Amidst all the kerfuffle about asylum seeker policy over the last week, it probably escaped most people’s attention that the Gillard government’s Orwellian Newspeak-rebadged version of the Northern Territory Emergency Intervention, called “Stronger Futures“, passed through Parliament in the early hours of Friday morning.
Stronger Futures had to be passed this week because the 5 year NTER legislation was about to expire. Moreover the new legislation has extended the Intervention regime for another 10 years. Nevertheless the Labor government is unlikely to have been thrilled by the reactions of NT Indigenous leaders. Central Australian Aboriginal leaders have mostly been opposed to the Intervention, including the Labor version of it, for a long time. Prominent Top End leaders have now also come out strongly against it:
Northern Land Council chief executive Kim Hill expressed disappointment the bill was passed without amendments.
He said there had been frustration about the consultation process in preparing the legislation.
“Meeting with Aboriginal peoples and then doing all the talking is not consultation,” he said.
“We feel there needed to be a lot more listening.”
An Arnhem Land Indigenous group has also condemned the passing of the laws.
Yolungu (sic) National Assembly spokesman Djiniyini Gondarra says the Government has made a terrible mistake.
“We Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory will never trust in government any more,” he said.
“I will be calling upon Aboriginal leaders right across the Territory to … consider ways to fight.”
Of course there are some well known Aboriginal leaders who support the Intervention approach, including Marcia Langton, Noel Pearson, Warren Mundine and Bess Price. Moreover, a FaHCSIA report published last year claimed strong majority support by around two-thirds of Indigenous community members generally for the highly controversial income management/Basics Card aspect of the Intervention. On the other hand another report prepared by a body called Equality Rights Alliance reached an almost diametrically opposite conclusion. Even the more recent detailed independent Federal Government evaluation of the NTER released in November was forced to concede that community support was distinctly equivocal:
[T]he abrupt, imposition broke trust and made some people feel that they had been unfairly labelled.
However, for initiatives specific to the NTER communities—such as income management and signage outside communities referring to the alcohol and pornography bans—the abrupt, imposition broke trust and made some people feel that they had been unfairly labelled. Many people valued the measures, but the manner in which they were implemented caused problems.
Nevertheless the Government’s independent report concluded that:
[M]ost people (58.7%) reported that they felt that their lives were better than they had been three years ago. A majority of people surveyed (72.6%) also said that their community was safer now than it had been three years ago.
Whatever the reality of Indigenous community perceptions of the success or otherwise of Intervention programs, it’s difficult to avoid concluding that Government reports have concentrated on perceptions because objective evidence of actual measurable improvements on the ground is difficult to find.
The independent evaluation report identified an improvement in childhood literacy outcomes:
The percentage of Year 3 students in NTER schools who were at or above the national minimum standard in reading increased from 18 per cent in 2008 to 41 per cent in 2010.
Whether this is a real improvement or an artefact of gaming the system by having the least able children stay away from school on days when NAPLAN tests occur is another matter.
Similarly, the report claimed that 2,241 “properly paid jobs” had been created since the start of the Intervention, but whether some or even most of these were just reclassifying jobs as “properly paid” by reallocating funding from the CDEP Aboriginal work-for-the-dole scheme may also be an open question.
To put the proposition as neutrally as reasonably possible, the Howard Intervention and its re-badging by the current ALP government as “Closing the Gap” and now “Stronger Futures” has enjoyed underwhelming success to date despite multi-billion dollar spending. Indigenous legal academic Larissa Behrendt at least is in no doubt that the Intervention has been a failure in substantive measurable terms:
Claims of success with the Intervention are empty – and unhelpful – rhetoric. There is no evidence of improved outcomes in the government’s figures. Anemia (sic) rates and malnutrition rates have increased ; so too have suicide rates. The Indigenous Doctors Association have raised concerns about the psychological impact some of the policies are having on the Aboriginal people subjected to them. There have been increases in violence and school attendance rates are slightly less than what they were when the intervention was put in place.
[E]ven the most enthusiastic exponent of the Intervention would have to concede that results to date have been unimpressive.
While Behrendt is putting the worst slant on the figures, even the most enthusiastic exponent of the Intervention would have to concede that results to date have been unimpressive. For example, it would be more accurate to say that the picture on nutrition is rather confused. A survey of store managers in remote communities conducted by the federal Department of Indigenous Affairs is said to have found spending on nutritious food had increased dramatically. By contrast, a Menzies School of Health Research study examined store sales data from 10 remote Indigenous communities over approximately the same period, but found that income management was not associated with a sustained change in the sales of healthy food, soft drink or tobacco.
