Kentavius Street Jersey Northern Territory Intervention Blog - Caleb Corneloup

Northern Territory Intervention Blog

This blog seeks to consider some of the issues relating to the Northern Territory Intervention. There will be a summary of the events and issues, followed by a brief consideration of the justifications for the special measures. There is also a light discussion on alternative measures.

In July 2007 the Northern Territory Government released a report titled “Little children are sacred”. The report discussed the dire living standards of the aboriginal community and outlined the high rates of violence and sexual abuse in the community. It mentions that “poor health, alcohol and drug abuse, unemployment, gambling, pornography, poor education, inadequate housing, and a general loss of control and identity”, had all contributed towards the uncontrolled violence and sexual abuse towards children in the aboriginal community of the Northern Territory. The general feeling in the aboriginal community was that of disillusionment and powerlessness and they were overwhelmed and confused by their social conditions.

After the release of the report, the Northern Territory Government failed to act and was accused of months of inaction by the Commonwealth Government. Consequently, the Commonwealth Government intervened and introduced an emergency response. The response was supported not only by the Coalition Government but also the Labor opposition. The policy was formulated within 48 hours and took only ten days to go from its introduction into parliament through to its royal assent.

Australian police from various jurisdictions along with the Australian Defense Force were sent to the Northern Territory to help implement the emergency measures. Accompanying them were various professionals, doctors and public servants from outside the aboriginal community. The intervention was of a quasi-military nature designed to secure communities and the safety of children. The government took control of prescribed aboriginal lands and community areas, as well as aboriginal community councils and organizations that it determined were not fulfilling their duties. The National Indigenous Violence and Child Abuse Intelligence Taskforce were given special coercive powers for the purposes of aiding the intervention. Courts were also prohibited from considering cultural issues when sentencing for criminal offenses. Social Security payments were regulated, and fifty percent of the income was limited to the purchasing of food and other essentials only. Social Security was also only granted if children maintained their school attendance.

While there is certainly justification for emergency intervention, the Special Rapporteur has stated that the response was disproportionate and discriminatory against aboriginals, and therefore a breach of the Race Convention. This is evidenced by the government suspension of the RDA. The result of the intervention is that the aboriginal community subjected to the intervention were unable to enjoy the same rights as other Australian Citizens. Specifically, the aboriginal community was discriminated against in the areas of property rights, access to social security, participation in community affairs, cultural rights and equal status before the law. Even though there was significant opposition to the intervention, there was also widespread conditional community support for the intervention.

The “future directions” paper suggests that indigenous people subject to the intervention spent more money on healthy food and white goods while spending significantly less money on alcohol and gambling. Furthermore, the local stores were able to stock higher quality food for the local community.18 However, the Special Rapporteur has pointed out that the fact that the income quarantine applied to areas predominantly inhabited by aboriginals, and was therefore discriminatory. He draws attention to the fact that outside the intervention area, income quarantine is applied on a case by case basis and only when it has been proven that children have been neglected.

The Special Rapporteur has suggested, that the community should be granted greater self-government powers at the local level. This would enhance the indigenous communities right to self-determination and move the intervention to closer compliance with Article 19 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. The Special Rapporteur responds to claims that the indigenous community is incapable of self-government by pointing out that the indigenous peoples are not responsible for their plight, rather it was caused by western colonization, persecution, and genocide.

In summary, we can see that there was justification for an emergency intervention in the Northern Territory. However, the intervention was disproportionate and discriminated against indigenous people. There are alternative measures which the government could use which would not be discriminatory and the government should seek to strengthen the self-governing powers of the indigenous peoples.

By Caleb Corneloup