Part Eight of a history of European occupation, rule, and brutal imperialism of Indigenous Australia, by Dr George Venturini.
Evaluated over time, ‘the Intervention’ did not succeed.
However, evaluation of its progress is not an easy task. Impartial data are difficult to find and there is a mass of complex and conflicting information.
What follows can safely be said:
Four months after ‘the Intervention’ a survey of 5 communities revealed that:
no sexual abuse referrals had been made from any of the 5 communities,
no computers had been audited for pornography,
the alcohol management regime had not changed in 3 of the 5 communities,
alcohol consumption had not been reduced in three cases,
income had not been quarantined in 4 communities,
work for the dole schemes had not been abolished as mandated,
school attendance had improved in 3 locations,
voluntary health checks, appointment of a government business manager and new houses for intervention staff were completed in all 5 communities, but
new houses for Indigenous residents had not been built in 4 communities. (‘Northern Territory intervention: Study finds Govt is dragging its feet’, Koori Mail No. 414 at 40)
After six months:
no new charges had been laid in connection with child sexual abuse,
no new community-based services to ensure the safety of children had been established,
$ 88 million had been spent on bureaucrats to control Aboriginal welfare payments. (‘Sea of black faces bound for Canberra’, Koori Mail No. 417 at 7).
According to Dr Djiniyini Gondarra, an Elder from the Djirrikaymirr people, ‘the Intervention’ has failed to improve health and had, in fact, intensified depression and loss of hope amongst Aboriginal people. (‘Legal action warning over NT intervention’, Koori Mail No. 477 at 18).
Ali Cobby Eckermann, an Indigenous poet, complained that the doctors were on $ 5,000 a week, while consultants were paid $ 300,000 to consult with 12 communities, but their results were not used in any way. (‘Deadly Voices: An Intervention’, Sydney Writers Festival, event 240, 23 May 2010).
After twelve months, it was found that:
key aspects of ‘the Intervention’ had not materialised or were happening slowly,
convictions for child sex abuse were just a few cases higher than before ‘the Intervention’,
referrals to child protection authorities were no different from any other year,
voluntary health checks replaced forensic medical examinations which were found to be intrusive and possibly unlawful,
reports of substance abuse were rising,
school attendance remained static,
sales of junk food and tobacco had rebounded strongly and returned to historic levels, a fact contrasting with official government reports of improved health food and drink purchases,
18 communities got a police presence, however, Docker River has been pleading for one since 1990,
the government struggled to determine what works as it didn’t set up proper benchmarks. (‘Intervention protests as deadline missed’, Koori Mail No. 463 at 7 and ‘The intervention we had to have’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 June 2008).
As ‘the Intervention’ measures persisted, people found alternative ways to access prohibited items. This challenged a central tenet of income management: that mandatory restrictions can modify people’s spending habits.
‘The Intervention’ proved in time to be far more complex and costly,’ said Ms Jenny Macklin, former Indigenous Affairs Minister. (‘The intervention we had to have’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 June 2008).
After two years the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs’ report Closing the Gap in the Northern Territory revealed that:
convictions of child sexual abuse involving Indigenous perpetrators had “barely changed”,
school attendance stagnated with no more children going to school than before ‘the Intervention’,
reports of domestic violence rose 61 per cent – possibly due to higher police presence,
substance abuse was up 77 per cent,
alcohol-related crime rose 34 per cent – possibly because possession of alcohol became illegal in some communities,
there had been no reduced tobacco consumption despite welfare quarantining. (‘Northern Territory intervention failing to make a difference: report’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 31 October 2009).
After three years new observations were contained in the analysis by Professor Jon Altman from the Australian National University: (‘NT intervention three years on: government’s progress report is disturbing’, 21 June 2010).
In September 2010 Jeff McMullen, in a speech looked back on ‘the Intervention’ and said: “I can only say to you that there is no doubt that the Northern Territory Intervention has been the most damaging policy inflicted on Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people since the policies of the Stolen Generations. The evidence is in the increase in suicide, violence and alcohol rage under the Intervention. The Menzies School of Health Research, the Rural Health Alliance and the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association, separately investigated the impact of the Intervention and concluded that whatever extra attention had been brought to these children was far outweighed by the additional trauma inflicted on them.”
