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Modern missionaries needed for the intervention to work: address to the Centre for Independent Studies.

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Thu, 26th June 2008



The Hon Tony Abbott MHR

Shadow Minister for Families, Community Services, Indigenous Affairs and the

Voluntary Sector

As people associated with the Centre for Independent Studies have been pointing

out for quite a few years, remote Aboriginal townships are third world settlements in

a first world country. There are exceptions, of course, but overwhelmingly remote

Aboriginal people are poor, unemployed, sick, semi-literate, living among squalor

and exposed to levels of violence totally unknown elsewhere in Australia.

The “unutterable shame” for which contemporary Australians most need to apologise

is not the mistakes that were made generations ago but recent policy making that

has left many remote townships resembling something from Somalia without guns.

There were good intentions for all the damage that’s been done but that hardly helps

the victims. The teenager suffering pack rape in an artificially created settlement with

no jobs and no police is unlikely to be consoled by the vision of “culture” which

created her nightmare.

Even when it first came to office, the Howard government had few illusions about the

impact of 20 years of “sit down money” and, under successive indigenous affairs

ministers, moved as rapidly as possible to change it. John Herron sent the army to

improve infrastructure in remote townships. Philip Ruddock began the campaigns

against sexual violence in remote townships. Amanda Vanstone abolished the

dysfunctional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. Finally, Mal Brough

launched the emergency intervention in the Northern Territory which embodied a

decade of thinking and experience in dealing with seemingly intractable problems.

The “too little too late” criticisms of the intervention mostly come from the same

people who thought the Howard government was racist to reject the previous “noble

innocent” approach to indigenous policy. The “what about the rest of Australia” critics

forget the near-impossibility of radical change that requires the cooperation of the

states. The NSW government, for instance, still hasn’t taken seriously a 2006 report

noting that Aboriginal children are some four times more likely than others to

experience sexual abuse. The bitter experience of cooperating with the states is that

much money is invariably spent but very little really changes.

The essential elements of the intervention were: first and most important, a resident

police presence; then, grog bans; quarantining half people’s welfare payments for

the necessities of life; compulsory school attendance; no work, no pay employment

programmes; real rent for decent houses with the option of individual home

ownership; and, very significantly, an onsite government business manager with

authority over all federal government service delivery in the town.

Notwithstanding the change of government last November, these measures have

proceeded quite rapidly. There are an extra 51 police resident in a further 18

townships. In many towns, grog-runners have been stopped and their contraband

destroyed. There have been 11,000 child health checks. More than 13,000 people

are under welfare quarantine and 51 government managers have been appointed to

72 townships. There is a widespread impression that more food is being sold, school

attendance is up and domestic violence is down.

It’s good that the Rudd government has persisted with the intervention because,

deep down, most Labor activists are far more inclined to send in the social workers

than the police. The new government is committed to the mechanics of the

intervention but doesn’t always seem to have its heart in it. Marion Scrymgour, since

promoted to NT Deputy Chief Minister, spoke for many Labor activists when she

called the intervention a “black kids’ Tampa”. The new government has restored the

permit system which helped to bury ugly secrets, effectively dropped the Pay TV

porn ban and partially reinstated the old Community Development Employment

Programme even though this could effectively stop welfare quarantine in the relevant


To her credit, handling the intervention seems to have accelerated Jenny Macklin’s

evolution from knee-jerk leftie to responsible pragmatist. The government’s

intervention review panel is not stacked with the indigenous policy old guard. Her

support for the intervention is always about better services rather than empowering

people to escape from the “living museums” (as Helen Hughes has described them)

that passive welfare has condemned them to but that’s probably to keep the peace

inside the Labor Party.

Macklin is an important convert because it’s uncertain whether the new

government’s instinctive preference is for the “whitefellas are to blame” approach of

Pat Dodson and Nugget Coombs or the “blackfellas have to take responsibility”

approach of Noel Pearson and Warren Mundine. Notwithstanding Mundine’s

perceptive reluctance to be typecast as an “Aboriginal activist”, it’s significant that the

former ALP national president was selected to attend the “international” rather than

the “indigenous” component of the recent 2020 summit where his ideas would have

challenged those of the other participants.

In her intervention anniversary parliamentary statement, the Indigenous Affairs

Minister said that the purpose of the intervention was to make remote indigenous

communities “socially and economically viable (my emphasis)”. Even if

dispossession is taken to mean that government has a higher responsibility to

Aborigines than to other Australians, the production of beautiful art and

connectedness to the land does not warrant the maintenance of a way of life also

characterised by unemployment, substance abuse and domestic violence. If people

choose to live in difficult-to-service places, that’s their business. Government’s job,

though, is to try to ensure that people don’t have such poor command of English,

limited education and unfamiliarity with working for a living that they can only cope in

a welfare village. For all its emphasis on service provision and consultation (which

can so easily become an excuse for inaction), Macklin’s statement recognises that

the intervention was to re-establish Australian cultural norms, not remote Aboriginal


For many years, official policy had elevated “culture” but deplored its consequences

for education, employment and the role of women while, at least until the

intervention, refusing to take effective action to deal with them. Even now, there’s far

from universal understanding that achieving better health means holding down

proper jobs and that this means obtaining the good education that makes it possible

to compete in a real job market.

