Peak bodies call on government to move on from intervention

BY AMY MCQUIREDECEMBER 2, 2011

Originally published by Tracker Magazine.

NORTHERN TERRITORY: A coalition of Aboriginal peak bodies in the Northern Territory has hit out at the federal government’s Stronger Futures legislation, calling for a departure from the trend of “interventions”.

The Gillard government introduced the controversial legislation into Parliament earlier this month. The legislation follows a six-week period of consultation with Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, which has been used as the government as proof it is moving on from the mistakes of the NT intervention.

But there has already been criticism that the consultations were not adequate.

The Aboriginal Peak Bodies of the NT, which takes in the Central Land Council, Northern Land Council, Northern Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) as well as other peak bodies, has made its concerns clear in its submission to the Stronger Futures report.

It calls on the Gillard government to re-instate the permit system; allow custom and culture to be considered in sentencing and bail decisions; ensure Aboriginal legal services are funded; repeal the “prohibited material” restrictions; remove the Prescribed Areas signs; and remove the “extraordinary” law enforcement powers of the ACC.

The submission was not made publicly available on the FaCHSIA website, but is available for download on Tracker’s website. NAAJA’s Principal Legal Officer Jonathon Hunyor says the government should reject the concept of intervention.

“The whole approach to intervention is wrong, the whole approach to intervention should be rejected,” Mr Hunyor told Tracker.

“The government should acknowledge that it’s the wrong way to go. This big one-size-fits all approach doesn’t reflect what the evidence is showing us will work.

“One of our concerns with Mark II, what’s been described as a continuation of the intervention, is it seems to reflect a failure to recognise that the intervention as a strategy is never going to work.

“…It’s challenging for government to work within the limitations of what government can do and an intervention approach has an appeal for government because it suggests that one big bold move that might fix what is obviously a very complex and challenging problem.

NAAJA has been a strong advocate for overturning the provision that stops judges and courts from taking customary law into sentencing and bail decisions. The Stronger Futures legislation will allow customary law to be taken into consideration for cultural heritage offences, but not other offences.

Mr Hunyor says that it’s “disappointing” and that excluding customary law from bail and sentencing decisions is discriminatory.

“When anyone is challenged to identify the sorts of cases they saw would support excluding customary law, that support this discriminatory provision, not one can come up with any answers. It’s all anecdotal.

“Our view is that it is wrong, it should not feature in our law and it shouldn’t be a feature of modern Australian law, to discriminate.”

Amnesty International has also joined the chorus of voices against the Stronger Futures legislation, stating that the government hasn’t done enough to remove the discriminatory aspects of the intervention in the new legislation.

“The 2007 intervention was rolled out without any consultation and left many Aboriginal people traumatised when heavily armed army and police personnel were deployed to their communities,” Amnesty International’s Campaign Co-ordinator on Indigenous Rights Sarah Marland said.

“The Australian government has an opportunity to re-set the relationship with Aboriginal Territorians and engage in free, prior and informed consent as international human rights law dictates.”

Ms Marland is doubtful that restricting welfare payments will do anything to eliminate truancy.

“There is no evidence to suggest that threatening to withdraw income support creates behavioural change in children’s attendance at school,” Ms Marland said. “Nor is there evidence to suggest that school attendance correlates with increased performance or improved levels of numeracy and literacy.”

The Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) has also slammed the expansion of the School Enrolment and Attendance Measure (SEAM) as a “punitive, top-down approach to social problems”. In a joint press release with community organisations, NGOs and Aboriginal peak bodies, it calls on a more community-driven approach to boosting education.

“In the ‘Stronger Futures’ consultations, community members suggested introducing Aboriginal culture into the curriculum, involving elders and parents more in school activities, developing mentoring programs for parents, and doing more to attract and retain good teachers,” the statement says.

“This fits with what the research shows works. Aboriginal communities and peak organisations have also been calling for the reinstatement of bilingual learning for the same reason, because it works.”

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