Indigenous doctors: intervention a health hazard

September 20, 2008

In the lead-up to the release of a report from the federal government's review into the Northern Territory intervention, the Australian Indigenous Doctors' Association has blasted the policy. AIDA describes it as discriminatory, damaging to people's health and completely unable to alter conditions of child abuse or neglect in remote Aboriginal communities.

The intervention was announced in July 2007 and targeted all residents in a number of Aboriginal communities, enforced widespread alcohol bans and replaced 50% of recipients' welfare payments with vouchers that could only be used at certain stores 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.

AIDA represents Indigenous doctors from across Australia. Its 20-page submission to the NT Emergency Response Review Board included details of a number of its members who were advisors and administrators of the policy. However all the evidence it has uncovered has been damning, with no reports of improvements in any aspect of Aboriginal life 12 months after the policy was introduced.

The NT intervention set no benchmarks for success, but simply followed a one-size-fits-all approach. Communities had the laws imposed upon them with little or no opportunity for input into how they would be administered.

At first, some people fled from the town camps into the bush. Many were confused about what would happen, all they knew was that police and soldiers were coming to "intervene" into their communities. One community member told AIDA: "If the intervention continues people might go back to the outstations, eat bush food and die out there — but making their own decisions."

The AIDA report described Aboriginal communities' reaction to the intervention as "shock trauma", and from then things only got worse.

"Welfare quarantining" was described by the report as having a severely detrimental effect on physical and emotional health. Older victims described the intervention as a return to the "old days" of paternalism and ration stores administered by the white boss.

Fresh food, already very expensive in remote communities, became much harder to get as food cards could only be used in certain areas. "Can't use food cards in other communities — when we go to another community we need to pay $6 for a new one to use there", one person said.

Many of those interviewed spoke of inefficiencies with the voucher system: it was poorly planned, with people having to travel long distances to stores where the cards could be used, clocking up large fares for the taxi trip. Due to technical errors, many cards had no money on them and were only discovered as useless after hours of travel.

As one man said: "Self and family starving. We have no help and no support. We're not allowed to share. The new laws have been very difficult to understand — the deductions from our pension money and the food card. The card isn't always working either. There are deductions for school and other income management and money from pension for aged care e.g. meals on wheels."

By breaking down what was often collectively pooled money into individual cards, the intervention has begun to break down communities. One interviewee said that the situation was bad: "No money coming — have no cash money. Need money for ceremony, for travel, clothes, sometimes for say a coffin. Used to be able to pool money to enable people to take part in ceremony, but now we can't because the money is in separate accounts and we don't get it in cash. Money is scarce but still have … cultural responsibilities, funeral, ceremony, aged care".

The common practice of pooling money for large expenses such as funerals is much harder now. Many people are worried they won't be able to bury relatives with due ceremony.

The report also argued that the policy was inherently discriminatory. "[Non-Indigenous people] have the same issues … gambling, abuse, violence but they are not subject to the same controls", argued one community member.

Other aspects of the intervention also came under fire from AIDA, particularly the focus on health checks. The report argued that the health checks for every Aboriginal child in the NT, a much-lauded part of the intervention, were already occurring as part of standard medical practice. Initial threats of cutting welfare to parents who refused to have their children checked only made them less likely to access medical services.

According to the report, the intervention simply spent money, which could have funded follow-up care services, on something that had already been in place. This was an unacceptable waste.

The report noted that, despite prioritising the improvement of community housing in the NT as a major part of tackling child abuse and neglect, not one new house has been built for remote Aboriginal communities as a result of the policy.

The institution of widespread alcohol bans has also led to anger in Aboriginal communities and the ways in which the ban is enforced have lead to greater mistrust towards police. Residents told of instances where police entered people's homes to remove alcohol, leading to confrontations and police arresting residents for verbal abuse. There was noted concern that the widespread bans led to people moving to other illicit and more dangerous drugs — which did nothing to curb abuse or improve health.

The report is one of many that have gone to the review committee, which is set to release its findings at the end of September. Protests are being planned to coincide with the release (see calendar on page 23 for details), demanding the immediate repeal of the intervention legislation and reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act. Until these demands are won, the Rudd Labor government must be condemned for continuing the racist policies of the previous Coalition government.

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