Nov 1, 2011

The intervention is dead, long live the intervention

The most recent data on progress suggests that the intervention is failing, at least if its aim is to close gaps of socioeconomic disadvantage between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians in the NT, writes ANU professor Jon Altman.

The Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) intervention officially referred to as "Closing the Gap in the Northern Territory" but more commonly as "the intervention" is less than a year away from its statutory end in September next year. It has entered a potentially transformative stage that is a critical time for sound policy making and a dangerous time for Aboriginal people in "prescribed" communities especially if bad policy is legally locked in again. Last month the Australian government released its latest Closing the Gap in the Northern Territory Monitoring Report January -- June 2011 in two parts. The most recent data on progress suggests that the intervention is failing, at least if its aim is to close gaps of socioeconomic disadvantage between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians in the NT. This view can only be surmised because evidently measuring gap reduction, at least in the bizarre world of indigenous public policy in Australia, can be magically undertaken without any comparative data on non-indigenous outcomes. The report notes that while policies designed to improve can have a significant immediate effect (negative as well as positive?) this is the exception rather than the rule, as it will take a concerted effort over many years to achieve lasting change. This is undeniable, but it raises the question of why the Australian government is expending millions on six-monthly monitoring? Even assuming that the policy aim is to improve the absolute well-being of Aboriginal residents of NTER communities -- a more realistic and appropriate goal than closing statistical gaps -- according to time series information available for four areas this is just not happening. Since 2007–08 indigenous hospitalisation rates NT-wide (not just in NTER communities) have increased from 229 per 1000 to 262 per 1000. These are extraordinarily high rates unimagined in the broader community. Recorded school enrolment and attendance has declined from 64.5% in February 2009 to 62.7% in February 2011 with total enrolments declining from 8960 to 8914, despite rapid population growth. Income support recipients have increased from just on 20,000 in June 2009 to nearly 24,000 in June 2011, with some of the change explained by new ("non-grandfathered") CDEP participants being shifted onto Newstart. In the name of job creation, welfare dependence is increasing. Reports of child abuse in NTER communities have increased from 174 in 2007–08 to 272 in 2010–11; as have domestic violence reported incidents, from 1612 to 2968. And the gap in child protection indicators between indigenous and non-indigenous has increased across the NT for a range of indicators. The most shocking statistic is on confirmed attempt suicide/self-harm incidents that have increased from 109 in 2007–08 to 227 in 2010­–11 in NTER communities. This statistic is embedded in Figure 6.4 of the report without any commentary. If such a per capita rate was replicated in Sydney it would be about 22,700. Imagine the outcry! It was buried in the report, but registered as "a concern" according to a spokeswoman speaking for the minister Jenny Macklin. The Australian government response to what looks awfully like policy failure is to promulgate more of the same. This is the strong impression one gets when reading Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Report on Consultations October 2011 released four days later. The discussion paper and community consultations did not provide any of the factual information outlined above to inform small group (Tier 1) and community (Tier 2) "consultations, about the Australian government’s performance to date. In fact, the Australian government predetermined that the community consultation would focus on eight areas: school attendance and educational achievement; economic development and employment; tackling alcohol abuse; community safety and protection of children; health; food security; housing and governance. It also engaged consultants, many ex-bureaucrats, to monitor proceedings to assure the Australian public that consultations were conducted properly. A report by Cultural & Indigenous Research Centre Australia (CIRCA) dated September 2011 indicated that the facilitated discussions conducted over six weeks appeared open, fair and accountable. CIRCA did observe, critically, that the upmarket Crowne Plaza Hotel, where the Alice Springs Town Camp meeting was held, may have been an unfamiliar, uncomfortable and unfriendly venue. It also noted that some meetings were very long (four to five hours) and food needed to be provided as people were showing signs of hunger and exhaustion. CIRCA, however, made no comment on the predetermined subject of consultations -- this was reminiscent of consultations about the future of income management in 2009 that would not countenance the possibility of abolition. Nor was there any consideration that the intervention approach and its monitoring framework might be fundamentally flawed. So, let’s look at evidence from the four key areas of hospitalisation, education, employment and child abuse. Policy success would suggest that over time there should be less hospitalisation and child abuse and better education and employment outcomes. But the correlations between interventions and improved outcomes are quite unclear. Should more medical attention result in more or less hospitalisation? Should more police results in more or less reported crime? Should more jobs result in more or less welfare dependence? And should more teachers, new teacher houses and better school infrastructure result in more or less attendance?The possibility of such ambiguity indicates that the current policy of closing the gap and its monitoring framework is poorly designed and confused. The government can make what it chooses of the rubbery figures, possibly the intention? Nowhere is the policy confusion more evident than in the vexed area of school attendance, with failure being blamed on parents and withdrawal of welfare entitlements proposed as the possible solution. Historically, welfare or transfer payments have been a social policy instrument to provide income support for individuals and families in need. In policy circles there is an emerging view that welfare sanctions can be used to effectively alter social norms, to alter expenditure patterns via income management and to improve school attendance. However, there is no evidence that school absentees are disproportionately the dependents of welfare beneficiaries. Nor is there any evidence either here or internationally that punitive measures against parents will ensure school attendance, although there is a distinct possibility that children will suffer. The NT government has recently introduced its Every Child Every Day policy; and has amended its education laws to enhance the powers of school attendance truancy officers and significantly increase fines for truancy. The Australian and NT governments are in policy and potential legal conflict here, one government looking to fine, the other looking to take away the means to pay fines, with parental imprisonment a likely unintended consequence of school absenteeism. It is hard to imagine such an outcome being good either for the child or family relations. Simultaneously, such discourse is imbued with a policy moral hazard of taking the attention away from the school system as a potential part of the problem, is school attendance failure a function of inappropriate curricula, poor teacher performance and an inability to stimulate students? Is there something systemic that makes kids prefer the mundane everyday to the supposed inspiration of school attendance? These are the sorts of hard policy questions that are being avoided in the quest for simplistic and populist solutions to deeply entrenched problems. If the intervention policy framework is wrong, why is it about to be continued? Even evidence from the government’s own monitoring is being ignored. Instead the cozy Canberra consensus of political and bureaucratic classes believes they have the answers. Politicians in their political self interest are donning ideological blinkers and listening too much to urban focus groups, rather than developing realistic policy in the interest of Indigenous residents of NTER communities. And complacent and complicit senior bureaucrats appear too comfortable with the status quo they invented and the policy inertia born of bedded down approaches and the persuasive ring of the persistent Close the Gap mantra. Deeply disadvantaged people in remote Northern Territory deserve far better. Policies instruments need to be deployed that generate improvement in absolute, not relative, well-being and that can be monitored less ambiguously. Otherwise the millions spent on reporting is a waste. Evidently, we need a new evidence-based framework; but the innovation required is most likely to come from the marginalized subjects of this grand project of improvement rather than from the powerful, but distant and unconnected. *A version of this article appeared in Tracker, Volume 1, Issue 8, November 2011. Jon Altman is a professor at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at ANU.

