A reply to CIS on the Intervention


At first I didn’t think it was worthwhile responding to Sara Hudson’s response to me on the Intervention. I thought it was pretty insubstantial, and its ad hominem tone seemed to me suggestive that replying would reduce the issues to one of personalities, rather than the issues. However, I then decided that some comments may help illuminate the issues to outside parties.

So, let us review the state of debate. In April, I wrote:

The mountain of evidence of the failures of the NT Intervention defies summary here. Suffice to say, there is literally no evidence, even in government reports, that it has helped improve the socio-economic conditions Intervention supporters claim to be concerned about. Its supporters are simply backing racist policies because they believe racism is the best way to deal with Indigenous communities.

This is a pretty dire accusation. The Intervention was a collection of openly racist laws, targeted exclusively at Indigenous communities. It is now basically the same laws, targeted overwhelmingly at Indigenous communities. Now, I do not accept that punitive measures of racial discrimination are ever acceptable. But I can at least understand someone saying – well, I don’t like these racist laws, but at least they are improving dire socio-economic conditions.

However, as I’ve written time and again, there is no evidence that socio-economic conditions in Indigenous communities are improving. So why does the Intervention still have supporters? Well, the less said about that perhaps the better.

The best ‘evidence’ the Intervention seems to have yet come up with was the several hundred pages of reports and surveys I reviewed in what Hudson called my ‘3000 word diatribe’. I argued that the evidence was a collection of tendentious cherry-picking of favourable data, ignoring of unfavourable data, and unrepresentative and methodologically flawed surveys.

How did Hudson respond? ‘Isn’t it time for people like Michael Brull to move on and find some other bandwagon to push – what about joining the protestors ‘occupying’ Martin Place? They seem to share the same desire to protest for the sake of protesting.’

Presumably, racially discriminatory laws are not a big deal, so it’s simply mystifying why I would be opposed to them. Now I mean, there is a lot of material available online which one can read about how degrading Indigenous communities have found these racist laws, such as the humiliations and segregation imposed by the introduction of the Basics Card. I would particularly recommend this report by Jumbunna and STICS’ Paddy Gibson. However, Intervention apologists seem determined to ignore the voices of Indigenous people who disagree with them.

Hudson doesn’t present herself as an Intervention supporter. However, she says ‘at least the Howard government favoured action over apathy and tried to address some of the problems plaguing remote Indigenous communities.’

Perhaps Hudson is familiar with the Hippocratic Oath: first, do no harm. If she agrees that there is no evidence that socio-economic conditions have improved, then perhaps spending billions of taxpayer dollars on policies that have not helped anyone wasn’t a good idea, even if we put aside the harm that the Intervention caused. And it is worth noting – the Government now concedes the introduction of the Intervention was horrible, even if the measures are now loved. To take a few examples from the Evaluation report:

Many people in the consultation meetings said that they felt hurt, humiliated and confused by the way the NTER had been implemented.

Furthermore, the compulsory imposition of income management across remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory resulted in bitter feelings, disillusionment, resentment and anger for many Indigenous community members. Those feelings were exacerbated in the implementation phase by inadequate communication and a lack of consultation

Some income-management customers report feeling stigma when they use their store card
or, more recently, the BasicsCard:

Some Aboriginal people living or shopping in the major regional centres (in Darwin and Alice Springs especially) have suffered frustration, embarrassment, humiliation and overt racism because of the difficulties associated with acquiring and using store cards.

In addition, some community members’ negative perceptions of the NTER have been unduly influenced by one measure in particular—income management. The compulsory nature of income management and its blanket imposition (in combination with other changes, such as local government reform, shire amalgamations and losses of local councils; changes to CDEP; the loss of the permit system; and changes in land tenure) are likely to have contributed to people’s feeling of a loss of freedom, empowerment and community control.

Remember, the government has been trying to suppress this fact for a while. Its handpicked board to review the Intervention in its report (before it was removed) likened the impact of the intervention to ‘an experience of violence itself’.

