New legislation introduced by the federal Labor government will entrench many aspects of the Northern Territory Emergency Response, the NT intervention, for 10 years.
The Senate Community Affairs References Committee released the findings of its inquiry into the Stronger Futures in the NT Bill and related legislation on March 13. It suggests some minor amendments, but leaves the substantive content of the bill unchallenged.
Intervention laws were made explicitly for people living in remote NT Aboriginal communities and town camps, and included a host of punitive measures that were widely reported and criticised.
The Stronger Futures bill was passed in the lower house two weeks before the Senate committee released its report. If passed by the Senate, it would extend key aspects of the intervention, such as punitive alcohol restrictions, income management, and "Star Chamber" powers in Aboriginal communities, which would allow police to lock up uncooperative witnesses.
Authorities would cut welfare payments to parents whose children did not regularly attend school. It would also increase the penalty for bringing alcohol into a prescribed area to six to 15 months in jail.
Both changes mostly punish Aboriginal people and do little to address problems with school attendance and alcohol-related issues.
Last year, the federal government held "consultations" with affected Aboriginal communities. The intervention laws were due to expire in August and the consultations were supposedly designed to get feedback on the government's replacement laws.
But the actual measures in Stronger Futures were not available during the consultation. Instead, Aboriginal people widely criticised the intervention and demanded a more respectful approach and control over their affairs.
The Senate committee noted widespread frustration with the consultation, and made recommendations for future improvements. However, it largely ignored the content of the consultations.
If the entire consultation process on which the bill is based was flawed, the committee should recommend its withdrawal. This would be in keeping with calls from Aboriginal people and many submissions put to the committee inquiry.
Self-harm and suicide has doubled since the intervention began. School attendance has dropped and reports of violence on Aboriginal communities have climbed. Aboriginal imprisonment rates have risen 40%.
ABC Radio asked minister for Aboriginal affairs Jenny Macklin on March 13 if these statistics meant that the intervention had failed. She said it "demonstrates just how entrenched problems are".
Macklin was then asked if she thought there had been adequate consultation about the extension of the laws.
"There were around a hundred meetings that took place," she said. "They were very important to me, and very important to the Aboriginal people who were talking with me.”
But Macklin's Stronger Futures bill suggests those meetings were not important enough for her to remember the content. Or maybe she just didn't care.
Listening But Not Hearing, a recently released report by Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning analysing the consultation process, said: "The Government's purported reliance upon the Stronger Futures consultations as informing the content of the legislation is either deeply misguided or deceitful.”
Greens Senator Rachel Siewert sat on the Senate committee, and prepared a dissenting report to the official inquiry report.
She said on March 13: "There is an overwhelming sense ... that the approach taken in both the intervention and Stronger Futures undermines and disempowers Aboriginal people and their communities.
"The intervention also erodes community governance, entrenches punitive welfare measures and harsh punishments for relatively minor infractions and funnels money into surveillance and control rather than rehabilitation or education.”
Online campaign StandforFreedom.org.au has collected 30,000 petition signatures demanding the withdrawal of Stronger Futures, since it was launched last month.
In a powerful YouTube clip launching the campaign, Yolngu artist and scholar Dhalulu Ganambarr-Stubbs, from Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land, said: “If policies are ever going to work for my people, we have to be involved in creating them.
"We have been asking for so long that our own elected leaders be listened to. That our langauges and culture be incorporated into the teaching of our children. That we be supported to live and thrive on our own homelands. And that we are given the human rights to control our own futures.”