Issue 7, May 2008 | Carmen Lawrence

The "Emergency Intervention" in Northern Territory Indigenous Communities

In 2006, the ABC program Lateline broadcast an interview with the Alice Springs Crown Prosecutor in which she highlighted the prevalence of child sexual abuse in Central Australia. The program produced an immediate public outcry, but one which but failed to recognise that the Crown Prosecutor's call to action echoed repeated and identical calls by Indigenous people over many years - calls that had been largely ignored. The media feasted on claims of "paedophile rings" and the assertion that traditional Indigenous culture actually condoned the rape of children under the guise of "customary law". Ministers called for a "new paternalism", and argued for "mainstreaming" services and the closure of "cultural museums", proclaiming the failure of policies based on self determination (which, in reality, have never been tried). But little of any substance was done except that the Northern Territory government did set up an(other) inquiry into the protection of Aboriginal children from sexual abuse.

In mid-2007, less than six months before the national election, the report of the inquiry - "Little Children are Sacred"1  - was released. It documented significant levels of abuse in Aboriginal communities and, like other reports before it, outlined a variety of recommendations for remedial action. When the Howard government announced that it would act promptly to address the problem, the reaction of many Australians, including Indigenous Australians, was "and about time too". After such prolonged inaction, some judged that any help was better than none. Report after report and countless pleas for action had previously gone largely unanswered. This time, there was a collective sigh of relief that something was about to be done.

But when the nature of the government's response became clearer, and it comprehensively ignored the report's many recommendations, the initial enthusiasm quickly turned to dismay; this was yet another "spasm of activity", poorly planned, clumsy, ideological and inherently racially discriminatory.

In order to protect the children, the Commonwealth announced that it would, in selected communities in the Northern Territory and for Indigenous people alone, introduce alcohol restrictions and ban x-rated pornography, undertake compulsory health checks of all children, quarantine a proportion of all welfare payments for food and rent, link family assistance and income support payments to school attendance, acquire township leases, scrap the permit system, increase police numbers,  and improve housing and community living arrangements.  Some of these measures, like improved housing and better policing, were warily welcomed; they had been requested - and promised - many times before. Others, like the compulsory acquisition of leases, seemed to be addressing old agendas; they looked like anti-land rights obsessions masquerading as help and depended for their passage through the Parliament on the threat that those who dared oppose them would be outed as "Friends of the Paedophiles"; not a good look in the lead up to an election. As Larissa Behrendt argued, "the NT intervention is a textbook example of why government policies continue to fail Aboriginal people"2 : ideologically driven rather than evidence based, serving other than the purported agendas and paternalistic and top-down, rather than collaborative in character.

The authoritarian style of the response was undoubtedly galling to the many people who had contributed to the countless reports and summits designed specifically to galvanise governments into an appropriate and sustained policy response; to make them aware of the truly dire circumstances in many communities throughout Australia; to make the excuse of ignorance impossible. There were at least 30 such reports completed during the previous decade-which were available to any conscientious MP or minister-which dealt in whole or in part with the factors which lead to such violence and abuse and which outlined in considerable detail the policies needed to assist in reducing the pain and suffering which are the daily bread of so many Indigenous people. Instead we saw to the spectacle of another "shocked" Minister parading his certainties to an exhausted and bewildered Indigenous community and paying no heed to the advice so painstakingly assembled in the many reports to government. Another "instant solution" devised without reference to Indigenous people and without enlisting their engagement; they were to be the objects of policy - again - rather than its subjects; their agency denied.

The conclusion we were invited to draw was that the Aboriginal people in remote communities are so completely debased that there are none among them capable of being partners in addressing the depressing catalogue of disadvantage; only outsiders could properly diagnose the problems and devise the solutions. Where formerly the already damaged had been left to fend for themselves, they were now judged so damaged that they were unable to do anything at all to help themselves. And as anyone who has ever worked to reduce socially destructive behaviours will bear witness, reinforcing a sense of powerlessness (already a major source of inertia in Indigenous Australia), is precisely the opposite of what is needed to generate sustained change.

The reflex nature of the "intervention" was also evident in the lack of planning in the much heralded compulsory health checks which a breathless Minister informed us were going to uncover instances of abuse; that is until the AMA reminded him that such compulsion would constitute assault; and those tireless workers already working in the field with inadequate resources suggested that it might be sensible not to repeat the checks they had already made. And why deal with Indigenous people so differently from the rest of us?  Surely the trigger for child protection or sequestering welfare payments for particular purposes should be some evidence of abuse or neglect, wherever it occurs. And some asked what follow up there might be to the discovery of health problems; and how the victims of abuse and violence might be assisted; and what programs there were for rehabilitation and treatment of those who routinely abused alcohol or to help rehabilitate youthful perpetrators of violence and abuse.

