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.

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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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