Report card on the Intervention

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.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Francis Xavier Holden
13 years ago

If the 51 additional police were outside Darwin thats about 1 extra cop for every 2,000 people – that seems like a pretty significant increase to me.

Francis Xavier Holden
13 years ago

I was told by someone last night when we were talking about the intervention and health care that there was in fact some real degree of improvement in that a fair bit of the health delivered was at a Tertiary level – that is procedures (operations) that made a difference such as cataract removal etc.

Francis Xavier Holden
13 years ago

One of the frequent complaints from aboriginal communities everywhere is that they are subject to wave after wave of research, surveys, PhDs and screenings but bugger all in the way of treatment. In fact many commuities have jacked up and won’t allow anything that doesn’t deliver increased treatment. After all its not as if we don’t know what the health issues are.

Francis Xavier Holden
13 years ago

Following the first para above, one of the possible ways to see if some improvements have resulted would be to get figures from Medicare (or whoever might have kept figures) to see if there was an increase in numbers of say cataracts performed. I picked cataracts just as one fairly simple procedure that delivers a big benefit lifetime for a once off intervention not requiring any significant after care or habilitation.

Francis Xavier Holden
13 years ago

jacques – as you can see I could not get the above to post as one post or even two. I had to split it up. I am posting from Opera but I seem to recall I’ve had the same problem posting from IE.

Sharon Alsop
Sharon Alsop
13 years ago

The system as it stands now will never work.
It’s impossible to live a traditional nomadic life style in a community with a fish and chip shop. The elders have given up and the young ones are confused. Education is the only way for the future of the young people, as they are stuck between two cultures.

Ken Lovell
13 years ago

This is from the article you linked to, quoting the CEO of the Crime Commission:

He said there instances of child sexual abuse including sodomy and rape, while a high number of sexual assaults, pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections had been reported among children under the age of consent. Intelligence had also confirmed examples of child sex offenders working with children in indigenous communities.

Mr Milroy said children had been gang-raped by teenagers but the crimes were not reported by the victims for fear of retribution.

The taskforce found a high level of sexualised activity and behaviour has been demonstrated by children, including seven-year-olds experimenting with sex and sex toys.

Intelligence also suggested that children as young as seven were actively using alcohol and drugs such as marijuana, or passively smoking the cannabis used by their parents.

The problem with all this is that similar observations could be made about numerous other communities in Australia – perhaps of ALL communities. The statements are exceptionally vague – what is a ‘high’ level, for instance? High in absolute terms or high compared to some benchmark and if so what? And of course intelligence can confirm ‘examples’ of something – it would be remarkable if it couldn’t.

I can’t find any primary data on the Crime Commission site. Maybe it’s published elsewhere but if not, it’s completely unsatisfactory to have to rely on the interpretation of one person who may have a personal interest in presenting the issues in a certain way.

All this is not to downplay the importance of indigenous child abuse, but surely if there was truly a ‘national emergency’ someone should be gathering and publishing comprehensive data? The figures cited of the incidence of STDs hardly suggest a rampant epidemic and as I say, I’d be interested to know how they compare on a per capita basis with the population generally and with other equivalent socio-economic groups in particular.

Michael Kalecki
Michael Kalecki
13 years ago

I would like to say something original here but the Piping Shrike has beaten me to it.

The initial reason for the intervention has been forgotten.

Not surprised the Wild Report had as much credibility and did as much credible research as the Bringing them home report.

John Grenfield
John Grenfield
13 years ago

The most important response to this review must be the collation the data to identify which “communities” are viable and which are not. Those that are not self-sustainable should be closed immediately. No more fricking “Reports” for the love of god.

Patrick
Patrick
13 years ago

The problem with all this is that similar observations could be made about numerous other communities in Australia – perhaps of ALL communities

For some reason that doesn’t ring true. Can’t think why.

If you want a pessimistic outlook on our chances, read this report on Europe’s success improving the lot of its Roma communities:

Fully 11 billion ($17 billion) is available from the EU’s social fund, with a further 23 billion earmarked from the regional development fund in coming years.

Yet the main effect so far has been to create a well-paid elite of Roma lobbying outfits, fluent in bureaucratic jargon, adept at organising seminars and conferences and nobbling decision-makers. It has had little effect on the lives of the Roma themselves.

I hope we can do better.

Francis Xavier Holden
13 years ago

ken – I was not disagreeing with the points you make in the above comment, in fact they are the points I was making the other night and have made before.

I was just pointing out that despite my reservations there was (is/could be) some interventions, generally not primary care, that were short, sharp, one off and effective and that these could and should be quantified.

Michael Kalecki
Michael Kalecki
13 years ago

Ken,

The Report actually says itself that child abuse in the N/T is similar to other parts of Australia.

However they then resort to hearsay and anecdotes to assert why chill abuse in worse in the N/T.

you appear to be travelling a similar path.

