Yesterday a group of well-qualified commentators released a report called Will they be heard?, which involved a detailed analysis of more than nine hours of consultations between FaHCSIA and Aboriginal communities at Bagot, Utopia and Ampilatwatja, plus government summaries of all consultations held.

Will they be heard? Not when is a consultation a continuation of the problem rather than the possible solution such as the federal government’s attempt to justify its NT intervention.

Three community consultations in detail versus 500-plus, well spun? Who to believe?

They concluded the consultation process was designed to gain support from Aboriginal communities to preserve the special measures introduced in the intervention, thought to be good for communities, and therefore failed to record appropriately strong objections and concerns expressed about the whole intervention. The report therefore questions the validity of the process and expresses concerns that it could be used to justify retaining current discriminatory measures.

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The response of minister Macklin was swiftly dismissive. Despite, the high status of people involved, e.g. Malcolm Fraser, Alastair Nicholson and Larissa Behrendt, Macklin dismissed it as it covered only three meetings out 500-plus, claiming also her process was validated by independent consultants CIRCA (hired by FAHCSIA). Her media release was triumphalist in structure, starting with the following “findings” that entirely backed the government’s views.

Overall, people said that children, women and the elderly were now safer, better fed and clothed; they were getting a better night’s sleep; and there was a reduction in humbugging for money for alcohol, drugs and gambling. This was attributed to a combination of NTER measures, in particular income management, alcohol restrictions, community store licensing and the increased police presence;

People identified income management was delivering benefits, particularly to children, women and the elderly. The benefits included more money being spent on food, clothing and school-related expenses, and assisting with saving for large purchases, such as fridges and washing machines.

I have read the three transcripts of meetings in Bagot, Ampilatwatja and Arlparra/Utopia, which presumably were not very different to the rest in the issues raised and process deficiencies. None of the above issues were raised spontaneously by locals at any of these meetings, despite being told of their presumed benefits. When prompted, one or two comments were made but most of the discussion on income management  was about resentment, shaming, being subject to compulsion and surveillance of spending and the many practical difficulties the processes imposed on them in managing bills and spending. Similarly, the public servants pushed hard to get responses on the shops’ improvements, and fended off complaints about why they didn’t control prices as they controlled so much else.

It seems incredible to me, as a long-term researcher, that the responses of these quite substantial communities would be so very different in their priorities and concerns to the other 70 communities. The design of the process, by  stating the government position up front and then asking for feedback on specific parts of the program, made it more difficult for people to raise wider questions and be critical of the wider policy and processes. Despite this attempt to direct discussion, the reports suggested that meetings wanted to, and did, move beyond the constraints. The question then becomes how much weight was given to the discussions that were not on the official preferred topics?

The CIRCA report, which is also on the website, offers evidence of how such differences in the reporting has happened. They confirm that the consultations they attended did comply with the brief they were given by FAHCSIA, i.e. they were run by public servants who explained to all what the intervention had done for them and then invited comments on a defined list of topics they wanted feedback on. However, the CIRCA report notes some tensions and states.

For example, in some tier 2 community meetings, the two proposed options for income management were not discussed, as participants spoke very passionately about not wanting income management to stay, and given this response, it was not relevant to then ask people to discuss the two options proposed in the discussion paper.

Later, the report states:

The summary of the income management section identifies the level of opposition to the two income management options included in the discussion paper. However, the summary identifies the voluntary model with triggers for those not managing their money as the preferred model. We believe this over-simplifies the level of discussion and responses to some extent, as many said income management should be stopped, and the trigger model was acceptable as an alternative solution, rather than the preferred solution.

This can hardly be seen as an endorsement of the process from FAHCSIA’s own consultants. If we combine these doubts with the concerned citizens reporting on the transcripts, filmed meetings and other reports, and the acknowledgment later in the government report of some concerns, the intentions of the government to maintain very unpopular programs is ridiculous.

The government report itself states:

a) the need for and desire of Aboriginal people to take greater ownership of solutions to the problems that the NTER is seeking to address;

b) that Aboriginal people valued the opportunity for genuine consultation and involvement in the development of policy and programs to address these complex problems, and considered this to be central to achieving successful, long-term outcomes

Macklin appears to be using this process to retain aspects of control and shaming that are inherent, for instance, in income quarantining by claiming these can be justified as special measures under a reinstated Race Discrimination Act. She must not ignore views that are widely held in the NT that aspects of the intervention have damaged potential good relationships with governments and undermined the capacity of local communities to take control of local issues. Small gains in practical areas do not balance out major insults to dignity and respect.

Will they be heard? illustrates clearly that at these consultations Aboriginal people showed strong concern about the continuation of such special measures and discomfort at the impact that the measures have had on their lives to date. These concerns included:

  • Concern about the discriminatory application of the intervention
  • Concern about compulsory income management
  • Resentment about the implication the Aboriginal people use pornography
  • Concerns about the prominent signs relating to alcohol and pornography bans erected at the entrances to their communities
  • Concern that little has been delivered in services and infrastructure since the intervention.

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As a Crikey subscriber I always feel more informed and able to think more critically about issues and current affairs – even when they don’t always reflect my own political viewpoint or lived experience.


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