There was little coverage in the general media of the Senate Community Affairs Committee’s report on the Stronger Futures legislation package, tabled on March 14.  This is not surprising on one level, as most indigenous policy issues tend to be seen as too hard, unless they lend themselves to shock horror disaster coverage.

One exception was an attempt by Fran Kelly on Radio National Breakfast on the 15th to quiz Jenny Macklin, the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, on why she was supporting the extension of the many programs of the intervention despite lack of evidence that they worked. The minister ducked the difficult questions.

The lack of media scrutiny, unfortunately, will allow the federal government to continue and expand a series of paternalistic, ineffective programs that will reduce the well-being of many disadvantaged Australians.  The evidence offered to the Senate committee showed very little serious support for most of the proposals and substantial objections to the way they were devised without serious local input.

So in an attempt to rebalance the debate, I have some more questions for Macklin …

1. Did you bring pressure onto the ALP majority on the Community Affairs Committee to support the legislation?

2. Why are you and these ALP Senators ignoring  the substance of the submissions from many groups including the very body you have established to advise you? The National Congress of the First Australian Peoples deplored the report’s failure to take seriously its criticisms of the government’s proposals and failed to treat their advice respectfully. Its media release states:

“The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples says much of the detailed content of many submissions to the NT laws inquiry has been ignored and disrespected in the Committee’s report.

“The Congress Co‐Chairs say the Committee’s report contains minor and superficial recommendations but that many solutions offered by communities in the areas of governance, alcohol management and education have been ignored.”

Further scathing criticisms came separately from the Indigenous Catholics, Anglicans and Uniting Church organisations. Graeme Mundine, from the Sydney Catholic diocese, said:

“It is disappointing that the committee has comprehensively ignored a wide range of concerns raised by a significant number of submissions and evidence from Northern Territory Aboriginal communities, Aboriginal organisations, human rights groups, welfare groups, churches and others.

“The overwhelming message from Aboriginal peoples is that they do not want this legislation. Aboriginal peoples want to be treated with respect, dignity and be full participants in creating and implementing sustainable solutions to overcome disadvantage plaguing communities. The government consistently spins the line that the intervention has delivered impressive outcomes. In fact, what little verifiable evidence there is shows the intervention has not delivered tangible and sustainable results and has not substantially improved life for Aboriginal peoples. Far from it, measures such as increasing suicides and rising rates in imprisonment show a very different picture. The government’s dogged determination to plough on, in collusion with the opposition, despite the lack of evidence is astounding.”

3. Can you therefore justify urging the Senate to pass the bills when there is so little support for your policies from not only a wide range of Aboriginal organisations, but major welfare and other expert groups, such as ACOSS?

Nearly five years of intervention initiatives have not made any statistically significant improvements to well-being indicators, so the evidence does not support their extension. Yet, you continue to justify your policies on the basis of conversations with unidentified Aboriginal people who agree with whatever you are proposing.  This is not the proper basis for major policy decisions and expenditure.

4. Why did you claim there would be public input to the legislation by the referral of this legislation to the Senate Community Affairs Committee, when your mind was made up in advance? Like your consultations, this process now seems like another mindless ritual because the ALP majority has not suggested significant changes.

There are signs that the Senator were concerned about the flawed so-called consultation process. The report by the majority supported better processes next time:

“Recommendation 10 4.17: The committee recommends that when conducting further consultation in relation to Stronger Futures the Commonwealth government: — work with the framework provided by the Australian Human Rights Commission for meaningful and effective consultation processes that are culturally safe, secure and appropriate; and — give consideration to the effective use of Land Councils in consultation processes given their knowledge and expertise in consulting appropriately with communities”

That suggestion for future procedural improvements will not fix the many problems identified in submissions and at the consultations with the current legislation. All the very solid objections of almost all experts — legal, welfare and indigenous — to the proposed program that extends the NTER type measures, will be ignored or at best there will be a few minor changes.

Multiple petitions, and numerous requests to delay or reframe much of the legislation have been ignored as has the evidence of failed programs under the intervention. Yes, people do welcome extra police, teachers and local night patrols, but these could be funded outside this legislative package. This uses a very bureaucratic top down system to impose social controls over powerless people, despite evidence that these measures do not work.

PS: On Friday, some indigenous groups in the NT reported being told that the Greens were threatening to block funding for NT indigenous health and other services. This panicked some NT services into opposing the proposed small changes and pushing other organisations to support the government. Similar pressure was applied in the last related legislative process.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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