Two interventions in the Northern Territory

The two interventions in the Northern Territory — the NT government’s Wild and Anderson report, and the Howard government’s Emergency Response — illustrate vastly different conceptions of, and solutions to, the wicked problem of Aboriginal communities.

The origins of the Australian government’s Emergency Response in remote Aboriginal communities seem to be an object of fascination. According to one source,[2] the circumstances were that the April 2007 NT government report on child sexual abuse, Little Children are Sacred (Wild and Anderson 2007), had caught Prime Minister Howard’s attention. The result was that the Prime Minister mentioned to his Minister, Mal Brough, shortly before a Monday question time in the House of Representatives that he was thinking of ‘cutting off the grog’ in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. The matter was raised by Howard in Cabinet the same afternoon, but as a standalone measure Brough was opposed. As a result, Brough was asked to bring a package to Cabinet later that week, and he sat down after Cabinet and wrote at the top of a sheet of paper ‘How to fix a town’ and proceeded to build a ‘to do’ list. He took his thoughts to his senior officers and by Thursday’s Cabinet meeting the intervention package was born. The intervention took place in June 2007 and the legislation to accompany the intervention was introduced in August 2007.

Clearly, John Howard wished to make some form of dramatic move on Aboriginal communities, and the wish presented the Minister with an opportunity to intervene in a bold manner. He did so with a military model in mind, using logistics-people who could do things on the spot: no meetings, no permits, no obligations and no negotiations — the things that strangle resolve — just doing what he deemed necessary.

The background to the Minister’s conception of the intervention was that in May 2006 Nanette Rogers, a Deputy Crown Prosecutor in Alice Springs, had revealed the widespread nature of child sexual abuse in the Northern Territory. Subsequently, Brough secured agreement from a national summit of the states (hastily convened) to work on child sexual abuse. But nothing happened. As is often the case in politics, an old agenda was brought forward at the propitious moment, and the Wild and Anderson report Little Children are Sacred was used as the pretext. While the report was the catalyst for the Howard government intervention, it was never the intention of that government to implement the recommendations of the Little Children are Sacred report. Implementation (another form of intervention) was left to the Northern Territory government.

More recently, the new Labor government has extended to Wadeye in the Northern Territory and the Kimberley in Western Australia the income-management scheme contained in the Emergency Response legislation, and the Noel Pearson-inspired Family Responsibilities Commission will be the vehicle to expand income management to Cape York in Queensland. Labor also wishes to reinstate in a modified form the permit system and has plans to modify, presumably meaning keep alive the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) program.

To characterise the respective interventions, the first risks saving the and losing the child (NT government and self-determination) and the second risks saving the child and losing the culture (Howard government and integration). Unfortunately, to lose the child is to also lose the culture. While this characterisation may be too stark and is no doubt oversimplified, the trade-off it implies proves too hard for most governments. They prefer to avoid the trade-off by recommending rounds of consultations and reinventions of existing programs. The Wild and Anderson report confirmed the depth of the problem of child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities in the NT. The recommendations, however, assume that so long as more funds are applied and the community is consulted, life should continue in remote communities [3] without changes to economic incentives. The Howard intervention on the other hand was preceded by major changes to economic incentives such as the removal of remote-area exemptions for social security obligations, effectively the abolition of Indigenous Community Housing Organisations and encouragement of home ownership, an implied consolidation of communities by withholding funds from homelands and outstations[4] with the abolition of the Community Housing and Infrastructure Programme and its replacement by the Australian Remote Indigenous Accommodation Programme, the regularisation of training and unemployment incentives with the abolition of CDEP, changes to land tenure though the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Act 2006, and so on.

The critics of the Howard intervention are concerned that Aboriginal people have been subjected to a great deal of management. It is clear, however, that Aboriginal people are already subject to a great deal of management, either from white public servants or black political leaders. Living collectively means being managed; failing to integrate, and therefore failing to lead an independent life, means being managed. Those whose policy goal is autonomy for Aborigines need to appreciate that autonomy is conditional and mostly available to those who make a contribution to the common wealth. Sitting in a camp, playing cards and neglecting children does not constitute a contribution. The first rounds of mutual obligations in Aboriginal policy were designed to shift behaviour from dependence to autonomy by enforcing obligations on beneficiaries. Unfortunately, they ran into another cultural blocker: they were focused at a collective level. The agreements ran into the sort of problems that all programs for Aboriginal people do; that responsibility is not sheeted home to individuals. Consequently, Shared Responsibility Agreements, which are collective bargains between communities and government for the performance of certain functions in return for infrastructure — for example, ‘no school- no pool’ — have consumed an enormous amount of public investment with very little return. Nevertheless, the exercise allowed the discussion of obligation to be raised, albeit in ineffectual community forums. The next step is to make obligation an everyday part of the incentive and compliance structures that every person must face, as for example canvassed by Andrews (2005) in a case study of Mutitjulu in the NT. The Family Responsibilities Commission experiment in Cape York is the next generation of the mutual-obligation experiment. It creates individual incentives and obligations and is built on the observation of Folds (2001: 50, 82) and many others that Aboriginal accountability to kin is far stronger than to community. In other words, Aborigines in remote communities are not overly collective in a western or socialist sense; they are kin oriented.

