'Welcome to Country' - NT Intervention Perspective

NT Intervention - Rebuilding from the ground up

'Hexy' (Guest Blogger) Femeniste Blogs 17th July 2011

I haven't written a great deal about the Northern Territory Intervention. I've been following some of what's been happening, and I've attended a few events and forums, but I've generally kept my mouth shut on the topic. Part of this is because I'm just not well informed enough about the Intervention to consider myself an expert, but part of it is the annoying habit of progressive white Australia to treat Indigenous Australians as one homogeneous group and act as though my words should have some weight on the issue simply because I'm Aboriginal, despite my insistence that I'm not an authority. I appreciate that white people are trying to inform their perspectives with black opinions, but they need to look in the right place.

So let me be clear: I'm not from the Northern Territory. The events of the Intervention are not happening on my country (I am from Wiradjuri country in NSW) and are not directly affecting my tribespeople. Inasmuch as all Indigenous Australians are my people, this is an issue that hits close to home, but I am no more an expert than anyone else who's read more than the tabloid media has to say about the topic and attended a few seminars and community forums. The only benefit I have over white Australians is that my perspective is not coloured by white privilege and racist attitudes. The people who should be listened to and who should have their voices prioritised as experts are the people from the affected communities.

A bit of history: the Northern Territory Intervention was a package of reforms introduced under John Howard's government. The 2007 "Little Children are Sacred" report, investigating ways to protect Aboriginal children from sexual abuse, produced 97 recommendations. The Howard government implemented only two of them, and notably went directly against a few of the report's recommendations, including that the response be driven locally. The Intervention was (at least it is claimed) a response to the "Little Children are Sacred" report.

The measures implemented by the Intervention included:

  • The deployment of additional police and military personal to communities deemed affected. While some claim this has lead to some, particularly Aboriginal women, feeling safer, others claim it has lead to increased police harassment and targeting of Aboriginal communities by police.
  • Compulsory health checks for all Aboriginal children in affected areas. These were originally supposed to be only checks to identify children who had been victims of sexual abuse. Concerns were later raised that health checks were only being made available to some children, and that follow up care was poor and inaccessible. Not a single child sexual abuse charge has been laid as a result of investigation following compulsory health checks.
  • The linking of income support and family assistance to school attendance of children for all children living on Aboriginal land. This applies even if there is no school in the community.
  • Bans on alcohol, kava and pornography were implemented in Aboriginal communities. The Australian Sex Party has called on the Australian government to repeal the porn ban, pointing out that it is a racist and offensive assumption that black men are more likely than white men to be prompted by pornography to rape children, and that the porn ban was not a recommendation of the "Little Children are Sacred" report.
  • Compulsory acquisition of townships currently held under the title provisions of the Native Title Act 1993 through five year leases, with no appeal process and exclusive rights over all buildings and properties. This is the portion of the Intervention that lead the loudest accusations of it really being a "land grab", designed to push Indigenous people off of their land so that the government could acquire it. It is worth noting that the majority of Australia's extensive supply of uranium (almost half of the world's supply) is currently found under Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory, making these lands extremely valuable to the Australian government and mining companies.
  • Suspension of the permit system. The permit system that had previously been in place allowed Aboriginal communities to determine who was and wasn't allowed access to their communities, granting them a level of autonomy. The scrapping of the permit system under the guise of "protecting children" ignored the protests of Aboriginal women that much of what sexual assault and abuse does occur in Aboriginal communities often happens at the hands of visiting white men, and that the permit system allows the communities to protect themselves against these predators. Dismantling the permit system in the name of protecting children from sexual abuse made the statement that when sexual abuse occurs in Aboriginal communities, the perpetrators must be Aboriginal men, and that white people must be present in order for those children to be protected, as well as potentially opening the door for white predators to have increased access to vulnerable members of these communities. The permit system has since been partially reinstated, however communities now have government-employed "business managers" who determine who may enter the community.
  • The removal of customary law considerations from bail applications and sentencing within criminal proceedings. Prior to the Intervention, traditional law was sometimes taken into consideration in bail hearings. The Law Council is pushing for this ban to be lifted, and for separate courts to be set in place for some crimes for Indigenous people.
  • Quarantining of 50% of welfare payments to all inhabitants of Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, and 100% of welfare payments to anyone who has been accused of child neglect. This is the element of the Intervention that has been getting the most media attention in recent times. The quarantined money is available only via a "Basic Card", which can be used only at certain stores, and only spent on certain items like food, bills, rent, and childcare. It cannot be exchanged for cash, so can only be used for "official" childcare, meaning people cannot use their funds to pay friends or relatives to look after their children. They are also often unable to buy food from smaller stores, markets, local producers, or each other. They are unable to spend their funds on alcohol, cigarettes, pornography, gambling, or certain other items. They are unable to determine their own budgets. They are unable to devote funds from their welfare payments to their own community-driven projects to combat violence, substance abuse, child abuse and other social ills, despite some of these programs having some success. They are unable to funnel money into community owned assets, such as pooling funds to buy a car or petrol. Some communities have found themselves forced to travel extreme distances to access a store where the Basic Card is accepted. Additionally, only the card holder themselves can use the Basic Card, meaning friends and family members cannot pool together to share shopping responsibilities, which is vital in remote communities with limited transport options. This last factor is taking a lot of people off their lands, as they are driven to larger towns in order to buy food and small and remote local shops are going out of business. The government has marked welfare quarantining as the element of the Intervention that they first plan to export to communities outside the Northern Territory.
  • The abolition of the Community Development Employment Projects, which were a Work for the Dole type scheme (a system under which recipients of certain welfare payments must engage in government-organised work placements in order to continue receiving payments) incorporating a training component. While I generally think that Work for the Dole schemes are exploitative, as they hold welfare payments hostage and force people to work for the government for far below minimum wage, the affected communities were supportive of this one and have expressed anger over its removal. The claim has been made by proponents of Work for the Dole that the schemes provide extra incentive for welfare recipients, and that the training component (which is not an element of every Work for the Dole scheme) further prepares participants for future entry into the workforce.

