The Northern Territory Intervention - Four Years On

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Alice Springs: Prescribed Area peoples Meeting and Rally
On June 19-20th 2011 - Prescribed Area peoples from Central Australia and Top End communities will meet in Darwin to discuss strategies to accomplish the aims of the program. The following day, June 21st, will mark four years of failed Intervention. On this day there will be a rally to show support for Prescribed Area people followed by a concert. - Read More
Banjo Morton
Banjo Morton -
'We are finished with the intervention'

Disputed territory

Lindsay Murdoch Sydney Morning Herald May 21, 2011

In the first of a series in the 'Sydney Morning Herald', Lindsay Murdoch reviews the successes - and failures - of the federal intervention, four years on.

A family huddles behind a corrugated iron humpy as the chill early morning wind whips up the central desert's red sand. A small boy stands under a tree, staring into a vacant distance. Nearby, other Aboriginal families are stirring from their own makeshift shelters.

"They will be embarrassed to have pictures taken close up of them living in the dirt," says Richard Downs, a leader of his Alyawarr people, turning our vehicle away.

"There are a number of families living like that in the community ... it's a disgrace and I feel ashamed for my people."

Four years after the Howard government controversially seized control of 73 remote Northern Territory indigenous communities, some of them still look like African ghettos.

On the outskirts of Ampilatwatja, a collection of rundown and overcrowded houses 350 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs, Downs points to an uncovered hole containing blackened and stinking sewage. The gate to a fence surrounding it is ajar, so children playing nearby can enter.

"It has been like that for many months," says Downs, a 59-year-old former stockman. "Where else in Australia would you see that?"

Along dirt streets littered with rubbish and abandoned vehicles, Downs points out a $500,000 building complex, the home and office of a government business manager, one of 60 appointed across the territory to supervise the delivery of government services under the emergency intervention.

"That's all we got over four years ... a government business manager living here who everyone in the community tries to avoid and doesn't listen to," Downs says. "We can't work out what he does other than write reports that no one here gets to read."

There is anger and frustration among 10,000 Aborigines living in remote outstations on ancestral homelands as the federal and Northern Territory governments starve them of new funding and services and push ahead with a policy to develop 20 Aboriginal regional centres known as growth towns.

There is also little agreement about what the intervention has achieved in four years. Downs says 500 of his people living in Ampilatwatja have been treated as outcasts from white-man's decision making. "No one has asked us what will work for us," he says.

Some families are so disgusted about the living conditions in Ampilatwatja they have packed mattresses and blankets and are living five kilometres away at Honeymoon Bore.

The community's 89-year-old elder Banjo Morton says his people will refuse to renew any government lease over the community when the intervention's five-year compulsorily acquired lease expires next year, even though contractors finally arrived two weeks ago to refurbish 24 homes.

Residents are angry because rents for the houses are set to increase from $35 a fortnight to $200 a week in return for new bathrooms, kitchens and painted walls.

"No more. We are finished with the intervention," says Morton, a former stockman who told government officials three weeks ago of the community's decision.

The government has not said what it will do if communities do not meet next year's deadline.

Bess Nungarrayi Price, an outspoken Warlpiri woman from the central desert community of Yuendumu, strongly backs the intervention, saying extra police have significantly reduced levels of violence and fear in remote communities. "More crime is being reported. There has also been a much needed focus on education and housing," she says.

Price, whose community has been subjected to months of rival clan fighting, says that from what she can see children and women are "much more healthy" as a result of income management. Under the intervention measure 50 per cent of welfare payments must be spent on food and other essentials in approved shops.

"It's been a life saver. Weekends are always a difficult time, but there is money for food. Women also have a say over how registered stores spend profits and the quality of food sold," she says.

Price believes critics of the intervention are condemning Aboriginal people to live in poverty, ignorance and despair.

"When the emergency was first rolled out, people thought it was racist without understanding why it was so necessary," she says. "People can now see the changes and like them."

The intervention, officially called the Northern Territory Emergency Response, was prompted by the release, in 2007, of the report Little Children Are Sacred. That report was the result of an inquiry into sexual abuse of Aboriginal children, chaired by Pat Anderson and Rex Wild, QC.

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, a respected 74-year-old leader in Utopia, a group of 16 central desert outstations, says it is time for Aboriginal people to stand up and say enough is enough about the intervention and the growth towns policy.

She points to large blue signs declaring bans on alcohol and pornography which have been erected at the entrances to communities. "We have all being branded grog abusers and paedophiles," says Kunoth-Monks, president of the 322,000- square-kilometre Barkly Shire.

"What have our Utopia people got from the intervention? A police station. And guess what? We are happy that we haven't had any more things imposed on us."

Kunoth-Monks warns that forcing people into growth towns, which are existing communities chosen to receive funding for schools, clinics and other government services, will destroy the outstation movement on homelands that governments encouraged three decades ago, and which has been shown to give Aborigines healthier and happier lives. She says it will also destroy Aboriginal customary practices and culture dating back tens of thousands of years.

"If we are going to be passive and sit back and allow ourselves to be removed from our homelands it would be better for the government people to come out here and shoot us ... wipe us out," says Kunoth-Monks, the child star in the acclaimed 1955 movie Jedda.

Bob Beadman, a veteran Aboriginal administrator who is in charge of developing the territory's growth towns, defends the policy. He asks how long taxpayers will be prepared to support unemployed people living on homelands.

"I know all the stories about improved health, improved social outcomes because people are on their own country, from which they derive autonomy, away from the tensions of living in a multi-tribal environment," Beadman says.

"I know all that. But if you put all that to one side and ask the question, well, how are people going to subsist on the outstation? Does it involve a mix of the Australian taxpayer supporting them for life? And if that's an expected part of the mix then I think people are entitled to say, 'hang on minute'.

