The Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER), otherwise known as the Northern Territory Intervention, is a set of policies and legislation introduced by the Howard Government in August 2007 in response to the Little Children are Sacred Report (2007). This report outlined allegations of widespread sexual abuse and neglect of children within Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory (Monash University, 2020).
The Intervention involved cutting of welfare payments, bans on alcohol and pornography, increased police presence in communities, compulsory health checks for all children, and the power of the government to take possession of Aboriginal land and property (The Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007 (Cth), 2007). It also resulted in increased budget spending on law enforcement, child protection, as well as housing and social services (Gibson, 2017). Successive Australian governments have continued to reform and adapt the Intervention.
In the media, the Intervention is often associated with 73 communities in the Northern Territory. However, the policies affected over 500 communities, with 70 per cent of the Northern Territory's Indigenous population residing within these zones (Parliament of Australia, 2020).
Little Children are Sacred Report: April-June 2007
The Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekale Report ('Little Children are Sacred Report') (the Report) was commissioned following comments by Alice Springs Senior Crown Prosecutor Dr Nannette Rogers SC about violence towards and sexual abuse of children in Indigenous communities in 2006.
The Northern Territory Board of Inquiry spent eight months carrying out extensive research, investigation and community consultation, focusing on ways to prevent sexual abuse of children throughout remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory.
In April 2007, the findings were presented to Chief Minister Clare Martin. They contained 'striking facts, graphic imagery, and [an] ardent plea for action' (Monash University, 2020).
Co-chair of the Inquiry, Rex Wild QC, said that although the Inquiry was commissioned to investigate child abuse, they discovered 'much larger social problems within Aboriginal communities that needed to be addressed' (Coop, 2017).
Legislation: August 2007
On 21 June 2007, the Howard Government announced 'immediate, broad ranging measures to stabilise and protect communities' across the Northern Territory (Brough, 2007). Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Mal Brough emphasised that the immediate nature of these measures reflected the Report's first recommendation: sexual abuse of children in the crisis area should be categorised as a matter of 'urgent national significance' (Brough, 2007).
In August 2007, a $587 million dollar legislative package was announced, which introduced extensive reforms and regulations to communities involved in the Intervention. These included:
- restricting the sale, consumption, and purchase of alcohol in prescribed areas;
- withholding 50% of welfare payments from designated communities and individuals found to have neglected their children;
- compulsory health checks for all Aboriginal children;
- pornography filters on publicly funded computers and bans on pornography in designated areas;
- abolishing the permit system under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976 for common areas, road corridors and airstrips for prescribed communities, meaning those communities cannot control who can access that land; and
- increasing policing levels in prescribed communities.
The Intervention passed through both Houses of Parliament with little opposition. Opposition from Indigenous leaders and communities saw little media coverage.
Despite the Federal Government's reliance on the Report to justify the package, the Parliamentary Bills Digest noted that the short time period for the legislation to move through parliament was 'unusual, if not unprecedented' (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2007).
The new Commonwealth legislation within this package included:
- Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007 (the NTERA);
- Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Payment Reform) Bill 2007;
- Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and other Legislation Amendment (Northern Territory Emergency Response and Other Measures) Act 2007;
- Appropriation (Northern Territory National Emergency Response) Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008; and
- Appropriation (Northern Territory National Emergency response) Bill (No. 2) 2007-2008.
Several existing Commonwealth laws were changed or partially suspended, including:
- Racial Discrimination Act 1975;
- Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976;
- Native Title Act 1993;
- Social Security Act 1991; and
- Income Tax Assessment Act 1993.
Continued Operation: 2007-2022
Successive Federal Governments continued to reform and adapt the Intervention.
After adding the BasicsCard in 2009, which aimed to manage income, the Rudd Government slightly changed its focus towards the 'destructive, inter-generational cycle of passive welfare' (Macklin, 2009). The Intervention's objectives shifted from the protection of children from sexual abuse to the 'Closing the Gap' targets and reforms of the welfare system.