Policies such as ‘work for the dole’, lax policing of truancy, poor enforcement of rent payment and, until very recently, remote-area exemptions to social-security obligations, when coupled with living in places with poor work prospects cause bad behaviour. Rather than mask poor policy with massive resources it would be better to change the policies to change behaviour, at the same time anticipating the problems along the way. Government, hopefully in conjunction with Aboriginal people, must set the parameters that allow each person to know what is acceptable and what is not. People should have choice and know the consequences of their actions. In the case of children for example, they should be afforded the right to protection and the obligation of compulsory school attendance. Where such rights and obligations are unachievable, as will be the case in many remote discrete communities, they must be delivered in ways and in places that are achievable. The policy task is to find an exit strategy for Aborigines locked in discrete remote communities, town camps or, indeed, in urban ghettoes. Such paths will not be free of casualties, but the present policy-settings indulge horrendous outcomes.

The casualties of integration will be those people who cannot adjust to modernity. For those who are pessimistic at the prospects for behaviour change, the numbers will be large; for the optimists, the numbers will be small. For example, Folds’ (2001: 181) understanding of the Pintupi of the Pilbara is that they ‘are an innovative, modern people, engaging selectively and creatively with the contemporary world while living their lives with great exuberance on their settlements’. Folds is clear that in pursuing their lives Pintupi will remain materially poor and dependent. Policy-makers find the trade-off between preserving culture and equality unacceptable, so they fund the culture and the poverty alleviation caused by the culture. Where the ‘exuberant’ lifestyle, however, descends into child abuse, violence and substance abuse the policy masking becomes unacceptable. This is not to argue that family obligations need to be broken or families broken up in the search for work. It should be possible for more-traditional Aborigines to live closer to work and maintain their ties; but where maintaining their land base and kin ties becomes the sole purpose in life, equality cannot be expected. Where behaviour descends into abuse it cannot be tolerated.

In fumbling towards the realisation that the previous policy settings did more harm than good, the Howard Government intervention sought to change the long-term policy goal in Aboriginal affairs. It was becoming more acceptable to assert, for example, that being an ‘Aborigine’ was no longer an excuse for absence from the primary civic obligation of compulsory school attendance. School attendance had been allowed to slide because the outstation or homeland movement of the 1980s removed children from schools. Education departments found supplying teachers to outstations very difficult. In some settlements behaviour was so bad that normal schooling was difficult because the child attending was not prepared in the manner expected and assumed. The child was not well rested, nourished and ready for the day’s lessons. Self-determination created a wicked problem for Aborigines. Their lives were confined to the insular world of Aboriginal politics and public-sector provision.

Wild (2007: 119) has been at pains to point out that the Howard government’s intervention ‘missed the central point’ of the recommendations of his report. As noted above, it was never the intention of the Howard intervention to implement the Wild recommendations; but, for the purposes of the debate, Wild argued that no solution should be imposed from above and community involvement was a key component of the solution. Like a score of previous reports on Aboriginal child sexual abuse, the Wild and Anderson report suggested that the root causes were the ‘breakdown of Aboriginal culture and society’ and that ‘community involvement’ and/or ‘consultation’ were an essential response (Wild 2007: 113). The authors of the report were well aware that consultations are the lingua franca of Aboriginal life. At a recent review of the Community Housing and Infrastructure Programme, for example, there were 132 consultation meetings in three months in one community alone (FaCSIA 2007: 14). The fact that consultations were not an aspect of the Emergency Response may be a break with convention, but consultations are no measure of policy effectiveness. Indeed, consultations are an example of a policy goal or, more accurately, a policy-maker’s goal that may inhibit a policy solution.

For the most part, the Wild and Anderson recommendations call for more funds to be devoted to public goods and services in Aboriginal communities. There is no mention of the fact that the appalling behaviour which was the subject of the report was probably not exhibited in earlier generations when resources were much less-readily available. The recommendations do not seriously challenge the assumptions of business-as-usual in Aboriginal policy. The report offers a very conservative response to a problem which it, like the Howard government, regards as an emergency. The recommendations proceed on the assumption that Aboriginal ‘culture’ and ‘society’ can be fixed, and fixed in a very particular way. That is, even though a large proportion of the population exhibits appalling behaviour such people should be the master of their destiny and stay on their country, regardless of the ramifications for their safety, health, education and employment prospects. Changing culture and changing bad behaviour, much less the challenge of modernisation, are not mentioned. By contrast, a member of the Australian government’s National Emergency Response Taskforce concluded:

Those people living on remote communities, including those people who have moved there from remote outstations, who are capable of working or training for work and who cannot find a job or job training there, may well have to move closer to the nearest available jobs or job training facilities i.e. the nearest regional towns. (Reeves 2007: 8).

The wicked problem dissolves very quickly when the policy goals change. While there is a price to be paid for each Aboriginal policy path, the price of Aboriginal self-determination is proving very high. Those who would argue that the self-determination revolution is incomplete need to take stock: literally they need to assess who has benefited from the dream and who are the casualties. They may like to test whether the children of assimilation are happier than the children of self-determination. Assimilation was a crude policy designed to create paths for Aborigines into the Australian society. It involved leaving behind all remnants of the earlier identity, although often for good reason (Marchant 2003). This policy was ill-founded because it is now clear that ‘identity’ is important to wellbeing. But self-determination involved creating an entire life around ‘identity’; so much so that it excused and continues to excuse bad behaviour. In the post-self-determination era new paths to integration need to be mapped and the minimum obligations for receipt of the benefits of the society need to be stated.