Some of these questions are now being confronted by the new Labor government, as is evident in their recent announcement that 500 children identified as suffering from serious hearing loss will be transported to Alice Springs for specialized ear, nose and throat surgery. A further 200 children will also receive specialist dental care. In both cases, little will be gained unless there is comprehensive follow up and significant improvement in the living conditions of these children and their families, improvements which they help to plan and deliver.

One of the more disturbing elements of the first phase of the "intervention" was that the tone and the images owed more to political theatre than to well researched, co-ordinated public policy; the responsible Minister, who had more than once displayed dictatorial tendencies, seemed convinced that "law and order" solutions could also be used to tackle the complex social problems which underlie abuse. He and the PM drew heavily on military terminology in describing the "emergency intervention" - "intervention, stabilisation, normalisation and exit." It looked for all the world like an invasion of hostile territory to "subdue the natives". Iraq in the antipodes. As many have observed, "waging war" might be good media copy, but it is a simplistic and entirely unsuitable basis on which to solicit co-operation or to conduct a productive discussion about policy options.

Despite what some of the most prominent "cultural warriors" have implied, no one disagreed, then or now, with the need to properly resource policing or to insist on the same value being placed on the lives and security of Indigenous people living in remote Australia as for the rest of us; there was no argument that violence and sexual abuse should be dealt with, wherever they occurred (although that has not always been done).  No one suggested that different standards of response to sexual abuse and violence should be applied to Indigenous communities nor, as in the past, that such abuse could be considered normal or inevitable just because it occurred between Indigenous people. People of good will everywhere understood that the cycle of violence and abuse had to be broken.

What made many of them suspicious of the Howard Government's motives was the former Prime Minister's record on Indigenous affairs. In his 33 years in the Parliament he had rarely spoken of Indigenous issues, but as Prime Minister had opposed land rights, abandoned reconciliation, denigrated and sidelined Indigenous leaders, abolished ATSIC, promoted those who denied the impact of Indigenous dispossession and separation, refused to make a national apology to the stolen generations and not-so-surreptitiously supported the Hansonite agenda.

All this meant that there was very little trust in the Indigenous community (and elsewhere) that this belated action on the eve of the election was, as one commentator put it, any more than "using children to spearhead an ideological agenda"3. And the former Prime Minister had not always put children first - many remembered the children locked away in immigration detention for years, the ones turned away on the Tampa and those killed and still being bombed in Iraq to further a strategic alliance. It is little wonder that despite their aching desire to start to reverse the damage to their children and their communities, so many viewed the plan with suspicion and resistance. Many of their reasonable questions went unanswered.

Some of them asked how changes to land title and leasing arrangements which effectively removed Indigenous control would advance children's interests. The former government never did provide a coherent response to this question - assertion substituted for evidence-based argument. Indigenous Territory MP Marion Scrymgour was roundly abused when she called for the government to jettison the ideologically driven elements that had nothing to do with child abuse and everything to do with dismantling the Land Rights Act. Even Noel Pearson called the land measure "clumsy and ideological" and said that the PM would be making "an historic mistake" if they did not understand "the role that a proper and modern articulation of Aboriginal law must play in the social reconstruction of Indigenous societies"4 . It will be instructive to see how the former government members deal with the new government's attempts to amend these provisions.

And what were Indigenous people to make of the usurpation of community governance and control even when they were managing pretty well? Would handing over control and authority to a white bureaucrat really help them to develop the capacity to manage their own affairs in the future? And why some communities and not others? What was the basis for selection? The original selections did not appear to be based on any systematic appraisal of their condition or their need; just their size.

When the "Intervention" was announced, many seasoned observers, including the Northern Territory police, asked how reducing control over access by strangers to remote communities by the abolition of the permit system would provide better protection. Indeed those charged with managing the flow of alcohol and drugs and unsavoury characters say it will make their jobs harder. Again, the Rudd government indicated before the election its intention to restore the permit system in some form, although there are signs that this too will be resisted by Coalition MPs and sections of the media.

The blanket nature of the constraints to be placed on welfare payments also caused consternation because, at the core of the policy, is the racist assumption that "all blackfellas are the same"; Indigenous people in remote communities are stereotypically portrayed as violent, abusive, drunks entirely dependent on welfare. Apart from the sharp insult, what message does it send parents who are providing good care for their children when they are placed on the same quarantining regime as those who abuse and neglect their children? This is the antithesis of making people responsible for their lives; it reduces their ability to take control. And those who provide secure and loving homes for their children, against all the odds, will be shamed by the assumption of their incapacity and disempowered. While some would argue that the breakdown in social controls within Indigenous communities has been so complete that nothing short of the surrender of key decisions to others will suffice to engender change, it is precisely the corrosion of self efficacy - and the knowledge that you are not respected - which is at the root of much of this social collapse.

