It was amidst horrifying reports of child sexual abuse that the Northern Territory Emergency Response was announced two years ago this week.
Of course, it was always about more than child abuse. While the breadth and severity of child abuse outlined in the Little Children Are Sacred report demanded immediate action, the revelations contained in the report were not new. Indeed, they represented the failure of successive governments to address the root causes of just one symptom of the deeper social problems in many Aboriginal communities.
While increased government attention to, and investment in, the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal communities was welcome, the implementation of the emergency response was rough and lacked appropriate consultation.
Ironic given the first recommendation in the Little Children report stated, “It is critical that both governments commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities.”
Oxfam and others warned at the time that this lack of appropriate consultation was likely to result in a range of unintended consequences, which is precisely what we have seen over the past two years.
But, there have been a range of positive outcomes as well, particularly where consultation has increased and Aboriginal people have had the opportunity to participate in decisions affecting their lives.
If we are serious about tackling the complex issues affecting Aboriginal communities in the NT, what is needed is a strong human rights framework. This approach would focus on the full achievement of the basic rights of Aboriginal people, looking at the drivers of inequality, poverty and conflict, rather than focusing on immediate needs alone.
The Northern Territory’s new policy regarding Homelands highlights the need for such a framework. This policy directs almost all new investment in housing and service delivery to a limited number of ‘hub’ or larger regional towns, mirroring the Federal Government’s strategy of funding ‘priority’ communities.
The cumulative impact of these approaches could result in some community members having to leave their land in order to access basic services, infrastructure and employment opportunities. In other words, offering essential services only in select communities can amount to a coerced relocation of people living on Homelands and other non-priority communities.
This is all the more surprising given that research is showing that Homeland communities enjoy better physical and mental health and are happier living and working on their own land. So, this approach appears to run counter to government commitments to close the gap in the Northern Territory.
However, if we see access to a livelihood and to basic services, such as health, education, housing and infrastructure, as foundational human rights, it becomes clear that a very different approach is required.
Firstly, we need to look at the extent to which Aboriginal people have participated in the design and development of these government policies. Research and past experience show that the participation Aboriginal people on a community by community basis will be most effective in bringing about sustainable changes. This needs to be genuine participation and must extend beyond cursory consultation.
Secondly, we should consider the extent to which these policies make it easier for Aboriginal people in remote areas to access high quality, culturally appropriate health, education and other services. Expecting community members to travel long distances to access services is unlikely to achieve this.
Thirdly, the policies must not force Aboriginal people in living remote communities to relocate to an area not of their choosing, or jeopardise their right to housing and other essential services where they already live. Aboriginal people should be able to live on their homelands and expect services that the wider community take for granted.
Finally, Aboriginal communities must play a central role in determining how these policies are implemented. Community members know and understand their own communities, and are better placed to understand what services are needed. They should benefit in as many ways as possible from investment in their communities.
Of course, additional and much needed investment in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory is welcome. However, what we are seeing two years into the emergency response is a continued failure to truly facilitate the participation of Aboriginal people in decisions affecting their own lives. And, once again, this raises the risk of unintended consequences.
The second anniversary of the intervention provides a timely opportunity for governments to rethink their relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Overcoming the complex issues that continue to plague many Aboriginal communities demands a partnership approach, founded on respect for the basic rights of Aboriginal people.
Oxfam’s many years of experience working with marginalised communities in Australia and around the world suggests it is this kind of approach that is most likely to succeed in achieving real change.
This opinion editorial was first published in The Canberra Times on 23 June 2009.