Saturday, 21 June 2008

Abandon NT intervention: Commissioner

Mr Fitzgerald is critical of the one-off, short-term health checks.

The Northern Territory's Anti-Discrimination Commissioner Tony Fitzgerald says the Federal intervention into remote Aboriginal communities should be abandoned and the legislation underpinning it should be repealed.

Mr Fitzgerald says the intervention has caused confusion, unfairness and inconvenience in remote Territory communities.

He is critical of the one-off, short-term health checks and income quarantining measures, and says the suspension of the Northern Territory and Federal race discrimination legislation can never be justified.

Meanwhile, the head of the Northern Territory branch of the Australian Medical Association (AMA) says he does not know of any cases of child sexual abuse that have been uncovered by the medical checks introduced as part of the federal intervention.

A year from the start of the intervention, Dr Peter Beaumont says a lack of effective management has hindered efforts of medical workers.

He says some doctors who went in to Territory communities as part of the intervention did not have enough experience in remote and child health.

Dr Beaumont says there has also been some doubling up of existing services.

"There's still a long, long way to go," he said.

"The things that need doing need to be part of the established health care system which is better funded and better managed."

Mixed reports from affected

An expert on Aboriginal economic policy says he has had mixed reports from people affected by the intervention.

Professor John Altman from the ANU's Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research says he has surveyed people from five affected communities in the Northern Territory since the new measures were introduced.

Professor Altman says some people are happy with measures such as welfare quarantining, because they had led to community shops having better standards of food on offer.

But he says some people are not happy with quarantining and he still has reservations about the principles behind the Emergency Response.

"Are we empowering communites?" he asked.

"Is appointing GBM's - government business managers - just taking power away from local communities organisations, community governments? Is income management of people's incomes actually showing people how to spend money responsibly?"

Truants' parents to lose welfare

WELFARE payments for all parents, indigenous or not, stand to be cut off unless their children regularly attend school in a tough extension of the Northern Territory intervention to the rest of the country.

At the same time, the taskforce investigating the intervention says the viability of some remote indigenous communities must be assessed, raising the spectre of shutting down towns and moving thousands of people to new homes.

Next year, eight areas will participate in a trial of a system in an attempt to enforce requirements that all school-aged children go to school. "We are saying to parents you have a responsibility to make sure your children attend school regularly," the Minister for Families and Community Services, Jenny Macklin, said during a visit to Katherine to mark the first anniversary of the intervention in remote Aboriginal communities.

Six of the eight trial areas will be in the Territory, the other two in city areas not yet chosen. The trials will be evaluated before being applied across the country, but in all areas the measures will be applied to indigenous and non-indigenous parents.

In a controversial recommendation, the intervention taskforce suggests the future of some remote indigenous communities needs to be reconsidered because they are no longer viable. In a report on the first year of the intervention, to be realised today, the taskforce has "strongly recommended" that the federal and Territory governments assess the long-term viability of remote communities.

"The taskforce notes that the long-term sustainability of the 73 prescribed communities [those covered by the intervention] depends on a range of complex demographic and geographic characteristics; and on developing a stronger economic base within investment from the private sector, the community sector, and the Northern Territory and Australian governments."

The report recommends that communities that are assessed as viable should be provided with adequate housing, a police station, a health clinic, an early education centre, a primary school, a store, jobs and access to high school.

Ms Macklin said the Government would consider the recommendations but would not comment specifically on the future of remote communities. The recommendation is highly sensitive. It could force governments to consider relocating thousands of people from their traditional bases and long-term homes.

The Federal Government is already experimenting with withholding welfare payments to parents, indigenous or not, suspected of abusing or neglecting their children. It is keen to use welfare payments such as income support, the single-parent pension and the disability-support pension to force people to live up to their responsibilities as parents. The Howard Government was also interested in using welfare payments as a way of enforcing school attendance across the country, but had not worked out how to do it.

Ms Macklin's strategy will cost $17 million. It will make schools responsible for handing attendance figures to Centrelink.

Centrelink will be required to ask parents for proof of enrolment and attendance.

The Government is keen to know how many children are not enrolled at school. Figures on this are difficult to find, although attendance figures are kept by state governments.

In the Northern Territory it is estimated that about 2000 children are not enrolled. Of the 8000 children enrolled in schools in the areas affected by the intervention, it is estimated that 2500 do not attend school regularly.

Only about 40 per cent of indigenous secondary-school children in the Territory complete year 12, compared with 75 per cent of the rest of the population.

Welfare groups are unhappy with the Government's increasing use of the welfare system to direct people's behaviour, arguing it is heavy-handed and patronising. But the Government says it is effective.

Figures from the first year of the intervention show that, where welfare quarantining is in place, people have been spending more money on healthy food and less on cigarettes. Half of welfare payments are withheld by the Government and can be spent only on essentials such as food and rent.

Seventeen of 20 community stores surveyed by the Government reported that people had been buying more fruit, vegetables, fresh meat, rice and dairy products since it began. But people were still buying fast food with the rest of their money, the stores' operators said.

Protesters stage rally against NT intervention

Hundreds of protesters have staged a rally in the Sydney suburb of Redfern, demanding an end to the Federal Government's intervention in the Northern Territory.

Today marks the first anniversary of the intervention into 73 remote Aboriginal communities.

The Redfern protest rally has heard only criticisms of the move. Aboriginal speakers say the legislation underpinning the move is racist.

They say while problems needed to be addressed with additional resources, mobilising the army and quarantining people's incomes were humiliating for Aboriginal people and have only fuelled racist attitudes and problems.

They are calling for the racial discrimination act to be re-introduced and the intervention abandoned.

Alcohol laws

Northern Territory Chief Minister Paul Henderson has again called for the abolition of the intervention's $100 alcohol rule.

Under the legislation introduced by the Howard government, NT retail outlets must record the details of customers who buy more than $100 worth of alcohol.

Former chief minister Clare Martin said on the night of last year's Federal Election she would ask the Rudd Government to overturn the rule.

Seven months later, Mr Henderson says he will ask the Federal Government the same thing.

"Let's get rid of this stupid $100 rule where you have got to write your name in the book if you purchase $100 worth or a box of wine," he said.

"That is absolutely stupid, it doesn't go to protect children and I suppose, [off] top of my head, that is the first thing I would ask to go."


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