If people are being harmed and their lives destroyed, it is natural to feel a desire to intervene to try to ease their suffering or solve their problem. Of course, there are many times when you watch someone’s life spiralling out of control and desperately want to step in and help, but you don’t know what to do. You don’t have the answers. When this happens, you might simply listen to what the person is saying and support them in whatever way they need even though you can’t prescribe a neat solution.
A compassionate desire to intervene and alleviate another’s suffering is not a bad thing. But an enforced one-size-fits-all intervention that’s not only discriminatory and punitive but which ultimately disregards the feelings of those you’re meant to be helping, certainly is. A book released late last year, A Decision to Discriminate: Aboriginal Disempowerment in the Northern Territory catalogues the unheard voices of community residents, leaders and non-government organisation representatives in the Northern Territory who provided accounts to the Senate Inquiry regarding the Stronger Futures legislation.
The book was produced by Concerned Australians, a network of social justice and Indigenous groups formed in 2007 after the NT Intervention required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act. Through direct quotation, the book provides an important opportunity for these views – largely ignored by mainstream media and the government – to be made public.
One of the biggest concerns regarding government intervention in the NT is the inadequacy of the consultations – referred to as ‘show consultations’ by former Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia, Alastair Nicholson. The consultations have been called superficial and poorly organised; or, in the words of one senator, “a monumental failure”.
CEO of Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation, Mr Luke Morrish reported to the committee that the discussion paper on Stronger Futures was handed to members of his community “literally minutes” before Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin arrived for the consultation.
Consultation is the basis for the legal requirement of ‘prior and informed consent’ – this requirement is clearly laid out in the Stronger Futures legislation. Sufficient consultation is a legal obligation when enforcing policies that involve ‘special measures’ such as Stronger Futures. Without this requirement being met, the bill could be considered illegal – and in fact, many consider it just that.
According to Eva Cox from Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning: “One of the most concerning aspects of [the legislation] is that, to all intents and purposes, whatever was drafted before the consultations was what was finally in the Bills, and there is no evidence that the process of consultation did anything more than act as a ticking box to say, ‘We’ve done it’.” This sentiment is echoed by many who were present at the consultations.
John Falzon, CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society, even described the process as “manufacturing consent”. But this is not the only questionable aspect of the process.
Stronger Futures was tabled in Parliament just two days before the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act was passed. The Act operates to protect and promote human rights across all Australian legislation. Because Stronger Futures was tabled prior to the Scrutiny Act, legislation in the Act does not automatically apply to Stronger Futures and related Bills – timing that could be seen as being quite telling.
A second questionable aspect of the timing is the fact that the government passed the legislation without waiting for the conclusion of the Senate Inquiry. One hopes this does not speak to the government’s attitude towards the committee’s findings but it begs the question.
Much of what’s in Stronger Futures is a continuation of the Intervention. Some is a tightening of those measures with harsher penalties for breaches. This includes six month imprisonment for possessing even a small amount of alcohol and cutting the Centrelink benefits of parents whose children miss school.
Measures towards food security include a requirement for stores and shops to be licensed with the government. There is deep concern amongst communities that the cost of licensing will be passed on to customers, further increasing the already prohibitive price of food.
Such short-sighted measures are now law – with a 10-year sunset clause – despite alternative suggestions from community members, such as freight subsidies to lower food costs.
Sadly, this is a recurring theme. Stronger Futures seems to have little room for specific or localised solutions even if these make sense and are favoured by Aboriginal people in the NT. Community members named tangible barriers to school attendance such as a lack of transport in some areas. These are barriers which could be addressed. Despite this, these suggestions did not show up in Stronger Futures.
General Secretary of the Uniting Church’s Northern Synod, Peter Jones spoke of punishing parents of children who miss school:
“Punishing the most disadvantaged people in the land for not participating in a system that has not delivered the outcomes they desire is heaping punishment on punishment.”
A Decision to Discriminate strongly argues that failing to work in partnership with Aboriginal community leaders to devise the legislation has “badly undermined fragile but slowly emerging levels of trust” between the government and Australia’s First Peoples. It’s hard to imagine higher stakes when it comes to this immense issue our country faces.
There seems to be a glaring gap between the evidence gathered in the Inquiry report and the recommendations that accompany it. The highly concerning implication of this is that there was very little intention to change or review Stronger Futures irrespective of the committee’s findings. This is not partnership. It is oppression and an abuse of power.
Dr Falzon has urged the Senate Inquiry Committee to scrap the legislation. He describes the interventionist policies as having been
“shamelessly trialled” on Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. From the evidence in this book, it’s not hard to see why.
In the words of well-respected Uniting Church Minister, Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra: “… people are dying, not just dying spiritually and emotionally but dying physically. They cannot live for the day because their lives are controlled by somebody else.”
These views, as the book states, “are not simply those of dissatisfaction but rather of the belief that [the Intervention] has caused enormous damage”. We must ask why the government has chosen to not listen to these voices. A decision to discriminate – ultimately, a decision to disregard.
To order a copy of the book, now in its second print, or to listen to recordings from the Senate Inquiry visit www.concernedaustralians.com.au