Last week the mainstream media devoted tens of thousands of words to “analysing” the effects of the Brough/Howard NT Indigenous Intervention.
Today the NT Department of Justice published its March quarter 2008 crime statistics (also see my previous post on NT crime figures over the last 6 years). What effect has the Intervention had? A very slight reduction in violent crime but nothing to celebrate given the expenditure of well over a billion dollars by the Federal government. Assaults are down by 14% Territory-wide from the previous quarter (which hadn’t shown any significant reduction) and by 3% from the March quarter last year. Sexual assaults are down by 12% from the previous quarter and by 10% from the March quarter last year.
It’s hardly surprising given that, despite all the ballyhoo and reasonably massive expenditure of federal funds, the actual number of additional police deployed to remote communities under the Intervention has been quite modest (see this useful Crikey evaluation):
THE PROMISE: “Law and order will be a central focus of the measures I’ve announced. There will be an immediate increase in policing levels. They’re manifestly inadequate. The existing laws, even with their shortcomings, are not being adequately enforced. We’ll be asking each state police service to provide up to 10 officers, who will be sworn as police in the Northern Territory.” — John Howard, press conference, June 21, 2007.
THE DELIVERY: The leaked Situation Reports claim night patrols are operating in all 73 prescribed communities.
A total of 55 communities have still received no extra police resources. 51 additional police have been deployed across just 18 communities, comprising 33 interstate police and 18 from the Northern Territory.
Only 18 of 73 remote communities have received any additional policing resources at all, so you wouldn’t really expect huge reductions in crime rates. Moreover, many of the interstate police have already returned home or are about to do so. None of this is meant as a criticism of the intensity of governments’ efforts, in one sense anyway. The problem is a huge one and not susceptible of any “quick fix” solution, although that’s not the impression Brough and Howard tried to create.
For the NT government, the effects of the Intervention actually create a short term political management problem at a time when they’re contemplating calling an early election to capitalise on a (rumoured) about to be announced huge new gas project and the opening of the new Darwin Convention Centre. Although there have been modest-to-insignificant reductions in violent crime across the Territory, there’s actually been an (arguable) increase in assaults in the Darwin region where all the marginal seats are located (though a small drop in sexual assaults). Assaults in Darwin have decreased by 16% from the December quarter but increased by 25% from the March quarter last year.
Predictably, CLP Opposition Leader Terry Mills is completely ignoring all the other figures and attempting to persuade the media to focus solely on the increase in Darwin assaults by comparison with the March quarter last year:
Opposition Leader Terry Mills says the Territory Government has lost the war on crime, and says Chris Burns is being dishonest in describing the crime statistics as good news.
Ignoring the political hyperbole, what we’re almost certainly seeing is a simple transference effect. Policing intensity has increased out bush and grog is harder to smuggle into communities, so some of the hardened drinkers have shifted to Darwin and Alice Springs. Everyone living in Darwin has noticed this phenomenon over the last 6 months: there have been many more drunken indigenous people on the streets, beaches and hanging around shopping centres. Mind you, authorities seem to have begun getting on top of the problem over the last 6-8 weeks, but there’s little doubt that this transference effect largely accounts for the increase in assaults through the March quarter. Moreover, it’s a phenomenon I predicted as soon as the Intervention was announced (albeit with a certain amount of hyperbole myself):
What effect will banning alcohol from all remote remote Aboriginal communities have? I can tell you immediately, from 24 years living in the NT. All the drinkers would immediately move into town in Darwin, Alice Springs, Katherine and Tennant Creek, where there is no way they could be stopped from drinking without restriction.
I recall Harry Clarke touted the Intervention as a success not so long ago on the basis of STD statistics for the Northern Territory. I only wish I could agree that the figures look promising, because the incidence of child sexual abuse in indigenous communities throughout Australia including the NT (which was merely a convenient target given the Commonwealth’s sweeping constitutional powers over territories) is truly horrendous as the Australian Crime Commission has recently confirmed (if any confirmation was needed). Sadly, STD figures do not provide any clear indication that the Intervention has made any significant difference:
The Northern Territory Government’s latest surveillance update on sexual health and blood-borne viruses revealed that 62 children aged under 14 were diagnosed with sexually transmitted infections in the Territory in the first six months of the intervention. Three of the children diagnosed with chlamydia between July and December last year [the first 6 months of the Intervention] were under the age of 10.
The figures also showed that total diagnoses of chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis and trichomoniasis declined in the second half of last year, compared with the first half, following the intervention. The Territory’s rates of sexual disease among both the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal population still soar above the rest of the nation.
Between January and June last year, five children under 10 were diagnosed with chlamydia, compared with three diagnoses of children under 10 between June and December.
Rates of gonorrhoea also declined, with 40 diagnoses of children aged between 10 and 14 between January and June, compared with 27 diagnoses in the latter half of last year.
However, the report revealed that total new notifications of chlamydia and syphilis were higher overall last year. In contrast, new notifications of gonorrhoea last year had declined by 8.2per cent compared with the previous year. …
The Alice Springs district – which takes in remote central Australian communities first targeted under the emergency intervention – had overwhelmingly high notifications of STIs, particularly gonorrhoea and syphilis, between July and December last year [the first 6 months of the Intervention].
As I remarked above, none of this is surprising. The causes of extreme violence and child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities are complex, entrenched and longstanding. Violent alcoholics and substance abusers are not cured overnight, nor do generations of functionally illiterate people (many of whom lack even basic oral English skills) suddenly become literate and employable. Nor can endemic health, housing, nutrition, education and training deficiencies be overcome with a magic wand.
Anyone who expected to see quick dramatic reductions in violent crime generally or child sexual abuse specifically was naive.
Nevertheless, despite all this seeming pessimism, I’m actually cautiously optimistic about the long-term outcomes of the Intervention. Funding for remote indigenous housing has been significantly increased, and that’s certainly a key aspect of the problem. There are some promising initiatives in education as well, and I’m also guardedly hopeful about some of the “mutual obligation” measures like welfare quarantining and tying benefits to children’s school attendance (a measure Brough announced but which hasn’t yet commenced). In more general terms there are grounds for hope that indigenous issues won’t again be swept under the carpet and ignored for another 20 years. Federal Minister Jenny Macklin seems to have a clear-eyed determination to tackle these problems, and is well served by experienced advisers.
The key is finding constructive ways of addressing housing, nutrition, hygeine, education, training and job and enterprise creation. Those are aspects I intend to cover in separate posts just as soon as I finish university exam marking in a few days time.