Since beginning its first parliamentary term with the symbolic apology to the Stolen Generations, the Rudd Labor government has promised a shift away from the hostility towards Indigenous Australians shown by the previous Howard government.
In particular it has pledged to prioritise closing the gap in living standards between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, exemplified by the 17-year difference in life expectancy. Rudd and Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin have touted the announcement in the May 13 budget of $1.2 billion to be spent over five years on Aboriginal affairs as a move to fulfill this promise.
However, not only have Indigenous organisations and service providers pointed out that this figure is insufficient, but almost a third is budgeted to continuing the federal intervention in the Northern Territory, initiated under Howard, whose draconian measures have actually increased Indigenous disadvantage. Furthermore, the government is expanding the scope of one of the more destructive aspects of the intervention: "income management" — a euphemism for replacing a proportion of people's welfare payments with ration cards.
Pat Eatock, an Indigenous elder and activist in the Aboriginal Rights Coalition (ARC) in Sydney, told Green Left Weekly that the system was being extended both beyond the NT and to non-Indigenous parents on welfare, with welfare organisations having the power to recommend people be subject to it without any right of appeal. The East Kimberley and the Perth suburb of Cannington will be the trial location for the expansion.
Eatock recently visited the NT, meeting with Indigenous communities and organisations, health and legal service providers and the NT branch of ARC to investigate the effects of the intervention. She explained what "income management" means in practice.
"The 'income management' is the provision of three cards which allow one to shop in Woolworths, K-Mart or Coles. Initially people would travel up to 300km to collect their cards then return straight home to their communities and take the cards to the community store only to be told that they couldn't use them — they could only be used at the three designated [shops]."
These cards will be replaced by electronic debit cards, also only usable at selected shops, under the foreshadowed expansion of the system.
The negative impact is not only on individuals but on the economic and social fabric of remote Aboriginal communities.
"The community stores, which, while in the past were often not very well developed in terms of providing a diversity of food products, nonetheless did serve a key service in the community. While they could have been improved, [there are] better methods than taking their customers away. Now they are going bankrupt.
"Before the intervention, the community stores, as a community service owned by the community, were non-profit organisations whose profits were the main way funerals were funded. So now, all over the NT, you've got bodies stacking up … There's an average of about a death a week in any of the larger communities. And the bodies are stacking up because nobody can afford the cash donations. The extended families can't," she said.
"The other main effect of the card system is that people are going into town. Now if you're getting more than 50% of peoples' Centrelink entitlements being redirected through Centrelink, then the remaining 50% is needed for rent (which is automatically deducted), power and buying other essentials such as medicine. Everyone knows that a pension is not very much and by the time you've paid for all of that you're lucky if you've got $10 to your name. When people go into town, travelling long distances, when all their money is used … how are they going to get back?
"There's a whole demographic shift happening … The communities are diminishing in size, which in turn will allow the government to diminish funding as they become smaller and smaller. At the same time people are paying rent on homes in communities that they are unable to get back to live in. So the end result is that the town camps are growing exponentially."
This is placing considerable stress on town camps. "The five camps in Alice Springs, the camps in Tennant Creek and Katherine and in Darwin are all having a huge influx of people", Eatock said. "Bagot, in the centre of Darwin, went from 500 to 1200 people. You have 40 people staying in one three-bedroom house. There's only nine refrigerators in the whole place."
This is also increasing social tensions: "The people already living in these town camps are getting very irritated by other people in their space. The other aspect of people coming into town is that not everyone can get into the town camps. Many people are staying on the fringes of town, without any accommodation at all. Nowadays there are long-grass people, who are in fact homeless, despite paying rent on homes back in the communities. Many are self-medicating with alcohol because of trauma. A doctor I spoke to up there spoke of post-traumatic stress disorder."
Furthermore, while the intervention has been justified by both the Howard and Rudd governments in terms of combating child abuse, money allocated to programs to assist abused children has not been spent. Money earmarked for general health has likewise not been spent.
At the end of the financial year this money "will most likely return to general revenue", Eatock explained, adding that medical service providers she had spoken to, such as the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance NT, "had been begging for funds for years".
She pointed out that no such reticence has been shown in allocating police resources as part of the intervention. "While many communities were seeking additional assistance where there were problems with drinking or domestic violence, they did not ask for the type of intervention that they got, where the police have star chamber powers."
These "star chamber" powers have encouraged police brutality. "I heard of one story where the police entered a house — they just barged in — and searched the house and found a dozen cans of beer. They emptied them down the sink and then they left. But when they left, the occupant of the house indicated his displeasure and slammed the door behind them. They turned round and kicked the door down", Eatock explained.
She said that while after the initial period the police appear to have given up on trying to get rid of alcohol from communities, harassment continues. "I did see the police arresting a woman in Darwin. The other people she was with were calling out 'That's a pregnant women you've got there!' As they were putting her into the back of the van, a male policeman ran his hands all around the underside of her stomach checking out she had nothing concealed. I saw this and I couldn't believe my eyes."
Legal service workers told Eatock that by depriving people of cash, the "income management" had caused some people to engage in crime who had not previously done so. This meant that the Territory's already high incarceration rate was increasing.
Eatock saw land acquisition as the Howard government's motivation behind the intervention, with the legislation giving the power to governments to force Aboriginal communities to lease their land to the government for as long as 99 years. She cited the example of the Darwin town camp at One Mile Dam. "It's only one mile from the centre of Darwin. This is valuable real estate, with skyscrapers going up all around. There is great pressure on the people to move out. In general, Aboriginal land in town camps has increased in value as the towns increase in size and suburbia surrounds camps that were once on the edges of towns."
Eatock speculated that behind the attacks on remote Aboriginal communities are mining interests. "Eighty per cent of unmined uranium is under Aboriginal land … I suspect that the drift of Aboriginal populations to the towns because of the intervention may have been foreseen but not discussed."
She said that she was not optimistic about the Rudd government. "Frankly the ALP government will continue to serve the people governments have always served: big money and big business. While there's still minerals under the ground I'm pessimistic: we still have a right-wing government but a Labor right-wing government."
She added that while Rudd never used the word "assimilation", in all his speeches on Indigenous issues he talked about Aboriginal people "performing in mainstream society", which she saw as code for the same thing: "adopting Western, Anglo-Australian thinking".
While in Darwin, Eatock and members of the NT ARC met with WA Greens senator Rachel Siewert, to discuss strategies for making submissions to the three inquiries into the intervention that are currently taking place. One is a Senate inquiry, which Siewert is sitting on, the others being an Ombudsman's inquiry into international human rights law obligations and a government internal inquiry. The NT ARC has been setting up complaints desks outside Centrelink offices in the Territory to get information for the submissions.
Eatock pointed out that by funding the continuation and extension of the intervention, the government was preempting the reviews.
[Pat Eatock and senator Rachel Siewert will be speaking at the national ARC conference in Sydney on May 23, see ad this page.]