Labor to retain NT 'emergency intervention'

November 30, 2007

The November 24 electoral victory of the ALP was based largely upon public opposition to the Howard Coalition government's Work Choices laws. But in the Northern Territory, opposition among Aborigines to PM John Howard's "emergency intervention" into their communities was a major factor in boosting support for Labor.

ABC News reported on November 26 that as "mobile polling booths worked their way through 270 NT Indigenous communities, the focus of the federal intervention, locals lined up to clobber the government. A senior ALP source says Labor got 88 per cent of the votes at the mobile polling booths.

"And in the community of Wadeye, where outgoing Indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough did so much work, the result was worse for the Coalition, with Labor taking almost 95 per cent of the vote."

Warren Snowdon, the Labor MP for the federal seat of Lingiari (which covers all of the NT except Darwin and in which Aborigines are estimated to comprise over a third of the voters), told ABC News on November 25, Aborigines "want to be dealt with fairly and they want people to sit down and talk with them, not talk at them. They want to make decisions jointly not have decisions made about them or for them."

On November 26, Howard pleaded with the ALP to maintain the NT intervention, telling ABC Radio National's World Today program: "I hope that the new government of this country maintains that intervention to the full because it's very important to the long-term benefit of the first Australians."

Brough, who like Howard, lost his seat to Labor on November 24, also pleaded with federal ALP leader Kevin Rudd to give the Coalition's NT intervention policy "a chance to work".

Before the federal election, Rudd was extremely sketchy on what differentiated Labor's policy on Indigenous affairs from the Coalition's. Labor protested some aspects of the NT intervention, but voted in favour of the bills legalising it.

On October 23, Marion Scrymgour, then the Aboriginal minister for child protection in the NT Labor government (now the NT deputy chief minister), spoke out against the intervention, calling it the "black kids' Tampa" and a "vicious new McCarthyism". She was subsequently pressured by federal Labor leaders to back down from her comments.

Having been elected the new NT deputy chief minister following the November 25 resignations of NT Chief Minister Clare Martin and her deputy, Syd Stirling, Scrymgour has not expressed any public disagreement with the position taken by new NT Chief Minister Paul Henderson.

On November 27, Henderson told journalists there would not be a "wholesale roll-back" of the Howard government's intervention in NT Aboriginal communities. There are "issues around the edges that we disagree with and we're going to resolve those with the new Rudd government", Henderson said.

"Whilst I have been quite critical and my criticisms have been well known, I have always said there are aspects of the intervention I fully support", Scrymgour told the same press conference, adding that she supported the quarantining of welfare payments, and alcohol and pornography bans, as well as increased police numbers in Aboriginal townships.

She said that she wanted to see Aboriginal townships in the NT returned to the control of the NT. However, the previous day, incoming Labor deputy PM Julia Gillard had ruled this out.

Gillard said that the Rudd government was committed to restoring the Community Development and Employment Scheme (CDEP), scrapped by the Howard government as part of its NT intervention.

The CDEP was a scheme similar to work-for-the-dole, introduced in 1977 as a way to provide development in remote Aboriginal communities by replacing unemployment benefits with CDEP wage payments (which were 25% higher) in exchange for work on projects that would improve the skills or provide some infrastructure for local communities.

Howard's abolition of the CDEP put thousands of NT Aborigines onto welfare payments subject to the government's "welfare quarantine".

Federal Labor has said it will restore the CDEP but in an unspecified "modified" manner. Labor has not proposed to alter in any way the welfare quarantine system, which makes 50% of welfare payments paid in food vouchers.

Speaking on ABC Radio 783 Alice Springs on November 28,
Bob Randall, the former director of the Mutitjulu Health Clinic, condemned the welfare quarantine system as a form of collective punishment of all NT Aborigines for the "crimes of a few".

"You punish the perpetrators and the criminals and deal with them as you deal with any other criminal doing the same sort of criminal acts", he said. "Wherever it's happening, just deal with the perpetrators, not a mass blame and a mass punishment system which is what they've done with the intervention."

Federal Labor has agreed to reinstate the permit system in the NT, which will restore Aboriginal control over who enters their communities, although medical, police and social workers will be automatically allowed access.

In a November 26 interview with SBS, Rudd said his government would make an official apology for the stolen generations and create a new national Indigenous representative body. But on November 30, Rudd, backed by his new Indigenous affairs minister, Jenny Macklin, reiterated Labor's bipartisan support for the NT intervention initiated by the Howard government.

The December 1 Australian reported that Macklin was canvassing extending aspects of the NT intervention to Aborigines in all states and territories.

"I don't want to be ideological about it", Macklin said, "I am just going to take an evidence-based approach and if it's working to protect children, to see that people are spending less money on alcohol and gambling and more money on food and clothing to get kids to school, then I'm for that."

A week earlier, Macklin had outlined federal Labor's funding priorities in the areas of Indigenous health and employment schemes. She said the CDEP program would be fully funded, with training schemes for 300 new rangers and some of the funding for health services will go far in undoing the damage of 11 years of Liberal party neglect. However, the status of native title has not been addressed and Rudd has explicitly ruled out agreeing to the Aboriginal demand for a treaty.

That Macklin's announcement was made 24 hours before election day, when the ALP had been extremely careful in avoiding saying anything about Indigenous affairs, may mean that it was an attempt to appeal to Aboriginal voters without making Indigenous affairs an election issue.

In a comment piece in the November 24 National Indigenous Times, staff writer Amy McQuire noted that Labor "will bring back the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP), will issue a formal apology and have outlined plans for a national representative body (which is desperately needed).

"But that doesn't mean that Aboriginal people can hang up their placards if the ALP happens to win government tomorrow."

Indeed, without a strong movement from those, both white and black, who fully support Indigenous rights, Labor may find it easier to go back on the few progressive promises it has made on Indigenous affairs.

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