Archive for August, 2007

Maximum Participation?

August 30, 2007

When the Federal Government abolished ATSIC, it promised a revolution in Indigenous affairs. The ATSI Social Justice Commissionr, Tom Calma, has been monitoring the results of these ‘new arrangements’. The latest report, Social Justice 2006, is not a glowing recommendation and identifies within it many of the serious shortcomings that were to become major flaws in the NT response. The criticisms are especially notable as this was the proclaimed aim of the new arrangements,

to ensure maximum participation of Aboriginal persons and Torres Strait Islanders in the formulation and implementation of government policies that affect them


The Commissioners’ Press Club appearance noting the Governments’ response to the report is also worth a read.

Here are a few relevant excerpts from Social Justice 2006,

The ‘new broom’ that has been introduced through the new arrangements to date has been a process broom. This has both exaggerated the role of process as a cause of Indigenous disadvantage, and resulted in other key issues not receiving the priority attention they deserved…………

The vacuum at the national and regional levels of Indigenous representative input is now serious. Without that Indigenous input, I am concerned that the mistakes of the past will be repeated, or the wrong lessons learned.

Unless there is a re-engagement with Indigenous Australians on the basis of mutual respect and equality, with clear processes and certainty of structures for Indigenous representation and advocacy, it remains uncertain whether the new arrangements can produce tangible, significant and lasting benefits rather than amounting to little more than an administratively complex repackaging of existing programs.

Chapter 3 details the near total failure in implementing the new processes,

Various community members noted that the process of negotiating an RIEA [Regional Indigenous Engagement Arrangements – consultative process intended to replace ATSIC functions] had not progressed due to a lack of communication from the OIPC and ICC, with the proponents not hearing from the local ICC regarding their proposal, no financial support from any level of government to facilitate progressing the proposal, lack of communication on the proposal between the state or territory government and the federal government, and/ or a lack of support for the proposal by the state or territory government.




It is difficult for Indigenous communities to deal with the volume of changes, agencies and requirements under the new arrangements and the increasing entanglements of red tape. There is a need to support authentic and credible structures and processes for Indigenous communities that allow them to engage with governments, be consulted, and where appropriate, provide informed consent.

In my view the government has adopted a cynical and disingenuous approach in which the apparatus of the new arrangements play no active role in engaging with Indigenous peoples on a systemic basis to ensure that mechanisms for Indigenous participation can become a reality.


In summation,

Two years on from this statement, it is now clear that the new arrangements are fundamentally flawed and do not ensure the effective participation of Indigenous peoples in decision making that affects our daily lives.


August 28, 2007

Warning: anecdotal.

There has been a series of recent suicides in the Top End. I’m reliably informed via sources within the mental health service that community members have identified the Commonwealth intervention as a contributing factor. It makes sense from the perspective that the interventions may have further diminished peoples sense of ownership and control and increased that of arbitrary external control.

The NT Response

August 22, 2007

We finally have the NT Governments’ response to the ‘Little Children Are Sacred‘ (LCAS) report which was released on Monday. For speediness of response it comes a poor second to the Federal Government, but the NTG had always said it would release its’ detailed response in August. At a glance it has several things going for it. For one, it actually addresses the recommendations of the LCAS report. The NTG has addressed, on paper at least, each of the 97 recommendations. That’s 97 more than the Howard/Brough plan. The NTG also wins some points for the bench-marking it has undertaken and the source it used to do this. The benchmarks are taken from ‘Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage (2007)‘, produced 2 yearly by the Commonwealth’s own Productivity Commission. The Federal response has been noteworthy for completely ignoring this very useful source of information on disadvantage and its’ advice on how best to tackle the issue. The NTG response also sets goals for the long-term, setting targets within a realistic time frame of 20 years, forgoing the normal government routine of thinking little past the 3-4 year election cycle.

But it’s the detail that matters.

