Northern Territory intervention: myths and facts

June 13, 2008

The minister for Indigenous affairs, Jenny Macklin, announced a review committee on June 6 for the federal intervention into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.

The announcement came as the widely criticised intervention — often referred to as the "NT invasion" — approaches its 12-month anniversary on June 21. The terms of reference for the review are limited to assessing the intervention's progress and improving its implementation and "service delivery".

While around the country Indigenous activists and their supporters call for an immediate end to the intervention, the review will not consider whether it was right or wrong in the first place. The ALP supported the introduction of the legislation enabling the intervention, introduced by then-PM John Howard, and has extended aspects of it since taking office.

Green Left Weekly looks at four myths about the intervention.

Myth 1: This intervention is about saving children from sexual assault

When the Howard government announced the intervention, it was in response to the 2007 Little Children are Sacred report, which outlined serious problems of child abuse and neglect in remote NT Aboriginal communities. The report included 97 proposals to begin to address social problems that can lead to abuse and neglect. Not one of those proposals was implemented by the Howard government and nor has the new Labor government of PM Kevin Rudd implemented any.

Indeed, the legislation enabling the intervention never once mentioned the word "child" or "children". Instead the focus was on tracking down presumably Aboriginal paedophiles who preyed on communities, and tackling the "welfare trap" that supposedly made it possible for them to exist.

The intervention targets all residents of proscribed Aboriginal communities. There are widespread alcohol bans and 50% of welfare payments are replaced with gift cards that can only be used at certain shops and only be spent on food and clothing; a system called "welfare quarantining". By definition, this legislation discriminates against Aboriginal people, which is why the Racial Discrimination Act was suspended to allow the intervention to proceed.

The intervention also mandated compulsory medical checks for all young Aboriginal people. At first these were to check for signs of sexual assault, but when medical authorities pointed out that such compulsory checks would themselves constitute sexual assault, they were altered to be basic check-ups.

While this sounds like a good idea, there are already extensive check-up programs that see Aboriginal children at all stages of development. An NT medical employee who spoke to Green Left Weekly on May 29 said that lack of check-ups was never a problem; it was follow-up services for the health problems already well known to health authorities that urgently needed funds.

A year into the intervention, only 35 of the 7500 Aboriginal children examined have been referred to child protection authorities for suspected abuse, and this includes suspected cases of emotional abuse or neglect. Australian Federal Police have had a similar number of referrals and have found no evidence of organised paedophile rings in the NT. What the health checks did reveal was a 40% rate of easily treatable infections and illnesses among Aboriginal children — illnesses commonly associated with poverty — that health authorities were already very aware of.

Myth 2: The intervention has improved services in remote Aboriginal communities

One of the recommendations of the Little Children report was for the government to immediately inject funds into the public housing system in the NT. Housing in remote communities is in a dire state of disrepair and overcrowding, which was identified as a key cause of child sexual assault.

WA Greens Senator Rachel Siewert told an Aboriginal rights conference in Sydney on May 23 that a Senate estimates committee had confirmed that not one new house has been built for Aboriginal people in remote communities since the intervention began. Despite the documented need, not one new women's shelter has been built either. Sixteen demountable buildings have been established for new business managers, brought in as part of the intervention, and emergency repairs have been made to existing public housing, but nothing has happened to fundamentally fix the housing crisis.

Siewert also said that not one new social worker had been put "on the ground" as a result of the new policy.

Myth 3: The welfare quarantine is helping communities

Prior to the intervention, a form of voluntary "income management" already existed in many communities: people could request that some of their welfare payments be withheld to go towards school fees, savings for large purchases (such as cars) or to be spent as "book-up" in the local community store. This allowed communities that wanted to be free of alcohol to enforce the ban more tightly and made it easier for people to manage their incomes. The whole community would sometimes be involved in discussing local projects that could be funded through the store's profits, like building a swimming pool.

The welfare quarantine policy introduced as part of the intervention wasn't voluntary: it was enforced on all people living in these communities regardless of how they treated their children. This is a form of collective punishment of all Aboriginal people who live in the "wrong" communities. It was not enforced upon similarly impoverished non-Aboriginal communities and there is no right of appeal for those on it.

This system was implemented in a particularly rushed and badly thought through way. The large chain stores (mostly Woolworths and Coles) where people must use their gift cards are often hundreds of kilometres away, meaning people had to waste money on huge taxi fares just to buy food. The gift cards were also easily exchanged for money, defeating the intended purpose anyway.

Labor is trying to make the system more workable, but it is still compulsory. This imposition has led many people to flee the targeted communities, resulting in more homelessness and dispossession in the larger town camps and urban fringes, which places even greater strain on stretched welfare resources.

Myth 4: The permit system hides abuse

To enter Aboriginal communities, most people are required to get a permit from the local lands council. This provision allows at least some community control over who does and doesn't enter Aboriginal land, including the townships on that land. Former Aboriginal affairs minister Mal Brough claimed that the permit system also allowed communities to hide abuse, so the system was abolished as part of the original legislation.

What Brough didn't mention was that police, government workers and social workers were always exempt from having to get permits. Even NT police noted that the system was useful in keeping grog runners and repeat criminals out.

While the ALP has restored the permit system, the government still has the power to compulsorily acquire Aboriginal land, including communities. This leads some people to wonder if a key motivation for the intervention is a desire to take Aboriginal land for mining, a fear backed up by the fact that much of Australia's uranium deposits are on lands now proscribed under the intervention.

End the intervention now!

We don't need yet another review, or amendment to the intervention legislation to make it more "efficient" and "effective". Aboriginal leaders across the NT have spoken out against it since the beginning, and around the country Aboriginal Rights Coalitions have been organising meetings and rallies demanding an immediate end to the discriminatory legislation.

On June 21, the anniversary of the announcement of the intervention, Aboriginal rights activists will mobilise across the country, repeating this call and demanding that it be replaced with a system that restores local community control. The racist invasion must be replaced with an adequately funded program that brings dignity and empowerment to Aboriginal life in the NT.

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