Pat Anderson: intervention neither well-intentioned nor well-evidenced

NT Intervention - Basics Card

Crikey Thursday, 5 May 2011

In 2006, Pat Anderson, chairperson of the Lowitja Institute, along with Rex Wild, QC, authored the Little Children are Sacred report for the NT government, an inquiry into child sex abuse and neglect in the Territory. It examined formal published evidence on what works in these situations and extensive community consultations, where they travelled to more than 40 Aboriginal communities in the NT.

Last night (4th May 2011) Anderson gave a rare public speech criticising the NT intervention, a policy that apparently originated thanks to the report she co-authored. Anderson said the first recommendation of the report was the most crucial, which was: "It is critical that both [the Northern Territory and federal] governments commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities. [to address child sexual abuse and neglect]." The following is an edited extract from Anderson's speech at the Coalition for Research to Improve Aboriginal Health conference in Sydney this morning.

We delivered the Little Children are Sacred report to the Northern Territory government in April 2007.

For a while there was silence; and then in June 2007, the then Prime Minister and his federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs announced the "emergency intervention" into the Northern Territory.

There were many elements of the intervention announced that day. Not all of these were wide of the mark: there were moves to restrict alcohol availability, enforce school attendance, increase policing, and ban pornography.

However, no one needed an inquiry to tell them that these measures were needed - there had been broad agreement for a long time about exactly these kind of actions.

Critically, however, our recommendation about working with Aboriginal communities was ignored.

Where we emphasised the need for resources and for flexible processes of engagement with Aboriginal families and communities, the intervention emphasised external control and "blanket" provisions affecting all Aboriginal people.

The majority, and the "headline" elements, of the intervention, were deeply problematic.

They included compulsory health checks of Aboriginal children to check for evidence of abuse, blanket quarantining of welfare payments to all Aboriginal people (leading to the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act), the compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal townships, and the scrapping of the permit system that allowed Aboriginal people control over access to their land.

These proposals were accompanied by a "get tough, quick fix" rhetoric that made it abundantly clear where the problem lay: it lay with us, it was Aboriginal people who were to blame for the conditions in which we lived.

What we needed was a good kick up the bum, and then the non-Aboriginal state would just have to come in and fix it all for us, as we were obviously incapable of doing so ourselves.

So, where was the evidence-base for this radical re-shaping of policy, for this return to a paternalistic approach to problem solving?

Simply: it was absent.

There was no attempt to justify the policy by reference to evidence. There was no attempt to address the fact that the vast majority of the evidence pointed in exactly the opposite direction to where the policy was going, towards approaches based on empowerment and inclusion rather than imposed solutions and paternalism.

There was no recognition of what had been achieved in some places, or of a history of attempts by Aboriginal people and organisations to tackle the complex health and social issues in their communities.

So, if it was not the evidence, what did the former government base its policy on?

I don't think we'll ever fully understand the process by which the government decided on the intervention: the key decisions were taken behind closed doors, and little effort has gone into uncovering exactly how they were made and who made them.

There was, on the other hand, lots of speculation about "why" the intervention was announced.

For some, the Intervention was a cynical political exercise to "wedge" the opposition Labor Party and gain narrow political advantage in an election year. Others have seen the intervention as an ideologically driven attack on Aboriginal rights.

Under this scenario, the NT government's inaction gave prime minister Howard the opportunity to further advance his agenda in indigenous affairs, central to which was the undermining of Aboriginal rights, especially to land.

Some even saw the intervention as a genuine attempt to address the suffering and neglect of Aboriginal children. If so, it was an attempt based on ignorance and almost inevitably, prejudice.

But whatever the real motivations behind the intervention, one thing I know for sure: it was not concern for the welfare of Aboriginal children and communities that drove it. And it was not undertaken with a knowledge and respect for the evidence.

And this seems to me to be a continuing theme in the history of the relationship between black and white in Australia: that action on Aboriginal disadvantage gets continually caught up in other, contradictory agendas.

This perhaps has been the biggest barrier to genuine progress. Because, you would think that if government was really serious about addressing the disadvantage so many Aboriginal communities suffer, there would been a rational process.

They'd sit down and look at what the problems were, look at what has already been tried and what we know works, look at the kind of principles that we know should underpin action - and then, a make a commitment to action and of resources.

Yet as far as we know, the whole Intervention was almost literally designed on the back of an envelope, over two or three days, in some offices in Canberra, by people who took little account of the evidence, and had no understanding of the historical realities of Aboriginal life.

Now some people have said to me: "But something had to be done!" Of course, I agree: "something" had to be done.

But if you are seriously ill in hospital and "something has to be done" you expect the "something" that the hospital staff do to be aimed at treating the illness and to be based on good evidence.

Doing something that is neither well-intentioned nor well evidenced is unlikely to be helpful. And in my view the intervention was neither well-intentioned nor well-evidenced.

Following their election victory a few months after the announcement of the intervention, the federal Labor government withdrew some of the more controversial measures. It has softened the rhetoric somewhat. But the essential structures and the thinking of the Intervention remain in place.

Explicitly or implicitly, 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.

Instead, they are to be the passive recipients of non- Aboriginal "help". This has left many Aboriginal people marginalised from the decision-making processes in their own communities. It adds to the sense of disempowerment and stress that many already feel.

And we know that this diminished sense of control and increased stress will lead to poorer health and social outcomes in the future. In this way, the future of Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory is not being protected by the intervention: it is being further undermined.

Pat Anderson
Pat Anderson is an Alyawarre woman renowned nationally and internationally as a powerful advocate of disadvantaged people, with a particular focus on the health of Indigenous people. She has extensive experience in all aspects of Aboriginal health, including community development, advocacy, policy formation and research ethics.

Ms Anderson has spoken before the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous People, was formerly the Chief Executive Officer of Danila Dilba, the Aboriginal community-controlled health service in Darwin, and has been Chair of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, the peak national Aboriginal health organisation. She is also a prolific writer and has had many essays, papers and articles published. Ms Anderson retired from the position of Executive Officer of the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory, which is the peak body of the Aboriginal community-controlled health organisations in the Northern Territory and was the co-author of the Little Children are Sacred report into abuse of Indigenous children in the Northern Territory.

Most recently Pat was awarded the Public Health Association of Australia's Sidney Sax Public Health Medal at the 2007 PHAA annual conference.

Profile source: Remote Area Health Corps (RAHC)