NT Intervention and “Stronger Futures”: an evaluation after 5 years

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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”.
  3. New service delivery models for hearing/ENT and dental were program successes.
  4. 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.

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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10 Responses to NT Intervention and “Stronger Futures”: an evaluation after 5 years

  1. Rod Hagen says:

    One interesting aspect I note in the crime stats you link to involves break-ins to commercial premises and motor vehicle thefts. These seem to have ballooned around the time of the intervention, and maintained a high level since (an overall 71% increase over the 2004/5 baseline figures in http://www.nt.gov.au/justice/policycoord/documents/statistics/32/Issue-32-Long-Term-Stats.pdf ) .

    A glance at the slightly later March 2011 quarterly figures suggest that the increased level was still being maintained. (see http://www.nt.gov.au/justice/policycoord/researchstats/Issue%2035%20Ebook.pdf ) Has anyone looked at the possibility of a relationship between these increases and the Intervention & its legacy? If there is one, it might suggest another untoward consequence of income management, etc..

  2. Brian T. Manning says:

    Anyone who has had anything to do communicating with Aboriginal people, understands you cannot consult with a Community with a fly-in-fly-out process by an advisor who relies on an articulate english speaker to speak for everybody.
    Ken has put his finger on the problem with his statement below.

    “ 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.”

  3. conrad says:

    “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”

    I’d be willing to bet my house and anything else I have that most of that is due to gaming the system or an artefact. If you really got such a big jump in such a small amount of time it would be truly remarkable and the cause would most probably be exceptionally easy to isolate and identify.

  4. Rod Hagen says:

    Let’s now look at a deeper assumption in this piece, and its relationship to public debate on the issue in recent times.

    Ken spells out his own position very clearly in the third last paragraph. “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.”

    It is the view that underpins the assumptions of many in recent Australian governments, many bureaucrats, some (though far from all) sectors of the Indigenous community, and many well-meaning (and some not so well-meaning) members of the non-Indigenous community.

    I think it is dead wrong.

    I think it skews the measures we use for assessing change in this area. I think it involves a level of cultural abuse that places the very easily adopted views of a numerically dominant and historically dominating society above those of the people who we dominate.

    I think it completely ignores the values, and virtues (and there are many), of traditional Aboriginal communities in Australia. I think, too, that it is doomed to fail within the very parameters that those who promote it promulgate.

    I think it seeks to re-impose an approach that, by the 1970’s, had clearly failed dramatically in the very places that it seems to be judged in terms of today – the then desperately disfunctional, desperately violent, mission communities like Hermannsburg, Santa Teresa and Pt Keats (Wadeye) – and to re-impose it on many communities that , both then and now, or at least until Brough & Howard’s bombshell, had managed to survive the worst of the assimilation area comparatively unscathed. Not surprisingly, such places were often by far the happiest and most functional in the NT when I lived there. Let’s hope many survive the latest barrage of political “good” intentions, too!

    Sure, “education”, both traditional and Anglo (though only the latter is really recognised in the brave, 1950’s revisited, world of the Intervention & Stärkere Futures) , is a valuable thing. Sure, “jobs” are valuable too (though, again, only the Anglo ones seem to really be counted in the current climate). But this does not mean that the ultimate measure of success involves seeing Indigenous futures in terms of such narrow criteria.

    Paradoxically, a glance at history tells you that the greatest improvements in Aboriginal affairs in the Northern Territory in the last century & a half actually occured during the now often foolishly reviled “self determination” period. One objective measure is the rate of infant mortality. In the early 1970’s, at the end of deacdes of “assimilation”, it sat at over 110 deaths per thousand Indigenous births in the NT.

    One Aboriginal baby in nine died in its first year at the time Whitlam came to power and ended the old integrationist and assimilationist policies. Fraser, fortunately, pursued much the same aims, despite presure from many within his pown government.

