Apr 29, 2011

NT Intervention: the divide between opinion and evidence

The over-publicised tweet by Larissa Behrendt needs to be seen as part of a wider issue.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott appeared on The 7.30 Report, interviewed by Chris Uhlmann against the backdrop of the NT:
CHRIS UHLMANN: I spoke with Opposition Leader Tony Abbott earlier today and asked if the intervention had achieved its primary aim, protecting children. TONY ABBOTT, OPPOSITION LEADER: I think the intervention has made a difference. It hasn't been perfect. Nothing is perfect, but it has made a difference and I think the challenge now is to build on that to try to see if we can extend the intervention to Alice Springs and the other major centres of the Territory, so that we ensure that everywhere in the Territory the kids go to school, the adults go to work and the ordinary law of the land is observed.
There is relatively little evidence of the benefits and/or harm of aspects of the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) so we do not know how its components affected the targeted 73 communities and whether it met any of the vague aims set. There are some scattered but useful studies and serious doubts about the value of others. These questions of  evidence create considerable tensions between supporters of the intervention and those who doubt its value. The over-publicised tweet by Larissa Behrendt needs to be seen as part of this debate and her expression of disgust and disagreement with Bess Price’s statements about the benefits of the intervention, not about her person. It also highlights the discrepancy between the coverage an issue like the tweet story is given compared to the exposure that both Abbott and the media have given to opponents of the intervention -- people like Barbara Shaw and the Intervention Rollback Action Group. I was watching Q&A and I worried that the Price statements would be taken more seriously than the measured judgment of the Human Rights Commissioner Graeme Innes, who contradicted some of her assumptions. Evidence is very limited and often seriously flawed but should be debated. But as I show below, the government has failed to take seriously the evidence on offer and is making policy on its prejudices and some expressed opinions. The income management part of the program is now extended to the whole NT, with the rest of Australia on the government’s agenda. I acknowledge my political views are anti much of the intervention (and I drink lattes) but I offer the evidence collected below, based on my strong professional ethos in research and evaluation. Despite many claims of success stated by the government, there is no statistical evidence that income management has in itself improved the health, child safety or family well-being in any of the designated areas. I acknowledge that such data are hard to come by, as there was no baseline data that could be used to show change. Causality is always difficult to prove but where there are big and expensive program changes, there is a need to set up measures that can test the statistical differences of pre-, during and post-program behaviour. In this case there is no official baseline data or later measures, and there will be none in the big current evaluation of the NT wide program. In fact, although the extended new non- racial, but 94% indigenous, income management program, started last August, the evaluation is only now designed and not yet allocated by tender. The government depends therefore on statements and opinions that support what it wants to do. This tendency showed up in the so-called redesign process, which took no advice from various consultations, submissions and reports. These offered repeated recommendations to replace population compulsory income management with a voluntary scheme except where people were proven to have problems. This advice came first in the Yu report that Jenny Macklin commissioned, and later in many submissions including from the Central Land Council and many Aboriginal groups. The Aboriginal Medical Service of the NT was quite clear in its submission:
AMSANT continues to oppose any form of compulsory income management for the reasons that follow…..
22. There is no compelling evidence that compulsory blanket income management is an effective tool for helping to improve the living conditions for children and families in Indigenous communities, or to support disengaged youth and vulnerable individuals in the broader community. In fact, the jury is still out on questions of its efficacy. The claims that quarantining welfare income under the NTER has significantly improved health and reduced alcohol consumption cannot be sustained on the evidence presented.
The careful Health Impact Assessment of the Northern Territory Emergency Response  from Australian Indigenous Doctors Association  (AIDA) recognised some immediate positives but also negatives that could have long-term effects stated in its income management section:
Rather than enabling Aboriginal families to better manage their money the process of compulsory quarantining was seen as reinforcing beliefs that Aboriginal people were not able to manage their lives. This loss of autonomy about where to shop and what to buy was seen as degrading and shameful. Importantly it did not focus on whether people received enough money to be able to budget appropriately or provide skills in budget management.
They conclude:
"The positive and negative health impacts of compulsory income support are likely to cancel each other out."
The carefully constructed store survey by the Menzies Health researchers found no statistical evidence of changes in purchasing that could be attributed specifically to income management. Better stores, nutrition programs and budget assistance were major factors in changing purchasing in many areas. In the Senate report, this lack of evidence is described and summed up:
3.45 Many submitters and witnesses were critical of the evidence base used to support the extension of income management across the Northern Territory and Australia. Some of these criticisms were summarised by Professor Jon Altman, who stated: Unfortunately and sadly, no empirical evidence with any integrity has emerged to unequivocally support income management measures. That collected by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has been highly qualified and equivocal. That collected by the Australian government or its agents has been in-house, unreviewed and, frankly, a little amateurish. At best, it has been deeply conflicted by moral hazard. Agents of the state are asked by state employees or their paid consultants whether state measures are effective. 3.46 Several witnesses, including Anglicare Australia, the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) and the St Vincent de Paul Society noted the small sample size used in studies such as the AIHW evaluation report and were of the opinion that the evidence base was not strong enough to support the expansion of income management. Worryingly, the evidence might change over time. For example, there is forthcoming research from the Menzies School of Health Research, currently under peer review, that outcomes from income management might, at best, be ineffective and, and at worst, perverse.
Despite these views, the recommendation from the ALP majority was that the Bills should be passed without changes. Since the Senate report was tabled, other evidence has emerged that the intervention hasn’t worked, including in child protection, its primary area of interest. The NT, in late 2009. commissioned a report on child protection Growing them strong, together to cover the past three years. This reported that child safety had deteriorated and, interestingly, failed to mention the NTER, either in its review of what had happened or income management as part of its future planning. There are two other income management trials that are claimed to be showing good results. These are basically voluntary schemes with compulsion being used to punish/control non-compliers. Therefore, they are not comparable with the NT model but even then, the data does not show clear gains.  There is much more evidence  I could list, and it will come out as an issue of the Journal of Indigenous Policy. The only clear support for maintaining the compulsory income management came from the NPY women’s group. Interestingly, they are the only group that the government quoted as a reason for continuing the program. It is this nexus of influence that shows the power of individual voices that agree with what the government proposes.  The Price comments, made on Q&A, can be seen as adding to the misinformation that has been used to justify this program. There are many groups who are angry and puzzled that the mass of counter evidence is ignored. Opinions running counter to government views are also ignored even if they come from respected long-term residents. There are wide differences between the Bess Price and the NPY views and other elders from their own communities.  A few weeks ago at a forum in Melbourne, included the Reverend Djiniyini Gondarra, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks OAM, Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, Harry Jakamarra Nelson and George Gaymarani Pascoe, all of whom opposed much of what Bess supported. Government ministers therefore seem equally able to discount opinions of locals and evidence from experts which do not support the views they hold. While evidence-based policy seems to have lost out in political debates, there is still the question of public opinion. The attack of Behrendt by News publications, which undermined the legitimacy of her professional judgment (and even Crikey’s) was obviously aimed at confusing uncommitted views of the voters. By playing the race in conflict cards and implying this was rural urban splits, The Australian made sure that the conservative views of its tame commentators would be unchallenged.

