Aboriginal leader: ‘We need to make communities viable again’

May 13, 2011
Photo: Ella Ryan

Coalition leader Tony Abbott wrote to PM Julia Gillard in March calling for a bipartisan approach to Aboriginal issues and a “second intervention” in the Northern Territory. He flew to Alice Springs in late April to further these calls.

June will mark four years since former PM John Howard launched the Northern Territory Emergency Response — or NT intervention.

Allegedly a response to child abuse in Aboriginal communities, the intervention stole Aboriginal land; dismantled Aboriginal employment schemes and Aboriginal-run community services; and quarantined a proportion of Centrelink payments for Aboriginal people onto a “Basics Card”, restricting purchases to certain stores and goods.

After its election in late 2007, Labor expanded the policy. On April 15, Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin indicated the federal government may extend the intervention beyond the legislation’s expiry in August next year.

Labor’s May 11 budget announced the expansion of welfare quarantining to five regions outside the NT.

Barbara Shaw, a town camp leader from Alice Springs and member of the Intervention Rollback Action Group, spoke to Green Left Weekly on May 9. She said the current intervention hasn’t worked, so “why have another one?”

“Abbott didn’t help the first time when he was in power with John Howard and [former Indigenous affairs minister] Mal Brough, so how can he help now?”

Shaw says through her own experience as a mother of two, hearing stories and observations from people who travel out to the communities, and seeing the influx of people into the town camps, she “can’t see how it’s gotten any better for women and children” under the intervention.

Shaw, who travelled to New York on May 12 to attend the 10th UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, said the intervention has been a “waste of time and waste of money”. Those resources should have been used “to allow Aboriginal people to get on with their lives and solve their problems themselves”.

A pretext for the intervention was the Little Children are Sacred report, commissioned by the NT government in 2006 to investigate child abuse.

In a speech to the Coalition for Research to Improve Aboriginal Health conference in Sydney on May 4, co-author of the report and Lowitja Institute chairperson Pat Anderson concluded that “the future of Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory is not being protected by the intervention: it is being further undermined”.

Anderson explained how the intervention took the opposite approach to the recommendations in the Little Children are Sacred report: “Where we emphasised the need for resources and for flexible processes of engagement with Aboriginal families and communities, the intervention emphasised external control and ‘blanket’ provisions affecting all Aboriginal people.”

Abbott’s proposal for a second intervention in Alice Springs and other major centres in the NT would deepen this approach, with more draconian measures that will further punish Aboriginal people.

A second intervention should be led by a military figure, Abbott told The Age on April 30, because, “There’s something about the military.” This presumably refers to its ability to intimidate people into submission.

His other proposals include extending compulsory work for the dole for Aboriginal people, with payments cut for non-compliance; fines for parents whose children fail to attend school; more police, who would round up kids in the mornings to force them to attend school; and rigid enforcement of alcohol restrictions. Abbott has also flagged curfews for young people.

Shaw said previous increases in police numbers haven’t helped, because police are generally “very ignorant of social issues that affect Aboriginal people here”.

The role of police in prescribed areas under the intervention is to enforce apartheid policies.

Shaw told GLW that if she wants to buy wine or a six-pack of beer to enjoy with friends (as countless people across Australia do every day), she’s not allowed to bring it back to her own home to drink. “Or there could be police outside the bottle shop ready to take it from me.”

She contrasted the imposition of such restrictions to measures supported by Aboriginal people that take a “community approach and get people involved”.

Shaw, herself subjected to the Basics Card, said forcing Aboriginal people to work for the dole has made them feel “worthless”.

She explained that under the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) before the intervention: “There was a lot of work, people were paid money, all the people worked. Now, you go to a community and no-one works because they don’t want to work for the dole. And they have to work for Centrelink payments with half going on the Basics Card.”

A petition sponsored by Unions NT and the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union is demanding justice for Aboriginal workers who were paid the dole (half of which was quarantined on the Basics Card) for working on the $672 million Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP).

The petition, which will be presented to parliament by Greens Senator Rachel Siewert, calls for full back pay of award wages plus interest.

Marilyn Dixon, who worked on a SIHIP project in Amoonguna renovating houses and an old community clinic, said on May 5: “I was working with a team of ladies from 8am-3pm each day. We were cleaning, stripping paint, painting floors, moving furniture, removing old kitchens. I thought we would be getting good pay, but they kept me on the Basics Card.”

Abbott criticised welfare quarantining, but not because it’s unjust. He just thinks it’s “cumbersome”.

According to the April 29 Australian, Abbott said: “My suspicion is that the bureaucracy required to get people’s payments quarantined on the basis of truancy would be such that it would be much simpler just to fine them.”

Abbott has said the intervention has been too “top heavy” and that more “consultation” with Aboriginal leaders is required. But like the government, Abbott’s consultation only involves the few Aboriginal figures who support the intervention.

“The people he talks about don’t live in prescribed areas, they’re not affected by the intervention,” Shaw said.

In her speech, Anderson attacked the government’s approach of blaming Aboriginal people for poor living conditions. She said policies should be based on “empowerment and inclusion rather than imposed solutions and paternalism”.

This attitude is evident in the latest government progress report on Indigenous policies, Closing the Gap — Prime Minister's Report 2011. Under a section misnamed “A partnership approach”, Gillard outlined the need for Aboriginal people and communities to “take responsibility to promote positive norms and social behaviours to create lasting change”.

The government, she claims, supports this process through “non-discriminatory welfare payment reform” to “encourage” welfare recipients to “take responsibility for themselves and their families”. Punitive measures and curtailment of rights are dressed up as “encouragement”.

Anderson said the government had failed to recognise “what had been achieved in some places, or of a history of attempts by Aboriginal people and organisations to tackle the complex health and social issues in their communities”.

The government instead forced Aboriginal people to “be the passive recipients of non-Aboriginal ‘help’.

“This has left many Aboriginal people marginalised from the decision-making processes in their own communities. It adds to the sense of disempowerment and stress that many already feel … And we know that this diminished sense of control and increased stress will lead to poorer health and social outcomes in the future.”

Shaw highlighted the combined impact of the intervention and local government reforms in radically undermining Aboriginal communities.

The NT government abolished Indigenous Community Councils, amalgamating them into nine super shires. The focus “on 20 town hubs in the NT set up to be smaller towns” means that “they get services, while others are financially drained out until people are forced to leave”.

The NT and federal government attacks together “took all the self-control, decision making and empowerment away from people”, she said.

IRAG has been working on alternatives to address these issues, gathering people’s ideas about how to make the communities viable again.

“And that doesn’t just mean go into mining,” she said. It means setting up “agriculture and tourism and farming.

“We need to start trading among communities, especially among us Territorians, because our main food source is from interstate.”


The role of police in prescribed areas under the intervention is to enforce apartheid policies. So why does CAAC exist? Rancid apartheid. Close it down.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.