Larissa Behrendt

There is little disagreement about what the problems are in Aboriginal communities. But when it comes to the appropriate solution, deep divisions exist.

Paul Toohey’s essay explains the cynical political motives behind the Northern Territory intervention and captures the way a broad underlying concern among many Australians led to tentative support for the idea that something extreme had to be done to fix “the Aboriginal problem,” even if there was widespread scepticism about John Howard’s motives. 

Perhaps this genuine sentiment within the Australian community explains the acceptance of such an extreme government response. Toohey, in a brave admission, concedes that he responded to the announcement of the intervention “as though I were an on-air jock rather than a print reporter.” 

The powerful rhetoric of the Howard government and their Aboriginal supporters, who claimed the intervention was “all about the children” and levelled the accusation that “if you are against the intervention, you are protecting the paedophiles,” made many non-indigenous people too reticent to engage in the debate and silenced many Aboriginal critics. The ALP was as focused on winning the upcoming election as the Howard government and it was not going to die in a ditch over this issue. Rudd dodged a bullet. But this political manoeuvring effectively shut down the complex debate needed about the plethora of mechanisms contained in the intervention package. 

It meant that some of the things that were going to make a big difference – such as increased resources for policing and health (primarily through medical checks) – were bundled up with wholly unacceptable measures. This mixing of good and bad has prevented sensible analysis of what aspects of the intervention package have replicated the mistakes of the past, what aspects are based on learning from past mistakes, what aspects are simply ideologically driven, and what aspects have evidence to demonstrate that they will assist in reaching the government’s goals.

In many ways, the intervention in the Northern Territory is a textbook example of why government policies continue to fail Aboriginal people. The policy approach was ideologically led, rather than being based on understanding of what actually works on the ground. It was paternalistic and top-down, rather than collaborative and inclusive. The rhetoric of acting in the best interests of Aboriginal people or children also masked other policy agendas, which are unrelated to dealing with systemic problems of violence and abuse, and which seek to undermine communities’ control over their own resources. 

Many aspects of the intervention are questionable, and the quarantining of welfare payments to improve school attendance highlights the dangers of the government’s approach. It is powerful rhetoric and sits well with the broader electorate, who like the idea of punishing parents who do not care enough for their children to ensure they attend school. 

As it turned out, though, the quarantining of welfare payments was not linked solely to school attendance but was imposed in a blanket manner, making no distinction between good parents and bad, no distinction between those who were parents and those who were not parents at all; it simply brought everyone in a designated area into the scheme. This blanket approach could only be realised by the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and by removing the right of appeal to the Social Securities Review Tribunal. 

There is little evidence that linking school attendance to welfare payments works. There has only been one trial evaluated in Australia – at Halls Creek – and it found that the parents of Aboriginal children were only one of the factors that affected school attendance. The evidence points to the pivotal role that teachers and the school culture play in a community where children decide at a very early age how they will spend their time. All this occurs in communities where only 47 cents is spent for every dollar spent on non-Aboriginal students; in communities where there are not enough teachers and classrooms. Imposing punitive measures on parents to ensure that their children go to school is an act of hypocrisy from a government that neglects the same children by failing to provide adequate funding for a teacher and a classroom. 

In general, there is no evidence to show that linking welfare to behaviour reforms is effective. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that the imposition of such punitive measures in an already dysfunctional situation will exacerbate the stress on a household. What the evidence does show to be effective in getting Aboriginal children into schools are the following: 

  • breakfast and lunch programs;
  • programs that bring the Aboriginal community, especially elders, into the schools;
  • Aboriginal teachers’ aides and Aboriginal teachers; 
  • curriculum that engages Aboriginal children; and 
  • approaches such as that developed by Aboriginal educationalist Chris Sarra, where programs that promote self-esteem and confidence through engaging with culture are combined with programs that focus on academic excellence. 

This shows that there is much that schools can do to engage children. It suggests that, rather than simply punishing parents for their children’s non-attendance, the government should be providing schools and teachers that meet the needs of the Aboriginal community. It cost $88 million to make the initial administrative changes in Centrelink for welfare quarantining, but not one dollar was spent in the intervention on any of the types of programs that have been proven to engage Aboriginal children in schools. 

