The Socialist Alliance released the statement below on November 25.
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The federal government, through its “Stronger Futures” bill and associated legislation, seeks to lock in “intervention mark II” — for 10 years.
Far from being the end of the Northern Territory Emergency Response (as the NT intervention legislation, due to expire in June next year, is officially known), the government plans to force paternalistic, controlling and assimilationist policies on to NT Aboriginal people for a decade — twice as long as the original intervention introduced by the Howard Coalition government in 2007.
Again and again the Labor government is whitewashing Aboriginal voices, riding roughshod over communities and ignoring evidence.
The new bill targets communities already traumatised and angered by the intervention. To add insult to injury, when Aboriginal affairs minister Jenny Macklin announced the new Stronger Futures legislation on November 21, she said the policy was informed by her government’s “consultation” with Aboriginal people. “At the heart of this work will be the views of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory,” she said.
Between June and August, the federal government held “consultations” with communities across the NT, supposedly to hear people’s ideas for “stronger futures in the NT”: ideas to shape policy that would replace the intervention next year.
These consultations were widely condemned by independent observers who studied transcripts of some of the meetings. The agendas were tightly controlled by government facilitators. None of the government’s current proposals were outlined in the consultations.
According to many people who were there and others who have studied independent transcripts of the meetings, the government’s report of the consultations is a complete misrepresentation. For example, as part of discussions about education and school attendance, many people demanded the return of bilingual education into the school system. The government report merely mentions in passing there were “mixed views on bilingual education”.
All the Stronger Futures bill has to offer Aboriginal school children and their families is a punitive scheme that will see parents cut off welfare if their kids miss too many school days.
It’s time to ask why Aboriginal students feel discouraged about going to school. It’s time to listen to communities’ demands for bilingual, culturally appropriate education that invites more participation by elders and parents.
A key demand during the consultation period was for real jobs for Aboriginal people, in their communities, with real pay.
Even Macklin acknowledged this: “A very clear message … was that Aboriginal people wanted to work in regular jobs in their communities, with proper wages and conditions.”
Despite this, all the government has come up with in terms of job creation is 50 new ranger positions throughout the entire NT. This is pathetic. It won’t even cover all the current job seekers in one average-sized community, let alone the Community Development Employment Project (CDEP) participants who stand to become unemployed next year if the government plan to dismantle CDEP goes ahead.
There are many other details in the Stronger Futures bill that can and should be scrutinised and criticised. For example, alcohol and "sexually explicit material" will remain banned in communities, "star chamber" powers will continue for the Australian Crime Commission, and employees of selected government agencies will be able to refer people onto income management.
This policy should be seen in the context of a broader government direction started under the Coalition and continued under Labor. The focus is on assimilation, ending Aboriginal community control, attacking linguistic and cultural diversity and centralising funding and services in “hub towns” at the expense of smaller communities and homelands.
It keeps with the Council of Australian government’s “Closing the Gap” initiative. Many of the strategy documents released under the Closing the Gap umbrella read like a manual for turning Aboriginal people into lower-class white Australians: there is no recognition, let alone valuing, of Aboriginal language, culture, history or land rights. The focus is on “economic participation” (but only in the “hub towns”), home ownership, punitive welfare reform and “personal responsibility”, and mainstream, education in English.
The NT intervention led to a worsening in many social indicators among NT Aboriginal communities, such as imprisonment rates and self-harm. Yet the Labor government, ignoring the evidence, wants to continue and strengthen the same approach until at least 2022.
The federal government’s Stronger Futures bill must be overturned. The government must recognise the pain and trauma Aboriginal people live with from the legacy of more than 200 years of racism and dispossession. This bill shows that racism and the drive to dispossess Aboriginal people continues to inform government policy.
There can be no reconciliation without justice, and there can be no justice without giving power and respect back to Aboriginal communities and homelands, empowering and resourcing them to make decisions and control their own affairs.