Aboriginal refugees flee NT intervention

May 10, 2008

While Mount Isa welfare organisations are alarmed about not being able to provide for the large influx of Aboriginal people who have fled the federal government's Northern Territory intervention, the government is looking to expand this racist bipartisan policy.

Christine Buckland, manager of the Mount Isa Family Support Services and Neighbourhood Centre, told the May 1 Brisbane Courier Mail that 200 Territorians had arrived in Mt Isa since the intervention began last June.

While the federal Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin acknowledged the strain on welfare agencies and proposed emergency funding to those in Mt Isa she failed to acknowledge the source of the problem.

The migration of Aborigines from the NT reveals the unpopularity of the intervention which began under the former Howard Coalition government and has been continued under the ALP.

The intervention was launched, ostensibly, in response to reports of increased child neglect and abuse in remote NT Aboriginal townships. The Little Children are Sacred report linked the endemic cases of poverty, overcrowding and lack of access to health and education infrastructure as the key cause of abuse and neglect.

It also called for a massive increase in funding for housing, health and education, as well as community-based delivery of these services, as critical to combating abuse and neglect — recommendations that have been ignored. The report also noted many success stories where community-controlled programs in these areas had caused a dramatic improvement in all areas of child welfare. The Howard government chose not to implement these proposals.

Instead, the intervention targeted all residents in a number of Aboriginal communities, set up widespread alcohol bans and replaced 50% of welfare payments made to all residents with gift cards that could only be used at major retailers and only be spent on food and clothing. This system is referred to as "welfare quarantining". Shamefully, the intervention legislation required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Immediately after Howard announced the intervention reports emerged from some of the targeted communities that people were fleeing to other areas, fearing a repeat of a former policy of taking children away from their parents. Approximately one in 10 Aboriginal children were removed from their parents and the Stolen Generations are still fighting for compensation.

While the Rudd government has apologised to the Stolen Generations, it offered no material compensation and it has continued its predecessor's NT intervention except for restoring limited Aboriginal control over entry to Aboriginal communities and restoring the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP).

In another dodge the ALP has set up a Senate inquiry into the effects and effectiveness of the intervention. But even while this is happening Coalition MPs Tony Abbot and Brendon Nelson want to extend the intervention to South Australia, and NSW Premier Morris Iemma wants extensive alcohol restrictions in NSW Aboriginal communities.

A welfare quarantine system will begin in July in four Cape York Aboriginal communities with the support of Noel Pearson, and some areas of the Kimberly have been included in the intervention.

Aboriginal people across the country have spoken out against the intervention. A delegation of 40 people are campaigning at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York for support for the repeal of the NT intervention law, and for the policies proposed in Little Children to be implemented.

Les Malezer, a leader of the delegation, told AAP on April 18 that it was intolerable that the Racial Discrimination Act has been suspended "so Aboriginal people in Australia can be discriminated against just as much as we were 50 years ago".

Sol Bellear, another delegate, told the UN forum that there has been a 30% increase in the Aboriginal population of Darwin since the intervention began, as well as an increase in fringe dwellers in town camps.

This is because "many people cannot afford to return home after being forced to use certain supermarket chains in the larger towns and cities", the National Aboriginal Alliance chair said.

Bellear argued that Aboriginal people should be entitled to access to health care and services as a right, without this being dependent on compliance with the NT intervention — as is currently the case.

Barbara Shaw, a resident of the Mt Nancy town camp, one of the communities affected by the intervention, is also a member of the delegation to the UN. She will be giving a first-hand report at the "Black and White Unite" conference in Sydney on May 24-25. The conference is being organised by the Aboriginal Rights Coalition to build greater opposition to the NT intervention (see article on page 7 for details).

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