Update June 2008
In 2007, in response to the Northern Territory Report into sexual abuse – called Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Makarle (Little Children are Sacred) – the Howard Government announced a national emergency in remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.
The Government’s ‘NT Intervention’ involved sending police and the army into remote communities, alcohol bans, winding back Aboriginal land rights under the NT Aboriginal Land Rights Act, health checks for Aboriginal children and the quarantining of welfare payments in 73 Aboriginal communities.
With the exception of some prominent Aboriginal commentators, Aboriginal groups strongly condemned the NT Intervention. The authors of the Little Children are Sacred Report also spoke out against the intervention, arguing that its heavy handed, top-down approach was inconsistent with the recommendations in the report.
40 Aboriginal organisations put forward an alternative proposal for urgent action based on consultation and partnerships with local Aboriginal communities, welfare organisations and women’s groups. This proposal was ignored and, with the support of the former Labor Opposition, the NT Intervention went ahead.
Results of the NT Intervention, one year on
Fast forward to 2008, the election of a new Government.
Consistent with its election promise, the new Federal Government has undertaken to conduct a review of the NT Intervention to determine whether it should continue in future years. The review is due to start in July 2008.
The results of the Intervention that have starting coming in so far are:
• More than 8000 children from the NT have received health checks, with the new Labor Government committing additional funding in the 2008-9 for follow up health checks. These health checks have not led to an increased identification of child abuse cases, but other health issues have been picked up, with five hundred children directed to ear, nose and throat surgery.
• A small number of abuse and neglect cases have been picked up, but it is not clear if these cases would not have been picked up under the past systems.
• 50 additional police have been placed in NT Aboriginal communities. Some have claimed that this has led to Aboriginal women feeling safer. However, other organisations have claimed that there has been an increase in aggressive policing and targeting of Aboriginal people by police.
• More local stores are providing fresh and healthy food to communities.
• Additional safe houses have been opened, but there are conflicting reports about how many between 1 and 10 this is.
• Although recognising that more needs to be done, the Chairperson established to oversee the NT Intervention by the former Howard Government, Sue Gordon, said in June 2008 that the Intervention is a success so far. She claimed that Aboriginal women have appreciated having a section of their welfare quarantined to avoid pressure from their families to give them some of the money. However a number of other organisations claim the opposite - they claim that there is evidence of widespread hardship imposed by the quarantining of 50% of welfare payments in Aboriginal communities. For more background about the welfare quarantining and its impact see the NT Intervention and Welfare Quarantining Latest Issue fact sheet.
• Large numbers of Aboriginal people have moved out of the Aboriginal communities targeted by the alcohol bans and welfare quarantining, putting significant strains on welfare organisations on other towns and states to deal with the influx. This includes a massive increase in the Aboriginal population in Darwin and in fringe dwellers in town camps.
Changes to the Intervention
Some of the original aspects of the NT Intervention have been wound back. This includes the re-instatement of the permit system, which allows Aboriginal people to restrict access to Aboriginal lands.
Planning is underway to keep a reformed version of CDEP, the Aboriginal work for the dole program. Some Aboriginal communities had argued strongly for the maintenance of CDEP, which was used in some areas of high unemployment to support community services, Aboriginal run organisations and land management.
The NT Invention has been massively expensive, with the cost so far in the hundreds of millions. The original budget was $500 million for the first year of the Intervention, of which around $300 million has been spent.
Some groups have criticised the allocation of funding as disproportionate, as it represents a much bigger percentage of national Aboriginal spending than the size of the NT population.
Other groups have argued that the funding is actually insufficient or misdirected, because too much of the funding is going towards administration rather than being directed to Aboriginal organisations to deliver services directly in the NT.
For example, a report by the Australian Education Union commissioned to examine the impact of the NT Intervention found that almost $2 billion is needed to ensure that Aboriginal students in the Northern Territory have the same opportunities as students in the rest of Australia. Currently 5000 under 18 year olds in the NT do not have easy access to high school. Money is needed to increase the number of schools and Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal teachers.
Family Violence and Child Abuse
Groups have also criticised governments, both Federal and at State level, for failing to take a more strategic approach to the urgent issue of child abuse.
The Little Children are Sacred Report was only one of a series of shocking reports into Aboriginal child sexual abuse which have been recently released.
The NSW Report, entitled Breaking the Silence: Creating the Future had been released after a state-wide taskforce in 2006. The NSW Report showed levels of abuse in NSW Aboriginal communities similar to those in the NT. At the time the NSW Government’s own modelling showed $40 million was needed to tackle the issue. The NSW Government developed a strategy on child abuse, but did not allocate additional money.
A SA Report into child abuse in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands was released in May 2008. It found that 14% of Aboriginal children in these communities had been sexually assaulted. At the release of this report the Liberal Opposition called for the NT Intervention to be extended. The current Federal Government has ruled out extending the intervention, until the 2008 review is handed down.
The Federal Government has committed to addressing Aboriginal child abuse issues as part of a broader commitment to Close the Gap, which it made during the historic apology to the Stolen Generations in February 2008. For more information about the apology see the National Apology to the Stolen Generations Fact Sheet.