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57 thoughts on “NT Intervention: the divide between opinion and evidence

  1. Jon Hunt

    I worked as a doctor in Aboriginal health for seven years, mainly because of my concern for Aboriginal people, and partly because I wanted to know just what is going wrong.

    What I learned was that the problems I encountered were largely as a result of environmental pressures. In other words, I would try to fix their medical problems only to have this made ineffectual by the forces which caused these problems in the first place. Basically everyone came back with the same thing repetitively and nothing anyone did seemed to make a difference.

    The “forces” I describe have come about by colonisation, dispossession, disempowerment, displacement and so on. That’s where everything else stems from. I am not surprised that many have expressed their concern about the intervention, because the intervention is nothing more than more of the same. It can not possibly help, and to have anyone say it will help tells me they know nothing of the problems. I don’t think that ignorance should have place in discussions about the welfare of Aboriginal people but unfortunately as far as the government goes that seems to be all that is demonstrated. It has been more than 200 years since this all started, and I think it about time that someone treated them with the respect they are owed instead of dictating to them how to solve their problems when they know better than anyone else how to do this.

  2. Jim Reiher

    It is such a tragedy that some of the dwindling minority of voices supporting the intervention, are getting so much press.

    How can compulsory medical checks of all children in designated regions, be child care? To give vag_nal and an_l examinations to all children in 73 regions under the guise of “protecting them from child abuse” is a contradiction in terms.

    Are readers aware that of the first 7433 compulsory checks, only 4 cases of possible abuse were detected? (source: Courier Mail, 24 May 2008). That is outrageous! There would be more cases of possible abuse found if you took any middle class white suburb anywhere else in this country! But no, our previous government decided to pretend to care about children, by physically abusing thousands of them.

    I know my language is strong. But can you imagine what we would call it if a white suburb in Melbourne was deemed to have a lot of child abuse, so EVERY CHILD IN THE SUBURB would be forcibly checked in such a way as to traumatise the children? Without parental consent??!! Taken and checked even if there was no suspicion about any abuse of that child in particular? We would never allow such an outrage. it would never be done to white families.

