In the early hours of June 29, the Australian Senate passed legislation that is expected to entrench assimilation, disadvantage and racism for another decade in the Northern Territory.
Aboriginal leaders across the NT declared a period of mourning after the new laws – called Stronger Futures – were passed as they reel from the decision, take stock and plan to up the ante in their fight against the latest neoliberal assault on their communities.
Stronger Futures replaces the widely hated NT Emergency Response (NTER, or the “intervention”). The intervention, launched by the then-Coalition government in 2007, expired in June.
The Labor government held “community consultations” last year, supposedly welcoming input into the new laws from those who would be affected. But the wishes of the people were ignored.
Labor has extended and strengthened the more hated aspects of the intervention, and added a few racist gems of its own, for good measure.
The Stronger Futures package links welfare to school attendance, so parents of children who fail to meet attendance benchmarks risk having their payments cut.
Rather than an approach that would see whole communities re-engage with the education process – such as reintroducing bilingual education – this policy will punish parents and hurt children.
The government’s own evaluation of a trial of this scheme, the School Enrolment and Attendance Reform Measure, found “preliminary results suggest income support suspensions had no impact on improving school attendance”.
The government said the rules law will apply to everyone, but the locations of the scheme tell a different story: Aboriginal communities, and towns with high Aboriginal populations, are the target.
The laws also introduce tough new alcohol restrictions. People caught with up to 1.35 litres of pure alcohol face six months jail; for more than 1.35 litres, this rises to 18 months or a $90,440 fine.
Aboriginal people want to know why they face such harsh penalties for something that is recognised as an NT-wide social issue. They also fear this will simply lead to more family breakdown, which they say is a consequence of high imprisonment rates for their people.
The new intervention will also prevent customary law from being considered by a court during sentencing and bail hearings. The Aboriginal Peak Organisations NT said customary law “has never been a defence to violent crimes”. But prohibiting courts from considering customary law “distorts ordinary and well-established principles for setting fair sentences. It prevents courts from taking into account all relevant factors when sentencing Aboriginal people”.
Compulsory five-year leases, forced on communities as part of the NTER, expire in August. Stronger Futures will, in effect, blackmail communities into signing “voluntary” long-term leases, by linking them to further funding for houses and other development.
Criticism of Stronger Futures in the lead-up to its passing was impressive in its strength and breadth.
The Yolŋu Nations Assembly statement, calling for a complete withdrawal of the legislation, was backed up by supporting statements from more than 60 organisations, ranging from the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) and the Australian Medical Association to religious organisations, Aboriginal organisations and activist groups.
It was widely understood that Labor would need to get the legislation through in time for the new financial year. So the Senate’s sitting fortnight – the last two weeks in June – was a tense one: on June 18, the Stand for Freedom campaign took a petition to parliament. Forty-three thousand Australians called on senators to reject Stronger Futures.
Pressure mounted on Attorney-General Nicola Roxon to refer the laws to the parliamentary human rights committee.
But all these protests fell on deaf ears.
A host of Greens’ amendments, seeking to remove the most harmful aspects of the bill, were ignored by Labor and the Coalition. The Greens did lock in a minor concession – the decade-long policy package will now be reviewed after three, not seven, years.
So, what can we expect, now that “stolen futures” has become a reality? The ALA has predicted Aboriginal imprisonment rates – already higher than those seen during apartheid South Africa – would worsen under Stronger Futures .
The ALA said on June 29: “The Federal Government’s recklessness in pushing through parliament … racist legislation, that sets the rights of Indigenous people in the Northern Territory back decades, will not go unchallenged.”
Uniting Church Reverend Alistair Macrae said: “Today we join Indigenous Australians in mourning another lost opportunity for true reconciliation. By the time these laws are wound back, I fear a future Government will have to make another Apology.”
Yolŋu Nations Assembly spokesperson Dr Djiniyini Gondarra has called on organisations across the country to lower the Aboriginal flag to half mast, as a symbol of mourning in the wake of the Senate vote.
But even as they mourn, leaders across NT communities are regrouping, meeting and planning the next stages of the campaign. In a video address to supporters on July 2, Gondarra vowed the fight would continue.
“We will not stop fighting,” he said. “We will not give up… [The government] should have been very, very careful of doing this to their First People ... We will continue to fight, for our rights, for our freedom.”
Speaking to Green Left Weekly about the issue of supposed voluntary leasing, George Pascoe from Maningrida said: “It’s our land, we own it. The land is our intellectual property, inherited from our forefathers. If they want a voluntary lease, we want a treaty.”
In Bankstown, NSW – and in four other selected areas across Australia – the new financial year has meant the roll-out of compulsory income management, which was a key part on the NTER.
The Bankstown Say No to Income Management campaign has brought together a strong coalition of community groups, unions, religious organisations and others. The campaign has drawn strong links between the local issue and Stronger Futures.
One thing we know from the history of Aboriginal resistance is that the fight in the NT will continue, in new and creative ways. A strong, nationwide solidarity campaign is as needed as it ever was: in the coming weeks and months we must be ready to support initiatives as the battle-weary but fiercely determined leadership in Aboriginal communities draws on its strength and longevity and plans its next moves.
Dr Djiniyini Gondarra's address: