the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP) only 16 communities are slated to receive new homes, and that’s only if traditional owners first sign a 40-year lease. The remaining 57 communities will receive “upgrades”. Can you recall the government ever telling a white landowner in, say, Canberra, “Your community is in desperate need of public housing but we won’t provide public housing in your community unless you lease us your land for 40 years.”

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: The Northern Territory government will manage the houses. You will have a tenancy agreement and pay rent.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: You already likely have a tenancy agreement and pay rent… to a housing body owned by Aboriginal people. The government is proposing that in future you pay rent to them. You might like to know that a 2006 study by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute found that Aboriginal housing companies were more efficient at providing public housing than state-owned bodies. You also might like to know that In Mutitjulu for example, the government has held a lease for more than 20 years. There, housing stock is run down and overcrowding is worse than in many Aboriginal communities.

Healthier Children:

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: Children are your communities’ future. If children grow up healthy and happy, then they will have better lives.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: The NTER review recorded concerns that the “negative impacts of the NTER may have further damaged the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal communities”. AMSANT and AIDA — two of the nations most respected Aboriginal health bodies — both warned of the same thing, and noted the intervention had actually caused starvation in some Aboriginal communities.

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: Many children have already received free health checks and treatment for any health problems.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: All Aboriginal children in the NT already had access to (and regularly capitalised on that access to) free health checks and treatment for health problems.

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: The government is working to improve health services in your region including more doctors and health workers.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: This is part of your basic rights as an Australian citizen.

Better community stores:

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: Well-run stores stocking plenty of good fresh food are essential for your community.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: Whether or not the food is affordable is another thing altogether. A recent parliamentary inquiry into community stores found that healthy foods were extremely expensive in Aboriginal communities. The intervention has not changed this. You might like to ask government what it’s doing to fix this.

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: The government has a special licensing system for stores. The licenses help to make sure remote community stores are better managed and have good food at good prices.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: The NTER review found that while some stores were of a high standard, many also still sold food at high prices and low quality. A recent survey of stores by the NT government also found that many Aboriginal-run stores generally provided cheaper food, a greater range, better quality and, importantly, had higher levels of Aboriginal employment.

Income management:

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: Income management helps make sure children get the good things they need — food, clothes and medicines.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: Most Aboriginal families in the NT already knew how to feed, clothe and provide medicine to their children. The welfare quarantines were imposed regardless of your past record. They were even imposed regardless of whether or not you actually have children.

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: Income management can also help you better manage your money.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: Income management can assist you in better managing your money. But as noted by the NTER review it should be optional rather than compulsory (as it is for all other Australians). You should have a choice.

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: Your BasicsCard helps you spend this money. The money cannot be spent on alcohol, cigarettes, p-rnography or gambling.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: There have been widely reported logistical problems with this system, with Aboriginal people having to travel long distances (incurring high fuel costs) to use the card, or not being able to access funds at all because of malfunctions.

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: We need to talk with you about how income management will work in the future.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: In the 2009 federal budget, the government allocated $105.9 million purely for the bureaucracy to administer income management. A similar figure was spent the previous year. That’s over $200 million in two years, much of it spent in Canberra, to manage the incomes of 15,000 people in the Northern Territory. You might like to ask the government to talk about that.

Better schooling:

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: All children must go to school. This is the law.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: Actually, all children must receive an education, and that can include home-schooling. That aside, there is still major overcrowding problems in many Aboriginal community schools. Wadeye, one of the largest NT communities only recently received a high school, despite having a school-aged population of more than 1,000 children.

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: The government is providing more classrooms, teachers, preschools and playgroups where they are needed.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: Government data on how many classrooms, teachers, preschools and playgroups the government is providing is unclear. If you attend a community consultation, you might like to seek clarification from the government about what your community is scheduled to receive.

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: Some communities will get boarding facilities so more kids can go to high school and finish their education.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: Funding was only allocated for three new boarding facilities in the NT in this year’s federal budget. In addition to this, in other parts of Australia, kids get to finish their schooling in their own communities, thanks to strong government investment in local educational services.

P-rnography:

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: Some children in some communities have seen material that by law they are not allowed to see.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: Some children in white communities have seen material that by law they are not allowed to see.

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: This includes magazines, DVD’s, videos, computer games and other material with explicit s-xual or very violent content.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: Much of that material originates from — or is sold in — the ACT suburb of Fyshwick, located about 10 minutes from Parliament House in Canberra. P-rnography merchants, br-thel owners and s-x workers routinely report a rise in sales whenever parliament is sitting in Canberra.

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: For the sake of the kids, these things are now banned in communities, it is against the law for anyone to bring them into a community.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: The material is not banned anywhere else in the nation — only Aboriginal people are deemed irresponsible and deviant enough by government to be banned from accessing p-rnography.

