The media release the minister should’ve written on the NT Intervention


The following is a draft alternative media release for Jenny Macklin (and what she should have said as a response to the current consultation rather than harping on about truancy and grog!).

I want to again say sorry! Despite our 2008 apology, this government made more policy  mistakes and added to the pain of indigenous people. The intervention we inherited had already failed to engage the local communities and unfortunately we have continued down this path. The latest consultations showed that we still have not really listened to the local communities as local groups told us clearly that we needed to change the way we do policy and programs, i.e. bottom up, culturally appropriate programs.

So rather than announce more punitive Canberra-devised programs to be put in place, we are going to start by shifting decision making power to a real partnership with local Aboriginal communities. We will sit with people for days, not hours and try to unwind the bad stuff from the good. This time we will not arrive with a paper already written on what we intend to do, but really start by asking what people want to change. This is what you told us and we have heard it this time.

Next time we won’t ask the bureaucrats, local and Canberra-based to run things because we know that makes it harder for you to say what you think. We will allow you to manage the processes and pick the facilitators. We will listen when you say that schools have to engage culturally and socially with parents and children, so they want to be there.

So we need to fund extra resources to make the serious changes that will satisfy local people and their school. Then we understand that attendance will rise.

We understand that we need to work collaboratively and build trust and goodwill rather than start by forcing attendance by cutting payments.

It’s time for the federal government to seriously reassess how we do indigenous policy. We have been told by the head of the Productivity Commission and the Australian Institute of Heath and Welfare that programs work if they are bottom up, culturally appropriate, long term and engage local people. We have not yet adopted this model and it’s time we did. We still make decisions quickly in Canberra, put words in the mouths of those we consult and decide what we think is good for them.

This is why much of the intervention has failed. We have spent a lot of money on staffing and personnel. Income management costs us $80 per week in administration and we now think this money could be better spent in local communities supporting those with need for support on payments. Some new data and some earlier studies show that income management is seen as a negative and shaming by a high proportion of those who are  compulsorily covered by it. So we will not expand it.

There have also been studies showing it has not improved the food purchasing of families and other indicators that, rather than improving self-control and management, it may be making recipients even more dependent on others. We will therefore abolish compulsory income management and stop pressuring on people to stay on it. Autonomy comes from  giving people choices about the assistance they need. Of course, seriously incompetent individuals and families who need case management will still be eligible. However, we will no longer assume incompetence just because people are on a certain payment or maybe find it difficult paying bills on a very low income.

It is now more than four years since the intervention started and nearly four years since my government took it over. Our record is not good. There are no improvements in many indicators such as school attendance, despite extra teachers, hospital admissions, health indicators, child abuse notifications, suicides or other such hard data indicators. There are some improvements in service numbers but we are not sure whether these are being effective. We have to acknowledge that our latest report gives not outcome figures, just records the many extra bureaucrats and service providers we brought in.

Abolishing CDEP, as employment, has undermined many local services and enterprises. The consultations also exposed anger that many new local jobs were filled by outsiders. The shires have reduced local employment and control, and limiting resources on outstations has caused serious distress. As many residents of these often have better health status than those in larger townships, we are restoring  CDEP funding and prepared to look at how we make these communities more viable.

This time we will take into account all the stuff that people told us. Despite the limits of the process and short time frame, it was obvious that people want us to stop making centralised punitive decisions and work with them. We respect what people tell us in its entirety, and this time the government will not cherry pick the comments that agree with what we wanted to do before we started the process.

Again, my apologies for what we have done by failing to listen to indigenous communities and our own advisory bodies. This time we have heard you and we are genuinely resetting the relationship.

Jenny Macklin

(I wish.)