Prominent South Australians call to end failed intervention

Go To: Copy of Letter 'Northern Territory: Public Statement On Northern Territory Intervention'

Malcolm Brown Barossa herald 19th July 2011
A group of prominent South Australians has called on the federal government to end the intervention in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities, claiming it has not only failed in its purpose, but in some aspects has made things worse.

The group of 24, led by the former South Australian Supreme Court judge Robyn Layton, QC, the former premier Lynn Arnold and Lowitja O'Donohue, a former chairwoman of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, believe the failed measures undertaken since 2007 have intensified problems and should be reversed.

The signatories claimed yesterday that a government decision to visit 98 Aboriginal communities over six weeks to "consult" with them was as hasty as the original decision to intervene and was unlikely to bear fruit.

They claim the government has failed to provide steady, proper or timely housing; that new houses are being built at a slow pace; that there is still overcrowding and the housing provided was not taking into account the size or requirements for Aboriginal people.

They also claim targets have not been met for full-time education and there is an over-reliance on teachers who "fly-in and fly-out often for only one or two days per week".

Further measures intended to arrest the decline in school attendance have failed and in very remote areas the drop in attendance has increased.

They believe the intervention has been successful in some instances but has, by and large, failed. It should be brought to an end in accordance with Australia's international obligations.

The government should ensure promised services were automatically delivered without requiring Aboriginal people to lease land to the government in return for basic services, they said, and that voluntary income management under the BasicsCard should be terminated.

The signatories said Aboriginal people should have rights assured in accordance with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Racial Discrimination Act, which had been suspended with the intervention.

The Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, defended the government's policy on intervention yesterday.

"I have been very clear that this consultation process will be genuine and we will seek the advice and experience of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory about ways forward," she said.

"I know that the lack of consultation before the previous government introduced the emergency response caused pain and anger for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.

"I also know that the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act ... was a serious affront to Aboriginal people.

"That is why the government has now fully restored people's rights and protections under the Racial Discrimination Act."


Northern Territory: Public Statement On Northern Territory Intervention

We are issuing our Public Statement in support of the Aboriginal people affected by the NT Intervention.

Newly announced "consultations" by the Federal Government are now taking place in great haste over a six week period. The 28 page Discussion Paper is inappropriate both in length and language. The "consultations" in some 98 Aboriginal communities are limited to a period of six weeks and commenced within the week of its release. The Government needs to ensure skilled interpreters are present, genuinely listen to the people's concerns, and work in partnership with the people. Largely missing from the consultation agenda are the three concerns many Aboriginal people in communities hold as essential: "Land, Law and Language". Lost in this process are the reasons for the consultation.

In 2007, an inquiry conducted by a Northern Territory Board of Inquiry released its report "Little Children are Sacred". As with 5 previous reviews, by other State Governments since 2002, the Board concluded that socio-economic factors giving rise to child abuse particularly in Aboriginal communities, were a combination of factors including poor health, alcohol and drug abuse, unemployment, pornography, inadequate education, poor and overcrowded housing, general loss of identity and control. Many recommendations were made which included that any response required proper consultation with Aboriginal communities.

Some six days after the release of that report, the Federal Government announced (June 21 2007) that there would be an emergency response accompanied by legislation and they immediately sent in police and army to certain communities without consultation with Aboriginal people - "the Intervention". Two months later, complex and voluminous legislation (over 500 pages) was rushed through Federal Parliament. The Northern Territory Emergency Response Act 2007, was publicly stated to be justified in order to protect Aboriginal children from abuse, yet the word "child" does not appear anywhere in the Act. In summary, the direct effects of the Act included:

  • compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal Land;
  • removal of the Aboriginal-controlled land permit systems;
  • requiring Aboriginal people to lease land to the government in return for basic services;
  • suspending the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) which had previously protected Aboriginal people from adverse discrimination;
  • quarantining 50% of their welfare payments for compulsory income management, regardless of age or family circumstances by the BasicsCard system.
  • Abolishing the Community Development Employment Projects which had previously provided some employment in the Aboriginal communities.
  • Substituting Government Business Managers for the Aboriginal Community Councils.

Promises were made by the Government to Aboriginal communities to make significant improvements to housing, health, education and services.

