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The current state of the Northern Territory intervention

By Amanda Midlam - posted Tuesday, 31 January 2012

NTER, more commonly known as the Intervention, was introduced by the Howard Government, on 21st June 2007, claiming it was a response to the "Little Children are Sacred" report. No-one denies that Indigenous communities were living in dire conditions but as Larissa Behrendt stated it was the national emergency that was sitting neglected for over thirty years. The Howard government's plan was to "stabilise, normalise and exit remote NT Aboriginal communities". However since then NTER has continued under both the Rudd and Gillard governments. The current situation is that in November 2011 the Gillard government released the "Stronger Futures In The Northern Territory Policy Statement 2011" and announced NTER is being extended for another 10 years, an announcement that has attracted an amount of criticism from Indigenous people.

In order to introduce NTER the Howard government controversially suspended the Racial Discrimination Act. In November 2011 the Gillard government introduced legislation specifically targeting Indigenous people in order to enable the government to put in place its Stronger Futures policy. This is ideological racism, based on the belief that Indigenous people can't sort out problems for themselves and need government control. By suspending protecting laws and creating new ones this ideological racism becomes institutional racism operating through institutions such as police, health and education services.

On 23 November 2011the Bill, entitledStronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2011,was introduced in the House of Representativeswith the stated aim of "building stronger futures for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, and for related purposes" (ComLaw 2011). The related purposes aren't stated. Part 1, consisting of 5 pages, is an introduction. Part 2, entitled "Tackling Alcohol Abuse", runs to almost 30 pages. Part 3 "Land Reform" is a scant 5 pages. Part 4, almost 20 pages, is called "Food Security" and finally Part 5 "Other Matters" is a single page.


With its focus on alcohol abuse, land reform and food security there is nothing on the Contents page to suggest this bill plans to create stronger futures in the areas of health, housing, education and employment. In fact it could be argued that the Stronger Futures are for the government, not Aboriginal people who are disempowered by this legislation. New racism is inherent here; no-one is suggesting Aboriginal people are biologically inferior but Stronger Futures works as an exclusionary construction affecting the status of Aboriginal people.

There is nothing in this document that says anything about maintaining Aboriginal culture, yet surely culture would have to be an important part of a stronger future, There's a statement that "the object of this Act is to support Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory to live strong, independent lives, where communities, families and children are safe and healthy" however despite the finely worded intention the legislation actually takes away independence. The original Intervention in 2007 was criticised for its lack of consultation as the Howard government sent the army into Indigenous communities, leading Guy Rundle to describe the event as a bizarre period of military humanitarianism claiming, "Australia has become the first member of the Coalition of the Willing to invade itself'".

According to Jenny Macklin the Gillard government claims that "there were more than 470 consultation meetings in over 100 hundred towns and communities".

However Indigenous leaders reject that claim. According to a Northern Territory elder, the Rev. Dr. Djiniyini David Gondarra OAM, "The recent consultations report shows that Government has failed to take seriously our concerns and feelings. This report is simply a reflection of pre-determined policy decisions.... The Stronger Futures report has created a lot of anger and frustration due to the lack of process and the ignorant way in which the views of the people have been reported. We therefore reject this report".

Amnesty International is also critical and "has called on the Gillard government to move on from the mistakes of the past, warning its Stronger Futures legislation is just a re-badged NT intervention… Amnesty International is concerned Labor hasn't done enough to remove the discriminatory aspects of the intervention in the new legislation."

The Stronger Futures legislation not only has as its base the supposition that Indigenous people cannot manage their own affairs but also gives the impression that the major problem identified is the behaviour of Indigenous people. There are communities in Australia that are predominantly white where alcohol abuse is a serious problem but white people have unacknowledged privileges. On the other hand whether individual Indigenous people or communities in the Northern Territory abuse alcohol or not is irrelevant to the legislation – all Indigenous people come under the new controls.


This legislation is extraordinary when you consider that the Northern Territory Emergency Response Evaluation Report 2011 states that in 2007 when NTER was first introduced "most communities were already dry or had alcohol management arrangements in place. The replacement of existing alcohol management arrangements without real community consultation has reduced 'ownership', and there is some feeling that the problem has simply been relocated." That statement comes from the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA).

The "Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Policy Statement" states that alcohol misuse is at the centre of dysfunction, violence and abuse in many communities . However it makes no attempt to identify or address any reasons for alcohol-abuse and makes the assumption that the government can control it.

In Part Two, "Land Reform", it states that the "measures are aimed at facilitating the granting of rights and interests, and promoting economic development, in those camps and areas" (ComLaw 2011). However in the detail it states that the regulations may modify any law of the Northern Territory relating to: the use of land; or dealings in land; or planning; or infrastructure; or any matter prescribed by the regulations to the extent that the law applies to a town camp and the same conditions apply to community living areas. This gives the Federal Government more power over the Northern Territory government; it doesn't empower Aboriginal people in the slightest.

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.

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).

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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