The biggest minus is the scale of the NT response. Chief minister Claire Martin has made much of the $280 million price-tag, but that is over 5 years and is overwhelmed by the scale of the issues it attempts to address. On housing, ‘Closing the Gap’ promises another $42 million on top of the $100 million pledged in the NT budget. But as the report acknowledges, the need is in the order of $1.5 billion, or roughly 200 new houses per year, for the next 20 years. Worse still, the $42 million is for housing for new NTG staff, not for Aboriginal people in remote communities. The report can only suggest that the NTG hopes for 50% of the $1.6 billion ARIA program (which is itself deeply problematic) that the Commonwealth has proposed.

On specific child protection measures, the NTG is proposing to increase both child protection worker, and family violence worker numbers, 10 and 26 respectively, 40 additional police and extra FACS staff of an indeterminate nature. This tallies up to $79 million. The Federal Govt. promised $14.1 million for extra child protection workers in the NT, but it isn’t clear if the NTG has included this in its’ response, or if that will be in addition to the $79 million. Policing of new alcohol regulations will be in the hands of another 8 “alcohol compliance inspectors“. There will be 4, yes four, “specialist alcohol rehabilitation workers “. They’ll be busy. While this is a better response than that offered by the Commonwealth, both are vastly undervaluing the role to be played by assisting chronic drinkers to deal with their addiction, as opposed to either locking them up or simply restricting access to alcohol (both which have some part to play).

Education gets 47 new teachers/teacher aids, 15 new classrooms, but nothing specific to address the chronic shortage of high schools in remote communities. There are 6 new “mobile preschools” and 21 teachers, which I suspect is nowhere near enough. I was just in Wadeye (Port Keats) where there is one preschool (2 teachers) for 80 enrolled pre-schoolers, out of a possible 150. Wadeye alone (one of 70 communities) could absorb a significant portion of the new positions.

Ten million has been allocated to transitioning some CDEP workers to proper paid positions within the NT Public Service. Thank God!, but it’s not enough. This is one of my pet peeves about CDEP. It was used to employ people to do real work (eg. teachers, AHWs), but only paid them what was essentially welfare money. Unfortunately, many other people doing work for which they should receive proper pay will be shifted over to work-for-the-dole and STEP. A pitiful $2 million is for “Indigenous economic development initiatives“. Who are they trying to kid?

There’s plenty more detail, but those are the basics.

Overall, it does well in actually addressing the LCAS report that prompted it, but fails to meet the scale of the problem. That is hardly surprising given the overall size of he NT economy, which is why Clare Martin had approached Mal Brough over a year ago asking for a combined Territory/ Federal Govt intensive response to the problems on remote communities. Which was completely rebuffed by the way. Given Broughs’ comments on ‘Closing the Gap’, the NTG shouldn’t be counting on too much Commonwealth support to achieve its long term aims of addressing Indigenous disadvantage.


August 17, 2007

I was chatting with a colleague the other day about the ’emergency’ .  Besides lamenting the craziness of the welfare ‘reforms’ (he is a long term child protection worker who understands the massive task Centrelink has been set), he raised the issue of the general conundrum posed by these measures: do you try to work with an obviously flawed and ill-conceived plan, or keep well away to avoid being tarred by association and lumbered with the Sisyphean task of trying to make it work? 

I tend towards the former, both in moments of bright optimism and despair.  Afterall, we have a responsibility to work with people to improve their lives.  Sitting back and watching the chaos doesn’t seem like a good option. But that is tempered by the Governments extreme reluctance to engage and consult meaningfully with the people who will be affected and its rejection of critical opinions.   

