A stronger future, or repeating the mistakes of the past?


 Originally published in Tracker Magazine.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin and Member for Lingiari and Minister for Indigenous Health, Warren Snowdon.

NORTHERN TERRITORY: The Gillard government has come under fire for failing to consult properly with communities after announcing it was extending many planks of the NT intervention.

The Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) was launched by the Howard government in 2007, in the midst of a media frenzy over claims of child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities.

The Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) was bypassed in order to push the legislation through Parliament, with no consultation with Aboriginal communities.

Since taking power, Labor has claimed it has restored the RDA, while leaving the planks of the intervention in tact. It also claims it has consulted with NT Aboriginal communities over the next step when the legislation expires in September 2012.

The consultations were staged over a six-week period.

This month, Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin launched the results of those consultations – the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory discussion paper, stating there was widespread support for many planks of the intervention, including the controversial income management scheme.

Ms Macklin also announced plans to extend trials linking welfare payments to school attendance in prescribed communities.

The trials are already in place in parts of the NT, and in four Queensland communities under Noel Pearson’s Cape York welfare trials. Opposition leader Tony Abbott has supported the plans.

But the proposal to continue many of the controversial aspects of the intervention, including alcohol bans, after the original legislation expires next year, has drawn opposition from several sectors.

Aboriginal policy expert Jon Altman has raised doubts about the consultations in this month’s Tracker, stating that the discussion paper’s questions had been pre-determined, with no room for movement.

His concerns have been echoed by Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning researcher Paddy Gibson, who labelled the consultation process a “sham” which didn’t represent the deep anger in communities.

“Before these so-called consultations started, government policy was clear that on every major measure, the approach of the NT intervention would continue beyond 2012,” Mr Gibson said.

“This report on the consultations whitewashes the deep anger felt towards the Intervention and the profound damage it has done to communities.”

He says that support for linking school attendance to welfare payments was also not there and criticised the fact the scrapping of bilingual education was not on the agenda.

“Government officials running the consultations presented welfare cuts as the only concrete policy being considered to improve school attendance,” he said. “They spent the entire consultation period fishing for quotes to support the predetermined position.”

Mr Gibson says the “punitive” approach to education under the intervention had not boosted school attendance.

Amnesty International Indigenous campaigner Rodney Dillon also hit back at the government’s plans.

“I haven’t seen anywhere in the world where quarantining people’s money will help get children to school,” Mr Dillon said.

“The government must recognise that local issues need local solutions rather than the failed one-size-fits-all intervention policies that were imposed upon communities four years ago,” Mr Dillon said.

The Greens have vowed they will block the passage of any enabling legislation to extend the intervention in the federal Senate.

“Cutting off somebody’s income support? How does that help the child,” Greens Senator Rachel Siewert toldthe Australian newspaper this month.

“We need to be engaging parents with the education system, but doing that in a meaningful way, producing a curriculum that is meaningful, addressing some of the underlying causes of why kids don’t go to school.”

Shadow Indigenous affairs spokesman Nigel Scullion says that his party will scrutinise any new legislation, but that he wanted to see the intervention continue.

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