McMullen continued: “Under Article 5 [of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination], the former Chief Justice [of the Family Court, the Honourable Professor Alastair Nicholson] presented evidence that the Intervention had not improved the lives of Aboriginal people.
A June 2010 survey of elders indicated that most people believed that there were now fewer jobs and Aboriginal unemployment appeared to be rising around the country …
The Australian Government’s own reports show that for two years in a row child malnutrition is up despite millions of dollars spent on income management and the discriminatory practice of welfare quarantine cards.” (‘The Search for Common Ground’, Jeff McMullen, address in Parramatta Town Hall, 8 September 2010).
After four years a report found that alcohol-related police “incidents” had risen from 3,239 incidents in 2007-2008 to 4,870 in 2011.In June 2011, the overall imprisonment rates of Indigenous People in the Northern Territory had risen by 40 per cent. (‘NT government cuts services, reverses Aboriginal gains’, Green Left Weekly).
After five years the rate of suicide among Indigenous girls had “greatly increased” since ‘the Intervention’ was launched … Girls accounted for 40 per cent of all Indigenous suicides of children under 17 years, a rate which is “the most in the Western world.” Prior to ‘the Intervention’ the suicide rate was “significantly lower” and in 1980 it was zero. (‘Girls at greater risk of suicide since intervention’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 February 2012).
Not one person had been prosecuted for child sex abuse.
Other statistics are of interest:
Reported suicide incidents had increased by almost 500 per cent, from 57 incidents in 2007 to 261 in 2011.
There was a 69 per cent increase of children getting taken into out of home care compared to 2007 figures.
School attendance rates had dropped from 62.3 per cent just before ‘the Intervention’ to 57.5 per cent in 2011.
There had been a 40 per cent increase in incarceration of Indigenous People.
Prisoners were being held in third world prison conditions, 12 to 14 in a cell in Alice Springs, mattresses on the floor and one hand basin and toilet between inmates.
Police reported incidents of domestic violence in “prescribed areas” had dramatically increased – from 939 in 2010 to 1,109 in 2011. (‘The case against compulsory income management’, The Stringer, 6 May 2013).
After eight years
Mr. Paddy Gibson, who had lived for 12 months in Alice Springs, at a special meeting of the Stop The Intervention Collective in April 2015, gave a presentation looking at the continuing impacts of ‘the Intervention’, now renamed by the Labor Government as Stronger Futures on Indigenous living conditions, incarceration and child removal rates.
After ten years Professor Jon Altman from Deakin University, and Greens Senator Rachel Siewert reviewed ‘the Intervention’ and found hurt and distress. Indigenous People were deeply hurt and distressed from the sheer brutality of ‘the Intervention’ which reminded them of being treated like children during the time of assimilation.
No hope, no power. People felt a deep sense of hopelessness and disempowerment as they realised how so-called ‘western’ norms counted more and were expected to be adopted by Indigenous People.
Feeling vulnerable. The fact that politicians could decide, without consultation, to intervene in Indigenous communities, had left many feeling vulnerable, dependent on the state, and susceptible to racism.
Poverty. There was ‘growing evidence’ that people in communities were getting poorer. Adjusted for inflation, adult incomes had ‘dropped significantly’ and fallen further behind non-Indigenous wages. And because the Welfare Card quarantined a lot of their money, Indigenous People were struggling to pay cash, for example at a garage sale or at a market.
No progress. Despite the National Partnership Agreement for Remote Indigenous Housing in the Northern Territory spending $2 billion in 10 years to reduce overcrowding, rates of overcrowded houses needing one or more bedrooms in ‘community after community’ had either remained unchanged or increased.
No jobs. The abolition of the Community Development Employment Projects scheme had been ‘an unmitigated disaster’ as it replaced part-time community-managed work with below award, externally monitored work- for-the-dole.