Alcohol Restrictions

August 17, 2007

This is the other major aspect of the Federal Government’s ’emergency’ intervention. Mal Brough promised “widespread alcohol restrictions” to tackle alcohol abuse. Sounds like a good idea until you realise that there are already widespread alcohol restrictions in place in the NT. The vast majority of remote communities are already officially dry. There are a handful of licences ‘clubs’ that operate on a restricted basis. To demonstrate the confusion over the issue, one of Mr Broughs first idea’s was to actually increase the number of these ‘clubs’ in remote communities. That idea sank without trace, no doubt when he realised that such a proposal would be increasing alcohol availability rather than restricting it. The idea was born from Brough’s observation of a common site – piles of ‘green cans’ (VB) located just outside the boundaries of ‘dry’ communities. Drinkers drive to a takeaway outlet, then bring their bounty back home, but unable to legally consume it there, they sit outside the community boundary and finish it all off.

Under the new legalisation, this will be illegal as the consumption of alcohol on all Aboriginal land is prohibited. The effect of this will be not to prevent this practice, but simply to modify it. The same drinkers will do the same things, just the location will change – from the community boundary to the Aboriginal lands boundary. With one possible exception. The ‘boat exemption’ has made into the final Legislation, allowing the consumption of alcohol on boats witihin Aboriginal Lands. Drinking is allowed,

in a boat that was on waters in a prescribed area; and
(b) the defendant was engaged in recreational boating activities or commercial fishing activities

This is widely, and correctly, seen as a special measure to keep the non-Indigenous recreational fishers happy, whose enjoyment of a few too many beers while out on the water is sacrosanct. I hope this won’t lead to more boating tragedies as drinkers look for ways around the general prohibition, but I suspect it might. The Minister also has the power to remove areas from this exemption.

There are a several new elements of the legislation that target sales of alcohol. One is regarding the quantity of alcohol that can be purchased. This is to be restricted to 1,350 ml of pure alcohol per person. Woolworths was quick to point out the problems that will confront their staff who will have the task of implementing this policy. They will have to calculate the quantity of alcohol in a customers purchase, and are subject to fines (close to $7000) if they get it wrong. By my calculations, you can buy 3 cartons of VB and remain just under the 1,350 mL limit. And to give you an idea of how this will play out in practice, I’ll relate an anecdote that I experienced just last week when queuing at the local Woolworths grog shop; 2 blokes had their Friday night supplies in hand and were paying, but ran foul of the current alcohol sales restrictions (yes, some already exist), so one simply stepped back and paid for half separately, and they walked out with exactly what they had initially tried to pay for together.

The new regulations also demand that the seller seek proof of ID, record the name ands address of the purchaser, and record the location of where the purchaser intends to consume the alcohol. This part still mystifies me. Will the Police be going to bottle shops, looking at the records and then going to the proposed consumption location? And then what? If they are not there will the police ask them where it was consumed, or proof that it was consumed? There are no penalties in the legislation for consuming the alcohol in a place other than where the purchaser stated they would, so it’s hard to see what the point of all this is.

As indicated earlier, there are already significant restrictions in place in the NT, which vary across the regions. For instance in Alice there is now no public drinking permitted, which replaces the older ‘2km Law’ which prohibited drinking within 2kms of a takeaway outlet. Alice also prohibits takeaway sales before midday and cask sales before 6pm. Tenant Creek has ‘Thirsty Thursday’ – no alcohol sales on Thursdays when people receive most of their Centrelink payments. The Tiwi Islands and Groote Eylandt have introduced new alcohol management plans that have significantly reduced alcohol related violence and crime. Regional plans can address the specific circumstances of that region, and most importantly, they involve local participation in their drafting.

While the effectiveness of these measures is debatable, and the lack of local involvement and participation means that they will likely fail, the real issue was the almost total absence of measures to increase the availability of alcohol treatment services. A lack of consultation and unwillingness to compromise are the hallmarks of this process, but at least on this issue there has been a tiny victory. The Senate Report recommends

that the Australian Government should closely examine the need for additional drug and alcohol rehabilitation services in the Northern Territory and, if necessary, provide additional funding support to those services.

‘If necessary’ is a rather large caveat, but I live in hope.

