In the past month, FaHCSIA has released more than 1000 pages of reports that seek to justify an expansion of the NT intervention.
One of the most important for Minister Jenny Macklin has been the Community Safety and Wellbeing Research Study (CSWRS). This analyses the results of a survey and a voting process with 1343 people across 16 unnamed NT Aboriginal communities. Its findings are a cornerstone of a 400-page evaluation of the NTER.
Despite being touted as proof that communities want the intervention, the 17-page survey form used in communities does not once refer to “the intervention” or the “Northern Territory Emergency Response”.
The survey process ran from December 2010-June 2011 (p4). “Three years” prior to these dates (late 2007-mid-2008), the intervention was in full swing. It is unclear why communities weren’t clearly asked to compare their condition to before the intervention.
Survey participants were never asked about whether they actually agree with, or consent to any law that has been imposed on them through the intervention, much as happened in the “Stronger Futures” consultations. This illustrates contempt for the right and the capacity of Aboriginal people to shape their own future.
The headline statistic for Macklin is “almost three out of four people surveyed by this study said their community is safer now than it was three years ago”. She has implored anti-intervention activists, “Look at the evidence. This has nothing to do with ideology or politics”.
But the ideology of the intervention is on clear display through the CSWRS survey design and the report itself. The survey is fixated on questions about dysfunctional Aboriginal behaviour. Despite this, the clearest evidence provided by the report is that meeting shortfalls in services and infrastructure is the main challenge facing communities.
Despite being touted as the work of independent consultants, the report thanks FaHCSIA’s evaluation branch for guiding the project “from conceptualisation to completion” and thanks 20 government business managers, the on-the-ground authorities imposed by the intervention, for their facilitation role (p3). Prominent pro-intervention personalities also worked as staff.
A central, racist, premise of the intervention has been that the social problems facing Aboriginal communities stem from the degenerate nature of Aboriginal culture.
However, the biggest challenges as voted for by the communities were the need for increased services, and the largest positive response generated through the entire CSWRS survey, in a section on values, demonstrates a clear desire to defend the Aboriginal kinship system and Aboriginal culture:
“Having a strong connection to your culture, living traditionally, speaking language” and “Being close to family and friends” were rated “very important” by 91.2% and 92.4% of participants (with 96% and 97% of participants rating them as overall important) .
These responses were not mentioned in 140 pages of analysis in the CSWRS report, and can only be found buried as raw data in an appendix (p149). In contrast, there are eight pages of analysis into the detail of responses around inter-personal violence. This is just one of the more stark examples of how the ideology of the intervention has profoundly shaped the selective presentation of data, and precluded conclusions that may be uncomfortable for the government.
The report acknowledges on many occasions that its “quantitative” data is unreliable. But these admissions are carefully made, in a way that does not compromise the headline statistics.
i) Are some people saying “what they thought they ought to say”?
With respect to the section on levels of interpersonal violence, the report states:
“Feedback from data collectors also suggests that some of the responses may have been what the participant thought they ought to say, rather than what they really thought — which suggests that the true level of sanction for inter-personal violence may be higher than appears here” (p137).
But this suggestion was not made in any other context.
ii) Are communities safer since the intervention, or have they always been safe?
One of the cruel features of the survey is that there is no opportunity for people to comment on the strengths of their community. There are strong themes of Aboriginal dysfunction and an assumption that government intervention, rather than community initiative, is responsible for positive outcomes. For example, questions gauging strength of leadership or children’s happiness are only posed in comparison with three years previous.
It is clear, however, that large numbers of people wanting to express pride in their community, ignored the three-year comparison and took the opportunity to make a general statement.
This is selectively acknowledged in the report. For example, on responses to the statement, “there is more respect for elders than three years ago”, the report says:
“It may be that people are in effect saying that respondents are commenting (sic) more on the extent of respect for elders in the community, rather than whether or not it has changed in the last three years” (p83).
