NT intervention three years on: a disturbing progress report

Issue 
Protesters burn a Basics Card in effigy at picket of FaHCSIA against NT intervention, Melbourne, June 18. See video of protest b

June 21 marked the third anniversary of the Howard government’s “national emergency” intervention in 73 prescribed Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, the so-called Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER).

In the name of protecting children, the basic liberties of Aboriginal people were suspended and a draconian and paternalistic state project of improvement was launched to “stabilise, normalise and then exit” these communities. Stabilisation was to take one year and normalisation four.

On June 19, the latest half-yearly Closing the Gap in the Northern Territory Monitoring Report July - December 2009 was posted on the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) website.

It is a serious and disturbing report that unfortunately is accompanied by the now almost de rigueur positive spin media release from federal Labor ministers Jenny Macklin and Warren Snowden — “Improving community safety under the Northern Territory Emergency Response”.

The word “improving” is ambiguous and provocative because there has been an increase in violence and other crime statistics.

As in the last report, for January to June 2009, multiyear comparative coverage from the time of the intervention is only available for schooling, health and crime and the best data are provided by NT agencies.

School enrolments are up slightly, but attendance has declined very slightly (-0.3%) and remains at a reported 62.2%, despite school nutrition programs at 65 schools and the employment of 200 people — including 161 local Indigenous people — in school meals delivery.

Hospitalisation of children aged 0–5 years is down, as are audiological and dental follow ups. Raw hospitalisation data should be interpreted with caution, but nevertheless for the second report in a row child malnutrition is up, despite 88 licensed stores and 16,695 income managed customers.

On crime: alcohol, substance abuse and drug-related incidents, and domestic violence and assault reportage and convictions are all up. Also up are sexual assault reportage and convictions and reports of child abuse. All personal harm incidents, besides armed person and sexual assault, are up. Some, such as attempted suicide/self harm and mental illness, have increased quite markedly.

It is emphasised in the report that increases in reported crime are likely to be associated with increases in police numbers and may be associated with improvements in community safety. This may be the case with crime, but for attempted suicide and mental illness?

This latest monitoring report provides information for many areas, such as provision of early childhood facilities and programs, economic participation (which includes income management for some reason), land tenure, and governance and leadership. For this transparency it needs to be commended. But much of the analysis is just descriptions of dollar inputs and outputs rather than actual outcomes. There is no assessment of whether the NTER represents good value for money to the Australian taxpayer (including Aboriginal taxpayers in prescribed communities).

Importantly, in an appendix the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s Report documents that complaints about Basics Cards are common, which is hardly surprising because a reported 29% of 3.8 million attempted transactions were unsuccessful.

Of equal interest on the third anniversary of the intervention are some of the program delivery and broader policy issues that are not mentioned. I will focus on three areas where an alternative narrative, and a far more critical assessment, can be provided from existing public information.

First, the area of housing and land tenure reforms appears to have gone from bad to worse. Some of the handful of post-intervention housing delivered under the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP) might need to be demolished owing to poor workmanship.

Indeed, there is the spectre that “normalisation standards” could mean hundreds of houses in prescribed communities need to be demolished, and shoddy work and population growth might result in more rather than less overcrowding. The government has proved capable of providing housing for its staff very quickly, but for Aboriginal citizens at only a snail’s pace.

Alongside this recent revelation is emerging evidence of inter-governmental tension. The NT government is now saying that it was blackmailed to take part in SIHIP and the NT auditor-general has delivered a highly critical report of the program, the June 18 Australian reported.

With the May budget came the news that the Home Ownership on Indigenous Land program was being de-funded, and prospects for “normalised” individual home ownership has dropped off the policy reform agenda. This is hardly surprising because, as the May 26 Australian reported, the NT valuer-general estimated 64 prescribed communities to have a compensatory rental value of only $3.4 million, or less than $30,000 each a year — inadequate collateral for mortgage finance.

Second, the annual Labour Force Survey indicates that the employment gap might be increasing nationally. Evidence from the NT suggests the employment/population ratio may have improved slightly as the Australian government invested heavily in providing public sector employment for Aboriginal people.

But all this looks likely to change. On June 16, an NT local government ministry media release said 500 Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) transitional jobs with shire councils might end by December 31.

Furthermore, the federal government appears committed to shift more than 4600 CDEP participants from employment to welfare next year. The employment/population ratio will decrease by at least 10% due to the ideological pursuit of “labour market normalisation” in situations where standard jobs are just not available. Moving people from work to (quarantined) welfare will disempower and further demoralise people while destroying their community-based organisations.

Third is the vexed issue of income quarantining or management, a measure the government is determined to extend to non-Indigenous people in the NT to avoid criticism for supporting race-based measures that contravene the Racial Discrimination Act.

The federal Labor government has gone to extraordinary lengths to discredit and demean the only credible research on the efficacy of income management pre- and post-intervention. This research was published by a team from the Menzies School of Health Research in Darwin in May, but is not mentioned in the monitoring report.

A FaHCSIA report released in June misrepresents the Menzies School research in Senate Estimates.

On June 21, the Senate passed legislation that will spend more than $400 million in the next six years on income management processes despite contestation over outcomes.

There are other worrying policy issues emerging from the difficulty of evaluating the intervention despite the huge resource commitments.

The project appears to heavily favour state regulation and monopoly supply of services. In some cases, such monopolies might be justified because of the small size of communities. But the crucial question arises whether natural monopoly should be community or externally controlled.

There is growing evidence that rents imagined to be extracted by local Aboriginal elites are now being extracted by government-sponsored and subsidised store managers and companies, income managers, housing alliances, employment brokers and others. One could ask who is mainly benefiting from the millions being spent supposedly on reducing Aboriginal disadvantage, Aboriginal citizens or public and private sector intervention entrepreneurs?

The intervention was originally justified as a consequence of a “failed state” in remote Australia. Highly dependent and politically weak Aboriginal communities and organisations wore the blame.

Development in remote Aboriginal communities will inevitably require state aid for the foreseeable future, but the current delivery architecture is faulty and runs counter to principles of participatory development.

Rather than empowering communities to strengthen governance to deliver development in diverse forms suited to local circumstances, the current top-down, monolithic and paternalistic approach is enhancing dependence on the state. A high proportion of the resources earmarked for Aboriginal development programs are being syphoned off to external, generally non-Indigenous, interests.

The policy of “normalisation” is not delivering, even by its own benchmarks.

Today we are halfway through the Howard government’s original normalisation phase that has now mutated into the Labor government’s Closing the Gap in the NT National Partnership Agreement. Much has been made of the extensive NTER redesign consultations undertaken in 2009.

Perhaps such consultations should now be asking residents of prescribed communities whether they prefer 2007 pre-intervention “abnormality” to the 2010 version of normalisation?

[Professor Jon Altman is from the Australian National University. Abridged from an article originally published at Crikey on June 21.]