Mal Brough, creator of the Northern Territory intervention, declared last Saturday that it was a failure, Jenny Macklin, not surprisingly, denies failure and claims it is both proceeding and succeeding.
I agree with Brough that the intervention was a failure but not for the reasons he has stated. He claims the ALP government has gone soft and failed to follow up, which is odd because the enthusiastic Macklin has fairly faithfully followed his plan but adding even more prescriptive constraints.
Except for the income management re-design, to allow the reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act, the current policies retain the basic assumptions that Aboriginal communities need paternalistic controls over their lives and institutions. This top down approach of infantilising welfare recipients/communities is oddly assumed to create individualistic “responsibility”, despite no evidence from here or elsewhere that it works.
The intervention has failed because of what was done and the way it was done, and it did not consult or engage with local people or, in many cases, address their problems. More police were often useful, but not more Canberra bureaucrats and business managers. Lots of money went on managing incomes, not improving the services. Reform of the stores was useful but did not need to part of the other processes. Land grabs, embarrassing signs and many other offensive parts of the process cause other problems, some of which led
to people moving away.
Unemployment increased. Unwinding CDEP reduced local activities, adding to boredom and so on. The whole process was fatally flawed by the top down processes, the lack of effective consultation, either initially or in its more recent redesign.
So an argument in the media about whether Brough or Macklin got it right is not the point. One major error is the NT and Canberra support reducing housing and services to outstations and some smaller settlements to pressure their residents to move to urban hubs. This ignores evidence of better health and other benefits in these settlements and the current Alice experience of what happens when people are moved into hubs. The displaced drunks and disruptive footloose youth who have moved to Alice show how flawed that idea is.
Nicholas Rothwell is responsible for putting the local problems that some claim are being addressed, into current national interest in his article in The Australian, which is more diatribe than journalism. He claims:
Alice Springs is a township fast spiralling out of control. All the elements for turmoil are present: deep, cold fury among the mainstream population, a reckless gloom among the young bush people loitering here, vast demand for marijuana and a limitless supply, bad, reactive politics, a lack of new ideas, a need for drastic measures and a refusal even to debate the reforms that might have a chance.
… The interesting question today is not whether the authorities charged with the town’s stewardship can manage or suppress the tensions so sharply in the air. It is rather this: will Alice Springs survive in its present form for another 10 years?
Does this type of exposure serve well the distressed victims, black and white? There are problems that need to be addressed but there this type of moral panic style of revelations does not serve to solve problems well. It leads to facile political acts or maybe encourages local vigilante actions and more divisions as people posture for a national audience.
Rothwell’s dramatic and dire warnings, scenes of despair, degradation and incompetence make it a major issue. Brough steps in and we have the basis for more knee-jerk politics. Do classic media based “moral panic” serve the needs of any of the affected groups? Rothwell almost acknowledges this, way down towards the end of his dramatic prose:
In many journalistic reports on the modern frontier, and the nation’s persisting remote area crisis, there’s a tendency to paint things dark: to reach for shock effects, the better to highlight the need for action. But he goes straight on the say In this case, exaggeration’s not even an option. The town is on the brink — of who knows what?
This dire tone may reflect his personal involvement in this, as his partner, not mentioned in the article, is a dissident member of the NT parliament and deeply involved politically. However, we need to learn from other experiences of moral media panics on the NT.
The current shock horror reminds us of what started the original Howard intervention. In an election year he used the media stories and an NT report on possible child s-xual abuse as triggers for action. There is limited evidence that child s-x abuse was the problem in 2007 and nearly four years later, no evidence that the intervention has reduced child s-xual abuse or protected the children in any significant way. The implicit conclusion of a recent report to the NT government on their child protection situation failed to mention the intervention either as a factor in alleviating problems or as a partner in future activities.
There is also no evidence from the various statistics that the NT government and AIHW produce about the NT that there has been any significant reductions in relevant crime statistics or health admissions relating to this areas. On Monday, The Australian continues its tirades by claiming child pr-stitution trade in Alice but ends its article with a quote from the mayor Damien Ryan. On Sunday, he was arguing that the intervention had been detrimental to the city — even though it is not one of the prescribed areas.
“You have to understand that Alice Springs is the centre for 260 remote communities,” Ryan said. “A lot of people living under the conditions of the intervention have decided to move into areas like Alice Springs — that puts immense stress on all of our services here.”
This statement does not suggest success for the intervention and supports the calls from many, including many Aboriginal elders and the UN, for serious change not gut reactions to bad media.