Intervention in the NT

Anglican News,
October 2007

The sunset over Darwin’s Arafura Sea is spectacular and swift. Against the falling red sun, the aqua ocean is picture perfect toward the end of this, typically hot and sticky day. But things are not all they seem. The locals know that the sea is full of stingers. Only ignorant tourists take the risk.

There’s something unnerving about the country up here, particularly for me; someone made soft by the more temperate weather down south.

But it’s not just the environment. It’s the territory's poverty and economics too.

Delegates from around Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea at the Anglicare National Conference this month were confronted with the realities of life for many Northern Territorians. Few of us, I believe, grasp how big the gap between Indigenous Australians and the rest of Australia is and the sweeping nature of the change being rolled out under the Commonwealth’s Northern Territory intervention passed with the support of both major parties in August.

The conference highlighted the yawning gap; while Australia as a whole may be enjoying unprecedented prosperity, most Aboriginal Australians are no better off. Indigenous children in the Territory are more than twice as likely as non-Indigenous children to die before the age of one. Their life expectancy at birth is some 20 years lower.

Delegates at the Darwin gathering were challenged by some very passionate and negative perspectives on the laws (which were inspired by the Little Children Are Sacred report authored by Pat Anderson and Rex Wild). The changes, being overseen by a taskforce of eminent Australians, essentially use the police and the military to take control of over 70 Indigenous communities.

Few can challenge the facts set out to justify the intervention. The regions targeted contain some of Australia’s most highly dysfunctional communities. There are children at serious risk. The Prime Minister John Howard has said the action is warranted given the Commonwealth’s overarching responsibilities for the welfare of children.

But these laws affect every Aborigine in the NT not living in the major cities and towns whether drunk or sober, violent or law abiding, good parents or bad.

Olga Havnen, the Coordinator of Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the NT was damning in her critique. She said the policy was racist and politically driven and ignored the vast bulk of the recommendations in the Little Children Are Sacred Report designed to protect children. She also predicted that the policy would have a devastating impact on reconciliation.

Ms Havnen said that the legislation has generated a lot of fear and is causing an increased displacement of people moving from remote areas into bigger towns:

“Women and children are joining homeless men in the Long Grass areas of Darwin, becoming vulnerable to violence and abuse.”

The newly commissioned Executive Director of Anglicare Australia, Kasy Chambers, took the opportunity to reiterate the network’s view that, while it welcomes the Federal Government’s commitment to tackling issues such as violence and abuse in certain Indigenous communities, the laws may miss the mark and may not have a sustainable effect.

“We need a 15-20 year plan, not merely 5, which looks at the provision of education, housing, retaining the cultural identities of communities and creating employment opportunities that maintain and grow existing local business,” said Ms Chambers.

An alternative model is the work by Cape York Partnerships spearheaded by Noel Pearson.

Noel’s niece, Emma Burchill was a keynote speaker at the conference. She said the approach of her organisation, by contrast with the federal takeover of NT communities, is based on consultation, offering choice and ensuring communities have some form of self-determination.

“The ingredients of sustainable change are community input, inclusive leaders and giving people an opportunity to trial new things,” said Ms Burchill.

There was widespread outrage and concern expressed by several speakers and members of the audience about the fact that the new laws mean all Aboriginal townships – not just failed communities – will be compulsory leased to the Commonwealth for five years without automatic compensation. The Federal Government said that to effect improvement and proceed without delay it had to have an interest in the land for the duration of the emergency response.

The NT Minister for Child Protection, Marion Scrymgour called the Federal effort ‘a betrayal’ while defending her own Labor government’s efforts to protect children and admitting that there are is no quick fix. Regrettably no one from the NT Opposition or Federal Government (representing the Coalition parties) spoke at the conference.

Several other key points and claims were made at the Darwin gathering:

More than half the money spent on the federal takeover will go on bureaucrats and would be better spent on health and education professionals and programs.

That phasing out Commonwealth Development Employment Projects (CDEP), will shrink the income available to already highly disadvantaged communities. It has created funding uncertainty about a range of socially and environmentally worthwhile programs (The Indigenous Affairs Minister, Mal Brough, argues that while CDEP has been a major source of funding for many NT communities, it has not provided a real pathway to real employment and has become a form of welfare dependency for many).

That abolishing the permit system (as the legislation does) will make children more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation (Mal Brough’s view is that an open town is a safer and more prosperous town).

The complexity of the problems facing the Territory is potentially overwhelming for any visitor wishing to go beyond the brochures and Kakadu whistlestop bus tour.

The government’s 500-page legislation has presented all Australians with an opportunity – more critical in an election year - to be part of a national conversation about the rights and protection of children, the value and manipulations of Indigenous culture and our collective responsibilities to each other if we want to belong to a reconciled and truly prosperous nation. The sun has not set on this great unfinished business.

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