Survey Teams

August 12, 2007

One feature of the NTERT was the promise to send out survey teams to remote communities. This was Mal Broughs’ explanation,

Teams will start visiting communities this week to meet and talk with the communities about the Australian Government’s decision and commitments and to asses the infrastructure and additional resources communities require.

The Survey Team has just visited community K. in the Top End where my friend, who shall remain nameless, lives and works. So what the are they doing with their ‘surveys’?

The Survey Team consisted of 9 people. Three from Norforce and the rest from a variety of Commonwealth agencies such as the ICC and OIPC. It turns out the Survey Teams’ survey consist of little more than asking a variety of community organizations for data/informrtion that is already available and that the Federal Government, or its’ agencies, already possess. For instance, the Council was asked for details on the unmet housing need. Did 9 people really need to travel to a remote community to ask this?

They flew in, they asked questions to which the answers are already known, they flew out.

This was my friends rather blunt assessment of the day,

They were just waving the flag, so that they can say that remote communities have been consulted.

Legilsation: “empowering local citizens”

August 9, 2007

The Federal Governments new Legislation has finally seen the light of day, and what an interesting thing it is. Given that it’s 500-odd pages, forgive me if I just deal lightly with only a small part of it here. The basic parameters of the much heralded welfare “reforms” can now be examined. At its’ core is the quarantining of welfare payments. According to the Mal Brough, it will be,

fifty percent of the welfare payments of all individuals in the affected [NT] communities will be income managed for an initial period of 12 months during the stabilisation phase.

Income managed is the key phrase. What is it? The Minister hasn’t made it completely clear, but it seems that a horde of new Centrelink workers will be required to sit down with every single person on welfare payments and go through their spending with them. Then the Centrelink officers will monitor each persons spending over the 12 month period. The basic mechanism is that 50% of peoples payments will go into the ‘Income Management Account’ (IMA), which appears to rest under the control of Centrelink. This can be increased to 100% for a number of reasons – if their child has poor school attendance, or is identified as being at risk of neglect. This portion in the IMA will have to be used for necessities, such as food, clothing, housing etc. Centrelink will provide vouchers or make payments directly from the IMA for these items. According to the Minister once these basics needs are met, Centrelink cannot “unreasonably” (wonderfully vague) refuse access to funds in this account as discretionary cash, though it is prohibited from being spent on “excluded items“, which are listed as alcohol, pornography, tobacco, and gambling. I wonder if Centrelink staff are looking forward to their new role as the Shopping Police? Are they going to follow people around and lurk behind trees to see if they go and play cards or buy a packet of fags?

The Government wants individuals to take control over their lives.

And how? By taking control of their lives for them? By having a Government official peering over their shoulder to watch every cent that they spend?

The Appropriations Bill supporting these measures makes me wonder at the some of the priorities. Remember, child abuse and alcohol are the primary reasons for all of this in the first place. The largest chunk of funding goes to FaCSIA ($212 mill) for a range of broadly defined items. A useful contribution is $30 million to assist remote stores. Exorbitant prices are a serious problem, with high freight charges being a significant factor. For instance it costs over $1000 (minimum) to get a single engine plane to deliver a load of supplies to a remote community. Unless this can be addressed, prices are unlikely to change significantly. On a specific child protection measure, $14 million is to go towards employing more child protection workers in the NT. $34 million is for temporary accommodation for “Australian government….staff“, probably all those Shopping Police. There is a small provision for an increase in alcohol treatment outreach programs, with the Minister emphasising assistance with withdrawal , but no commitment to on-the-ground addiction treatment programs.

Overall, it sounds like a great job creation program….for middle class white professionals.

How The Hell Did We Get Here? 2

August 8, 2007

(I’ve only just noticed that on the migration from Blogger to WordPress this post went missing.)