If the history of indigenous policy teaches anything, it’s that change takes time.

Almost every federal budget, for instance, recycles seemingly new programmes

designed to tackle some aspect of indigenous disadvantage. Each is presented as a

fresh start and a potential breakthrough only to be superseded by a re-badged

version as protagonists’ enthusiasm dissipates against the difficulty of making a

difference. One of the biggest obstacles is the expectation of immediate progress

which means that programmes are judged as failures before they’ve had a chance to

work. This is especially the case working with traditional Aboriginal people who have

an elongated concept of time.

It would be unfair to judge the success of the intervention on changes to health

indicators or even to school attendance after just 12 months. Changing welfare

lifestyles and empowering people to live in unfamiliar surroundings is likely to take

considerably longer than the five years the intervention is currently expected to last.

Still, the lack of hard data about life in remote townships needs to be addressed

urgently if fair judgments are ever to be made about its success or failure. Each

school needs to keep detailed attendance records and the truancy rate needs to be

published regularly. Similarly, job absenteeism records need to be kept and rates

published. So does data on the number of arrests and trauma presentations at local

clinics. These statistics, currently at best patchy and often not published, are a good

proxy for the civic health of particular townships.

In places where truancy is taken for granted, just calling a school roll once a day

won’t be an accurate indication of attendance. The government’s plan is to suspend

welfare payments to parents if their children don’t go to school. Instead of requiring

schools to provide truancy data to Centrelink, though, it’s the local school which will

have to make a judgment about whether attendance is satisfactory. This process

begs the question of what constitutes satisfactory attendance and puts the onus on

potentially vulnerable local teachers to “dob in” their neighbours.

“Cultural sensitivities”, it seems, are still exercising their corrosive influence; in this

case, preventing the demand for 100 per cent attendance (barring illness) with roll

calls throughout the day and the parents of delinquents facing automatic

consequences. It’s as if the apparently tough new policy has been engineered to

make as little practical difference as possible because, deep down, policy makers

still doubt their moral standing to make demands of Aboriginal people. The likely

result is that remote Aboriginal children will continue to receive a substandard

education and leave school ill-prepared for life except as welfare recipients.

So far, welfare quarantining seems to have been the intervention measure with the

most impact. There is less drinking, smoking and gambling and more nutritious food

available to families because the quarantine has removed people’s choice. This is a

radical departure from previous social security practice which regarded welfare

benefits as recipients’ property to be spent at will. If it works for Aborigines, though,

there’s no reason why it shouldn’t also work for welfare-dependent families right

around Australia.

As official policy shifted from assimilation to self-determination and as Aboriginal

culture went from being regarded as backward to inviolable, a surprising detachment

seems to have crept into the relationship between Aboriginal people and many of

those working with them. If Aborigines don’t really need to speak English, effective

teaching is not really important either. If customary law is to be encouraged, who

really needs policemen? Under these circumstances, instead of the most useful roles

any public-spirited person can fill, teaching, policing and nursing in remote places

can seem like a hardship to be endured briefly until something more purposeful

comes up.

The missionaries of old might have patronised Aboriginal culture but they regarded

their work with Aboriginal people as a sacred trust. The contemporary challenge is to

engender a modern, secular version of that commitment. If remote Aboriginal people

are to obtain the good education and work culture needed to “close the gap” in

health and other indicators of disadvantage, they need long term engagement from

professionals who are very good at their job. If the intervention is to work, it needs

people who are prepared to see it through for years rather than months.

One way might be to increase salaries for people working in remote townships and

to offer three or even five year contracts. A better way might be to establish a

Remote Administrative Service designed for the very best job applicants and pitched

to become, over time, the public sector equivalent of the SAS. Every job in a remote

indigenous township is more difficult than its equivalent in a middle class suburb.

The children are harder to teach; the illnesses harder to cure; the domestic rows less

likely to settle; the logistical and coordination challenges much greater. It takes

special people to do hard jobs well. This should be accepted, recognised and

rewarded. Having high calibre people permanently on the spot should end the

chronic inability to make decisions that turns remote township life into such a

demoralising stop-start process.

The measures I have suggested: more meaningful statistics to gauge success or

failure; the maintenance and extension of welfare quarantining; and the creation of

an elite group of professionals to work in remote townships are aspects of a deeper

engagement with Aboriginal people. Spending very large sums on Aboriginal

programmes that don’t work is paying conscience money but not meeting our

obligations. Putting Aboriginal people on a cultural pedestal is almost as pernicious

as thinking less of them. They’re fellow Australians who happen to need more help

than most, not a special category of people to be kept in isolation wards.