Amnesty International has launched a campaign to revoke the Northern Territory intervention that discriminates against Indigenous communities, as the Australian government tries to justify its continuation to the United Nations (UN).
On August 5, Amnesty said: “Over three years, the Northern Territory Emergency Response has taken away many rights from Aboriginal communities.”
It urged people to email the leaders of Australia’s major political parties to “demand that, regardless of the election outcome, the Australian Government must respect the rights of Indigenous people”.
Amnesty’s concerns are not new. In an August 28, 2009 statement posted at Amnesty.org.au, the human rights group said it was “urging the Federal Government to immediately end discriminatory practices in the Northern Territory, after a visiting UN expert declared the intervention into Indigenous communities incompatible with Australia’s international human rights obligations”.
On August 10, a UN panel began an investigation to determine if the NT intervention was in breach of the international convention on racial discrimination.
Amnesty said it was sending a delegation to the UN to “let the international community” hear the stories of Indigenous people suffering under the intervention.
The NT intervention was introduced in 2007 by the Coalition government of then-PM John Howard. Sold as a way to reduce a child abuse and neglect in remote Aboriginal communities in the NT, the intervention imposed punitive measure on 73 communities.
The policies required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act and included the compulsory leasing of Aboriginal land, widespread alcohol and pornography bans and a policy known as “welfare quarantining”.
It’s this final policy that the ALP is trying to prove is not racially discriminatory and that Amnesty’s campaign is focused on. “Welfare quarantining” places 50% of welfare recipients’ pay on a card that can only be used for food, clothing and medical supplies.
This policy even covers welfare payments to Indigenous people who are forced to work for their benefits, such as Work for the Dole projects.
This has led to some Aboriginal people being forced to work in local consrtuction projects with half their pay “quarantined”.
On June 22, the ALP amended the policy, with Coalition support, so that it could be extended beyond Aboriginal communities in the NT. The laws allow the policy to be brought into any disadvantaged area in Australia after June 2011.
This is being used by the ALP to argue the policy is no longer racist. But critics of the policy have said that the changes would continue to discriminate against Aboriginal people.
The March 29 Age reported that former chief justice of the Family Court Alastair Nicholson had slammed the intervention’s extension. He said: “This is disgraceful legislation ... perpetuates paternalism and racial discrimination inherent in the intervention.”
Amnesty’s campaign against the intervention uses the story of Ampilatwatja elder Frankie Holmes Kemarr, who worked all his life as a drover and fencer in the NT’s mid-century booming cattle industry.
He was often paid only in rations, until the 1975 equal pay decision forced the cattle industry to pay real wages to its Indigenous workers.
His pension is now quarantined and he said it was a return to the ration days. “We’re going backwards”, Holmes Kemar said in an August 5 post on Amnesty.org.au.
Under the intervention, the government has failed to deal with overcrowding in remote Aboriginal housing, despite this being one of its stated aims.
In Santa Teresa, an Aboriginal township 80 kilometres outside of Alice Springs, the federal government has supposedly completed upgrading houses and making repairs. However, residents say the repairs are inadequate and, in some cases, have actually made the houses worse.
Residents told the August 11 Centralian Advocate that builders removed old air conditioning units without replacing them and tore up old floors to replace them with bare concrete. This was at an average cost of $75,000 per house.
A resident gave her name as Mrs Williams, who said: “On a forty degree day we have no airconditioning. They took out all the airconditioners and chucked them in the dump or left it by the side of the house.”
“Everyone's got that problem, they've got toilet blockage, the water doesn't go down the drain in the shower, it runs out everywhere.
“The work they've done wasn't done properly.”
As with many issues in the federal election campaign, there was little to differentiate the two parties on Indigenous rights.
In a rare show of honesty, AAP reported Coalition leader Tony Abbott said on August 11: “There has been a large measure of agreement [between Labor and the Coalition on Indigenous issues], at least at the level of aspiration, on this issue for many years now ..."
Labor has said it supports amending the Australian constitution to recognise Aboriginal Australians in the preamble. If this sounds familiar, it is because it was an election promise made by the Howard government in the 2007 federal election campaign — a promise Labor said it would consider in its first term.
Changes to the constitution to reflect and honour Aboriginal Australians may be a symbolic step forward, but without action to end racist policies, it would be a hollow gesture.