What's behind the NT intervention?


The Northern Territory intervention has reached its third year and, despite several government commissioned reports and outside expert analysis claiming that it has failed to achieve its aims, aspects of it look likely to be extended to other parts of the country.

On June 21, the Senate voted to extend one of the aspects of the intervention, welfare quarantining, to more people in the NT and allow the government the option to extend it to other parts of Australia after a year.

Welfare quarantining converts half of a person’s Centrelink payment into a Basics Card that can only be spent on food, clothing and medical supplies at particular shops.

It was first rolled out to all welfare recipients in 73 remote NT Aboriginal communities. Its extension will only be to welfare recipients who are referred by family services or long-term unemployed. Overwhelmingly, these will be Aboriginal people and those caught in the original blanket quarantine will find it hard to get off.

Aboriginal pensioners have tried to be exempted from the system, but the level of personal information Centrelink demanded from them was so intrusive that many gave up.

When it was introduced, the intervention was justified as fighting child abuse and neglect in remote Aboriginal communities. After three years, there is little evidence it has improved the lives of anyone on those communities.

Reports of child and domestic abuse have increased. The government has claimed that the policy has helped get more fresh food to children, but this has been disputed by health experts. In March 2009, the Sunrise Health Service in Katherine noted a doubling in childhood anaemia since before the intervention.

With these poor results, and the high levels of opposition from those communities affected, why have governments, Coalition and Labor, persisted with the intervention?

Part of the motivation is forced assimilation. This has been a goal of official policy towards Indigenous Australians, explicitly or implicitly, since white Australian history began with the invasion of 1788.

Australian National University Professor John Altman pointed out — in a 2009 article for the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research — that NT remote Indigenous communities had their own economy that could be utilised to provide employment and a healthy standard of living.

Land care, hunting — which reduces feral animal populations — and other traditional activities could all be recognised as real work and be paid for. This would be in addition to the actual work that people do to maintain their own communities, such as childcare and construction.

The Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) performed this task, albeit with problems, but was wound down when NT intervention was introduced.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott defended the assimilationist policies of the intervention in the July 1 Herald Sun

Because of the winding down of CDEP, Aboriginal workers are now “picking up rubbish” and doing serious construction work for $4 an hour under Work for the Dole — with half of that in the form of the Basics Card.

Another motivation is an assault on the welfare state. Aboriginal commentator Noel Pearson, who supports the intervention, welcomed the changes in the June 23 Australian. He wished to see it rolled out further and said: “The welfare safety net is a civilising achievement. The problem with it in Western countries is it degenerated when unconditionality became its defining principle.”

The welfare quarantine system remains discriminatory and overwhelmingly targets Aboriginal people, but its extension will allow the government to target other groups. It would be naive to think that the government won't force this system onto non-Aboriginal welfare recipients if it thinks it can get away with it.

But the intervention is also about land. When former PM John Howard launched the intervention in July 2007, he appointed eight people to oversee it. One of these was John Reeves, a former ALP MP who, the July 7, 2007 Sydney Morning Herald reported, wrote a 600-page report on changes to native title for the Coalition government in August 1998.

Among its proposals was a plan to gut native title and break down the control that Aboriginal communities had over their land. The policy was shelved at the time but has emerged again with the intervention.

Much of the NT intervention weakened native title rights. Many of the remote Aboriginal communities targeted in the intervention had their lands compulsorily leased to the government. Other communities were blackmailed into “agreeing” to sign the lease in exchange for desperately needed housing and services — which were never delivered.

In July 2009, the ALP government put Alice Springs town camps onto 40-year leases. It was only achieved this when it made $138 million in public housing funding dependent on the town camps signing the lease deal.

Aboriginal affairs minister Jenny Macklin alluded to the reason in her department’s policy document. She said on May 25 that her department would work with Indigenous groups to “better leverage existing assets, including land rights, to improve opportunities to access capital”.

The NT has massive deposits of manganese, bauxite, lead, zinc, silver, gold and uranium, and significant deposits of copper, diamonds, tin, tantalum, vermiculite, magnesite, cobalt, iron ore and rare earths. Much of this is on Aboriginal land. The 1976 NT Land Rights Acts — the most progressive land rights legislation in Australia — stood between the mining industry and “assets” it wanted “opportunities to access”.

Through the intervention, the government is weakening land rights. It is clear who will benefit as Aboriginal people move off their land, settle in larger towns and lose connection with country.

Similarly, the “hub towns” policy, announced by the NT government in May 2009, encourages Aboriginal people to leave their traditional lands for 20 designated large communities. It is only these large communities that will receive new public housing grants from the government and will be first in line for health and education investment.

The 20 “hub towns” are all near existing or proposed mining operations.