"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."

Traditional elders from 19 communities in north-east Arnhem Land, who are represented by the Laynhapuy Homelands Association, say the intervention brought more health funding, some new full-time jobs in municipal services, health and land management, and a greater focus on education and the illegal supply of alcohol to remote regions.

Arnhem Land is also getting a boarding school to support secondary education in the homelands.

But elders across the Laynhapuy region say there have also been disadvantages and bungles, the worst being the winding back of the Community Development Employment Projects, which were set up to provide income support in exchange for work in the communities. People's incentives to earn money, assume higher responsibility, acquire skills and have a relationship with an employer have been destroyed, they say.

Elders say the intervention fails to acknowledge their communities have different cultures, opportunities and challenges.

The programs and strategies used to tackle disadvantage in other parts of Australia do not work among people from an ancient culture living in isolated locations. They say the intervention has brought more stifling bureaucracy and a constant turnover of officials.

Some government business managers, who earn more than $150,000 a year, have lasted only months living in remote communities. Commonwealth funding for homelands has been capped at $20 million a year for three years and funding runs out next year.

No government funding is available for new houses on homelands, leaving people living in substandard, overcrowded accommodation with poor quality infrastructure, such as water and sewerage. Arnhem Land elders reject the hub-and-spoke model under which homelands residents commute to town for education and other basic services, citing the condition of often impassable roads and high transport costs.

Elders say Yirrkala and Gapuwiyak, the two growth towns in the Laynhapuy homelands region, do not have the capacity to absorb the more than 1000 people living on homelands across north-east Arnhem Land.

The elders want to see a policy on the development and maintenance of homelands, backed by reliable data and analysis, that provides certainty for the planning and provision of services, as well as supporting efforts to kick-start economic development, such as indigenous art and cultural tourism projects.

In recent months, the federal and Northern Territory governments and shires have been negotiating local implementation plans that give growth town elders an opportunity to decide their priorities for development.

For much of the past century the men of Gunbalanya, a community at the edge of Kakadu National Park, were highly competent stockmen, mustering cattle across their wetlands. Now they are proudly operating their own abattoir.

In the Gove Peninsula Aborigines have used mining royalties to build a housing village to lease to miners. One indigenous group has negotiated the sealing of a road, while others have opted for a kindergarten.

Malarndirri McCarthy, the Northern Territory Minister for Indigenous Policy and one of five indigenous MPs in the Parliament, says the NT government's main priority is to see Commonwealth funding continue for the growth towns.

"However, the difference is, don't intervene on us. Work with us," McCarthy says.

The most controversial of the intervention measures has been the compulsory management of 50 per cent of the welfare payments of people living in the prescribed communities and 10 town camps, which contravened the Racial Discrimination Act.

The federal government passed legislation last June to reinstate the act after income management was broadened from the prescribed communities to include all welfare recipients in the NT.

But in Geneva, the United Nations Convention to Eliminate Racial Discrimination has judged that the intervention continues to discriminate on the basis of race and that it reduces people's rights to land, property, social security, adequate standards of housing, cultural development, work and legal remedies.

Kunoth-Monks, from Utopia, says income management and the issuing of a "basics card" to welfare recipients to buy food and essential items "tore my people to pieces ... it's demeaning and a violation of our rights".

"Do they believe we are animals who take food out of the mouths of our children and elderly?

"If my people go out and kill a kangaroo, do they keep it all for themselves? No. Our culture is a culture of sharing ... they go to the shop with their basics card and buy food and bring it back to share. So what's the exercise all about?"

Kunoth-Monks says the basics card is also often used as currency in card games. "People throw them on the table with the PIN numbers ... what's that achieving?"

Arnhem Land elders say that while some families have benefited from income management, the scheme has created difficulties for homelands residents because of the cost of travelling to stores and to meetings with Centrelink staff.

But the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, believes income management has put food on the tables of vulnerable indigenous families.

The government announced in the budget this month that the scheme would be extended to five trial sites in NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland from July next year.

Beadman, who chairs the NT Grants Commission and whose career at senior levels of indigenous administration in the territory and Canberra spans four decades, says the key to stopping the cycles of grog abuse, violence and dysfunction is to "provide a hand-up, not a hand-out" for Aborigines who have never seen their parents go to school or work.

"I'm all for a safety net, never a hammock," Beadman says. "We have simply to force by coercive means able-bodied people out of that hammock to a meaningful contribution to the economy, given all the negative outcomes from social welfare for life."

Macklin says the intervention will be under continuous review until the emergency response legislation lapses in August next year.

The government's most difficult challenge will be to negotiate long-term leases over communities before then. Only three lease agreements have been finalised so far and they have been criticised for being too complex to secure bank funding for new houses and businesses.

"It seems inconceivable to me they will be able to wrap up negotiating long-term leases before the five-year leases lapse," Beadman says. "This leaves an enormous question mark hanging over what governments are going to do at the end of that period."

Labor has made clear the government intends to push ahead with the intervention, at least in a similar form, in conjunction with development of the growth towns.

"I don't think anyone thought when this work started that we'd be closing the gap on indigenous disadvantage in the Northern Territory in three or four years," Macklin says. "It's a generational task and one that has to continue."

In Utopia, the desert is a burst of colour and life after prolonged near-record rainfalls. Rosalie Kunoth-Monks leads us to her special place, a secluded bush billabong adjacent to wetlands that is teeming with birds few non-indigenous people have seen.

"Black fella bashing has become part of a political football in this country. It's not fair ... give us some space," she says. "Under the intervention we feel like we have been made separate people but we are not enemies of the dominate culture - all we want is help to grow on our own land at the same time as becoming taxpayers like everyone else."

See Article Source: Sydney Morning Herald - includes Image Gallery