This analysis has serious implications for Macklin’s headline assertion — that three-quarters of people feel safer than three years ago. Perhaps many just think their community is a safe place to be?The stand-out finding of the report is that many in communities appreciate any increased investment in services, but that shortfalls in services and infrastructure are still of urgent concern.
Parallel to the survey, the CSWRS ran a ballot on key changes and challenges facing the community. This seems to have been a more collaborative process than the survey design, with community feedback playing a role in setting the categories for voting.
In the vote on challenges facing the community, huge numbers voted for improved services and infrastructure, including housing.
It is important to note that increased investment in public services has never been opposed by the anti-intervention activists derided by Macklin. These investments come off a base of documented and disgraceful neglect and need to be increased into the future.
The anti-intervention campaign has criticised extreme waste of funds on bureaucracy. We have opposed discriminatory legislation. We have opposed the dismantling of employment and service delivery programs operated by Aboriginal organisations. The survey form gave no opportunity to comment on the impact of these changes, but there is plenty of Aboriginal opinion that the experience since 2007 has been one of profound loss of service and opportunity.
At Daguragu, for example, residents have protested the loss of a host of services that used to be provided by their local community council and the Community Development Employment Projects, both of which have now been abolished. These include a bakery, brickworks, family centre, bus service, art centre and canteen.
The federal government is concentrating efforts on 16 large “priority communities” in the NT. The NT government has added five more, declaring a total of 21 “growth towns”. These are the only communities earmarked for increased investment in housing, services or infrastructure into the future, leaving smaller communities and outstations to languish.
A constant theme through the CSWRS was that smaller communities, and especially the smallest communities, were seen as safer, more robust, with stronger leadership. These are the very communities in danger of being left behind. For example, the Stronger Futures jobs package, announced with the new legislation, guarantees a job in the public sector for students who complete year 12 — but restricts this to students from “growth towns”.
But the survey analysis does not comment on implications for the “growth towns” policy of the findings that there is a statistically significant trend for survey respondents to prefer smaller places. This finding has not been mentioned in any official media release or media coverage.
There is plenty of evidence that the very serious social problems facing NT Aboriginal communities are becoming more acute. Reported incidents of attempted suicide and self-harm (p66) have more than doubled since the intervention. There has been a 41% increase in indigenous incarceration and a 38% increase in the numbers of Aboriginal children being taken into “out of home care”.
The emergency ward in Alice Springs hospital is dealing with increasing numbers of Aboriginal people, many suffering trauma as a result of assaults. Overwhelmingly, alcohol and homelessness are contributing factors in these incidents.
The women’s shelter in Alice Springs, providing a safe haven for women from domestic violence, had its busiest year ever in the past financial year.
But there is still no evidence that the raft of explicitly racist laws, which Macklin’s new legislation would extend for a further 10 years, have the consent of Aboriginal people.
The Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association said in their Health Impact Assessment of the NTER in 2010:
“The impoverished notion of governance that the intervention represented has profound, far reaching, and serious negative effects on the health (psychosocial, physical and cultural) of the people whose aspirations, knowledge, experience and skills were ignored; and it means that investments in housing or education of health ‘… are unlikely to pay off’.” (pg18)
Elders throughout the NT, Aboriginal peak organisations of the NT (land councils, legal and medical), ACOSS, ANTaR, the Public Health Association of Australia and many others are all calling for the Stronger Futures legislation to be withdrawn.
The CSWRS report does not offer any credible evidence that would support this new legislation. It shows Aboriginal communities want investment in services and infrastructure. There is strong evidence presented that Aboriginal people believe smaller communities in particular are robust, safer, and happy places. The government must abandon the “growth towns” model immediately.
The Labor government’s legislation continues to concentrate power in the hands of government and vilify Aboriginal people. This is not what people asked for and not what will deliver sustained improvement in the lives and livelihoods of remote living Aboriginal people in the NT.
*Dr Hilary Tyler is an emergency physician working in Alice Springs and Paddy Gibson is a senior researcher at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning. Both have been active in the campaign opposing the NT intervention.