So is spending billions of taxpayer dollars on racist policies that harm Indigenous communities, and which has shown no signs of improving socio-economic conditions in over four years, better than doing nothing? I think it takes a kind of ideological fanaticism to think this is a reasonable position. It is interesting that the Intervention would get support from a right-wing think tank. These are radical violations of a free market: massive state spending, and the nanny state telling people how they can and can’t spend their money. Surely, this is the kind of thing capitalist ideologues would scream till they were blue in the faces about, if it were targeted at white people. Why is it okay when targeted at Indigenous communities? Income management is currently being expanded, such as to Bankstown. What will it take for the Right to rediscover the supposed principles they claim to support? These measures being targeted at privileged white communities?

If these are the overarching issues, perhaps I can address some of the minor things raised in Ms Hudson’s article. She makes a show of the Aboriginal people she listens to. She of course cites White Australia’s favourite, Bess Price, who is currently campaigning as a Country Liberal. What may be of interest to readers – the host of an Indigenous radio program in Central Australia sent me this story a while ago. After being prevented from entering a casino, she complained that she was ‘treated like a blackfella’.

Hudson also wrote this:

Anti-interventionists like Brull are vehemently opposed to income management and argue that the Howard government did not follow the recommendations in the Little Children are Sacred Report when it implemented this measure. But not widely known and buried in the Little Children are Sacred Report is the fact that Aboriginal people themselves suggested that at ‘least 50 per cent, if not all, of the total sum of individuals’ welfare payments [be] made in the form of food vouchers’ to reduce the money available to buy alcohol. Perhaps the Howard government read the Little Children are Sacred Report more closely than the anti-interventionists.

The Little Children are Sacred report has 97 recommendations. This isn’t one of them. The passage she refers to is on page 171. It reads as follows

The Inquiry was told by some people that they would like to see at least 50%, if not all, of the total sum of individuals’ ‘welfare’ (Centrelink) payments made in the form of food vouchers. The view was expressed that this may impact positively on alcohol consumption. The Inquiry believes it is worth investigating.

However, the Inquiry notes the provision of vouchers has also been criticised by some because it encourages dependency and can be seen as a return to paternalism. (Emphasis added)

In my original ‘diatribe’ I complained about a tendentious, selective approach to the evidence. Ms Hudson did not seek to refute my analysis of the reports – that is, the evidence that the government supposedly has for the Intervention. Instead, she claims that ‘Aboriginal people suggested’ income management – an obviously misleading representation of the report.

Ms Hudson also complains that I didn’t propose any solutions – all I did was complain. Merely looking at the government’s case for the Intervention presumably is considered frivolous by Ms Hudson. I find this mentality genuinely strange. I will say again: the government is spending billions of our taxpayer dollars on policies that aren’t working, that are traumatising and stigmatising entire Indigenous communities. Doesn’t this, of itself, have some kind of significance?

Suppose that I had no idea of what to do about Indigenous disadvantage. Why would it be illegitimate to say that one approach was wrong?

Put this aside. I do not believe that what Indigenous communities need is for a white person in the cities to come up with solutions to their problems. I suspect there is enough will and intelligence in Indigenous communities to figure out how to address their problems, if governments will commit to working with and supporting them. And, funnily enough, this is basically the view of the experts. So take Rex Wild, one of the authors of the Little Children are Sacred report. He wrote:

it seems to us that the government has missed the central point of our recommendations. The first recommendation, set out above, was absolutely clear: no solution should be imposed from above. We regarded it as critically important that governments commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for their communities. That recommendation was in line with the findings of every other study prior to ours. That is, community involvement of Indigenous people with government should be a ‘bottom-up’ rather than ‘top-down’ process.

Or let’s go back to the Evaluation report, which as I’ve argued before, is basically government propaganda. It says, inter alia:

A key theme that emerged from open text responses in the CSSPS, conducted by FaHCSIA as part of the NTER evaluation, was that increased community involvement in key decisions was required if programs were to have an impact on community safety and wellbeing.