Welfare Card had failed. The card had failed in its objectives because health research suggested that control over one’s own life choices and autonomy were huge factors in good health outcomes. The government extended the card because half of the surveyed participants said they were worse off than before. A card trial area in South Australia had seen a large jump in robbery and related offences (up 111 per cent), aggravated robbery (up 120 per cent), non-aggravated robbery (up 400 per cent) and serious criminal trespass (up 20 per cent), all of which did not appear in a government report.
‘The Intervention’ legislation of 2007, which continued as Stronger Futures from 2012, were a complex set of oppressive and racist laws … designed to discipline Indigenous men demeaned by parliamentarians … as violent and dangerous and in need of radical cultural and behavioural modification,’ according to Prof. Jon Altman, of Deakin University. (‘The debilitating aftermath of 10 years of NT Intervention’, Land Rights News, Northern Edition, July 2017 at 18–19).
‘The level of spin by our government to shine the [welfare] card in the best possible light is something we should all be talking about’ said Senator Rachel Siewert. (‘Cashless Cards And Rising Crime: An Intervention That Keeps On Giving’, New Matilda, 21 March 2017).
Northern Territory Intervention creep was a term used to describe Indigenous People who would flee from their smaller communities, which are covered by ‘the Intervention’, into the larger cities such as Darwin or Alice Springs, driving up the number of homeless people. On any given night up to 500 people slept rough in Darwin in 2010. (‘Dinner with the Long Grassers’, Koori Mail No. 481 at 57). Intervention creep came at a price, of course: Darwin City Council was able to confiscate and destroy their belongings and fine them. In Alice Springs local Indigenous People would blame people escaping ‘the Intervention’ for a significant increase of lawlessness, drunkenness and violence, and putting more stress on the already overcrowded town camps.
In 2015 Monash University evaluated the Closing the gap targets which had been set by subsequent governments; the evaluation was particularly concerned with human rights in ‘the Intervention’. It valued the results on a scale from 1 to 10. (‘The Northern Territory Intervention – An evaluation’, Dr Stephen Gray, Faculty of Law, Monash University, July 2015).
Here is a summary of the findings and relative scores:
Employment and economic participation – Little progress had been made on improving employment outcomes in the Northern Territory, and the gap was, in fact, widening. Result: 3/10.
Education – Some gains were achieved in certain education areas, but overall secondary school attendance rates had seen a considerable decrease and the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy results indicated little change in literacy and only incremental improvements in numeracy at both primary and secondary levels. Result: 5/10.
Health and life expectancy – While there had been some improvements to Indigenous child mortality, the rate of improvement was far too slow to close the gap. The situation was particularly bad for Indigenous People living in the Northern Territory, whose life expectancy is nearly fifteen years shorter than that of non-Indigenous People. Result: 4/10.
Safer communities – This target aimed to make Indigenous communities safer through a focus on the prevention and reduction of crime rates, alcohol and drug abuse, family violence and child abuse. It took a ‘tough stance’ on crime but coupled this with community protection and education efforts. Result: 4/10.
Lowered incarceration rates – Not only had there been no improvement, the rate of Indigenous People incarceration had continually risen. In 2015 there was not even a target concerning Indigenous incarceration rates. Result: 0/10.
General compliance with human rights – Despite the federal governments’ insistence that ‘the Intervention’ was upholding the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the 2007 Intervention legislation was widely regarded as incompatible with international human rights law standards and practices. Result: 4/10.
Special measures – The measures implemented under ‘the Intervention’ could not be characterised as ‘special measures’ under international human rights law because they did not positively advance the human rights of Indigenous People by creating more favourable conditions or conferring benefits. Result: 3/10.
Racial discrimination – By suspending the operation of Section 10 of the Racial Discrimination Act in relation to ‘the Intervention’, the federal governments effectively denied protection to Indigenous communities affected by the legislation. Result: 3/10.
Right to self-determination – The measures of ‘the Intervention’ had acted to dis-empower Indigenous communities. Governance had shifted from the responsibility of the community to centralised government agencies. Indigenous People had 50 per cent of their income controlled by government. Result: 2/10.
