Is This Going to Assist Vulnerable Australians?

By Altman, Jon | Impact, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Is This Going to Assist Vulnerable Australians?


Altman, Jon, Impact


The national emergency in the Northern Territory prompted by the Anderson/Wild Little Children Are Sacred report on child sex abuse has resulted in the most radical neo-paternalist social policy experiment in Australia in the past 40 years. On 21 June 2007, the Prime Minister and Minister for Families and Community Services and Indigenous Affairs announced 11 broad measures. These included far reaching powers in relation to the citizenship entitlements of Indigenous Australians: to determine how and where welfare recipients spend their income; to link payment of welfare to school attendance by children and to mandatorily dock parents' income to provide meals at school; to introduce market based rents and normal tenancy agreements for every abnormally overcrowded and dilapidated housing; and to give powers for appointed government business managers to direct local work-for-the-dole participants to work on ground clean up and repair of communities. Other measures included banning alcohol; introducing compulsory (rapidly changed to noncompulsory) health checks for children; banning pornography; scrapping the permit system; and allowing for the compulsory leasing of prescribed communities by the Commonwealth. On 23 July, an additional and extremely significant additional measure was announced: the abolition of the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) incrementally from 1 October 2007 to 30 June 2008. This measure targeted at the NT only will affect about 7,500 CDEP workers. The passage of the Northern Territory Emergency Response legislation on Friday 17 August 2007 enshrined many of these measures into Australian law.

These measures aim to address the issue of child abuse and it is patently clear that many do not, indeed it is unclear if they will even assist to address the underlying issues that result in Indigenous marginalization and community dysfunction. I do not want to assess these measures because mere common sense tells us that they will not achieve the Australian Government's purported aim of stabilising, normalising and then exiting prescribed communities in five years. Suffice to say that if the Federal Government has not made inroads into delivering 'practical reconciliation' in the last decade (with this term referring to closing the gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in the areas of health, housing, education and employment), then it is far from clear how it will manage to deliver 'normalisation' in five years in the remotest and most difficult circumstances. Two observations can be made here. First, the Government, with its renowned focus on short-termism and election cycles, may not believe that it will be around to be held accountable in five years. Second, given the Government's poor record in Indigenous affairs, why should Indigenous people in the NT or the Australian public in general be confident that the Government can deliver?

At a broad more philosophical level there are some extremely worrying aspects of this intervention backed by an investigative Emergency Task Force, enhanced police and a an army presence. Framed by the emotive rhetoric of child abuse, past failure, and national emergency, a draconian welfare regime has been justified and is being introduced. This punitive regime looks to initially regulate the behaviour of all Indigenous welfare beneficiaries in prescribed communities in the Northern Territory with the clear aim of altering people's values in the longer term to embrace those of mainstream Australia.

From a social policy perspective this is extremely worrying for many reasons. First, it is racist as it is targeted at Indigenous people only in the NT; the racial discrimination embedded in these measures is recognized by the Government in the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act so that these can be classified as special measures. Second, it is non-discretionary, in other words, all Aboriginal people are included in these punitive measures irrespective of their parenting or personal behaviour: it is assumed that all are bad parents, drinkers, and so on.

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