    And yet we allowed it to happen to our indigenous kids in the Northern Territory. What a disgrace and what abuse! I am so appauled. I can never NEVER vote for a govt that implemented such actions, nor can I vote for one that went along with it, and continues to justify it. Both our major parties are racist, gutless and utterly disgraceful.

    The intervention needs to end, and some serious repair work with the indigenous communities must be … once again… attempted. It is unbelievable what we have NOT learned in over 200 years.

  3. Catching up

    Can someone enlighten me to what could not have been done for the Aboriginals if we did not have the intervention.

    Without the Intervention, we could still have had -:

    Increase police presence.

    Child Protection workers.

    Improved housing.

    Education motivation.

    Income management. (This does not have to be across the board, punishing those who do the right thing, as those who are wasteful. The present method is very expensive and does provide many jobs for the bureaucrats.) Income management can be done on a voluntary basis or where children are at risk, through Child Welfare agencies and the courts.

    Job training and increased employment opportunities.

    Health checks.

    Alcohol and drug counselling.

    What did the Intervention allow to happen that could not have been done without taking peoples rights away.

    How many more are going to school. Has abuse of children ceased. Are more employed. What happened to the alcoholics, as I refused to believe restricting alcohol would have solved their problems. My guess is that they have moved elsewhere.

    What has happened is the there has been more money spent. It did not need an Intervention for this to occur.

    It is my opinion that the Intervention was hasty created to assist the Howard government’s re-election. It would have been allowed to die, if Mr. Howard was successful in being re-elected.

    The Labor government should have re-assessed the situation when first elected and a more responsible programme put in place.

    Please do not insult me by insisting that money has been spent over the decades, it has not. The Aboriginals have had less per head spent on education, health and housing Etc. than that the rest of the community.

  4. Jon Altman

    One of the most worrying aspects of these debates on whether the Intervention in the NT (we seem to have yet again moved on from the term Closing the Gap in the Northern Territory which is actually a COAG National Partnership Agreement very quickly) or the Cape York welfare reform pilots or the voluntary income management trials are making a difference is that we have more and more reports and less and less analysis. A close reading of any of a plethora of reports [unfortunately as Eva Cox notes rarely with a quantitative baseline] by government departments on a six monthly basis in the NT coordinated by FaHCSIA, or the Commonwealth Coordinator General for Remote Services Delivery or the NT Coordinator General or by consultants like KPMG on the Families Responsibilities Commission or by the FRC on a quarterly basis or by the Productivity Commission or by the Prime Minister to Parliament annually or by the Australian Bureau of Statistics or the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (I could go on and on, we even have a dedicated Clearing House that cannot keep up with them all) show that at best outcomes are ambiguous and worst that peoples’ circumstances have either not changed or gone backwards.

    There is a lot of evidence out there but a reluctance that is often politically or ideologically based to address it seriously. And it shows considerable difference with some agencies looking to genuinely assess change, others more intent to defensively cover up failings. Opinion and spin seems to count for a great deal, but what is most concerning is that neither major party has done the serious hard policyt work to consider place based alternatives. So we get simplistic mantras like ‘get a job’, ‘get an education’, ‘get your kids to school’, ‘stop drinking’, ‘apply the law’ by some of the most powerful in Australian society as if the playing field is dead level!

    Closing the Gap rhetoric is about making the Australian public feel that something is being done, not about actually delivering sustainable benefit to Indigenous communities. The cosy Canberra consensus might quibble at the margins, but normalisation and the elimination of difference is the ultimate goal, one that is clearly not shared by all Indigenous Australians.

    Murray Edelman’s famous book about political language comes to mind: Words that Succeed and Policies that Fail! Succeed for whom and fail whom leaves little need for analysis although how we as a society let it happen is a worrying issue. Thanks for a stimulating article.

  5. David Hand

    “The over-publicised tweet by Larissa Behrendt”? Gimme a break – all I’ve read in Crikey over the past two weeks are rose tinted, beatifying, sycophantic PR releases on her behalf. Anyone would think there was an issue that needed defending (hmmmmmm………).

    So we have yet more hand-wringing from the left elites who opposed the intervention on reasons of principle from the start. We’ve had a change of government but no significant change of policy. Why this is? Two governments, from right and left of centre are persuing the same policy but if you read Crikey, the “invasion”, which it opposed from the start is an abject failure due to a lack of proof, or empiracle evidence.

    Come on, make a suggestion about what should be done. Spend more money? Relax controls over the distribution of welfare because they would not be tolerated in suburban Melbourne? These are the things that will fix it?