Right to Social and Cultural Rights – Legislative amendments allowed the government compulsorily to acquire Indigenous People land. It stripped Indigenous owners of control over their property in order to acquire sixty-five Indigenous communities. Income management through the ‘Basics Card’ restricted the right to social security and violated the right to family and private life. Result: 3/10.
Right to be consulted – Every stage of ‘the Intervention’ since its inception in 2007 had caused problems with the level of consultation with Indigenous communities. The federal Labor government conducted consultations for the 2012 Stronger Futures legislation on decisions which had already been made. It used a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach which failed properly to consult with Indigenous communities. Result: 3/10.
Right to social security – Because the federal governments applied income management as a blanket rule and gave no case-by-case consideration for Indigenous People living in ‘prescribed communities’, the conditions limited how Indigenous People could enjoy their right to social security. Result: 4/10.
Rights of children – ‘The Intervention’ quickly shifted focus from protecting children from sexual abuse to economic and infrastructure development. Intervention policies which were aimed at improving Indigenous children’s lives did not address underlying and structural causes of maltreatment and abuse. Result: 4/10. (Source: Creative Spirits, Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) – “The Intervention”).
A Statement of Eminent Australians on the continuing damage caused by the discrimination, racism and lack of justice towards Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, exemplified by the continuation of ‘the Intervention’, was issued on 29 August 2017.
It said: “While the Australian nation deliberates on the future of its relationship with the First Nations of this land, most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are focussed on the continuing discrimination, racism and lack of justice, shown towards them by Federal, State and Territory Governments in so many areas.
An obvious example is the failure of ten years of Federal Government Intervention in the Northern Territory where 73 remote Aboriginal communities (and hundreds more in homelands in hinterlands) remain subjected to discriminatory legislation that no other Australian citizen endures in its crushing totality.
The signatories to this statement support the recent demands by Northern Territory Elders for an immediate repeal of the Intervention measures, some of which were strengthened and extended for ten years in 2012, by the misleadingly renamed ‘Stronger Futures’ legislation.
We support the calls by Elders in their June 29th 2017 statement for an end to government control of community living areas and the return of community control of housing, employment and local governance.
We also support their insistence on an apology and their right to determine their futures and distinctive pathways. (http://www.respectandlisten.org/uploads/downloads/Misc/Elders-Statement-10yrs-NTER-29-6-17.pdf). First Nations’ voices have been increasingly ignored since the abolition of ATSIC in 2004 and the Intervention in 2007 and conditions have deteriorated.
It is time that Federal and Territory politicians acknowledged the independent assessments http://www.monash.edu/law/research/centres/castancentre/our-research-areas/indigenous-research/the-northern-territoryintervention/the-northern-territory-intervention-an-evaluation) that the Intervention measures continue to fail (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-14/closing-the-gap-report-card-failing/8268450 https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/feb/08/northern-territory-intervention-fails-on-human-rights-and-closingthe-gap) and the necessity of establishing genuine self-determination and community control. All Australian citizens, black and white, are entitled to the adequate provision of services on an equitable needs basis; Indigenous people living at remote communities and on homelands have been neglected for far too long.
Aboriginal leaders are calling on governments to work with them on genuine partnerships that will see productive remote employment programs without the threat of punishment and loss of income and impoverishment; or attempts through social engineering to force people to move to larger townships and abandon their ancestral lands. The undue pressure placed on elders and communities by governments forced leases over their lands in exchange for basic services and housing must cease.
The unfair discrimination of compulsory income management and now CDP (https://blogs.deakin.edu.au/adiblog/2017/03/14/botched-govt-employment-scheme-impoverishes-30000-indigenousaustralians/. See also, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/jul/15/300000-fines-levied-on-participants-in-remotework-for-dole-program) have been costly failures. It is time to return dignity and human rights to Indigenous peoples living in remote Australia.
The damage to Aboriginal families and whole communities from ten years of draconian control measures has accelerated child removal, suicide and the Indigenous incarceration rate (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-07-26/nt-incarceration-data/7660810). This can only be reduced through self-determination, community healing programs based on sound local cultural practices and an end to government legislated discrimination and intrusion into the lives of families.