    By the time Howard ended the “self determination” period and began to re-introduce the old approaches it had fallen to 17 per thousand (still a tragically high one baby in 60, but a huge improvement on earlier assimilationist times), largely due to the presence of Indigenously controlled health organisations.

    There remains, as there was then, and has been for more than two centuries, an “emergency” confronting Aboriginal Australians, but it won’t be resolved by returning to to failed policies of a previous generation. The answers lie not in diminishing people’s ability to control their own lives but in enhancing it. It is time that the old (even from the days of Governor Phillip & the “Parramatta Institution”) and so frequently disproved assumptions, that its resolution lies simply in education, training & jobs, were finally laid to rest.

    I think it is time the national debate moved back from the monotonous, failed, homilies about “education, training and jobs”, to one in which we explore real ways of maximising the value of diversity. If we are able to do so, we might well understand a little more about ourselves, as well as the people that we have been so determined for most of the last 200 years to destroy, to vilify, or to turn into little more than “whitefella” clones.

    • Thank you Ken and Rod.
      I stayed up late at night as Senator Ludlam and other Greens argued against this legislation. There are some screen shots of comments by Aboriginal people on Twitter that night here:
      http://happychildrencom.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/how-can-we-stop-child-sexual-abuse-on-aboriginal-communities/

      I find this discussion so interesting. I feel that this issue is the foundation of our national identity, Aboriginal culture is what differentiates Australia from other countries. I despair when I see such unnecessary waste. I’ve also been to Hermannsburg, Santa Teresa and Arnhem Land.
      I think it’s important to look at root of substance abuse as a consequence of trauma. If people don’t feel good about themselves, they look to substances to make themselves feel better.

      Respect for culture and identity is essential. Helping rather than forcing, empowering rather than authoritarian discipline, listening to rather than telling people what to do. Billions of dollars have been wasted and will continue to be wasted until Aboriginal people are respected and supported to be empowered.

      Rod, it is refreshing to read your perspective, it is so rare. I took my children to Kakadu to show them a culture I have a deep respect for: http://francesjones.wordpress.com/2012/10/21/guluyambi-cultural-cruise/ I gave them an insight into a treasure – language, knowledge of how to make spears, skills to live off the land and cook a magpie goose.

      When I got back from that trip to Kakadu, I taught at La Perouse Public School. I showed the kids my photos and we watched a video about Kakadu on the interactive whiteboard. There was one very quiet boy in class who isn’t academically gifted but he’s special. I watched that kid. While everyone else was doing other things, I saw him go to the map at the back of the room and put his finger from Sydney to Kakadu and Arnhem Land. I told them all he needed was an airfare and a bus ticket and he’d get there. If that boy was allowed to live a life of hunting, fishing, making spears, living off the land, I can guarantee he’d be happier than getting his head around the modern Australian education system. He loves sport, he’s great at football.
      It’s about finding a balance between the two cultures.

  5. conrad says:

    “I think it involves a level of cultural abuse that places the very easily adopted views of a numerically dominant and historically dominating society above those of the people who we dominate. ”

    An alternative way to look at this is what the best way to preserve their culture is — sure there are good aspects, but is the current system really likely to preserve them? As someone interested in linguistics, I think the answer to that is pretty clear.

    You can take NZ and the Maori as an example also — they have done a lot of what Ken thinks is good and you think is bad (i.e., got jobs, assimilated much more into the everyday community), and it seems for all intents and purposes their culture is now stronger than it would have been if they hadn’t done this. In my books money and stability preserves culture, not destroys it, and the only way to get that is to work like most of the world does. That might be trade-off, but it’s the winning bet.

  6. Rod Hagen says:

    Firstly Conrad, surely decisions about the kind of life which communities of people pursue should primarily lie in the hands and minds of their members, rather than being imposed from above.

    Secondly, you are putting words into my mouth. I don’t suggest that getting “jobs” is bad. Nor do I suggest the “current system” is “working”. Far from it.

  7. Patrick says:

    I can see where conrad got his understanding of your view from Rod.