Early evidence suggests that in some communities there has been an increase in the funds being spent on food and rent - a welcome change; in other cases, the system seems to have made people's lives excessively complex.  Further data will need to be collected before any conclusions can be reached about whether these benefits will be sustained. Furthermore, overseas evaluation of similar programs indicates that no benefits accrue in the absence of intensive support programs.

My prediction is that any gains which rely on coercion are likely to be short-lived, not least because the psychology underpinning the measures is perverse: there may be compliance with the measures - indeed, by definition, people have little choice but to comply - but once the restrictions are removed, or those affected remove themselves from their coverage, no fundamental change in attitudes or behaviours will have occurred. In fact, what this element of the intervention will do is to reinforce the sense of powerlessness which is already so pervasive amongst the people now subject to the intervention.  And this is not the first time they've been subjected to the will of others, with painful consequences; decisions about their lives have been taken from their hands many times before: the appropriation of land, the removal of children, the forced relocation of families and communities, the attacks on language and culture.

This paternalistic character of much government policy in Indigenous affairs reflects the failure to apply even the most rudimentary principles of social science to understanding why there are so many social problems and what should be done to reverse them. Understanding concepts like learned helplessness, locus of control, self fulfilling prophecies and attribution theory, for example, would undoubtedly assist in devising better policy. In Why Warriors Lie Down and Die5 , Richard Trudgen drew attention to the pernicious effects of "learned helplessness" amongst the Aboriginal people of Arnhem Land.  It is a concept well understood in psychology and encompasses research which shows that when people repeatedly experience unpleasant events over which they have no control, they will not only experience trauma, but will come to act as if they believe that it is not possible to exercise control over any situation and that whatever they do is largely futile. As a result, they will be passive even in the face of harmful or damaging circumstances which it is actually possible to change. Similarly, research on black American students has shown that those who experience discrimination and powerlessness are more likely to attribute their successes - or failures - to outside forces than those who do not; they exhibit what is called an "external locus of control" which is, in turn, related to poorer academic performance and poorer health care. There is no reason to believe that results would be different for Indigenous Australians.

Coming to accept that others control your life and that nothing you can do will really make much difference is already a crippling combination of attitudes.  Add to it the well known effect of the "self fulfilling prophecy" and you have a recipe for the social disorder evident in varying degrees in many Indigenous communities. A self-fulfilling prophecy occurs when expectations about an individual's behaviour cause that person to act in ways which confirm the expectations.  The phenomenon has been measured in many situations and it is clear that minority groups in any society are the most vulnerable to such effects, especially if the expectations are negative and constantly repeated. So often do Indigenous Australians hear that they are sick, lazy and unproductive that they internalise these opinions and become convinced of their own unfitness. 

Dependency is an inevitable by-product of learned helplessness; many Indigenous people are now so accustomed to having things done to them and for them, rather than being active participants, that they have lost their sense of mastery, competence and self respect. Many of the elements of the intervention almost seem to have been designed to reinforce this dependency rather than in cultivating a relationship between government and Indigenous people which will enhance their social responsibility and their willingness to exercise it.  As Brown and Brown suggested,

"we must ask ourselves whether the current interventions will empower communities and support them appropriately, in a spirit of collaboration and respect, to adequately deal with the causes, triggers and consequences of abuse. Marginalisation, poverty, disempowerment, colonisation and trauma are the upstream contributors to psychological, physical and sexual abuse in the present. Yet the current policy is likely to deliver the very same things, and, as a consequence, risks perpetuating dysfunction and abuse. The government has yet to explain how the removal of Aboriginal people's right to control or participate in decision making and implementation will promote their survival and protection." 6

These effects are unlikely to be modified unless serious efforts are made by government to engage Indigenous people in ways that were not contemplated in the initial action.  As Treasury Secretary Ken Henry argued, Indigenous Australians must 'own' both the problem and solution if behavioural and attitudinal change is to be achieved. Imposed solutions are unlikely to be real solutions at all.

While the government used the publication of the Anderson-Wild report as the ostensible trigger for its intervention, they simultaneously dismissed the carefully considered recommendations of that report in favour of their own grab bag of partial, top-down and short term responses. And they attacked those who sought a more considered response. Any suggestion that things might be done differently was greeted with the retort that those making such suggestions could not possibly care about the children and must be intent on protecting the paedophiles.  The personal attacks and the extreme language contributed to an over-simplification of the issues and made reasoned analysis and evaluation of the policy options that much more difficult.