Great damage has been done. We need to be serious about respecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voices. We need to heed their calls for equality, including regional agreement making, sovereign treaties and the proper recognition of their long-denied rights.
We call on the Australian government to heed the call of Northern Territory Elders for an immediate end to the racism and discrimination of the Intervention policies which are an ongoing stain on the Australian nation. It is time that Australian governments respect and negotiate with remote living Indigenous people in good faith, demonstrate proper duty of care to them and allow all First Nations of Australia the right to self-determination.” (‘Statement of Eminent Australians on the continuing damage caused by the discrimination, racism and lack of justice towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, exemplified by the continuation of the Northern Territory Intervention’, Concerned Australians).
Australia’s progress on Closing the Gap was found ‘woefully inadequate’ in a report by the United Nations. The report said that the over-incarceration of Indigenous People is a major human rights concern.
The United Nations supported the call for a referendum to establish a First Nations advisory body in the Constitution. It also recommended that the Australian Government adopt new targets to reduce the rate of Indigenous incarceration. A plan of action to address high rates of incarceration was a “national priority.”
The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Ms Victoria Tauli-Corpuz had visited Australia earlier in 2017, and now was releasing her report detailing her concerns on the rights of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander People.
Ms Tauli-Corpuz said that it was unacceptable that despite two decades of economic growth, Australia had not been able to improve the social disadvantage of its Indigenous population.
She said that the United Nations supported the call for a referendum to establish a First Nations advisory body in the Constitution and urged the Federal Government to establish a treaties and truth-telling commission.
“Such measures would carry momentous significance to resetting the relationship with the First Peoples of Australia,” Ms Tauli-Corpuz said.
The Special Rapporteur’s report also recommended the Federal Government adopt new targets to reduce violence against women and rates of incarceration and child removal.
Ms Tauli-Corpuz said that the detention of young Indigenous children was “the most distressing aspect of her visit” to Australia. “Detention of those children has become so prevalent in certain communities that some parents referred to it as an achievement that none of their children has been taken into custody so far,” she wrote.
“The extraordinarily high rate of incarceration of Indigenous People and Torres Strait Islanders, including women and children, is a major human rights concern.
There have been allegations of serious abuses, including violent strip-searches, teargassing, hooding and prolonged isolation committed against Aboriginal children in custody.”
Ms Tauli-Corpuz said that the lack of progress to improve education, health and employment standards for Indigenous People had fuelled “escalating” rates of incarceration and child removal.
The Special Rapporteur’s report said that a plan of action to address high rates of Indigenous incarceration was a “national priority.”
“The current claim by the Government that matters relating to incarceration remain the sole prerogative of states is untenable in the severe,” she said.
Ms Tauli-Corpuz praised the Children’s Koori Court in Victoria, which brings young offenders in front of a panel of elders and aims to reduce imprisonment and recidivism. “Such culturally sensitive processes could significantly reduce recidivism rates if extended to other jurisdictions,” she said. (‘Australia’s progress on Closing the Gap ‘woefully inadequate’, UN says‘, ABC News).
It was revealed on 12 September 2017 that Australia’s prison population had hit a new high of 41,200 people, the end result of a 20-year rise in incarceration rates which has seen the number of people in Australian prisons more than double. Figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that the rate of people in custody has increased 40 per cent in the last five years, while 33 per cent of those currently incarcerated were un-sentenced. Of particular concern was the continued rise in Indigenous incarceration rates; the Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rate in Western Australian prisons now exceeds 4,000 per 100,000 adults, the highest of any measured demographic in the world. The figures coincide with the release of the already mentioned withering assessment of Australia’s Closing the Gap targets from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, who cited the Northern Territory’s paperless arrest laws and mandatory sentencing provisions in many states as examples of “current laws and policies [which] continue to contribute to the swift escalation in the incarceration rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
Continued Friday with: A belated ‘Recognition’ and a ‘new policy’ (Part 1)
Previous instalment: The new invasion of the Northern Territory (Part 2)
Dr. Venturino Giorgio (George) Venturini, formerly an avvocato at the Court of Appeal of Bologna, devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. He may be reach at George.Venturini@bigpond.com.au.