In case you're wondering why the implementation of reforms that clearly single out a group of people based on their race aren't in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act, the government "cleverly" predicted that problem and suspended the Act at the beginning of the Intervention. When it was reinstated, the government declared that "special measures" applied to the Intervention, as the whole thing had apparently been beneficial to Indigenous Australians, and therefore could not be in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act. Smart. The question of whether Indigenous Australians have actually benefited is apparently not up for discussion and does not, it seems, need to be proven.

And that's kind of the thing: it doesn't seem to be able to be demonstrated that the Intervention has actually helped anyone. No child sex abuse charges have been laid, despite child sex abuse allegedly being the motivation behind the Intervention. The health of Aboriginal children has not been much improved. Aboriginal literacy has not been improved, and with the scrapping of bilingual education, Aboriginal children raised in non-English speaking homes are struggling in school even more than they were before. Under the Intervention, the number of Indigenous people in affected communities who have been incarcerated and convicted as criminals has sky-rocketed. The alcohol and porn bans haven't been shown to be helping anyone or decreasing crime, poverty hasn't been decreased, and outrage against the Basic Card has been widespread. Admittedly, some groups of Aboriginal women have spoken out in favour of the Intervention, saying that the reforms have empowered them to help their communities, but the majority of Aboriginal people who have spoken publicly about the Intervention have expressed their opposition to at least some of the measures.

The end of the primary stage of the Intervention comes early next year and a lot of eyes are on what will be happening next in stage two. The government has announced that the next stage will be preceded by a six week consultation period with Indigenous representatives, aimed at "fine tuning" the reforms. This is in direct contrast to the total lack of consultation with affected communities that occurred in the first part of the Intervention.

In recent times, one of the things I've noticed with the way that the Intervention has been depicted in the media is the way that the focus is always on women. Whether the intention is to highlight perspectives that are in favour of the Intervention or opposed to it, whether the media gaze is on politicians or members of the affected communities, the Intervention is without doubt being framed as a woman's issue. Female politicians (with a few notable male exceptions) argue the respective pros and cons of Intervention policies, Aboriginal women fight to have their voices heard on whether they think the Intervention has hurt or harmed their communities. I'm yet to see, however, a great deal of engagement on the issue from the white Australian feminist media, or analysis from white Australian feminists on how the Intervention is clearly a feminist issue.

This is especially noteworthy when you remember the terms that the Intervention was framed when it began: that it was necessary because Indigenous men were uncontrollable, child-raping savages who must be contained.

The effects of the Intervention on public perceptions of Indigenous people have been devastating. Comment threads on news articles about the topic, or on any article about child abuse in Indigenous communities, will be full of people espousing the view that child abuse is not only endemic in Indigenous communities, but an accepted part of Indigenous culture. We are perceived as not being able to look after our own children. Many seem to support another Stolen Generation, actively stating that Indigenous children should be taken away from their parents and caregivers en masse "for their own good". Needless to say, Aboriginal parents (and particularly those who were Stolen themselves) are terrified.

Indigenous men report debilitating impacts on their group self esteem, that they are perceived by the world in general as predators and low lives, as criminals, and as people who cannot provide for their communities. They say the Intervention has increased racism in their areas and lowered the opinions of white people of Indigenous men. The Intervention was sold to the Australian public as necessary to prevent the sexual abuse of Indigenous children by Indigenous men, which was a lie that was all too easily swallowed. White people living in towns in NT have always been hostile to itinerant Indigenous people; this has reportedly increased as numbers have gone up following the Intervention. Men have been disproportionately affected by the policing aspects of the Intervention, with many reporting that they have been targeted unfairly for over policing and harassment.

The Intervention has been a big issue in Australian politics and media over the past four years, although I'm still occasionally startled by someone saying that they don't know what it is. That doesn't necessarily mean that everyone's informed about it ... most aren't, but that doesn't stop them (us?) from having an opinion. Mine is pretty clearly that the whole thing is a mess. I believe the Intervention was a mistake, driven by paternalistic and racist politics, colonialist ideals and (most probably) a desire for extremely valuable Aboriginal land. I sincerely doubt that the policies of the next stage will change my mind.



If CDEP hasn't been abolished it has certainly been greatly reduced as people who live in the NT like Valerie Martin from Yuendumu stated last week at a talk in Melbourne.

Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP)

Hi Hexy, just wanted to clarify that the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) has not been abolished and more information can be found below:


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