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The current state of the Northern Territory intervention

By Amanda Midlam - posted Tuesday, 31 January 2012


This Bill is aimed at one particular section of the community – Indigenous Australians. Despite the rhetoric of granting of rights and interests those rights and interests are to the benefit of the Minister, not Aboriginal people; in fact Aboriginal people need not even be consulted at all as a failure to consult "does not affect the validity of the regulations" (ComLaw 2011). If this Bill promotes economic development it is at the discretion of the Minister, not the communities, and it is unclear who would benefit. Certainly there is nothing to suggest Aboriginal people would benefit economically, however control of land is taken away from them and given to the government.

Part 4 states that "food securitymeans a reasonable ongoing level of access to a range of food, drink and grocery items that is reasonably priced, safe and of sufficient quantity and quality to meet nutritional and related household needs" (ComLaw 2011). Basically this means the government has the power to decide who runs the stores where Aboriginal must shop. Part 4 deals with the welter of rules and regulations of alcohol control and Part 5, Other Matters, states that there is to be a review after 7 years with a sunset clause stating that the Act ceases 10 years after commencement.

Essentially this Bill, despite its title of Stronger Futures, aims at controlling food, alcohol and land and offers nothing. It is not surprising that Indigenous people are calling for a rejection of the Intervention. The Intervention, both in its original and its current form, has the methodology that "black" people are to be "consulted" about a set agenda, but not have any part in setting that agenda themselves.

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The media has made much of the fact that Bess Nungarrayi Price, an Indigenous woman from Alice Springs, on the advisory panel for the"Northern Territory Emergency Response Evaluation Report 2011",is a supporter of the Intervention. Divide and conquer is classic racism, still current evidently as media debate focuses on the disagreement between Price and other Indigenous people instead of on issues. Ideological racism lies behind this – a belief that white people are free to disagree but this is a privilege denied to Indigenous people. No-one suggests that Julia Gillard and Tony Abbot should agree on issues because they are both members of the white community, however if Indigenous people disagree not only is the spotlight shifted from issues to the conflict but Indigenous opinions are invalidated.

Rev. Dr. Gondarra addresses a serious health concern stating that "Aboriginal youth suicide rates in the Northern Territory are higher than anywhere else in Australia". The Government's own Northern Territory Emergency Response evaluation report 2011 suggests that suicide rates for Indigenous young people in the Northern Territory are between 5 and 13 times higher than those in Queensland and New South Wales, stating it is the most common underlying cause of death in all Northern Territory children after the first year of life.

Another government report, called Closing the Gap in the NT Monitoring Report January - June 2011, gives the figures, left out of the evaluation report, of the incidents of confirmed personal harm. In 2007/8, the first year of the Intervention, there were 109 incidents of attempted suicide/self harm and this more than doubled in 2010/11 to 227. Despite some improvement in delivery of health services the Intervention cannot be seen to be a success in regard to the health of young Indigenous in the face of the tragedy of suicide. The failure of government policy, legislation and reports to try to deal with the problem is an example of institutionalised racism.

In regard to housing the Evaluation Report notes that while housing availability and overcrowding were not part of the NTER, members of NTER communities raised housing as the most important challenge still to be faced, giving housing a third more votes than any other issue in the Community Safety and Wellbeing Research Study (FaHCSIA). However Indigenous people have serious concerns about where the government wants to build these houses. As Matthew Dhulumburrk puts it- "in homelands in particular, and also in our larger remote communities, Yolngu are happy and safe. The Intervention is pushing Yolngu into urban towns where they are on foreign country". The Indigenous homelands movement is at odds with the government's plan to deliver services to Northern Territory Growth Towns. Pushing Aboriginal people to live in towns they don't want to live in has been a disaster in the past. Why do it now?

Employment and education are also linked to these Growth Towns and although, in regard to education, the Evaluation Report states "Problems with the mplementation of the NTER relate primarily to poor consultation and the blanket imposition of a small number of initiatives" (FaHSCIA). The government's response is to introduce a new blanket measure with poor consultation; a scheme called SEAM, the School Enrolment and Attendance Measure,that links welfare payments with school attendance. According to Amnesty International's Campaign Co-ordinator on Indigenous Rights, Sarah Marland "There is no evidence to suggest that threatening to withdraw income support creates behavioural change in children's attendance at school". SEAM is overt racism as non-Indigenous recipients of welfare in other parts of Australia are not subject to this measure.

In conclusion it is important to "understand that there are only around 45,000 Indigenous Australians resident in the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) communities." (FaHSCIA). The government is willing to spend money on solutions and coincidentally an analysis of the Visiting Officer Notification system shows that 45,000 personnel visitations were made during the period from August 2007 to August 2011 (FaHSCIA).

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The government however fails to connect with the people it purports to be helping to a stronger future and the problem is ideological and institutional racism. The government assumes that whiteness is the norm and that Closing the Gap means Aboriginal people not only sharing the same standard of living of non-Indigenous people, but actually sharing the same type of living – whether they want to or not.

It is important to note these words from the Evaluation Report, "perhaps the clearest lesson from the NTER is the high level of unmet need within the NTER communities" (FaHSCIA). It is hard to see how new legislation aimed at controlling alcohol, food and land in Indigenous communities will address those unmet needs. Both Liberal and Labour governments have failed to realise that Closing the Gap means the whole country learning more about Aboriginal culture. Aboriginal people need to be understood in their own country but instead there's a racist assumption that Aboriginal people must assimilate.

Successful solutions won't be found if the government response flies in the face of Aboriginal culture. Herding Indigenous people into white-style settlements shows a racist misunderstanding that is at the heart of the Stronger Futures policy, a misunderstanding that will not only doom it to failure but cause massive distress. Until governments understand the Aboriginal concept of country, policies will be ideologically racist and lead to institutional racism.

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Submissions can be made to the Senate Inquiry on the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2011 and two related bills by clicking here.



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About the Author

Amanda Midlam has been a writer for over 30 years - books, TV, film, video and radio. Currently she is working towards a degree in Indigenous Stories and is writing a documentary about an Indigenous man in Eden.

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