An independent review into the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER), or NT intervention, has been accused of being "watered down" before its final release in order to not embarrass the federal Labor government.
The long-awaited review into the intervention into Aboriginal communities, released on October 13, found that the intervention had seriously worsened relations between Aboriginal people and the government. However, it supported its continuation, albeit in a heavily modified form.
The intervention, announced in July 2007, targets all residents in a number of Aboriginal communities, enforcing widespread alcohol bans and replacing 50% of recipients' welfare payments with vouchers that could only be used at certain stores and only be spent on food and clothing.
This is known as "welfare quarantining".
Aboriginal land was compulsorily acquired for buildings for intervention staff, and for safe houses and refuges — although no new refuges or safe houses have been operational since the intervention was launched. Tellingly, the legislation required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act in order to pass.
These measures were announced after the release of the Little Children Are Sacred report, which noted high levels of child abuse and neglect in NT Aboriginal communities.
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The Liberal-National Coalition government of the day launched the intervention with much talk of "saving children". However almost all of the "Little Children" report's recommendations ignored.
The NTER review called for welfare quarantining to be voluntary or only implemented in cases of extreme, proven child neglect or abuse and to apply to all NT residents — black or white — not just those in proscribed Aboriginal communities.
It called for just terms of compensation for Aboriginal people whose land had been compulsorily acquired.
The review also called for the government to adequately fund safe houses and cool-down centres, and programs to tackle alcohol and drug abuse in remote communities.
It said that the lack of funding in these areas was the key cause of disadvantage and resulting the child abuse or neglect. It also called for the restoration of the Racial Discrimination Act.
If these proposals were adopted, the fundamentals of the legislation would be dramatically undermined. While the review doesn't call for the scrapping of the intervention, adopting the proposals would effectively gut the intervention of most of its content.
However, the October 15 Australian reported that it had discovered an early draft of the review, which was far harsher on the intervention and included many more statements by Indigenous people affected by it.
The article implied that the changed final version avoided embarrassment for the government. The changes made may also explain the two-week delay in the review's final release.
Most Aboriginal people quoted in the alleged original draft referred to feelings of shame and discrimination perpetuated by the legislation. (Submissions to the review are available at http://www.nterreview.gov.au).
For example, the Australian claims there was a quote from someone in Ngukkur, in lower-east Arnhem Land, that read: "The intervention is telling the rest of Australia and the world that all blackfellas are pedophiles."
The final report states: "The situation in remote communities and town camps was — and remains — sufficiently acute to be described as a national emergency. The NTER should continue."
The draft allegedly compared the impact of the intervention to "an experience of violence itself" and says "the way forward must be based on a fresh relationship".
Both the review board and the government have denied that there was interference in the preparation of the final report. Review board member Marcia Ella Duncan argued that there were many different drafts of the report and only one meeting with government officials prior to the release of the report.
She told ABC Online on October 15 that the changes were based only on making the final report more succinct.
The Australian's allegations would go some way to explaining the contradictory nature of the final report, whose proposals would fundamentally, although not completely, undermine the legislation it purports to support.
It would also explain why the authors are harsher on the intervention in interviews after the report than the report itself.
In an interview with ABC Online on October 14, Western Australian Aboriginal leader and member of the review board Peter Yu said: "What we observed as the nature of the intervention was a major reflection and exercise in terms of what had been happening for quite a long time … There has been an external imposition where there has been not really the level of communication desired to create an environment where there is some incentive and there is some responsibility taken by the community."
Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma, an outspoken critic of the intervention, has called for the immediate implementation of the report's proposals, saying on October 14: "I implore the government to take note of the review board's key observation that respect for human rights is critical to building and maintaining sustainable, healthy and safe remote indigenous communities."
Meanwhile, the government has made some changes in affected communities. The permit system, which allows some control to Aboriginal people over their own land, has been reinstated and food vouchers have been replaced by BASIC cards with individual PIN numbers, which can be used in a greater variety of stores.
However, the shame and discrimination continue. And there is much that the review does not mention. For example, Ian Munro, CEO of Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation in Arnhem Land, says the recommendations from the Little Children are Sacred report should be implemented.
"It's time to stop ignoring these recommendations and get on with the job in collaboration with Aboriginal people", he told ABC Online on October 14.
A recent convergence to Alice Springs demanded an immediate end to the intervention, and the NTER review has not silenced those voices.
Barbara Shaw, from the Alice Springs Intervention Rollback Action Group, believes that the intervention should be revoked in its entirety. She told Green Left Weekly: "The legislation that was enforced on Aboriginal people needs to be totally removed. We will continue to fight and won't stop until it is removed entirely."
She described recent experiences of racism: "Lately we've been waiting in long lines forever in Centrelink because they've moved from store cards to BASIC cards … the shame that families feel when they go to stores and don't have enough money on their cards and the racism that they experience in the NT as a result. But people will continue to stand up for their rights. The convergence held in [Alice Springs] shows that we have a lot of support here and around the country. We have only just begun to fight."