In 2010, the failure to restore the rights of Aboriginal people was criticised by both the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous People's Rights and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Subsequently in December 2010 there was a partial lifting of the suspension of the RDA which was delayed and incomplete. In order to try and overcome the direct discriminatory effect of the compulsory income management, the Federal Government not only retained but also widened the BasicsCard system to other communities in Australia. This is likely to result in a disproportionate number of Aboriginal people in other communities in other States and Territories around Australia, also being subjected to inappropriate and unnecessary income-management.

While there are some aspects of the Intervention which could be viewed positively in some Aboriginal communities, it is the compulsory broad scale nature of the intervention which has been inflicted on Aboriginal people without genuine engagement at the local level which is fundamentally disturbing.

Concerns about Aboriginal child abuse and inequality of Aboriginal people cannot be addressed by removal of control from affected peoples over their lives and their land. Positive change requires respect and genuine engagement with Aboriginal people at the local level.

As the 2010 Board of Inquiry into the NT Child Protection concluded: "..Aboriginal people's self determination is a prerequisite for change... Government agencies must engage more effectively with Aboriginal people, involve Aboriginal people in all aspects of decision-making .."

In addition to this grave overarching concern, the Government has failed to provide promised improvements.

  • Failure to provide steady, proper or timely housing, exemplified by the slow pace of new houses (other than for bureaucrats) with a failure to alleviate overcrowding or take account of the size or requirements of housing for Aboriginal people.
  • Failure to provide full time education to Aboriginal children, which is a basic right of all Australian children eg reliance on teachers who fly-in and fly-out often for only one or two days per week and the failure of the Intervention measures to arrest the fall in school attendance in very remote areas, which has increased.
  • Failure of the Intervention to appropriately address the health issues in Aboriginal communities, eg the Health Impact Assessment launched in March 2010 found that the Intervention could potentially lead to profound long-term damage to overall health and cultural integrity.
  • Further, retaining the Intervention when the 2010 Board of Inquiry into the NT Child Protection linked the continuing health problems in the Aboriginal communities to the continuing disadvantage and poverty associated with overcrowding, unsafe and stressful environments and poor community infrastructure, which were supposed to be addressed by the Intervention.

In May 2011, UN Human Rights Commissioner, Navi Pillay made her own strong criticisms of the Intervention.

We call upon the Government to comply with its international obligations by bringing the Intervention to an end, including;

  • ensuring that promised services are automatically delivered without requiring Aboriginal people to lease land to the government in return for basic services;
  • terminating involuntary income management under the BasicsCard;
  • securing Aboriginal rights in accordance with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples;
  • reinstating the full application of the Racial Discrimination Act; and
  • appropriately engaging with local Aboriginal people to involve them in all aspects of decision-making about services and their delivery.


Dr Lynn Arnold AO; Chief Executive Officer, Anglicare SA and Reconciliation SA Ambassador
Sr Patricia Davis OP, Leader of the North Adelaide Dominican Sisters
Rev Dr Denis Edwards theologian/author
Brian Gilbertson, opera singer and solicitor
Sr Marion Gambin RSJ, Leader of the South Australian Sisters of St Joseph
Dorinda Hafner; culinary anthropologist/media personality
Sr Jill Havey ; educator
Kerry Heysen Hicks; film producer
Paul Heywood-Smith QC; barrister
Scott Hicks; film maker/director
Hon Elliott Johnston AO, QC; former SA Supreme Court Judge, Patron Reconciliation SA
Nicholas Jose; author
Hon. Robyn Layton QC; former SA Supreme Court Judge, Co- Chair Reconciliation SA
Leanne Liddle; journalist
Dr Christobel Mattingley AM; author
Lewis Yerloburka O'Brien; Kaurna Elder
Dr Lowitja O'Donohue AC,CBE,DSG; Aboriginal Elder
Sr Helen Owens RSM, Leader of the Sisters of Mercy, Adelaide
Claire Roberts; art historian and curator
Dr Alitya Rigney: Kaurna; Elder and educator
Dr Lester Irabinna Rigney; Dean Wilto Yerlo University of Adelaide
Rev Ken Sumner; President, UATSI Christian Congress
Sr Enid Wood OP, Leader of the Cabra Dominican Sisters, Adelaide
Sharron Williams, CEO Aboriginal Family Support Services SA