The federal government's intervention into remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory has largely failed to produce significant improvements in health or housing, an NT health department employee told Green Left Weekly on May 29.
The employee, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the intervention was poorly thought through, ideologically driven and "planned on the back of a postage stamp". It had "broad aims that weren't clear, some of them were contradictory, some of them were impossible".
The intervention was launched by the previous Coalition government of PM John Howard in July 2007, and was supposedly designed to end the scourge of child sexual abuse in the NT. Howard had claimed that the level of abuse was so great that there was a need to completely take control of Aboriginal life, and a massive police and military mobilisation would be needed to enforce new restrictions.
Discriminatory legislation was passed that converted 50% of Aboriginal people's welfare payments into store cards, in order to reduce spending on alcohol, cigarettes and pornography. The right of Aboriginal people to have some control over who entered their land, through the permit system, was overturned. This was all justified by the supposed threat of paedophiles dominating Aboriginal communities.
Almost one year later, the results of the intervention have failed to prove this threat was real.
As part of the plan, there was to be a series of compulsory medical checks of Aboriginal young people, in order to find evidence of abuse. The NT health employee confirmed to GLW that the health checks, which are nearing completion, failed to find evidence of large-scale abuse or neglect but instead found evidence of basic health problems, which most health officials were already aware of.
"The number of children who had been referred for [medical] investigation or police investigation was pretty low. In Northern Territory remote communities there's a high rate of sexually transmitted diseases for 13-15-year-olds, but most data shows that those 13-15-year-olds are having sex with other 13-15-year-olds. There aren't many referrals for investigation of sexual abuse. If you look at the Australian Federal Police task force, they've had fairly low numbers of referrals as well", he said.
The current ALP government of PM Kevin Rudd has maintained aspects of the intervention as part of its "close the gap" campaign to improve Aboriginal health and living standards, but the NT health employee claimed that the health check system was a waste of resources. "It's not that children aren't getting health checks in remote communities", he said.
"In fact, they get lots of health checks — there's a whole scheme of early childhood health checks, where they are checked at one month, three months, six months etc. It's about the services available to be able to provide the follow-up when the problems are identified. That has always been the shortcoming.
"When the health checks were announced [health professionals] said 'what for?' We know what's required, we can tell you right now. We don't need to do more checks to check things that have already been checked. We should be focussing the funding and the time and the energy on improving the follow-up services to treat what we've already identified as the [health] concerns. That was the slightly crazy thing about the health checks.
"From my perspective, where I work, I received, between July 2007 and today, only two referrals from the intervention health checks and one of those was a child that I already knew about."
One contributing factor to the health problems in Aboriginal communities is the chronic over-crowding due to lack of housing. For example, in the Bagot community in Darwin, there are around fifty houses for a population that — since the intervention — has increased from 500 to 1200. In February, the Rudd government announced a further $20 million dollars would be spent upgrading housing in NT Indigenous communities. This is in addition to $1.6 billion earmarked for Indigenous housing over the next four years.
The NT health worker welcomed the increased funding but pointed out that not one house for local Indigenous people had been built yet, nor one domestic violence shelter in the first year of the intervention. Some demountable housing had been established for intervention personnel, which only made the lack for locals more apparent.
"The funding that's been announced so far would only be a partial answer to the identified needs. We're going to get another 750 houses built over the next year under the federal government program: that is an insufficient number of bedrooms given the current levels of overcrowding and predicted levels of growth. That would provide enough housing for a family per bedroom, not a family per house.
"We need a whole lot more and a different style of housing to cope with that. The funding is good, but it won't be enough to cope. There will still be a gap, there will still be a shortage and that's something we need to think about. Probably the amount of funding allocated next year will need to continue rolling out for the next 20 years."
A national day of action against the NT intervention has been called for June 21. See the GLW activist calendar for more details.