Govt's Intervention Policy Oppressive, Racist and Threat to Aboriginal Identity

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
25 Feb 2011

Bishop Hurley being "painted up".

The Australian Government has been urged to end the Intervention in the Northern Territory with accusations Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders' way of life, identity and well-being are under threat.

In a damning report issued by the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva, all levels of Australia's Government were condemned for the lack of consultation and negotiation with the nation's Indigenous people. Dismay and concern were also expressed about the "discrimination, oppression and racism" experienced by Australia's "Aboriginal people on a daily basis."

The result of a visit to Northern Territory Indigenous communities in September 2010 by an international Living Letters team from WCC, the report has called on the Government to ensure policies affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders comply with international conventions, and in particular, conform to the UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the International Labour Organisation's Covenant 169.

The Living Letters team was sent to investigate Australia's treatment of its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population five months ago and comprised a range of different Indigenous representatives from Bolivia, the US, Egypt, Indonesia, the Philippines and New Zealand. Led by Maria Chavez Quispe, a member of Bolivia's Amara people, the team was welcomed to Australia by the Catholic Archbishop of Darwin, the Most Rev Eugene Hurley, the Moderator of the Northern Synod of the Uniting Church of Australia, Rev Wendell Flentje and the Anglican Bishop of Darwin, the Rt Rev Greg Thompson.

"We hope this visit shines a light on the human rights issues Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory struggle with on a daily basis," said Bishop Hurley in his welcome, telling the team that Aboriginal people were too often silenced and excluded from decisions and debates that affected their lives.

WWC Report damning of Intervention policy

The international team visited the Aboriginal communities of Wadeye, Elcho Island in Arnhem Land as well as those in and around Alice Springs during its time in Australia and now, just over five months later, has presented its findings to the WCC.

The report received by the WCC pulls no punches.

The Government's Intervention policies have brought "much shame to Aboriginal people with the nature of the policies and much of the discussion about them, implying they were the cause of their own disadvantage," the report says and describes the severe impact of the Intervention on the daily lives of those living in the NT's remote Aboriginal communities.

"People are not able to spend their money how they wanted and felt shame at having storekeepers telling them they were not able to buy some items," the report states. "They also felt embarrassed that much of the discourse implied all Aboriginal peoples were alcoholics and paedophiles."

Compounding this shame was the erection of signs by the government at the entrance to every Aboriginal community prohibiting alcohol and pornography and the Federal Government's so far unsubstantiated claim of a paedophilia ring which was used to justify the "intervention."

In every community visited by WCC's Living Letters team they found life had not improved under Intervention policies and in the majority of cases, had deteriorated.

Living Letters team with Graeme Mundine (fr right)

Noting that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were over-represented in all areas of disadvantage across Australia with many living in communities of extreme poverty, the team believes that social issues such as alcohol and drug addiction, violence and social breakdown occur in response to racism, poverty, dispossession, the forced removal from families and ongoing inter-generational trauma.

With the gap in mortality rates between Australia's Indigenous and non Indigenous people on the increase, the report cites many Aboriginal communities lacking access to health care, housing, clean water, electricity and education. Condemning the 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Response, which became known as the Intervention, and includes quarantining income and compulsorily acquiring five year leases over Aboriginal owned and operated lands, the report describes the policies currently implemented as "discriminatory, oppressive and racist."

"Australia's diverse Indigenous peoples who make up the oldest living cultures in the world are at risk from the ongoing effects of colonisation and attempts to assimilate them into non-Indigenous western ways," the report warns.

Graeme Mundine, Executive Officer of the Archdiocese of Sydney's Catholic Aboriginal Ministry and Executive Secretary for the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ecumenical Commission (NATSEIC), who led the Living Letters team on its tour of communities in NT, has welcomed the report. But the former Marist Brother and long-time advocate for his people, holds out little hope the Government will reverse or amend its Intervention policies.

Describing the Intervention as bad policies created by good people with good intentions, he says the poor policies are further compounded by the Government's conviction that when it comes to Aboriginal communities, one size fits all.

"But each community is very different and one size doesn't fit all," he insists, pointing out that are there more than 250 language groups among Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as well as vastly different cultures.

Bishop Eugene Hurley

"The differences can be as basic as whether a group of people come from the rain forest, the desert, salt water or fresh water. Each looks at the world in a different way," he explains and says trying to group all Indigenous communities together and treating them as one is like telling spectators at a State of Origin game that there's no difference between a Queenslander and someone from NSW.

"Instead of going into communities and telling people that this is what they must do and what should be going on, the Government should be going into communities and first finding out what each community needs, along with its aspirations and dreams. Then by working with each community in partnership ways can be developed on exactly how to achieve these hopes and dreams," he says.
While admitting that in some areas things "haven't worked out well in communities," Graeme is convinced these problems won't be solved until the people within the communities are empowered and able to play an active role in their communities and in their future."

The Gillard Government did not to respond to a 2010 Report by the UN's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that accused Australia of "entrenched racism" and the Intervention as "structurally embedded discrimination." Nor is it likely to respond to this week's report from the WCC.

Nevertheless, Graeme and WCC member churches across Australia, including the Catholic Church, will ensure the report has an impact and will use the report to raise awareness about the specific issues confronting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and to help develop advocacy campaigns to support their rights, aspirations and needs.

To read the full report log onto: