Listening but not Hearing:A response to the NTER Stronger Futures Consultations June to August 2011
by Alastair Nicholson
The effects of the Howard Government’s disastrous 2007 Intervention continue to reverberate
throughout the Northern Territory. It was a ‘solution’ imposed by a faltering government for its own
political purposes on the Aboriginal people without their involvement and without consultation. As
part of it the Racial Discrimination Act 1975(Cth) was suspended, in so far as it related to the
Intervention and associated measures. The whole process was deeply insulting to the Aboriginal
people and effectively marginalised them as second class citizens.
The tragedy was further compounded by the incoming Rudd Government’s adoption of most of the
worst features of the Intervention. The Government thus lost a great opportunity to engage with the
Aboriginal people in the planning of their future. It was an opportunity that was open to it on the
wave of goodwill that followed the then Prime Minister’s apology to the Aboriginal people. What
should have occurred was the dismantling of the Intervention and a new beginning.
Instead we had the Government’s pathetic 2009 ‘consultations’ in an attempt to prop up the
remaining features of the Intervention that it wanted to retain as special measures within the
meaning of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975(Cth). There followed it s 2010 legislation restoring
the Racial Discrimination Act 1975(Cth), while at the same time retaining those features of the
Intervention, coupled with its shameful attempt to cloak income quarantining as non
discriminatory by purporting to have it apply to the white population as well.
We now have had a re-run of the same process with new and more rushed ‘consultations’ as part
of the ‘Closing the Gap’ project as this report describes. Again we have the spectacle of the
Government going through the motions of ‘consulting’ without really doing so in order to pursue its
predetermined and Canberra driven policies.
There was no attempt to invite elders to share in the planning of an agenda which will affect their
lives for years to come. This led to the Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra calling for a fresh approach to the
rules of engagement. He asked Government to respectfully recognise the true leaders, the elders and law men and women and engage directly with them in dialogue. He asked Government to recognise it
s failures and to work with the community leaders towards restoring justice. This statement has received considerable support within the Aboriginal community but it remains unheeded.
The Government’s current policies have failed and they will continue to fail for so long as it
continues to determine policies without the direct involvement of Aboriginal people in the decision -making process. As so many have pointed out, until Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory are allowed to gain ownership over th
eir future, Government will fail to improve their overall circumstances and they will remain second class citizens of this country.
A truly representative Northern Territory Community Leader’s Forum, attended by community-chosen representatives, would go a long way towards assisting Aboriginal leaders, and ultimately Government, in the development of sustainable policies. This will only work where the representatives are true representatives and not appointments by Government.
The consultations described here were superficially an improvement on the previous ones in that
there were more interpreters and more apparent effort to make them fit the description of true
consultations. We are still left with no real evidence of what Aboriginal opinion is on issues such as
school attendance and the proposal to remove welfare payments where there is unsatisfactory
school attendance. No doubt there is some support for this as there would be for any other
measure, but we are left in the dark as to whether it has majority support overall, or among
particular groups or in particular geographical areas.
This was effectively this Government’s last chance to achieve real reform in relation to Aboriginal
issues. Should it fail and should the Government not be returned at the next election, the future
picture may become even darker for Aboriginal people.