Irene Fisher is a Jawoyn woman, whose people live mainly around Katherine in the “top end” of the Northern Territory. She works as chief executive of Sunrise Health, a network of 10 health centres servicing Aboriginal communities east of Katherine. Below is the text of a speech given to a forum during the Canberra convergence against the NT intervention in early February. Many great Jawoyn elders fought the battle for land rights that the Jawoyn enjoy today. With the establishment of the Jawoyn association the Jawoyn developed business enterprises in tourism most notably at Nitmiluk or Katherine Gorge as it’s known to many Australians. While the association enjoyed many successes the declining health of the Jawoyn people was of grave concern to our elders.
There was a great deal of dissatisfaction with the government delivered health service. From this concern the Sunrise Health service evolved, from a three-year Commonwealth government care trial beginning in 2002. The trial developed what is today one of the best remote health services in the country. We are not a dysfunctional community and our achievements have proven that.
End the intervention
I stand here today to speak out against the Northern Territory intervention. On June 21 2007 the Howard government announced the Northern Territory emergency response, or intervention as it’s known. The announcement was made in response to the Little Children are Sacred report together with the perceived inaction of the Northern Territory government to combat child sexual abuse.
There was a stunned response from remote communities in the Northern Territory. It appeared that the most marginalised and impoverished people in Australia had now become disempowered by laws hastily passed by government, ostensibly to protect children but which failed to mention the world child in 500 pages [of legislation]. When Mal Brough announced his first measure, the forced sexual examination of children, I was outraged. How could a government claim it cared about the welfare of children when its first measure was tantamount to sexual abuse in itself, a fact well known by any health care practitioner. This measure was soon hastily rectified and so began the back peddling of the intervention that has characterised [its] implementation since it began.
The approach of the Howard government was harsh and punitive, with one of its most damning actions being the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act for indigenous people living in 73 identified remote communities and town camps. The government labelled all these communities as dysfunctional and introduced a number of blanket measures which included welfare and employment reform, law and order measures and housing and land reforms.
People were totally disempowered and their rights as Australian citizens were taken away. The innocent were punished along with the guilty and government control over people’s lives intensified. When the federal elections were held Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory came out in force to support Labor. We were so excited by the landslide victory and felt sure that things would change.
When the Prime Minister announced the continuation of the intervention until it could be reviewed we were disappointed but still hoped that the system would identify the many failings of the intervention. The government appointed a board to review the first 12 months of the intervention.
Over 200 submissions were received by the board which duly made its recommendations. However they were rejected by Minister Macklin who chose to make her decision based on anecdotal evidence. We felt totally betrayed. How could the government dismiss the damning evidence we provided in our submissions?
In the last 18 months Sunrise Health service has seen the disturbing evidence of a decline in health of the people in all ten remote communities that it services. We have seen increasing anaemia rates, an increase in the presentation by young girls in the third trimester of pregnancy and tragically, youth suicides.
Under the intervention government has failed to engage with our people. The evidence of community-based successes has been ignored in favour of a top-down bureaucratic response that is doomed to failure. Millions of dollars have been wasted on the development of layers of bureaucracy with very little resources hitting the ground. This madness must stop and we demand back our rights as citizens of this country.