Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Population

AUSTRALIA: Indigenous People – Approach Still Paternalistic

Stephen de Tarczynski

MELBOURNE, Oct 28 2008 (IPS) - The paternalistic, top-down implementation of the Australian government’s intervention in indigenous communities in the Northern Territory is undermining its chance of success.

“The single most valuable resource that the NTER [Northern Territory Emergency Response] has lacked from its inception is the positive, willing participation of the people it was intended to help,” says the report of the NTER’s review board – established by the Rudd government in June in order to assess the NTER’s first year of operation – released in mid-October.

Controversy has dogged the NTER – or as it is more commonly known, the ‘intervention’ which was initiated under the conservative government led by John Howard in July 2007, ostensibly as a means to counter child abuse in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities – and the aftermath of the review board’s report has also seen considerable debate here.

Media reports have alleged that the final version is a heavily watered-down version of an earlier draft, while Vicki Gillick – from the Ngaanyatjara Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council and member of the nine-person review panel – broke ranks to declare her support for compulsory income control in targeted communities, a measure that the report says should be voluntary.

Nonetheless, the review of the intervention’s first 12 months is clear in condemning the lack of collaboration by successive governments with the people directly affected by it. This critical evaluation of the emergency response has confirmed what many in Australia have suspected regarding its implementation.

Quite simply, the government got it wrong.

While the review board backs the continuation of the intervention – “the situation in remote communities and town camps was, and remains, sufficiently acute to be described as a national emergency,” says its report – it also identifies “significant drawbacks”.

Among these is the “deep belief that the measures introduced by the Australian government under the NTER were a collective imposition based on race.”

Is this not a valid conclusion to draw? Measures such as the so-called “income management” scheme – under which half of a welfare recipient’s payment is quarantined, to be only used for essential items in certain shops – is a collective ‘slap-on-the-hand’ for people living in the affected communities.

Like other measures, those impacted were not consulted.

“The blanket imposition of compulsory income management across Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory has resulted in widespread disillusionment, resentment and anger in a significant segment of the Indigenous community,” says the report.

By implementing the plan indiscriminately, Canberra implied that the 13,300 people directly affected by income management could not be trusted to spend their money in “appropriate” ways.

And when certain provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act were suspended in order for the government to be able to lawfully introduce measures like income management, we can hardly argue that the government’s collective control of life and limb in the 600,000 sq. km of the intervention’s reach – under which more than 45,000 Aboriginal men, women and children, some 70 percent of the Northern Territory’s indigenous population, are directly affected – is unrelated to race.

Imagine, if you will, the outcry that would accompany a similar intervention in predominantly white towns or communities. Clearly, this could not happen.

The review board also highlights another drawback: the sense of injustice felt among people targeted by the government’s plan. While the board points out that the poor standards of health, housing, education and services existing in Northern Territory Indigenous communities “have arisen from decades of cumulative neglect by governments” it notes that the communities feel they are being singled out.

“There is a strong sense of injustice that Aboriginal people and their culture have been seen as exclusively responsible for problems within their communities,” says the report.

While the genesis of these drawbacks can be traced to the Howard government’s paternalistic approach, since continued under the auspices of Kevin Rudd, the intervention’s “definite gains” – as described by the review board – have also been restricted for want of a collaborative attitude.

The review board says that there is support in communities for police stations – as opposed to periodic patrols by officers – as well as for efforts to improve communities’ health and wellbeing, housing, and education and employment opportunities.

Furthermore, the board “has heard widespread, if qualified, community support for many NTER measures,” says the report.

Yet again, however, it is the non-collaborative, Canberra-knows-best approach that undermines this support.

While Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians continue to make their voices heard, calling for the intervention to be scrapped – there have also been legal challenges to the NTER – bipartisan support for the plan appears to ensure that it will continue, at least for now.

In a response to the review board’s report, Indigenous Affairs minister Jenny Macklin again endorsed the “important progress” made by the intervention.

“The government’s continuing support for the NTER stems from our obligation to protect children from violence, abuse, and neglect and expand their life chances,” said Macklin in a statement.

Although the need to act in the wake of the ‘Little Children Are Sacred’ document has overwhelming support – the Northern Territory’s Board of Inquiry report into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse, released in June 2007, which found that sexual abuse of children is widespread and “happening largely because of the breakdown of Aboriginal culture and society” – the importance of the government working in partnership with the people in affected communities cannot be overstated.

Underpinning all the recommendations of the ‘Little Children Are Sacred’ report was the general and “critical importance of governments committing to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities.”

The Rudd government created a palpable sense of respect between black and white Australia when the Prime Minister, on behalf of the nation, apologised earlier this year to Indigenous Australians who had been forcibly removed from their homes as children.

His government could now create a sense of unity in a shared future if it views people directly targeted by the intervention as partners.

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