Gov't report condemns NT intervention

November 18, 2009

The Northern Territory Emergency Response, a "tough love" government intervention into remote NT Aboriginal communities, has been renamed by the federal ALP government. Its official name is now "Closing the Gap NT".

However, a new government progress report on the intervention has revealed it's causing the huge gap between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people to widen.

The report, released in late October, revealed the two-year long intervention has resulted in no significant improvements in the lives of Indigenous people. Some indicators have actually gone backwards.

The then-prime minister John Howard launched the intervention in August 2007, in the lead-up to the November federal election. It put harsh control measures on Aboriginal welfare payments; increased police powers; put new bans on alcohol and pornography; and allowed the government to take away Aboriginal-owned land.

Ostensibly, it was launched in response to the Little Children Are Sacred report, which reported high levels of child abuse and neglect in remote Aboriginal communities. But the new laws did not incorporate any of the report's proposals. Instead, it signalled a new racist attack on Indigenous self-determination.

Aboriginal leaders called the intervention "Howard's new Tampa", referring to the 2001 election campaign, in which Howard lied about asylum seekers throwing children overboard to tap into racist prejudices toward migrants and refugees.

Like Tampa, the intervention was a cynical election stunt. Yet Labor's response in opposition, and in government, has been to support the intervention entirely. Howard and Rudd have both claimed the policy is about protecting women and children.

But the new report reveals this as a lie.

Since the intervention began, reports of domestic violence in the targeted communities are up 61%. Substance abuse is up 77% and school enrolments have remained unchanged.

Confirmed cases of child abuse rose from 66 in 2006-07 to 227 in 2008-09. Most other social indicators have remained static, and only a few have showed any signs of improvement.

Rates of anaemia are down, but more infants were hospitalised for malnutrition than before the intervention began.

In May, the Australian Crimes Commission told a Senate committee it had found no organised paedophile rings in the NT — another of the supposed "motivations" behind the intervention. The rate of convictions for child sex offences has remained unchanged under the intervention.

The flagship policy of the intervention was "income management". This meant 50% of welfare payments to Indigenous people in targeted communities were converted into a gift card — called the Basics Card — which can be spent on only food, clothing and medical supplies in government approved stores.

This measure was supposed to reduce Aboriginal spending on alcohol and cigarettes and increase spending on essentials.

But the limited improvements in child health outcomes suggest that although people may be spending more on healthy food, the key causes of poor nutrition remain the endemic poverty of these communities and the high cost of fresh food in the NT.

Despite the poor results, the progress report said: "Many indigenous women and pensioners have reported that they have greater control over their finances, and are more able to provide for their children."

But the outcomes in health and nutrition contradict this. Another recent report by the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs surveyed storeowners that are part of the income management system.

It said 68.2% reported more customers were buying more healthy food, but 19.7% said spending on healthy food had dropped. Thirty-two storeowners reported a significant change in shopping habits and 29 reported only a slight change or no change at all.

Since June, the government has held consultation meetings with targeted remote communities.

Participants at the meetings said many Aboriginal people used the meetings to condemn the intervention, but none of these comments were included in the government's report.

Indigenous activists and their supporters have called a national day of action against the NT intervention for February 13, 2010.

On that day in 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made his apology to the Stolen Generations. He said: "Unless the great symbolism of reconciliation is accompanied by an even greater substance, it is little more than a clanging gong."

Yet by continuing with the intervention Rudd has let his apology remain just that.

On February 13 next year, thousands will rally to demand Rudd ends the NT intervention because it is not improving the situation in the NT but making things worse. Now, the government's own report confirms this is the case.

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