The continued suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) has acted as a lightning rod to the growing level of criticism against the Northern Territory Intervention. This clear symbol of the discriminatory nature of the Intervention has forced the Rudd government to implement a timetable for the reintroduction of the RDA. Yet, not only is the RDA not being reinstated till December 31, 2010, the government is simply re-branding the measures of the Intervention to make them a permanent feature of Indigenous Affairs.
In an effort to make the hated Income Management compatible with the RDA, the government is expanding it to cover certain welfare recipients throughout the Northern Territory. The government has categorised several groups of recipients to be quarantined—“disengaged youth”, “long term welfare recipients” and “vulnerable welfare recipients”. This will start in July 2010 and will blow out the cost of income management from $5 million to $105 million per year, or $4400 per person quarantined (approximately a third of an average yearly Centrelink payment). The purpose of this expansion is to maintain the quarantining of Aboriginal people in the NT. The government argues that extending the quarantine means it is no longer racist—but Indigenous Australians will still be those predominantly affected. A recent paper by the Human Rights Commission stated that a law is in breach of the RDA if it has a “disproportionate impact” on a certain racial group—which the expansion of Income Management clearly will.
The changes will keep all the other control measures through the Intervention in place by labelling them “special measures”. But “special measures” is supposed to mean positive discrimination—laws that advance the interests of a particular group and have that group’s consent. The government’s own reports show that the NT Intervention has not helped anybody living under it—and their own consultations show it doesn’t have consent.
A report by Macklin’s deparment, FACHSIA, released in November, found that the alcohol bans had meant, “dangerous drinking outside of town boundaries, increased road accidents and personal injury due to unsafe drinking practices”. The new legislation supposedly allows communities to appeal for changes in conditions for alcohol restrictions—but it will be up to the government whether the community’s concerns are considered. Blanket bans will remain the default position.
Government Business Managers (GBMs) will continue and retain their powers to compulsorily acquire community assets, and to control local staff and community organisations.
The government is claiming that they have the support of Aboriginal communities, based on consultations that they carried out last year. But the consultations were a joke. Legal experts including a Former Chief Justice of the Family Court and Larissa Behrendt analysed the process in their report “Will They Be Heard?” As Behrendt has explained: “The so-called consultation process was a farcical exercise in box ticking… with Departmental employees reading from a script which informed Aboriginal people that the Intervention is good for them.”
A report by CIRCA, the organisation employed by the government to oversee the consultations, is instructive. It reveals that in some consultations, government employees openly defended the Intervention from criticism. They admitted that the negativity towards Income Management was not “clearly indicated” in government reports.
The changes will do nothing to end the racist measures of the Northern Territory Intervention. Worse, the delay in the reinstatement of the RDA allows the government enough time to force communities to sign over their land on 40-year leases, without the risk of court challenges. This will provide the government with a much greater scope to control the lives of the people in these communities.
The new laws entrench the racist controls at the core of the Intervention. But the government is at pains to dress them up as a move towards Aboriginal rights. On February 4, one of Macklin’s staffers sent an email to Aboriginal organisations blaming Greens Senators for delaying the reintroduction of the RDA by subjecting the bill to a Senate committee. Rather than work with the Greens to overturn Howard’s laws, Rudd is preparing to deal with the Liberals to cement them.
The need to build a movement to confront the Intervention is as urgent as ever.
By Ben Dharmendra