    It is telling that all this urban left elite huffing and puffing is having little influence over policy. You can all sit round your lattes and opine loudly about how evil the intervention is because we wouldn’t put up with it in Melbourne. Maybe it has failed. I haven’t been there so I am hostage to what I see and hear. But Bess Price has been there and has a story to tell, otherwise known as misinformation to all you who made your minds up about it in 2007.

    I await a coherent policy idea from the leftie urban elite that is taken seriously enough by this left wing government to make a difference. I’m not holding my breath.

  6. Jon Hunt

    Dear David,

    I think that I did actually mention what should be done. I’m not sure what you mean by “left elites”. The opposition to the intervention is valid on principle alone, in fact intuitively it’s a stupid thing to do. As I said many of the problems in Aboriginal communities stem from the interventions of the past 200 years, of which Howard’s one is only one of many. His contribution was designed to do nothing for Aboriginal people but was only intended to get him re-elected. It is disappointing that so few seem to recognise this for what it is. It is a pity that he used the abuse of children for this purpose.

    A policy idea from a “leftie urban elite” is obvious from the above. Support them in solving their problems, respect them, and don’t tell them what to do. It is as easy and as simple as that.

    If you don’t believe me, ask them. What a novel idea. Ask them what they would like to see done!

  7. kennethrobinson2

    This whole thing is not about helping Aboriginal people, its just a power grab, by a totally stupid political system.
    Any one who believes that it is working, should come up here and live with it for a while, these clowns in government, and opposition, dont really care about anything but the next election, neither party is winning friends in the top-end.

  8. Kerry Lovering

    If income maintenance can stop one murderous abuse of a woman then it is worthwhile.

    I note all the above focus on children but the plight of some aboriginal women is often appalling and appears to be ignored. Bess Price should be listened to.

  9. David Hand

    Hey Jon
    “Support them in solving their problems, respect them, and don’t tell them what to do. It is as easy and as simple as that.”

    Hmmmm, I know! Why don’t we establish an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Commission?
    Self empowerment! Run by Aborigines! A group we can ask, and not tell what to do!

    Is that what you are talking about?

  10. Liz45

    @DAVID HAND – Well, unlike you, I listen to aboriginal people. I’ve been to rallies/gatherings/information nights, where aboriginal people from the NT have been in attendance. It’s their LIVING EXPERIENCES that I’ve listened to, together with articles written by them or via others.

    Why do you assume, that the only people who stand up for human rights are lefties? Says a lot about you and your ‘lot’? I went to rallies in Wollongong & Sydney which were addressed by elders from Muckaty Station and workers in the NT. I’ve read the National Indigenous Times articles, and have before me the submissions of many groups in the NT who were not listened to by Jenny Macklin. I’ve also been on the web site of the people who walked off in disgust over both the raw sewerage they’d been forced to live with for over a week, and what was being demanded of them re signing away their land.

    It is a FACT that even the families of people convicted of committing horrific murders have not had the threat of having their land/homes taken, nor does the Justice System in NSW enable the autorities to quarantine their incomes, so what do you find difficult to understand about aboriginal people objecting to this abuse of their rights – aren’t they supposed to be citizens of the same country? Why is it OK to treat them differently? And why are you so sarcastic and dismissive of the anger by those who agree with aboriginal people being treated differently to the rest of us. This happens while Julia Gillard gives her ‘school marm lecture’ to indigenous people that they must ‘work harder’ etc. How offensive is that?

    Why does the Right think it OK, that an aboriginal worker works for the dole(50% of which is quarantined) while the non-aboriginal person working beside him gets the award wage and conditions? Why is an aboriginal worker threatened with the sack if he won’t work with his broken arm in plaster? Would you? Can you imagine or show me one incident in your state or area where this has been a reality for a non aboriginal person?

    What books, articles, programs or web sites do you visit to educate yourself re this or other related issues? Do you have a copy of the Native Title Legislation, or the Howard Ammendments? I do! Have you read any of the Reports I referred to?Read any Henry Reynolds books? Or perhaps, ‘Demons at Dusk’? Have you bothered to read anything other than the likes of Andrew Bolt and others of his ilk?

    No, didn’t think so, and it shows! You are part of the problem! You who can only show your ignorant and closed mind, without any positive input or discussion.
    The whole reason for the Intervention was land grab – and mining leases – over 400 of them in the pipeline – less than 200 prior to the Intervention. Why did Howard wait until 13 different inquiries had stated what was already known – that aboriginal people were living in squalor, that their health needs were not met, and that the educational facilities and teachers were a disgrace?

    How many people have been convicted of committing crimes of sexual assault against children?

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