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Issue #1541      28 March 2012

NT “intervention” plan condemned

A Senate report into the federal government’s proposed Stronger Futures legislation has been met with howls of protest from Indigenous and other groups across the nation.

Although highly critical of the government’s consultations with Aboriginal communities, the Senate’s Community Affairs committee last week gave the government’s plans to extend the Northern Territory Intervention the go-ahead, with only the Australian Greens dissenting.

The draft laws include tough alcohol restrictions and penalties and a program that cuts the welfare payments of parents whose kids skip school, known as the Student Enrolment and Attendance Measure (SEAM), and prohibit cultural considerations from being taken into account in sentencing.

The Senate committee did make 11 recommendations, including that the measures be evaluated in five years rather than seven, releasing more information about SEAM and improving the way the government consults Aboriginal people. But the bottom line was that it backed the government’s approach.

That’s despite receiving more than 450 submissions – most of which opposed the package of laws – from groups including the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, Amnesty International and the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS), and hearing from Aboriginal Elders opposing the measures.

Reaction to the Senate report came thick and fast.

The National Congress accused the Senate committee of ignoring and disrespecting much of the detailed content contained in submissions to the recent inquiry into the proposed legislation.

Co-chairs Jody Broun and Les Malezer said it appeared that submissions had been “cherry-picked” to build a case for the continuation of the Intervention, and that there was no mention of Congress calls for the bills to be tested for human rights compliance.

The Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) warned the laws would likely end up being challenged in the High Court, while Indigenous Social Justice Association president Ray Jackson called on the government to “renounce the unjust and un-Australian intervention and empower the Elders to do things right. Blackfella way”.

ALA national president Greg Barns said the plans to extend the Intervention for another decade were akin to apartheid in South Africa, a system of racial segregation that existed between 1948 to 1994.

“This legislation is racist, oppressive and the product of poorly conducted consultations,” he said. “You can’t just say that a law is a special measure, you need to prove it – otherwise laws like apartheid in South Africa or segregation in the US could have been simply described as a special measure.”

Church groups were also critical of the Senate committee’s report.

Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Sydney Archdiocese executive director Graeme Mundine said the overwhelming message from Aboriginal peoples was that they do not want the legislation approved.

“Aboriginal peoples want to be treated with respect, dignity and be full participants in creating and implementing sustainable solutions to overcome disadvantage plaguing communities,” he said.

Mr Mundine accused the government of spin when in fact “what little verifiable evidence there is shows the Intervention ... has not substantially improved life for Aboriginal peoples’”

“Far from it, measures such as increasing suicides and rising rates in imprisonment show a very different picture,” he said. “The government’s dogged determination to plough on, in collusion with the Opposition, despite the lack of evidence is astounding.”

Mr Mundine said Aboriginal people, not governments, should be the ones to decide how they want to live in the 21st Century, and it was up to governments to enable those choices.

“It beggars belief that the Parliament can be pushing through such damaging legislation while at the same time spruik about Constitutional recognition and reconciliation. You cannot continuously trample on people’s rights and then expect to close the gap or be reconciled.”

The Uniting Church of Australia also called on the government to reject the Senate report’s recommendations, and instead redesign the entire legislative package to ensure it reflected the wishes of those most affected.

General Secretary of the Northern Synod Peter Jones, who appeared at the Darwin hearings, described the legislation as “disempowering”. “Government decisions and actions taken without the active participation of Indigenous peoples must stop,” he said. “This Senate inquiry offered us a chance to reset the relationship between the government and the First Peoples, and it appears that it is now a wasted opportunity.

“Indigenous peoples in the Territory attended the consultation meetings in good faith – believing that their calls for real change would be answered. If the government fails to act now it will be clear that their interest lies only in extending the current Intervention.”

Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) national director Jacqueline Phillips also called for the bills to be withdrawn.

“ANTaR is very concerned that community support for these far-reaching and long-term measures has not been obtained,” she said. “In the absence of consent, these government bills must be withdrawn.”

Ms Phillips said it was time for the government to improve its consultation process and reopen dialogue with affected communities on the Stronger Futures measures.

Meanwhile, Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory (AMSANT) chief executive John Paterson accused the Senate committee of failing to the “get to the guts” of what was needed in Aboriginal communities.

“The Senate Committee says that government needs to listen to our people in better ways. Well, what about the elements of the Intervention Aboriginal people have been demanding for 40 years – greater resources into health, housing, education, employment and community safety,” Mr Paterson said.

“The Senate committee has barely mentioned this, and has not called the government to account to publicly commit to ten years of resourcing.

“And it wasn’t for want of evidence. The Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory drew attention to the need for ongoing resources, and one of AMSANT’s members, Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, spoke about this need at great length during their evidence.

“What we needed out of the Senate Committee were assurances and recommendations about resourcing the next ten years – we didn’t get it.”

Prior to the Senate report being released, nearly 30 leading Australians wrote to the Gillard Government asking it to abandon its proposed legislation and instead negotiate with Aboriginal Elders and other leaders on ways to improve the lives of Indigenous Territorians.

Former Family Court chief justice Alastair Nicholson, along with others in the high-level group including former politicians, Elders, academics, church representatives and justice campaigners, said the government’s approach was demeaning, coercive, racist and a return to failed policies of the past.

“Again we have the spectacle of the government going through the motions of ‘consulting’ without really doing so in order to pursue its pre-determined and Canberra driven policies,” they said in a letter.

“The government simply sounded Aboriginal opinion over a wide range of issues and used such expressions of opinion that favoured its purposes to justify the introduction of special measures.”

But federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin was not having a bar of the criticism, insisting that claims the government failed to consult widely enough were unjust. She said about 100 public meetings were held, and she participated in many of them herself.

“I certainly used interpreters; in some of the meetings the meetings were held entirely in the local Aboriginal language,” Ms Macklin said.

“I needed the interpreters to understand what was going on. They were very important to me and very important to the Aboriginal people who were talking with me.”

The Minister said the 10-year extension of the intervention was needed because problems in Aboriginal communities were so entrenched.

Koori Mail  

Next article – The people’s truth in Colombia – 55 years of La Voz

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