NT minister blames welfare dependence for violence

NT minister Alison Anderson.

The Northern Territory women’s policy minister, Alison Anderson, told a gathering at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne that “domestic violence has reached a crisis point”, the ABC reported on April 4.

It is unclear when Anderson thinks this crisis started. Certainly it is not new. The 2007 Little Children are Sacred report, which the then Coalition government used to justify the NT intervention, found “combined effects of poor health, alcohol and drug abuse, unemployment … poor education and housing, and a general loss of identity and control have contributed to violence and sexual abuse in many forms”.

Reports since the intervention have shown many social indicators — including family violence — are on the rise, as a result of the stress, confusion and disempowerment associated with the intervention.

Domestic violence is indeed a problem in Aboriginal communities — in fact there are unacceptably high levels of domestic violence across the whole Australian community. Tackling it will require policies that empower communities, and women in particular, and address the appalling social indicators we see in Aboriginal communities.

But according to the ABC, Anderson has a different analysis of the causes of violence. “Ms Anderson said the root of all evil in remote communities was welfare,” the article reported.

Anderson said that in communities near mines, nobody should be unemployed. “[Centrelink] should say to people in that area: OK, there's 2000 jobs there, nobody will be unemployed … You get out and get yourself a job, and earn yourself real money instead of being a burden on the taxpayer, just to wait for your $375 [welfare]."

Anderson is part of the Country Liberal Party government that came to power in August last year on the back of a strong bush vote. She is one of an impressive number of Aboriginal MLAs and ministers. This includes the Chief Minister, Adam Giles, who recently ousted Terry Mills to become the first Indigenous head of an Australian government.

But so far, there hasn’t been a lot for Aboriginal people to celebrate.

Anderson’s comments at the Wheeler Centre were in keeping with previous comments she has made, which must be like music to the ears of neo-conservatives around the country. She launched the Homelands Policy on February 25, which contained an unlikely combination of supporting her people’s connection to the land and demanding they open it up to private ownership.

She said: “Private ownership of housing is good because it encourages people to take out mortgages … Once you start to think about it, having a mortgage means you can build a better house for yourself and your children. It means you have to get up in the morning and have a shower and go to work to earn the money to pay the mortgage.”

As Jon Altman has written on news website Crikey, Indigenous people are overwhelmingly resistant to the idea of private home ownership.

Meanwhile, Anderson’s proposed solution to domestic violence — ending welfare in communities by forcing everyone to work in the mines — ignores the reality of Aboriginal employment trends. According to the 2006 Census, 176 Aboriginal people in the NT were employed in the mining industry, compared with more than 4000 in public administration and safety, and 2000 in health care and public assistance.

It is difficult to know whether the low numbers of Aboriginal workers in the mining industry reflect discrimination, Aboriginal people’s choices about work or the relatively limited employment opportunities created by mining. Certainly Anderson ignores the campaigns that Aboriginal communities have waged in resisting mining on their country.

Fifty years ago Yolngu people sent a bark petition to Canberra to protest Nabalco mining bauxite on their land. They lost the fight and the mine, now operated by a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, is still at Nhulunbuy.

Today, the people of Maningrida are fighting against an oil exploration application over their country.

Is telling these strong fighters and custodians of country to get off welfare and into the mines really the best thing the CLP government has to offer?

In her Wheeler Centre address, Anderson also lamented the poor NAPLAN test results for Aboriginal primary school children in the Northern Territory.

She was clear about who was to blame for what others might describe as a systemic failing of Aboriginal people: “The younger generation are not forcing their children to go to school … They don't see the importance of a good education, they don't see that education is the key.”

However, the 2008 12-month review of the NT intervention found that parents and elders in communities were concerned that the next generation was not reaching national standards of English, and they were worried about “the impact this [had] on individual and community capacity”.

The report highlighted a sense that schools were not “important … for social and cultural development” because of “Aboriginal language and culture [not being] seriously incorporated into the formal school curriculum”.

To make schools more relevant, which would increase attendance and outcomes, the CLP government could re-introduce bilingual education. But that does not look likely any time soon.

On October 25, the ABC reported Anderson as saying she believed “Indigenous children should be taught in the same way as students in Sydney … ‘I am not suggesting we abandon our traditional culture or language but teaching them should not be done in schools, it should be done after school and on weekends, and during the holidays,’ she said.”

For Aboriginal Territorians dreaming of an English-only future of working in the mines and being tied to a mortgage, the CLP government might just have the answer.

But for those who value the linguistic and cultural diversity among the oldest continuing cultures on Earth, and for those Aboriginal people who believe they have the right to pursue different values and different ways of being — on their own country — it seems the struggle did not end with the arrival of black ministers in the NT parliament.

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