Shameful second intervention slips under the radar

Michael Brull The Drum - Opinion 10th May 2012

Right now, Australian political commentary is focussed on the budget. For a while, it will be the major topic of the day for journalists and the media. In the midst of all this, it appears that something awful is going to slip under the radar.

That is, the second intervention. A raft of the so-called Stronger Futures bills is going to be debated in the Senate. The Coalition and Labor support intervention two. The Greens have valiantly struggled against the intervention, to little avail.

And when these laws pass, it will mean 10 more years of intervention.

By the time you read this, the laws may well have passed. As you have not heard any debate about these policies, it is worth noting some of those who have raised their voices.

I have been flooded with media releases of organisations condemning the legislation. The Yolngu Nations Assembly, representing 8,000 Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory, declared that they:

... reject the Stronger Futures Bill (and those associated) and call on the Senate to discard these bills in full. We have clearly informed you that we do not support the legislation.

They have called on:

... both the Australian federal and Northern Territory governments to end their interventionist policies and agendas, and return to a mindset of partnership based on the principles of self-determination.

The National Congress of Australia's First Peoples declared that:

The Government has 'wilful deafness' on such a fundamental issue, even after critical reports on the intervention by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Rapporteur for Indigenous Peoples ... Compulsory income management remains offensive and does not support local decision making, governance or self-determination.

Amnesty International issued a scathing denunciation of the new intervention legislation. It urged:

... all senators to withdraw their support in light of the woefully inadequate consultation process and overwhelming opposition to the flawed legislation. If passed, the Stronger Futures Bills represent the continued disempowerment of Aboriginal Peoples in the Northern Territory and the Government's blatant disregard for its human rights obligations.... with very little proof that the measures being expanded or carried over from the intervention are actually effective, Stronger Futures simply serves to undermine the successful community-driven initiatives led by Aboriginal communities themselves.... Stronger Futures would set in stone for the next decade harmful policies that deny Aboriginal communities their basic human rights.

Amnesty continued to express concern at the lack of support for Indigenous homelands, where about 35 per cent of Aboriginal peoples in the Northern Territory live:

By concentrating investment into a small number of selected 'growth towns', a significant proportion of the Northern Territory's population is being forced off their ancestral lands in order to access adequate housing and essential services.

ANTAR (Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation) urged MPs and senators to "consider the legacy these laws will leave in the history books and the damage they will do to relationships between Aboriginal people and governments".

Former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser, in a speech dripping with scorn and sarcasm, said AO Neville, protector from Western Australia, would be "delighted" with this legislation. Perhaps, he said, Macklin would make ministers of Aboriginal affairs "Protectors", and perhaps we should call her "Protector" Macklin.

Fraser went on to note that if there was any evidence of any improvements brought about by the intervention, we would know about it by now. But nothing like that has been brought to our attention for the obvious reason that:

Improvement in the well-being of Aboriginal people is just not taking place under the intervention. And it is not surprising that that's so. Racist policies have seldom had a beneficial result.

The executive officer of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Sydney Archdiocese, Graeme Mundine, said:

They need to throw out this flawed legislation and instead commit to real partnership with Aboriginal peoples to develop sustainable solutions.

His Melbourne counterpart said:

The disrespect shown to Traditional Aboriginal Governance structures and Traditional Custodians has been staggering and is set to worsen under the proposed Stronger Futures legislation.

The Uniting Church in Australia National Assembly also condemned the legislation. The moderator of the Uniting Church's Northern Synod, Mr Stuart McMillan, asked:

How many more decades of policy failure do Aboriginal people in the Territory have to endure before Canberra learns the lesson that the only way forward is together? An extension of the intervention only perpetuates their disempowerment.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) and Catholic Religious Australia (CRA) call upon all federal senators not to pass the legislation of the 'Stronger Futures Northern Territory 2011 Bill'.

We need to listen to the Aboriginal people. They are asking for their rights as human beings and citizens of this country to be respected ... Social inclusion does not result from intervention, imposition, discrimination and exclusion. We call for an urgent shift from punitive controls to measures that restore community control, rebuild Aboriginal initiative and capacity, improve living conditions and show respect for Aboriginal languages and culture.

The secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care announced that it "stands in solidarity" with the Yolngu Nations Assembly in opposing the Stronger Futures legislation.

One could go on and on. As Professor Jon Altman, from ANU's Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research noted, the Senate Inquiry into the laws was flooded with over 450 submissions, and, "Almost all the submissions, including mine, opposed the intervention and the three Stronger Futures bills."

There has been little debate on the intervention's expansion. Yet by now, it is hard to even see what case there is for it. Called the Northern Territory Emergency Response originally, it failed to find the paedophile rings that caused the moral panic that triggered it.

The number of convictions of child sexual abusers rose by about one or two a year in the wake of the intervention to nine a year instead of seven or eight.

As I've written time and again, there is no evidence - even in the government's own reports - of any improvements of socioeconomic indicators intervention supporters claim to care about.

UTS academic Eva Cox wrote an exhaustive study for the Journal of Indigenous Policy on the issue of income management, demonstrating the preponderance of evidence against income management, and the lack of any actual evidence in its favour.

However, the Government has conceded again and again the hurt caused by the intervention.

In the Evaluation Report, announced as vindicating the intervention, one finds admissions such as this:

Many people in the consultation meetings said that they felt hurt, humiliated and confused by the way the NTER had been implemented.

Furthermore, the compulsory imposition of income management across remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory resulted in bitter feelings, disillusionment, resentment and anger for many Indigenous community members.

Those feelings were exacerbated in the implementation phase by inadequate communication and a lack of consultation

Some income-management customers report feeling stigma when they use their store card or, more recently, the BasicsCard:

Some Aboriginal people living or shopping in the major regional centres (in Darwin and Alice Springs especially) have suffered frustration, embarrassment, humiliation and overt racism because of the difficulties associated with acquiring and using store cards.

Yet what remains to be noted is that the new legislation gives Minister Jenny Macklin broad ranging powers to expand compulsory income management. Right now, the Arab community feels targeted because it is being directed at Bankstown (and four other locations) from July this year. They are the targets today, but what happens when Tony Abbott wins the next election?

People who make political predictions often look foolish. Yet it seems to me that Labor, supposedly the party of the working classes, has given the Federal Government – soon, a Coalition government – drastic power to reduce the dignity and living conditions of working class people.

Australians are beginning to wake up to the shameful nature of the policies we have forced on Indigenous Australians, but not quickly enough.

One day, we will look back with shame on what we allowed to happen to Indigenous Australians in Australia. And we will look with dismay at how these punitive, degrading measures gradually crept from one marginalised, vulnerable group to another.

I wouldn't be presumptuous enough to say when these policies will be ended. But one day, they will. And we will look back with shame on the day they passed the Senate. And most of us will have to say with shame that we did not do enough to raise our voices for Australia's most vulnerable, and repeatedly betrayed communities.

Michael Brull is studying a Juris Doctor at UNSW. He tweets at @mikeb476.

Michael Brull has a featured blog at Independent Australian Jewish Voices, and is involved in Stop The Intervention Collective Sydney (STICS). He has written for Overland, the National Times,, Mutiny, and ZNet.