The NTER was prompted by the publication of the Little children are Sacred Report, but it should be remembered that the report found that the number of perpetrators of abuse was small and that considerable community functionality remains, together with a strong will to overcome the problems.

This highlights the importance of moving away from a ‘one size fits all’ and/or a ‘fly in, fly out’ model towards an ‘on the ground’ presence that works with local authority structures, builds on approaches that are already working and encourages local Indigenous social and cultural ownership.

One initiative which I understand was developed by Indigenous communities, and has support from various Indigenous organisations, is an 11 point plan, which can be read at Jumbunna’s website. This is worth considering. However, the important thing, in my view is the process. I do not believe white people in the cities should be deciding how to solve complex socio-economic problems of remote Indigenous communities. I believe – and I think the experts agree – that these problems can only be addressed when ‘governments commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for their communities’. Ms Hudson appears to believe that one only cares about Indigenous communities if one tells them how to solve their problems. Presumably, the relevant experts and those who support self-determination don’t care about Indigenous communities, but the Right does, because it knows what’s best for them, and isn’t afraid to impose their visions on Indigenous communities. Even if there’s no evidence in favour of their policies.

As this is long enough (I have problems being brief), one final issue: violence against women. Ms Hudson claims – without evidence, as per usual – that I made certain insinuations by citing the fact of an increase recording of domestic violence in the Northern Territory, failing to understand that much violence against women isn’t recorded. Well, put aside the obvious fact that I’ve written about these issues before.

Ms Hudson is right that new police stations would account for much of the increase. The Evaluation report notes that those which received new police stations ‘experienced increases of 196 per cent between the pre- and post-NTER periods.’ They also increased 57 percent in communities with no police station, and 26 percent in communities with an already existing police station. However one accounts for the increase – and it is not clear all of the increase can be accounted for by more police – the important point is that this does not provide grounds for belief that domestic violence has declined. It does suggest more Aboriginal men are going to jail – a result Ms Hudson appears to approve of (‘more men are now being held to account for their crimes.’) The idea that this is an adequate solution to the problem of domestic violence, I think, reveals more about her than about the Intervention. As usual, the Government seems to prefer punitive measures to helping communities. Take just one issue, as addressed in the Evaluation:

In the Northern Territory, as part of the Family Support Package (FSP), there are 22 Safe Places in 15 remote communities, as well as Darwin and Alice Springs. [ed: this means hundreds of communities without]

In the CSSPS, when asked about service availability in their community, 34.5 per cent of service providers in NTER communities said there was no safe house in their community.681 When asked about services that do not exist and are needed, 33.2 per cent specifically identified a need for a safe house, along with 51.3 per cent who said their community needed a children’s refuge or safe house, 38.7 per cent who identified a need for a women’s group, and 45.8 per cent who saw a need for a men’s group. During community consultations by the NTER Review Board, a number of women voiced concerns about the lack of consultation and subsequent inappropriate design of safe houses in their community, meaning they would be unlikely to be used because they felt ‘more like detention centres’.

Of concern to the authors of the evaluation was a lack of supervision and training for Indigenous staff. Often they lacked infrastructure in terms of telephone access (both to contact other support agencies and to be contacted by those agencies) and transport, where it was necessary to provide accommodation outside of the immediate community.

Again, the Evaluation report is full of carefully buried observations like this. But then, I just have some inexplicable ‘desire to protest for the sake of protesting.’

