As 2000 Aboriginal people and their supporters gathered at the 40th anniversary celebrations of the Tent Embassy in Canberra, Coalition leader Tony Abbott said: “I can understand why the Tent Embassy was established all those years ago. I think a lot has changed for the better since then… I think it probably is time to move on from that.”
Through all the media hype over the so-called riot his comments supposedly caused, it could be easy to forget the many reasons Aboriginal people have to protest, 40 years on. Government inaction and destructive government policy leading to ongoing injustices has been sorely missing from mainstream commentary.
The take-home message seemed to be that dangerous black mobs were threatening Abbott and Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s safety, but luckily they were rescued by quick-thinking, heroic security personnel.
For those of us in the Northern Territory, watching the health, safety and wellbeing of Aboriginal friends, colleagues and family deteriorate as a result of government policy, it was sickening to watch.
Just days after Abbott’s comments, on January 31, the Productivity Commission released the 2012 Report on Government Services. The report said: “Indigenous families across Australia have been found to experience high levels of violence, compared with non-Indigenous families.”
In the NT, the report said studies showed risk factors for Aboriginal communities included “lack of adequate housing, financial security, and education”.
The report found: “The rate of children in out-of-home care per 1000 children in the target population aged 0–17 years was 51.7 for Indigenous children [nationally] and 5.1 for non-Indigenous children.” That is, Aboriginal children are 10 times more likely to be in out-of-home care.
The 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Response Legislation (NTER, commonly known as the intervention) purported to address the issue of child abuse and neglect in Aboriginal communities.
But none of the risk factors have been addressed by the federal government in the almost five years since the intervention started. In fact, key indicators are getting worse.
Aboriginal people say the intervention has taken away what little control they had ― community safety initiatives have been all but gutted.
Last year, the government-commissioned Community Safety and Wellbeing Research Study looked at NT community perceptions of safety since the intervention.
The study yielded interesting results. Raw data seemed to suggest almost three quarters of respondents thought safety had improved, but “the perception of safety decreases as the population of the community increases”.
And yet NT and federal governments, through the COAG "Closing the Gap" initiative, are withdrawing funding from smaller communities and homelands and centralising services on larger “hub towns”.
Only 58.7% of study participants found “their own lives were on the ‘way up’”. Less than half thought their communities were improving. Almost half reported no change or a worsening, and identified overcrowded housing, family fighting about the intervention and loss of community councils and community control as being the main negative factors.
Aboriginal people still die about a decade earlier than non-Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people are still jailed 14.3 times more than non-Aboriginal people. ABC’s AM said on February 9 that Aboriginal youths are 20 times as likely to be detained before sentencing as non-Aboriginal youths and 26 times as likely to be jailed after sentencing.
These are national statistics, but rates in the NT are higher than anywhere else in the country. ABC Online
said on February 10 that a new report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare said “the rate of young Territorians being held on remand is more than twice the national rate, and 90 per cent of those affected are Indigenous”.
Similarly the life expectancy gap is also wider in the NT, where Aboriginal people can expect to die 14 years earlier than non-Aboriginal people.
The NT intervention has done nothing to address this ― in fact rates of Aboriginal incarceration have increased by 40% since it was introduced.
On the February 7 ABC AM, the National Children's and Youth Law Centre said detention was overused because there was a lack of community services to house young people awaiting trial. For young Aboriginal people, detention was the norm, not a last resort.
These statistics hardly paint a rosy picture. But, with support from Abbott’s “opposition”, Labor has sought to entrench many of the more punitive, discriminatory measures in the intervention laws for another decade.
The proposed Stronger Futures in the NT Bill is set to be debated in parliament this month. All the ineffective, blame-shifting, dog-whistling, Australians have become accustomed to through the almost five years of the intervention have been transferred into Stronger Futures.
Tough alcohol restrictions under the intervention will be even more punitive: those carrying alcohol into a prescribed community could face six-to-18 months’ jail.
The new laws would also stop judges from considering customary law when making judgments, despite customary law and circle sentencing being identified as an effective way to reduce re-offending.
Welfare cuts to parents whose children do not attend school will be extended, even though the trial of the policy was followed by a drop in school attendance.
Deaths in custody
On February 7, the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) said the new laws were discriminatory and would mean more Aboriginal people in jail. Aboriginal people now make up a quarter of all inmates across the country. And, tragically, they are still dying while detained. On average 13, Aboriginal prisoners have died each year since 1980.
The most recent of these was young Alice Springs man Terrance Briscoe. On January 4, he was arrested in Alice Springs and found dead in his cell at 2am the next morning. Witnesses allege that four officers held him down and sat and knelt on him until he could not breathe before taking him to his cell. The witnesses also claimed police laughed as they did this.
ALA president Greg Barnes said: “Stronger Futures is obvious spin. The authors are dressing existing damaging Northern Territory intervention legislation in different policy guise to make it more marketable."
In their submission to the Stronger Futures Senate inquiry, a group of Yolngu elders said:
“We are the land holders in our communities. It is our land, it is our community and it is subject to our law. We will not be assimilated by these policies. We choose self-determination.”