Saturday, 21 July 2012

The bishops on the Northern Territory Intervention: bah humbug!

Since I'm on a public policy spin at the moment, let me register my complaint about the bishops' continuing condemnation of the Northern Territory Intervention.

Undermining the teaching authority

This is one of those classic areas where the social teaching of the Church offers some principles we should consider.

But it simply does not support, in my view, a clear conclusion one way or another, because there are different judgments that can be arrived at depending on the relative weight you put on those principles and your assessment of the actual factual situation. 

And in those circumstances, putting out endless press releases on the subject just undermines the bishops' teaching authority in other areas where there is no room for debate.

Bishop Saunders

The latest salvo is from Bishop Saunders of Broome in his capacity as Chair of the Catholic Social Justice Commission, in the Catholic Weekly.

Let's take a look at what he says:

"The Gillard Government’s 10-year extension of the Northern Territory intervention is not only a “huge betrayal”, but a “giant step backwards” in relationships with Aboriginal people, says Bishop Christopher Saunders, chairman of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council."


“It doesn’t solve the problem that it purports to solve,” he said.

The 'problem it purports to solve', according to the Government website on it, is the wide gap in outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. 

And actually the evidence suggests that some inroads into this are being made, albeit slowly.  The latest evaluation found, for example, that 75% of people felt safer in their communities, and that there were improvements in health, education, employment, education and housing.

Indeed, the Bishop Saunders' claim directly contradicts the ACBC Press Release on the Stronger Futures legislation that acknowledged that:

“The Northern Territory National Emergency Response has achieved some success and we can learn from these successes. We see this success particularly in housing, employment and education."

Outcomes are still way below those for other Australians of course - but this is hard stuff, and that is why it is a ten year program.

Income support and child neglect

“And secondly it deprives indigenous people of the dignity of being able to control their own money.

First let's be clear.  What we are talking about here is not wages or earnings from selling arts and crafts.  It is not the result of entrepreneurial effort.  It is income support from Government.  It is not in fact 'their' money but rather taxpayers'.

Secondly, we need to understand just why income management is so important in some communities: it actually enables individuals and families to protect their income from those who want to sponge off them, and are often prepared to use alcohol-fueled threats and violence to achieve this.  What we are talking about here is the practice of 'humbugging' that plagues so many communities and is major reason why many children, have, in the past, failed to get enough to eat and thrive.

The policy of 70% income management provision in cases where child neglect has been identified is intended to help prevent children having to be removed from their parents.

And in fact many Aboriginal women support income management, as reflected in the current proposal from the troubled APY lands in South Australia to have income management extended to them.

“Decisions are made about Aboriginal people by unqualified junior bureaucrats who have the arbitrary power to put people on to this and take them off, as though somehow passing a public service exam qualifies them for making judgments about the character of adult indigen­ous people...”

This really seems a bit disingenuous.  Relatively 'junior' bureaucrats (and junior bank clerks, and many other 'junior' workers in a wide variety of spheres) make judgments about all sorts of issues impacting on individuals and families, including decisions to remove children in cases of neglect, cut people off from unemployment benefits and more.  The issue surely isn't whether or not they make decisions, but whether or not they are making the right decisions.  If they aren't, then perhaps the Church should be working with them to improve the processes?

And indeed the article itself reports that under the new Stronger Futures legislation:

"...only authorities that can give a notice to place a person on income management under the new state and territory referral measure meet specific conditions, including that they have appropriate review processes."

Conflating other issues

One of the other problems in the way the Church is playing on this debate is the way that it is conflating issues that have nothing to with the intervention directly or the particular proposals on the table.

The most recent ACBC press release (15 July) opposing the Stronger Futures legislation then before Parliament, for example, talked about bilingual education in the Territory.  That is a Territory Government matter, and nothing to do with the Federal legislation at all.

Unless of course the bishops are arguing that the bishops legislate so as to overrule the Territory Government's policy on this matter?  Now personally, I think the Northern Territory is demonstrably a failed state, and wouldn't object to this in the least, but presumably some will use the principle of subsidiarity (which seems to become an absolute when it suits some, rather than a matter of judgment) to argue that this is not appropriate...

Similarly it claimed that existing local level programs that are working would be jeopardised.  But if they've been operating under the Intervention for the last few years, what is it in the new legislation that will prevent them continuing to operate? 

In fact the new legislation, and associated policy developments such as the new 'Remote Jobs and Communities Porgram' (to replace the old CDEP) are intended to provide greater local autonomy and control, not less.  Indeed, a better question might be whether the new legislation expects too much of communities themselves rather than too little (under the new Remote Jobs Scheme for example, Ministers or bureaucrats will not be able to agree that a particular initiative will be funded, rather the initiative has to be approved by the community under its community plan).

Rights vs outcomes

In fact the real objection to the Intervention seems to be its collision with the 'rights' agenda.

But rights and self-determination can only operate effectively under certain conditions. 

When a community's culture has been totally destroyed by alcohol and drugs, by the removal of a generation of children, by the absence of jobs, is self-determination either possible or desirable? 

Moreover, giving rights to one person inevitably limits the rights of another.  The issue is what is more important: the rights of the men in the community to get drunk (constrained by the restrictions on even small amounts of alcohol in communities that the bishop objects to), or the right of the children of the community to have somewhere safe to go to at night?

The reality is that while every community is different, leaving it to the communities themselves will, in many cases, effectively mean consigning yet another generation to poverty and trauma.

Problems with the Intervention

I'm not suggesting for a moment that the Intervention in its current, previous or likely future forms is entirely unproblematic!

Personally I remain quite ambivalent about it.

The way it was introduced under the Howard Government poisoned support for even the measures that Aboriginal people on the ground actually agree with.

From what I've seen and heard, the bureaucrats and other agencies involved in it still don't always seem to be that great at taking on board what Aboriginal people themselves have to say.

And while a lot of money is being poured into the Northern Territory - and Stronger Futures has a $3.4 billion price tag - a lot of that is undoubtedly being wasted and going to be wasted on an inflated bureaucracy and badly designed and delivered programs.  The Northern Territory does not, after all, have a good track record in this area (remember the early disasters of the housing program of the Intervention?).

There are practical issues too, that still need to be worked through.

The APY women (and many others) have pointed out that unless income management type arrangements can be put in place for those with jobs in communities, there will be no incentive for anyone to actually get a real job, because of humbugging.

There are other issues to.  I've heard, for example, about communities where the women do their grocery shopping daily -  so that relatives and others can't engage in humbugging and make off with the week's food supply - but the problem is that if the EFTPOS system goes down, they then have no fallback, no way of feeding their families.  And in remote communities, computers trend to have a short shelf life (all that dust) and technological problems can take days to fix. 


All the same, most of these issues are things that can and are being fixed.
On balance, I don't think Bishop Saunders and friends have made the case to justify his claim that the intervention makes a “mockery” of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s  apology to the stolen generation.

We need constructive contributions to this debate, not just endless ideologically driven critiques that muddy the waters of the Church's teaching role.

1 comment:

A Canberra Observer said...

I suspect the bishops of this committee don't actually have any ideas about how to fix anything.