Because of this wrong-headedness, the former government set about creating an administrative monster which, if left intact, will consume resources - which should be used to improve employment and deliver much needed housing and health services - on controlling Aboriginal lives. Of the $550 million appropriated, at least half, according to a preliminary analysis, was to go to the administrative costs in the Commonwealth bureaucracy (although the purposes are unspecified).  As Fred Chaney suggested in the 2007 Lingiari Lecture7, this money will not be well spent because it is likely that the intervention is sanctioning "an absurd and unattainable level of micro management of Aboriginal lives" far beyond the capacity of the federal bureaucracy to deliver.

The Anderson-Wild report was not the first carefully constructed report whose recommendations the former government ignored.  In 1999, the then Minister took delivery of the Memmott report8 (not released until 2001) which clearly outlined the framework for understanding and responding to violence - including sexual abuse - in Indigenous communities. Amongst other things, the report drew attention to the fact that such violence was widespread, increasing in incidence and seriousness. Like Anderson and Wild they insisted that "the highest priority in any campaign against violence ...is the initiation and resourcing of many more community controlled violence programs."   The authors concluded, unsurprisingly, that Indigenous violence had multiple causes but could only be understood and responded to if these were understood: underlying factors such as the dispossession and the separation from families that many have endured. It is no surprise that research shows that it is the communities with a history as missions and removal centres where disparate groups and clans were drawn together that have the highest incidence of violence and child abuse. And while the previous Minister did not release it, he was in possession of a report from the government's own Office of Indigenous Policy Co-ordination which shows that small remote Indigenous communities (fewer than 100 people) provide healthier environments than larger towns and actually have strong economic possibilities.  The report also concluded that there is an "absence of indicators of social dysfunction" in many outstations, a finding which mirrors those on mental health indicators by Professor Fiona Stanley's team in Western Australia. Similar findings have been reported for cardiovascular disease and mortality rates overall9.

As NT and Indigenous parliamentarian Marion Scrymgour made clear "everyone supports a serious and properly resourced set of initiatives to combat child sexual abuse" - and I would add community violence more generally. But the previous government's program did not even begin to meet that description and despite constructive criticism and reference to the many carefully considered recommendations of so many earlier reports the previous government refused to modify its policies. The ill-considered actions taken in the shadow of an election when the government was virtually in caretaker mode indicated a deep seated cynicism about the Australian community and showed a fundamental disregard for the views of Indigenous Australians (with one or two notable exceptions). The only thing that seemed to matter was being seen to be taking decisive action.  To do any better, the new government would be wise to heed Fiona Stanley's advice: "measures that exclude the views and involvement of Aborigines will serve only to further diminish their capacity, exacerbate marginalisation and add to the damage in these vulnerable communities."

Dr Carmen Lawrence is a former Premier of Western Australia and national President of the Labor Party. She retired from politics in 2007 and is now a Professorial Fellow at the University of Western Australia where she is working to establish a centre to undertake research and to facilitate discussion on the processes of persuasion and indoctrination and the factors contributing to the development of fanatical ideas and extreme, including violent, behaviour.


  1. 'Little Children are Sacred' , Report of The Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse 2007: http://www.nt.gov.au/dcm/inquirysaac/pdf/bipacsa_final_report.pdf
  2. Behrendt, L (2007) 'The emergency we had to have', In J.Altman & M Hinkson, Coercive Reconciliation. Melbourne, Arena, p 18.
  3. Flanagan, Martin 'Pearson's crucial role for Howard', The Age, July 3, 2007: http://www.theage.com.au/news/opinion/pearsons-crucial-role-for-pm/2007/07/02/1183351119476.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap1
  4. Pearson, Noel  'Politics aside, an end to the tears is our priority', The Australian, June 23, 2007: http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,21951636-7583,00.html
  5. Richard Trudgen, (2000) Why Warriors Lie Down and Die. Aboriginal Resource and Development Services Inc.
  6. Brown, A & Brown, N. (2007) 'The Northern Territory intervention: voices from the centre of the fringe', Medical Journal of Australia, 187 (11/12): p 623.
  7. Chaney, Fred  "Check Against Delivery" Vincent Lingiari Lecture 2007: http://www.cdu.edu.au/aiks/vincent-lingiari.html
  8. Paul Memmott, Rachael Stacy, Catherine Chambers and Catherine Keys. (Jan 2001) 'Violence in Indigenous Communities'  Report to the Crime Prevention Branch of the Attorney General's Department. Commonwealth Attorney General's Department: http://www.ag.gov.au/agd/www/rwpattach.nsf/viewasattachmentPersonal/5210C36F7DE2A926CA256B4300022F10/$file/violenceindigenous.pdf
  9. Brown, A & Brown, N. (2007) 'The Northern Territory intervention: voices from the centre of the fringe', Medical Journal of Australia, 187 (11/12): 621-623