The situation of Indigenous people is Australia is not unique in its general outlines. European colonialism displacing and impacting on Indigenous populations is a feature of other modern liberal-democratic states; the USA, New Zealand and Canada. Where we stand out is that we’ve done it far worse than these other examples on key indicators. The most obvious and most often quoted is life expectancy (LE). The latest figures still show a 17 year gap in LE between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. In the other 3 analogous situations the LE discrepancy is only half of that in Australia. What are we doing so wrong or so differently here?? Or are there other factors that explain the difference?

While there are differences, I suspect that our overall approach is the most significant factor. The other possibilities are the very low Indigenous population in Australia, at just over 2%. Indigenous people make up 15% of the NZ population and 4.4% in Canada. The US sinks the theory with a very similar proportion to Australia (around 2%). Another suggestion has been the proportion of people living in very remote locations, but Canada also has very remote locations with Indigenous populations.

So, what is it we do so poorly? And why can’t we learn from our own past experience, as well as that of others? I’d argue that the recent ’emergency response’ in the NT shows exactly what it is we do so poorly. Here we had an unco-ordinated, poorly planned response to a chronic situation that involved zero consultation with the affected population. Juxtaposed with this was the Federal Governments’ own Productivity Commission report of this year, ‘Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2007’ , which was the subject of a presentation by the Chairman of the Productivity Commission at the OECD World Forum, just 7 days after John Howard and Mal Brough’s notable press conference. This is the Commissions’ summation of what we have learned (or should have learned) ,

Analysis of the ‘things that work’, together with wide consultation with governments and Indigenous people, identified the following ‘success factors’:
-cooperative approaches between Indigenous people and government (and the private sector)

-community involvement in program design and decision-making; a ‘bottom-up’ rather than ‘top-down’ approach

-good governance

-on-going government support (including human, financial and physical resources).

The Federal Governments response in the NT has been pretty much the opposite of what its’ own Productivity Commission, and years of experience, recommend.
But why?

I believe it is the wilful ignorance (or denial) of the ‘chain of history’; that what we see today is inextricably linked to yesterday and beyond. Aboriginal disadvantage today is the outcome of past, as well as current, choices, policy and practices. Ignoring this leads to policy reactions focussed on today, such as bringing in the army or short term policing strategies, when we know that indentification and solving of problems must include Aboriginal people at every phase, from diagnosis, to implementation, to evaluation. Not doing so, simply guarantees further failure, no matter how urgent an emergency is evoked as reason not to adopt this approach.

CDEP: Tossing out the baby with the bathwater.

August 6, 2007

On July 23, Mal Brough and Joe Hockey announced the end of the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) in the NT. I’ve never been a big fan, as it has often been used to pay individuals who are doing real work and so should be paid real wages with all the entitlements that go with that. This was a surprise as just in February the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Joe Hockey, had said this,

CDEP will continue to operate in remote areas and in regional locations with weaker labour markets.

Which was in relation to the abolition of CDEP in other areas, the rationale for which was to,

replace Community Development Employment Projects in strong labour markets with genuine access to real jobs.

One wonders at the economic miracle that has occurred in remote NT communities in the past 6 months that has turned them into “strong labour markets”.

Of course no such thing has occurred. This is just policy, and bad policy, on the run. The Federal Government has discovered an impediment to one part of its’ welfare ‘reforms’. The measure to quarantine part of peoples welfare payments could not be done with CDEP. CDEP payments are made as wages, not welfare, so the Commonwealth lacked the power to quarantine them. The answer – scrap CDEP in remote communities, despite having reaffirmed its role just 6 months ago.

