In July 2012, NT Intervention powers, such as compulsory 5-year leases and management powers over all assets and organisations within Aboriginal communities, will reach their sunset clause. Federal funding for smaller dispersed settlements known as Homelands, currently capped at $20 million, is also set to run out next year. The question, “What comes next?” has again thrown debate about the future of the NT Intervention into the national spotlight.
Tony Abbott visited Alice Springs in May to call for a “second Intervention”. Julia Gillard is set to visit the Territory in June.
Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, made Darwin her first stop on her recent Australian visit. The government had wanted to keep her away from the NT. Pillay’s NT visit was planned only after Dr Djiniyini Gondara, a senior Yolngu leader, lobbied her in Geneva to specifically pay attention on the Intervention.
Pillay condemned the Intervention for causing “enormous anger, pain and humiliation”. She said the policy was discriminatory and that she had heard first hand about the “imperialist attitude” of Intervention bureaucrats.
Similarly Pat Anderson, the author of the Little Children Are Sacred Report, which called for a serious response to the problem of child abuse in Aboriginal communities, has come out swinging. Anderson’s report was used as the pretext for Intervention. But in a keynote speech at a Sydney Aboriginal health conference she attacked the policy as “neither well intentioned nor well evidenced”. “The future of children in the NT”, she said, ”is not being protected by the Intervention. It is being further undermined”.
Under pressure, Labor’s Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin has tried to distance herself from the “way the Intervention started” conceding it had caused “widespread anger and distrust”. But Macklin remains ruthlessly committed to the policy itself.
The government is currently trying to coerce communities into signing “voluntary” extensions of the 5-year leases imposed by the Intervention. But only 16 communities earmarked as growth towns have signed 40-year leases after being threatened that they will not get funding for new housing unless they sign. Some growth towns like Yuendumu are refusing to sign despite chronic overcrowding. The vast majority of communities will get no new investment—so why would they lease their land?
Bob Beadman, the NT government bureaucrat responsible for the growth towns policy told The Age that only three leases had been signed outside of the growth towns. “It seems inconceivable to me they will be able to wrap up negotiating long-term leases before the five-year leases lapse.”
Macklin has already declared that punitive control measures could be pushed beyond the 5-year sunset clause, although this will require legislation to extend the Intervention.
Attacking Aboriginal rightsThe Intervention has choked Aboriginal communities, forcing people to move and assimilate into “mainstream Australia”.
Ideologically, the Intervention blames Aboriginal people and their culture for the social problems, while practically it is aimed at smashing the foundations of collective Aboriginal life. As Pat Anderson says, “it rejects self-determination as a ‘failed policy’. It does not approach our communities as having anything valuable to offer or indeed of having achieved anything in the past.”
Gary Johns, president of the assimilationist “Bennelong Society” sets out the Intervention’s ideological underpinnings in his book Aboriginal Self-Determination: the Whiteman’s Dream. It was launched by former Liberal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, and Intervention architect, Mal Brough.
Johns denies the Stolen Generations and blames extraordinary rates of Indigenous incarceration on “bad behaviour” by Aborigines. He says, “Land Rights, welfare and culture have locked Aborigines out of the good life”.
Johns’ book is a call for the disbanding of Aboriginal organisations set up through the struggles of the 1970s and 1980s and for government to put the final sword into remote communities. Aboriginal people must “move to where there is work and stay there”.
Bob Beadman was frank with The Age about the strategy of “population concentration” that lies behind current government policy.
“I know all the stories about improved health, improved social outcomes because people are on their own country, from which they derive autonomy… I’m sure I would be happier and healthier if I moved to a coastal area and did absolutely nothing and the government provided everything for me… but they won’t.”
Beadman and Johns are both racist and wrong. The Third World living conditions and social problems in remote Aboriginal communities are the result of ongoing refusal of governments to provide basic services.
The Intervention has cut the estimated 8000 waged jobs held through Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) to just 2400 which will be progressively cut back and abolished completely in July next year.
Only 2240 public sector positions have been created to replace the 8000 CDEP jobs. More than 60 per cent of them are part-time and many are on the lowest level of public sector pay—an effective pay cut for people previously on CDEP.
The CDEP cuts, the abolition of community councils and the seizure of their assets, has destroyed much of the productive activity of the communities—including land management programs, municipal and cultural works, small tourism and farming ventures.
Meanwhile, there has been a 30 per cent increase in Indigenous incarceration since the Intervention began and a 50 per cent increase in rates of suicide and self harm.
The Intervention, along with the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP), has spent upwards of $2.5 billion. This money could have supported Aboriginal communities but it has been wasted on bureaucrats and contractors.
The real people bludging off the public purse are the Government Business Managers, who live in compounds surrounded by cyclone fencing on salary packages approaching $200,000 per year.
There have been increases in funding for health care and new teachers, but as Pat Anderson argues, “The diminished sense of control and increased stress will lead to poorer health and social outcomes in the future”. In 2009-10 school attendance fell from 62.1 to 56.5 per cent and in 2008-09 a shocking four out of every 1000 Indigenous kids were hospitalised for malnutrition, the highest figure in the last decade.
The campaign against the NT Intervention will use the June 21 Darwin rally marking the Intervention’s fourth anniversary to launch a statement called “Rebuilding from the ground up: An alternative to the NT Intervention”.
The statement puts forward uncompromising demands for self-determination. It puts the blame for social problems in Aboriginal communities squarely back on the brutal history of dispossession and ongoing discrimination. All Aboriginal communities are viable—racism is not.
Initiated by the Intervention Rollback Action Group in Alice Springs and the Stop the Intervention Collective Sydney, the statement is a synthesis of the demands from Prescribed Area People’s Alliance meetings and community leaders for the past four years.
More than 15 leaders of Aboriginal communities and the Aboriginal Legal Aid service in Darwin (NAAJA) have already endorsed the statement.
The demands of the 11 point plan include the repeal of all Intervention laws (including Income Management), the re-establishment of Aboriginal community councils, investment in all communities, an end to compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal land and the rescinding of all leases signed under the NTER.
A central demand is for “Jobs with Justice”, the creation of a new Aboriginal employment program that pays proper wages and allows community based organisations to set development priorities—a campaign gaining support from trade unions across the country.
“Rebuilding from the ground up” is written as a basis to galvanize grass-roots struggle—both in NT Aboriginal communities and cities and towns across Australia.
There must be no “second Intervention”. Self-determination must be put back on the agenda.
By Paddy Gibson