Child abuse is almost always under-reported anywhere. That is the nature of the beast.

the intervention has resulted in no increase in the number of referrals to child protection authorities and no charges having been laid? if there is widespread child abuse then this is very curious

Francis Xavier Holden
13 years ago

homer – no one denies there is disturbingly wide child sexual abuse in some communities. How to do something effective about it is the issue.

Do you drag everyone under 12 off to state care in Darwin, if so for how long, 2 years, 5 years 10 years?

If the abuse is perpetrated by 15 year olds on 11 years old – do you drag both perpetrator and victim off to Darwin for 2 , 3, 4 years – if so what then?

I want it to stop today like everyone else but wishing for something doesn’t make it happen.

Patrick
Patrick
13 years ago

If you have time, Ken, I would be interested in your thoughts on whether the Roma example is as damning of our chances as it seems at first glance.

I think not, because:
– our problem is of a much smaller scale;
– I don’t believe that the Australian community has anywhere near western and eastern european levels of racism and resentment; and
– I don’t think our governments are as disposed to happy-happ-joy-joy beureaucratic nonsense as the EU and many of its constituent governments are.

But the Economist’s conclusion is sobering:
Such hopeful nibbles abound. But even an optimist would have to concede that Europe’s biggest social problem will persist for the lifetime of anyone reading this article, and probably far longer.

Michael Kalecki
Michael Kalecki
13 years ago

FXH,

I am not saying child abuse is not happening but I want some EVIDENCE that it is far worse in N/T than elsewhere before I would intervene in a community.

Can you imagine the hue and cry that would happen if allegations of widespread child abuse occured in Sydney purely on what people alleged nd the absence of any evidence at all?

Michael Kalecki
Michael Kalecki
13 years ago

Sorry Ken but you appear not to have read all the Wild report.

The comparison always was with the rest of Australia.

Like the Wild report you are relying on hearsay and anecdotes for evidence.

I am afraid that just isn’t good enough

John Grenfield
John Grenfield
13 years ago

Michael Kalecki

You are bypassing the key agents who demanded the Intervention in the first place; Aboriginal people, particularly women. I’m not sure how impressed they would be by white city bourgeois folk demanding an assessment of the rest of Australia – which does not choose to isolate itself from the rest of the community out the back of nowhere – before responding to the cries from those isolated communities themselves.

Michael Kalecki
Michael Kalecki
13 years ago

you might look at page 24 then go onto page 242.

Michael Kalecki
Michael Kalecki
13 years ago

page 27,

In the time available, the inquiry has preferred to concentrate on what is perceived to be the real task- prevention of sexual abuse, rather than historical cataloguing and statistical analysis of precise incidents’

page 242

It is interesting ( and concerning) to note that the present number of substantiated (TPS: indigenous and non-indigenous) cases labelled as sexual abuse in the Territory has been consistently been below 50 cases since 1997-98- despite increased awareness of the issues.
the low proportion of substantiated cases may be due to:
– a generally low prevalence of sexual abuse in Australian communities ( which this Inquiry would dispute_
– a reluctance to report
– difficulties in obtaining concrete evidence of sexual abuse which limits the number of both indigenous and non-indigenous cases that are able to be substantiated.

Seems to me Ken you are in a lot of trouble

Ken Lovell
13 years ago

Ken you apparently have a strong interest in supporting a particular position and I won’t bother commenting further, except to say that your offensive response to my first comment was ridiculous. How anyone could interpret it as ‘denialism’ is beyond me. Moreover my request for sources of information more reliable than a News Ltd report of a speech, which BTW I thank you for citing and will read with interest, makes it clear I was not pretending to be any kind of ‘expert’, ‘lefty’ or otherwise.

C.L.
13 years ago

Homer hates the intervention because it was a Howard initiative. If Keating had come up with it – rather than reading that speech for Sydney luvvies Don Watson wrote for him – Homer would recommend it be extended to Papua New Guinea.

trackback
13 years ago

[…] Intervention Ken Parish from Club Troppo, VA’s most-visited blog, presents a report card on the NT intervention What effect has the Intervention had? A very slight reduction in violent […]

Michael Kalecki
Michael Kalecki
13 years ago

Ken,

The report looks at the rates of child abuse for Aboriginals and non-aboriginals and found little difference.

Indeed in media interviews and in the report as I quoted they did not se it as their job to get the evidence.

We have had over 11,000 children looked at yet no arrests. given that there was supposed to be systematic child abuse this is amazing.

The Wild report simply adopted the research capabilities of the Bringing them Home report.

Ken Lovell
13 years ago

Well at the risk of belabouring the point Ken, I didn’t ‘alter my position’ because I never had one. I pointed out the unsatisfactory nature of the ‘evidence’ in the link you provided. In response you linked to some much better data of which I was previously unaware and now I am better informed. Isn’t that a good outcome?

The world is full of long reports about issues that interest me but unfortunately I don’t have time to read them all. Not every blog comment that points out the shortcomings in data is a snide attempt to discredit the main message. Sometimes a request for better evidence is exactly that, no more and no less.