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12 thoughts on “The intervention is dead, long live the intervention

  1. Irfan Yusuf

    Tracker is a fabulous rag.

  2. Jenny Haines

    I am no fan of paternalistic welfare programs but may be increased hospitalisations and increased reporting of child sex abuse is a good outcome as more diseases are detected and dealt with instead of festering in communities and there is a greater awareness of the need to report child sex abuse. But the increased number of suicides and the decrease in school attendance is very worrying. One of the most important things the Intervention has obviously failed to do is build Hope in aboriginal communities, that social change imposed on the communities will bring about an improvement in the standard of living and life expectancy. Less paternalism more community self development and involvement may help.

  3. David Coles

    After 6 years out of the system I am too far away to comment on the particulars. I don’t find it too difficult to understand, though, that such a poorly conceived move as the intervention is now being shown for what it always was. Bureaucrats often have to make silk purses out of sows ears. In this case they seem to have fallen short of the mark.

    Just on the education issue, to pick a nice easy one, it is my view that the system wont change to one that will be effective for the students, and potential students, until there is pressure from the students and their ommunities. That wont happen until there are students at school. Not fair on the kids but there you go.

  4. granorlewis

    All very well for the good Professor to be throwing rocks. The issue is that these issues/measures might be even worse were it not for the great things that have been done. Some of the key problems have been addressed, albeit perhaps by some measures, with limited success.

    But one thing needs to be clearly understood. Many many mothers and their many many children do now get to sleep peacefully, with better nutrition and far less threat to their personal safety. Nobody measures this factor, but it is very very real.

    We do have to convince these mothers and their children that going to school is important, but by their way of thinking, reading and writing has little value in their world. Sad but true.

  5. kennethrobinson2

    The INTERVENTION, was designed to fail from the start, but the large amount of snouts in the trough are doing nicely.
    The only solution, must com from the Aboriginies themselves.

  6. Peter Ormonde

    Strongly agree with Jenny Haines and Granor Lewis above.

    The NT situation is dire – has been dire for many years. The incumbent system was unable – or even unwilling – to tackle the problems.

    I realise that the accepted wisdom amongst the left is that, as Kenneth puts it:
    “The only solution, must come from the Aboriginals themselves.” But it didn’t come. It showed no signs of coming. And the Aboriginal population was in serious danger of committing a self-managed form of genocide – rampant violence, child abuse and an increasing dependence on welfare.

    Basic human rights – to safety and security, to an education, to health care – were being trashed. All in the name of letting Aboriginal communities “solve their own problems”.

    In another country – in any other situation – the Australian Left would be demanding government intervention and help. Not here. We listen only to the loud voices of the “disenfranchised”, the “elders” who presided over this systemic abuse and neglect.

    As for the anonymous Crikey piece above, the numbers will in all likelihood get worse before they get better. We do not assert that increased reports of rape or AVOs are evidence of a crisis – we know that this comes from the previously silent speaking out, accessing the law, coming to public attention. Not here though. This is apparently “different”.

    Reportage of Aboriginal child abuse and neglect, hospitalisation rates – and yes even suicide rates – will increase. It is because we are taking notice and the previously hidden and neglected and ignored problems are now being noticed and hopefully remedied. It is a matter of survival.