Alcohol:

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: Alcohol is doing too much damage to individuals, families and communities.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: Alcohol is one of the leading causes of harm and accidental death in mainstream Australia.

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: Alcohol is banned in many communities and regions right across the NT.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: Alcohol was banned in many communities and regions right across the NT before the intervention.

WHAT THEY TOLD YOU: If you drink or bring alcohol into these areas you are breaking the law. You may be fined or put in jail.

WHAT THEY DIDN’T TELL YOU: If you drank or brought alcohol into these areas before the intervention, you were breaking the law and could have been fined or put in jail (indeed many people were — 83 percent of the NT prison population is Aboriginal). It’s worth noting, in March this year head of the NT Police Association, Vince Kelly condemned the alcohol bans, saying they did not stop grog running, rather they created a “level of bureaucracy”.

*NIT asked Jenny Macklin’s office if the minister stood by the accuracy of the slides, and believed their contents would assist Aboriginal people to come to full and informed conclusions about the intervention. Unfortunately, the Minister’s response was not forthcoming by Crikey’s press time.

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4 comments

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4 thoughts on “The truth about the NT intervention and government consultation

  1. Bob Gosford

    So, can we ask Get Up – or someone with deepish pockets – to fund the legal actions Minister Macklin’s advisors are so fearful of? I’ve got a few spare pennies…

  2. Jenny McFarland

    I am currently writing my masters thesis on remote community Night Patrols in the NT, having worked with them for close to ten years. The Intervention and the new Shires local government system have between them removed the very things that made patrols work in the first place – community ownership. Patrols are now largely ineffective, as they are expected to run a corporate agenda (more akin to a security service than a genuine community patrol), are not allowed to perform the functions (such as looking for people who are lost or in broken down vehicles) that gave them the community credibility to moderate their family’s destructive behaviours. As one ex-patroller commented to me “the right people aren’t on patrols any more”. Employment models being used for patrols are not flexible enough to cope with the range of Aboriginal family and cultural obligations that people in remote communities have to negotiate every day, and that give the patrols their legitimacy, or to be able to respond appropriately to a situation that may be escalating towards violence. The women in remote communities have been particularly disenfranchised under the new patrol auspice arrangements. Aboriginal cultures in this region are highly gendered, and women’s issues (including safety) are not the legitimate business of men. Interference in the other gender’s disputes and jealousies can, (and has) led to long-running and increasingly complex family fights that can go on for years.
    More Police in communities has led to more prosecutions and incarcerations for relatively minor vehicle infringements – which has led to people using more back roads in dodgy vehicles (at greater risk to themselves and family) in order to avoid encountering Police. Police services that are not available in remote communities are license renewals and vehicle registrations.
    This round of “community consultations” is a transparent attempt to cover government arses – to torture a metaphor. Let’s hope that (ugly though the sight may be) that this unconscionable attempt to re-colonise Aboriginal land and lives, and to destroy any remaining vestiges of Aboriginality are seen for what they are.

  3. James Bennett

    WTF would be the purpose or the desired outcome of any legal action Bob ?

    Do you think the Government is not actually trying to help.

    If you remember it was complaints from aboriginal women which prompted the initial intervention. Now this goose is saying everything was ok before and the intervention is the cause of the problems.
    Could he be any more petty with his complaints?

    Aboriginal commentators ( and others ) have very flexible memories.

    No wonder normal people roll there eyes when this subject comes up.

  4. Bob the builder

    James (normal) Bennett,

    your very flexible memory seems to remember that it was Aboriginal women who prompted the Intervention. You may have got this strange idea from the corporate press, but if you had cared to read further (or had any knowledge of the NT), you would know that it was not Aboriginal women, but was largely white men, particularly Brough and Howard, who decided on the Intervention. True, the Little children are sacred report (or Little Children Are Scared as it appeared in a hastily-written internal government document), which you clearly haven’t read (it’s here, if you care to take the time – http://www.inquirysaac.nt.gov.au/ ) was used as a pretext, but it, and the later public comments of its authors, were heartily ignored.

    If you had more than an urban ideological barrow to push, you’d realise there was more nuance to the Intervention than “ra ra let’s civilise the natives, they’ll be ever so grateful”. It is not just unjust and unpopular, but counter-productive, even judged by its own tawdry standards. It is, however, paying off a lot of mortgages in Canberra, Sydney and Mebourne and helping make housing unaffordable in Darwin (“volunteer” doctors on $500/day + allowances, etc. etc. – the non-volunteers now in place are getting far more).

    No wonder “abnormal” people roll their ideas when these urban ideologues talk from a position of complete ignorance.