Senate debates

Tuesday, 20 June 2017


Indigenous Affairs

7:29 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

(   Ten years ago tomorrow I was sitting in my office with a group of senior Aboriginal women from Central Australia who had tears rolling down their faces. That was because they were responding to the just-announced Northern Territory intervention, the emergency response by the then Howard government. They had tears rolling down their faces and were extremely distressed because they knew straight away what that meant for their communities—it meant that their communities had not been consulted, that they knew nothing about it and that the government intended at that stage, and in fact did, send the Army into their communities. On that day the government said that they were going to compulsorily health check every Aboriginal child in the Northern Territory. Fortunately, that particular part of the intervention did not go ahead—it was not compulsory—but the Army did go into those communities, the intervention did take community assets away from Aboriginal communities and great big blue and white signs were put up outside 73 Aboriginal communities banning things, labelling those communities, instilling in people a deep sense of shame and humiliation.

I must say that deep sense of shame and humiliation continues for many people in the Northern Territory. They introduced government business managers into each community—mainly non-Aboriginal people in fenced off enclaves that were then responsible for a large part of the decision making process. Those government business managers quickly became known in the communities as the gingerbread men. The intervention overrode the Racial Discrimination Act, undermining the fundamental rights of Aboriginal people. It took away their control, and their sense of control, and introduced income management and the BasicsCard. People spoke to me at that time of ration days, feeling like they had gone back to the sugarbag days when people turned up to get their rations. They talked about the fact that they had to stand in separate queues in the supermarket, and how humiliating that was. They talked about the card not working, and once again they talked of the deep shame and humiliation they felt—the humiliation they felt about the blue and white signs on the main roads into towns. Of course the prescribing of those communities meant a ban on alcohol, and of course on porn.

The intervention was a clear sign to Aboriginal people that they were not capable of managing their own affairs and that the government was prepared to ride over them with no consultation, as I said when I began. The Aboriginal women who were in my office were not consulted—they were not consulted in the beginning, and they were not consulted about what they felt about the Little Children are Sacred report—the very report that the government claimed that the intervention was about implementing. But it did not implement the recommendations from that report—it was just an excuse for the government of the day, the Howard government, to dog whistle in 2007. The ALP jumped right on board and went right along with the intervention. The Greens were the only party that opposed the intervention, that opposed income management from the get-go. We looked at the evidence; we looked in vain overseas to see whether compulsory income management had changed things overseas. There was no evidence to show that. In fact the evidence from overseas very clearly showed that taking away control over some of the most basic parts of your life—the way you spend your income, the way you make decisions—in fact impacts on your self esteem and has the reverse unintended consequence of taking that sense of self-determination and control away. In other words, it has negative impacts.

There was a huge outpouring from communities about their sense of desperation to make sure that this did not go ahead. Communities knew what this meant. They were also deeply, deeply worried that their men were being accused across-the-board of being perpetrators. They wanted to make sure that communities were safe, but they did not want the AFP and the Army coming in. The Greens listened. That is why we opposed this intervention, and why we continue, to this day, to oppose this intervention and its continuing rollout. This government is going to be rolling out another two years of income management, despite the fact that there is no evidence to show that compulsory income management works. The 2014 final evaluation of this program shows that it met none of its objectives. And we know—from the awful statistics that we see, even in the media just yesterday, on the continuing rate of Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory who are going into out-of-home care—that it is outrageous that we are continuing to spend so much money on income management and these failed measures. I should say that the intervention turned into Stronger Communities thanks to the ALP in 2012. These failed measures have not worked. The final evaluation showed that, but this government continues to roll on another two years of income management.

It is a classic case of policy built on ideology rather than evidence, and, to begin with, the government did not actually have an evaluation process in place. We had to force them to put an evaluation in place. Part of me thinks that they probably did not put the evaluation in place because they never intended to listen to the evidence that came out of evaluation. That is quite plain, because if they did, after 2014 they would have called stumps. They would have said, 'It didn't meet any of its objectives.' In fact, some of the evidence suggests that it has had a negative effect and made people more welfare dependent, when this government keeps claiming that they actually want to address 'welfare dependency'—in their words.

They have spent over $1 billion on this. When you add in the rollout of the income management measure that this place just approved—we did not, of course; the Greens did not agree—and you put that $1.46 million into the pot, and you put in the $145 million that the government is rolling into the pot for rolling on income management in the Northern Territory, it is about $1.3 billion. Imagine what that $1.3 billion could have done for communities in the Northern Territory if we had actually had evidence based policy, if we had actually put sound fields in every classroom that Aboriginal kids go to in the Northern Territory. That is still not done. Imagine if we had put the money into properly addressing otitis media so it is not the pandemic that it is in Aboriginal communities in northern Australia. Imagine if we had invested that money in wraparound services, in early intervention services, in early literacy and numeracy programs for those children who cannot hear, in justice targets to ensure that we address the climbing incarceration rates in this country of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Imagine if we had actually put it into juvenile justice programs, or if we had put it into justice reinvestment so that young people did not end up in prison and we did not see those escalating rates of incarceration. I can imagine so many better ways that we could have spent that $1.3 billion. There have been 10 years of wasted opportunity in this country. It makes me want to weep, literally, along with the women who must still be weeping for the lost opportunities—those women who I saw 10 years ago tomorrow, sitting in my office, when the intervention that never should have been perpetrated on Aboriginal communities began. When we mark the 10th anniversary I, unlike the government, will be in Alice Springs on the weekend, talking to the communities and those people who were affected. I will be listening to their lived experience of those 10 wasted years.


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