A new consultation process on more intervention proposals does not please the many critics of the current version’s costly failures.  The government’s discussion paper, Stronger futures in the NT, sets severe limits on the topics to be discussed and the issues to be raised. There is no option for discussing income management, the efficacy and roles of government business managers, the abolition of Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP), the school curriculum’s relevance to local cultures; e.g. bilingualism, the problems with the new shire structures that undermine local controls or the plans to reduce the outstation populations.

The basic assumptions behind the paper are clearly the same as are promoted in other areas of “welfare reform”. The problem is defined as being with the people in the Aboriginal communities who fail to live up to their responsibilities. There are strong echoes of the recent moves in the budget to tighten up on those without jobs, ignoring the lack of jobs in many of the communities.

Jenny Macklin, the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs can, at best, claim in her foreword “Through our efforts and investments over the past four years, we have made some progress. When I speak with people in remote communities and in towns like Alice Springs, particularly women, they tell me that they and their families feel safer, their children are better fed and clothed and less money is being spent on alcohol and gambling”. Where is the evidence she claims  to have, if the views of individuals are the best she can offer?

Later she stated “I believe that we must work in partnership with Aboriginal people, leaders and communities as we develop directions and policies for our future work in the Northern Territory”. And yet the paper shows no signs of dealing with some of the cultural and social issues apart from the obvious ones.   She goes on to say “We will not succeed in tackling the priority issues that continue to contribute to indigenous peoples’ disadvantage — making sure children get a good education, reducing alcohol abuse, and getting people into jobs — if there is distrust between government and community, if people do not feel respected to take responsibility for their own lives.”

However, the missing issues show exactly that lack of respect by government for the basics that Aboriginal people put first. These were clearly expressed in the plan put forward in the past weeks by a wide group of indigenous people who have serious concerns about the intervention.  Called Building from the Ground Up, its first  recommendations are framed very differently.[1] The first four bear no resemblance to those in the government document:

1. Restore community governance: urgently rebuild Aboriginal community government councils. Restore decision-making power and administration of municipal services to these councils. Transfer all assets seized by the shires to the Aboriginal councils and pay compensation for all other assets sold off by the shires. Remove government business managers installed by the intervention.

2. Increase government investment in ALL communities: abandon the “hub towns” model. Rapid improvements in education, housing, health and community services are required wherever Aboriginal people choose to live — in urban areas, remote communities and on homelands.

3. Jobs with justice: create a new Aboriginal employment program to replace Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) that have been gutted through recent reforms and are exploiting Aboriginal workers. Jobs created must pay at least award wages, with rights to join unions and collectively bargain. The program must be administered by community-based organisations, with development needs and priorities set through broad community consultation. All willing workers should be employed.

4. No to township leases: end compulsory five-year leases over Aboriginal township land taken through the intervention. Stop pressuring communities to sign extensions on these leases. Lift the requirement that 40-year leases are signed with the government before housing can be built. Rescind all township leases signed since the intervention began in 2007.

Contrast this with the following final section of the government paper.

Future directions As part of our ongoing commitment to communities in the Northern Territory, government employees will continue to live and work with local people in remote communities, to make sure programs and services are effectively delivered, and to help develop local solutions. The government is keen to explore how to improve this engagement so that the best outcomes are achieved for indigenous communities.

The government would welcome proposals about how it could assist communities to build their capacity and leadership.

The government has made most of the decisions, so it is hard to see what serious consultation will occur. The listed questions in the paper are mostly details on delivery, not the substance of programs. Other proposals, such as those above, are ignored, and minister Macklin wonders why there is limited trust and respect.

The release of the discussion paper  resulted in many other critics complaining that the priority areas, such as tackling alcohol abuse and improving school attendance, had been highlighted in a host of previous studies and few of the recommendations had been implemented.

More same old!

[1] This document puts forward a list of demands that have come consistently from Aboriginal communities since the announcement of the NT Intervention in 2007. It has been widely endorsed by Aboriginal community leaders, along with the Intervention Rollback Action Group (Alice Springs), Stop the Intervention Collective (Sydney) and “concerned Australians” (Melbourne).

Peter Fray

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