    Don’t waste your time and words defending the indefensible and dysfunctional. Don’t just read Government reports and looking for “bad numbers” to demonstrate white fellas’ failure. Worry about the victims. Talk to the women and kids. Don’t just rely on some white armchair academic, writing from the comfort of some inner city study, to do your thinking for you.

    If you are, as you imply, interested in letting aboriginal people determine their own future – then get some Black comments in here – get something from the National Indigenous Times – get a Black stringer, buy some content, or do the work yourselves. But don’t serve up this pre-chewed, whitey, guilt-laden bilge as analysis.

    P*ss poor Cr*key. No wonder it was anonymous. Best it stay that way. This author should be in hiding.

    Ed: The author of the piece is Professor Jon Altman of ANU’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research. Leaving off his name was a production error.

  7. Policeman MacCruiskeen

    I’ve spent enough time in the company of the old hard left (in essence, Stalinists) to readily recognise the dead hand of ideological commitment over a commitment to finding decent solutions in this editorial.

    The demand for Aboriginal self determination, a dearly held belief of the now doddering ‘new left’ failed and will continue to fail so long as, individually and collectively, Aborigines lack the fundamental skills for exercising self determination. This means that they must be equipped with the basics for political and social agency: education, health outcomes on a par with non-Aboriginal groups, individual and collective safety and security including freedom from fear, poverty, violence and material deprivation. The situation in the NT is so dire that failure to address conditions there on an emergency basis would be a continuation of genocidal policies that created those conditions in the first instance. The sort of neglect and disinterest that characterised the pre-intervention policies could be, and were, sheeted home to Aboriginal people. I mean, what could be done with them?

    This editorial is the worst kind of ideological kant that pays no attention to the conditions that preceded the intervention and now declares it a failure on the primary grounds that it fails to adhere to a political principle that has already failed.

  8. granorlewis

    The article is not anonymous – it was written by Professor Jon Altman a professor at ANU. So the depiction of this author by Peter Ormonde is spot-on – written in an ivory tower somewhere in downtown Canberra.
    Peter Ormonde and Policeman Maccruisken have said it all so well – obviously with on-the-ground experience.

  9. Jon Altman

    I think that my name was left off owing to a technical glitch; I never make public comment anonymously. Yesterday (1/11/11) Crikey posted article and byline as follows

    4. The intervention is dead, long live the intervention
    Jon Altman, a professor at the Australian National University, writes:

    It is interesting that some comments wish to ascribe to a view that I have had no on-the-ground experience living in remote Indigenous Australia, which of course I have, although that alone does not qualify one to have pertinent analysis, and there is considerable diversity among the 1200 discrete Indigenous communities in Australia.

    What my opinion piece yesterday tried to highlight is that if there is no basis for assessing whether interventions are helpful, or not, then why all the monitoring? In this opinion piece I have attempted to take government published statistics across all prescribed communities at face value and ask what are they telling us? And if the answer is ambiguous, then why are we collecting all these data at great public expense?

    Prior to the 2007 NTER I was (and remain) a long-term critic of the neglect of Indigenous Australians by the affluent state according to any equitable needs based assessment. Now I seek to understand if the policy instruments being deployed are effective. I question how many Australians read the hundreds of pages of monitoring published annually, in the name of accountability, because so many of the reported outcome are at best marginal positive change (which is welcome), at worst negative change (which is not). This is a worrying basis for mindless commitment to the framework currently in place, change is needed if the $ invested are to make the difference that is so urgently needed.

    All concerned about ideology should just stick to the published facts as I have attempted to do. I have not cherrypicked, but referred to those few statistics that are reasonably longer term and so provide a basis for assessing change over time.

  10. Peter Ormonde


    I am aware of your work in the Top End regarding economic development. But you are well wide of the mark on this stuff.

    Unlike economics, where there is a reasonable chance that year on year numbers are broadly consistent and the sources of data are reliable, social welfare, crime and other social indicators are far more “rubbery”. The fact that we see a statistical increase in social data does NOT mean a deterioration in circumstances. In fact this is the opposite where there have been barriers to reporting crimes or willful neglect.

    The reason you are seeing increases in the statistics you quote is because the previous records were inadequate. Or are you trying to assert that NT and Federal authorities had a good grip on these problems prior to the intervention? I can guarantee they didn’t … we didn’t know how bad it was. We didn’t want to know. People did not want to tell us.

    Have a listen to Beth Price on the Radio National website for the voice from below. Not the miffed “elders” and community leaders Jon – just a woman – who was living with the “communities” being tolerated and constructed under the old regimes.

    This is about survival mate – how it gets done is very much a secondary issue. And the way it was happening – the deformed and misshapen “traditional” cultures that were developing and exercising control or failing to – was part of the problem – not part of the solution.

    In short Jon, don’t listen to anybody – ANYBODY – who says the old system was working, or that women and kids were not subjected to brutality and violence, or that these problems were “insignifcant”. It happened on their watch mate. They are as responsible as we are.

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