Consultation is not just a nicety or blind, leftist do-gooder hogwash. Research in Australia and North America shows consistently that the best way to lessen the disparity between indigenous and non-indigenous people is to include indigenous people in the development of policy and the design and delivery of programs. Apart from sounding like commonsense, such research shows that this engagement increases the effectiveness and success rate of programs; it builds capacity and skills within the community, contributing to the development of human capital. 

In the period between the announcement of the intervention and the passing of the legislation to back it up, the Coalition of Aboriginal Organisations produced a document that canvassed all the programs developed to deal with the very issues that the intervention claimed to address: alcohol abuse, child sexual abuse, health problems, domestic overcrowding. These programs were community-driven and were getting results, but were often only funded as pilot projects. 

This document was significant for another reason. It highlighted the way in which Aboriginal people around the Northern Territory had been actively working to address deep issues of disadvantage and associated social problems, thus contradicting the view that they were indifferent to, or complicit in, these problems. People in these communities had been pleading for more resources for housing, health services and police services for decades; in the interim, many successful programs were developed by community members, often without government assistance, such as night patrols, dry-out areas and safe houses.

Toohey’s essay is littered with anecdotes of Aboriginal indolence, indifference and opportunism. But, like the mainstream media coverage and the government rhetoric, it is scant on evidence of Aboriginal agency and responsibility. It is also thin on highlighting the responsibility that governments have but do not meet. 

Our governments avoid the question of their responsibility by blaming everyone else. They blame Aboriginal people. Governments love the rhetoric dished up to them by Aboriginal people who say that their own mob needs to take responsibility. If Aboriginal people are the problem, then governments do not need to develop policies and supply resources. 

They blame the other level of government. Since the 1967 referendum, federal and state/territory governments have shared responsibility for health, housing and education. The result has been that both levels of government have significantly under-funded Aboriginal communities in these basic areas. 

They blame the judiciary. Toohey mentions the case of The Queen v GJ but underplays the appeal court’s decision to increase the sentence on the basis that too much weight had been given to the customary law defence. Aboriginal women have constantly asked the judiciary not to accept evidence given by defendants that violence and sexual assault are acceptable in Aboriginal culture and have also asked those undertaking the judicial process not to give weight to customary practices that violate human rights. (But Toohey is right to be concerned about any attempt to restrict a judicial officer’s capacity to weigh up all the relevant factors when sentencing; the inability to consider customary background at all will impede the capacity to ensure that a just sentence is given in each particular circumstance before the court.) 

Pointing the finger at the judiciary is an easy way for politicians to grand-stand and score quick political sound-bites. Judges who hear criminal cases where violence has been committed against Aboriginal women and children are dealing with the symptoms of an exceedingly complex social problem. It is politicians, not the judiciary, who have the most power to profoundly influence the root causes of cyclical violence. 

The Australian Crime Commission has now concluded that there are no organised paedophile rings operating in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. There was a crisis in Aboriginal communities that needed fixing, but it wasn’t organised exploitation of children. The crisis is that the failure to provide essential services and adequate infrastructure, as well as to invest in human capital, has created profound cyclical poverty, despondency and hopelessness; it has caused an unravelling of the social fabric, creating an environment in which substance abuse and violence have become normalised. It is a complex set of factors and it deserved a more thoughtful, less ideologically driven, less politically motivated solution than the one handed down by both sides of parliament in the Northern Territory intervention. 

Despite the difficult relationship that Aboriginal people had with the Howard government (and Toohey’s account of Howard’s inability to have that relationship is spot-on), many Aboriginal people hoped that the Rudd government would bring a sea-change to Aboriginal affairs, though they were not naive enough to think that the ALP had the answers. 

The Rudd government seems to expend as much energy as the Howard government in spinning the story that the intervention has been a success. It has blindly gone forward, taking little opportunity to reflect on what is working and to discard what is not. Not only has it inherited the mess that the flawed policies are producing, it is now responsible for it. 


Larissa Behrendt is professor of law and director of research at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology, Sydney. She is the author of several books, including Achieving Social Justice: Indigenous Rights and Australia’s Future and the award-winning novel Home.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 30, Last Drinks. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 31, Now or Never.


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