It is worth discussing the issue of domestic violence in Indigenous communities further, as it involves issues that often go unaddressed. Firstly, it is worth reading Judy Atkinson’s chapter in Coercive Reconciliation, as she recounts governments consistently ignoring her pleas for help, from 1990 to 2007. She recounts her ‘last meeting in Canberra, in February 2007’, which ‘finished with a senior bureaucrat from the Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination saying … ‘You don’t think all this talk about child sexual abuse is just false memory syndrome, do you?’ as she rejected our proposal.’ Chris Cunneen also has an outstanding book on Indigenous-police relations, Conflict, Politics and Crime. To cite a few extracts (pp 160-2)

In Queensland, Atkinson (1990b) estimated that 88 per cent of rape and assault cases in Aboriginal communities are unreported. On Palm Island, Barber, Punt and Albers (1988, p, 96) noted that ‘assault and rape are the two most under-reported crimes on the Island and that it can take something as extreme as pack rape before a woman will complaint’. Similarly, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey in Western Australia revealed that Indigenous women were less likely to report crimes of violence than non-Indigenous women (Harding et al. 1995, p. 18).

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody noted that there was a widespread perception by Aboriginal women that police were indifferent to acts of violence against them. ‘Domestic violence, rape and even murder have been cited as failing to attract the due attention of police and the criminal justice system’ (Johnston 1991a, vol. 3, p. 41). Aboriginal women throughout Australia have been forceful in arguing that the question of over-policing is misconceived if it fails to consider the fact that the levels of violence perpetrated against Aboriginal women do not receive attention from police authorities. In the arena of protecting women the issue has been identified as one of under-policing. Aboriginal activist and writer Judy Atkinson has noted that Aboriginal women still lack faith in the criminal justice system to respond to their needs. She quotes a woman from Cape York who states, ‘If a white women gets bashed or raped here, the police do something. When it’s us they laugh. The fellow keeps walking around, everybody knows but nothing is done’ (Atkinson 1990a, p. 6) Similarly, urban Aboriginal women were afraid to call on police assistance for fear of police violence. Atkinson argues that the solution to such problems lies ultimately in the respective communities being given the opportunity to institute their own systems of justice and social control mechanisms.

The failure of police to respond to requests for assistance by Aboriginal women was noted by the National Inquiry into Racist Violence. Evidence presented by the Inquiry by a serving Queensland police officer concerned a rape investigation with which he had been involved some years previously: ‘The senior officer investigating the case told the officer that ‘You can’t rape a coon’. The senior officer when interviewing the Aboriginal woman discouraged her from making a complaint and failed to take any action, despite the fact that there were independent witnesses to the rape’ (HREOC 1991, p. 108).

More recently the Western Australian Chief Justice’s Taskforce on Gender Bias found that Indigenous women were not protected by some police officers when they were assaulted and that some police failed to enforce domestic violence court orders (Malcolm 1994). Similarly, the Queensland Criminal Justice Commission (1996) in its consultations with Indigenous women was told that police provided inadequate responses when required to investigate violence against Indigenous women. It appears that many police view violence against Indigenous women as something which can be easily tolerated.

A Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (1993) report on the Queensland community of Mornington Island… The same police expressed a reluctance to intervene, rationalising the occurrence of domestic violence in essentially racist terms by saying that such violence was ‘the Aboriginal way’ of dealing with disputes, and that violence was somehow normal and acceptable in Aboriginal communities. … A study of domestic violence in the Northern Territory reached similar conclusions and went on to demonstrate the complicity of the court processes in denying the need to deal seriously with violence against Indigenous women (Bolger 1991).’

One can see this kind of approach continuing, as in the case of the NT’s former Chief Justice, who sentenced a man who anally raped a 14 year old girl to 1 month in jail. He went on to praise the good character of the men who beat Kwementyaye Ryder to death.

Now I know much of this is unpleasant to consider. When white people talk about Indigenous communities and their dire socio-economic problems, it is considered preferable to only discuss their failings, and look for ways to blame them. It should be obvious that if we actually do care about Indigenous communities, we will look at the ways in which we are failing them. Addressing the failings of our criminal justice system, and supporting Indigenous communities is obviously less pleasant, because it involves acknowledging our flaws, and carries the unpleasant implication that white people don’t know better than everyone else. Perhaps this is why it is such an unpopular agenda in some circles.

Michael Brull

Michael Brull is a columnist at New Matilda. He’s written for other publications including Fairfax, the Guardian, Crikey, Tracker and the Indigenous Law Bulletin.

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