On wider health measures, a government-commissioned study by consultants Allen and Clarke found that at least the approach had improved under the Rudd/Gillard government:
- The Howard government’s initial Child Health Check Initiative substantial additional funding into NT health system for remote areas (almost $54.5 million between 2007 and 2010) was welcome.
- However, there “was a lack of engagement with and disruption to existing systems”, “insufficient consideration of the needs of the people, systems and processes already operating in the NT” and “comparison of the health characteristics of the populations who did and did not receive a health check suggests that there was little difference in the health status of the two groups”.
- New service delivery models for hearing/ENT and dental were program successes.
- The Expanding Health Service Delivery Initiative implemented by the Labor government under Closing the Gap is regarded as successful and better designed.
Lastly, statistics on violent crime are quite depressing. The latest NT crime statistics available on the Internet only go to the March quarter 2011, which is strange in itself and raises a suspicion that more recent figures are being withheld because they would show an even more depressing picture. The figures show Territory-wide sexual assault rates down by 16% overall in the 12 months to March 2011, but by only 2% in remote communities. Ordinary (non-sexual) assaults were up by 10% in both towns and remote communities.
It is more accurate to view the situation in remote Aboriginal communities as one of long-term, endemic chaos and dysfunction on just about every level.
The obvious question from all this is why so little in measurable terms has been achieved after 5 years and the expenditure of billions of additional dollars? No doubt part of the reason is that the problems are deep-seated, long-term and complex. Labeling the situation and the government response to it as an “emergency” might have seemed a smart political tactic for the Howard government in 2007. However in a wider sense it created expectations of a “quick fix” which could never be realised. It is more accurate to view the situation in remote Aboriginal communities as one of long-term, endemic chaos and dysfunction on just about every level. Solutions will correspondingly be difficult, multi-dimensional, expensive and take a very long time to realise decisively positive results. Anyone who claims to have all or even most of the answers is either naive, dishonest or both.
As Behrendt argues, an arguably equally important reason for the Intervention’s lack of success has been the “top-down”, prescriptive, paternalistic nature of most of the Commonwealth programs. It is difficult to see how self-determining communities, families and individuals will be fostered by programs characterised by enforced obedience and lack of choice. As Behrendt observes, successive Productivity Commission reports have found that the programs which work successfully in Aboriginal communities are those based on consultation, partnership, mutual respect and communities “taking ownership” of initiatives. There has been precious little evidence of such approaches in any of the Intervention strategies to date, either under the Howard government or since Labor came to office.
That said, the problems which led to the imposition of income management are real and serious. Aggressive young males frequently bash, intimidate and “humbug” mothers and elderly family members for money to buy alcohol, drugs or fund gambling. Having half of it quarantined and able to be spent only on food and clothing is an obvious if heavy-handed solution. However, it was predictable that an income management policy could only work if negotiated, agreed, supported and “owned” at a local community level, as Noel Pearson did on Cape York (his scheme was the inspiration for the federal government measure).
A similar proposition applies with cutting off welfare benefits as an ultimate sanction for parents who refuse to send their children to school. Education, training and ultimately real jobs are the keys to relieving the drastic disadvantage and squalor that characterise nearly all remote Aboriginal communities, and flagrant neglect of parental responsibilities may need to be subject to “last resort” legal sanctions. However, here too such measures could only work with community support and “ownership”. Apart from anything else, ascribing sole legal responsibility to the biological parents fails to grapple with the much more communal or extended family nature of parenting in traditional Aboriginal society.
More broadly, persuading parents in remote communities that there’s any point in making their kids go to school when there is little or no genuine prospect of a real job at the end of it, and when the prevailing culture places little value on education or employment, is a tall order. As even middle class urban parents can discover, forcing a sullen, recalcitrant, unwilling teenager to attend and stay at school is next to impossible. Should benefits be withdrawn in such situations? How does a bureaucrat distinguish between irresponsible parents and defeated ones? Even if that distinction could reliably be made, how effective are arrangements to ensure that children from families whose welfare payments have been stopped are still fed, clothed and housed adequately?
You could write a library of books on the issues raised by the Intervention/Stronger Futures. Unfortunately I have neither the time nor expertise to do so, nor do most readers apparently have any more than limited interest. Nevertheless, it would have been a little more encouraging had the media this week devoted even a fraction of the ink and pixels to Aboriginal affairs policy that they spent on the endless merry-go-round of asylum seekers.