This is a depressing example of the Federal Government resorting to knee-jerk responses to problems caused by its’ preceding knee-jerk responses. Having dreamt up a quick welfare ‘reform’ fix, it finds that this can’t be implemented because of the prevalence of CDEP in remote NT communities, so with a flourish of the Ministerial pen, CDEP is no more. This is an act which speaks of a worrying historical ignorance. CDEP was introduced by the Fraser Government in 1977 in response to the rise in unemployment caused by the move to award wages for Indigenous Australians. This encounter between thinly populated remote Australia and the ‘real economy’ was a rather negative one. The current government, in its’ haste, confusion and ideological blinkers, is reaching for a ‘real economy’ answer to CDEP, when CDEP was in fact the answer to the real economies impact on Indigenous employment. Jon Altman summed it up in 2005 when there were rumours of the end of CDEP,

to eliminate the CDEP scheme would see the unemployment rates jump from 7% to 76% in very remote regions and from 17% to 46% in remote regions

The Ministers have announced that work-for-dole and STEP (Structured Training and Employment Projects) will replace CDEP. However, the transition process is far from clear and CDEP provides extra financial support that is vital to creating the jobs that they do. The providers, mostly community councils, receive around $3,400 per participant per year plus a small weekly admin fee, which they use to purchase capital equipment eg, a garbage truck. In one community I know well, this means an extra $400,000 a year to provide essential services and jobs. The Governments plan seems to be to increase the involvement of Job Network providers to run the new programs. This is a dubious move. In the community above, the Job Network provider is Mission Australia. They have no office, no vehicle and no clue, and have created about 0 new jobs in the year they have been at it. In their defense, they only have one worker doing 20 hrs a week. At another community with a more successful Mission Australia presence, they have been placing many people in work…..but into CDEP positions!!

The situation at Robinson River gives some idea of the difficulties the small remote communities will be facing with this transition from CDEP.

The shortcomings have been noted by many, including the excellent Jane Simpson and Jon Altman at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research. The Local Government Association of the NT is also informative, given that it is many of their members who will be at the pointy end of this policy decision.

Child Abuse and Permits.

August 1, 2007

Go together like……..well, like nothing really.

The latest announcement from the Federal Government regarding Entry Permits for Aboriginal land has nothing to do with the Taskforce, but does show their single-minded determination to scrap the permit system for Aboriginal Lands. At issue is the plan to cover remote townships by 99 yr leases. The reasoning is that this will help with private home ownership. There has been much controversy over the 99 yr lease plan, particularly in the community of Nguiu, on Bathurst Is, 80 kms north of Darwin. A spokesman for the Minister has now announced that permits will be scrapped for Nguiu as part of the 99 yr lease, despite residents being previously told that they would not be.

Whatever the problem, scrapping the permit system is the answer for the Federal Government.

The Minister has repeatedly suggested this as part of the answer to child abuse in remote indigenous communities. The ‘Operational Head’ of the NTERT, Maj-Gen David Chalmers, reiterated this just yesterday ,

I’m convinced there needs to be a broad strategy to address those problems, and I think the changes to the permit system are part of that strategy.

Yet, as many critics of the move have pointed out, there appears to be little credible thinking behind the strategy. David Chalmers explained it this way,

If we’re going to help children in these communities, we have to develop opportunities for them, educational opportunities, employment opportunities and the permit system is clearly acting to prevent those opportunities from developing.

Will removing the permit system lead to an increase in housing or health funding? More teachers? Better schools??

There are a series of reports at the top right of the page. They contain many recommendations and strategies for dealing with the issue. But there is one course of action that none of them recommend – removing the permit system. The consensus on this makes me suspect that this is because it is not a solution to the problem.

Which takes me to a general point that is worth repeating. Despite the talk of a child abuse epidemic, the evidence is lacking. The AIHW, Australia’s health and welfare stats agency, says that rates of child sex abuse are less than half that of the rest of Australia. Under reporting (see ‘State of Denial’) is likely a significant issue in these figures, but they are worth keeping in mind amongst the talk of ‘epidemics’.

The co-author of a Commonwealth commissioned child protection report says sex abuse figures for Indigenous children in the Northern Territory are among the lowest in Australia. Diedre Penhaligon from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare confirmed Indigenous children in suburban Victoria are more at risk than those in the Territory.