    In light of your correction, I infer that you do want jobs, and education, but that you want these to be part of a process designed to raise ‘capacity’ rather than just to tick a box. I suspect that many agree, even though you might have to explain one day your invocation of Whitlam who I for one certainly don’t associate with a focus on aborigine capacity or ’empowerment’.

    The first problem I would think of is that any such approach would appear to have to be heavily ‘top-down’ and, at least initially, largely imposed.

    The second is that I would think that you can’t actually start to build aborigine capacity without, to put it one way, ‘getting over’ ‘that whole aborigine thing’. Alternatively, aborigine’s who want to exist independently and freely in the contemporary world, whether within their culture or any other, need first to understand and be able to deal with ‘our’ (for want of a better word) culture (perhaps in Rod’s view also for want of a better word).

    I wonder if a first stage solution would be a return, in part, to communitarianism? Clearly, welfare is a massive part of the problem. Equally clearly, the benefits of cultural integrity notwithstanding, the ship has also sailed on the possibility of just cutting welfare off.

    So, instead of paying welfare the government could finance local collectives to provide a meal and basic housing maintenance to the local community. At least this way, basic needs might be met, but the current extortion/intimidation/corruption could hopefully be reined in.

    However, I suspect that anything like this requires Abbott as PM, since he’s one of the only politicians federally who’d know an aborigine from an Indonesian.

  8. derrida derider says:

    you might have to explain one day your invocation of Whitlam who I for one certainly don’t associate with a focus on aborigine capacity or ‘empowerment

    Which shows you know fuck-all about Whitlam.
    I’m with Rod – current day policy is being skewed by an outright reactionary rewriting of history. People like Noel Pearson have, IMO, a lot to answer for.

  9. Alex says:

    Thank you Frances for perspective of “Helping rather than forcing, empowering rather than authoritarian discipline, listening to rather than telling people what to do” describes a positive approach to creating cohesion within Australian. In order to help or empower, listening needs to occur first, so communication is simultaneously met with open ears and respect. Without listening how can empathy occur? Without empathy how can anyone understand the perspective of another? Now it is possible to help empower a people towards a “stronger future”, whether it be stepping back, or offering aid in a way deemed culturally befitting and approved in a mutual consensus.
    In regards to the discriminatory Intervention there has been little listening, therefore no understanding, creating a lack of cultural respect. A repetitive story to Australia as a nation. As with any cycle of abuse the Australian Government’s heavy handed approach only aids to reinforce its dominant position, ultimately showing weakness via controlling rather than leading the nation into anything other than another cycle. To lead requires unified support toward an outcome..there is no support from the majority of Aboriginal Leaders, the UN, or Amnesty International. There are however many recommendations against it…all having fallen on deaf ears.

    Amnesty international “Reflect a return to the paternalistic approach of the past and policies of ‘assimilation’. Paternalism involves a ‘father-child’ relationship between governments and Indigenous people, where governments act on their view of what is ‘best’ for Indigenous people. Under policies of assimilation, the lifestyle and values of ‘mainstream’ Australia were treated as the model that everyone in Australia should fit into. This approach was taken in an era where Indigenous people were not recognised as citizens, were not counted in the census, had no rights to traditional land, had their wages stolen and had their families torn apart.” retreived 06 May 2013 from: http://www.amnesty.org.au/hre/comments/24400

    Trying to lead into a “stronger future” is what I would consider a colonialist manner to create a ‘stronger thumb’ in which indigenous Australian are currently living under.

    Back to the solution rather than problem…

    Maybe look towards the arts. Support in creating festivals may offer an alternative for energy to be utilized productively. Music, dance and ceremony is an aspect most cultures have in common. Through a gathering with music and dance creative passions may be explored. A sense of community and a sharing of relevant information to the individual may lead to intrinsic motivation towards a positive future. A way which encourages the authentic self to be expressed (rather than suppressed) empowering the individual.

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