Under the Gillard Government, the NTERA was replaced by the Stronger Futures package and the Intervention was extended until 2022.
The Stronger Futures package is made up of three main Acts (and associated delegated legislation):
- Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Act 2012;
- Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Act 2012; and
- Social Security Legislation Amendment Act 2012.
Key changes brought about by the Stronger Futures legislation include:
- expansion of BasicsCard income management and withholding of welfare payments;
- expansion of policy that links school attendance with welfare payments; and
- increased penalties related to alcohol and pornography (SBS, 2013).
The Federal Government's report on 'Commonwealth Indigenous-specific expenditure' (2012) estimated that the Stronger Futures program cost $9.3 million in 2012-13, but saved $79.8 million in 2013-14, $92.1 million in 2014-15, and $41.5 million in 2015-16.
The Morrison Government maintains support for the current measures, which are due to expire in 2022.
Impacts of the Intervention and responses:
Most responses to the Intervention outside of the Government and politics have been negative, and this is largely due to the lack of evidence of results, as well as human rights concerns.
Many different bodies have considered the impacts and effectiveness of the Intervention. These include but are not limited to:
- the Australian Human Rights Commission (2010);
- United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of Indigenous people, James Anaya (2010);
- the Medical Journal of Australia (Peter O'Mara, 2010);
- the Northern Territory Emergency Response Evaluation Report (Scott & Higgins, 2011); and
- the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law (Monash University, 2020).
Sociologist Cox argues that most policy measures in the Intervention were not evidence-based, resulting in generally poor outcomes (2011). Some specific areas of concern within evaluations of the Intervention include:
- Significant increases in penalties for alcohol possession on Aboriginal land. This was designed to reduce alcohol-related harm in communities. In 2010, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS) and the Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory (APO NT) also criticised the use of 'blanket [alcohol] bans' across the Northern Territory, stating: 'blanket bans in prescribed communities are not effective in tackling alcohol problems, except where communities have chosen to implement these bans themselves'; in addition, blanket bans can be harmful and exacerbate existing alcohol-related problems (ATSILS & APO NT, 2010).
- Expansion of the School Enrolment and Attendance measure under the Stronger Futures legislation, cutting the welfare payments of parents of children whose school attendance does not meet certain requirements. These punitive measures have not resulted in increased school attendance (Gibson, 2017).
- The remarkable increase in the child protection service budget in the Northern Territory was primarily focussed on the removal and surveillance of Aboriginal children (Scott & Higgins, 2011), leading to more children being removed from their families in the Northern Territory (Gibson, 2017).
- The exacerbation of mental health issues by the Intervention (Gibson, 2017)
- Housing remains an issue, especially overcrowding (Perche, 2017).
- Income management (BasicsCard) has made everyday life increasingly difficult for Indigenous people (O'Mara, 2010).
- Any possible benefits to physical health were largely outweighed by negative impacts on psychological health, social health and wellbeing, and cultural wellbeing (O'Mara, 2010).
According to Cox (2011), the Intervention did not implement any of the 97 detailed recommendations of the Report, and there is little evidence of any success. This is supported by former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Justice Commissioner Tom Calma, who said in 2007 that 'there was not one reference to the topic of child protection in all 500 pages of legislation' for the Intervention (Calma, 2007).
In 2017, Rex Wild QC, Co-chair of the Inquiry condemned the Intervention and the Government's actions. Wild stated that 'it was a poor response, it was the wrong response'(Copp, 2017). This was due to a lack of 'community consultation' prior to the Intervention, a key recommendation of the Report (Copp, 2017).
James Anaya, United Nations Special Rapporteur, criticised the Intervention for:
- racially discriminatory treatment of Indigenous people and communities;
- breaches of international human rights obligations; and
- the failure to promote and respect Indigenous peoples' right to self-determination (Perche, 2017)
Anaya recognised that many of the Intervention's components are legitimate and important to addressing disadvantage in Indigenous communities. However, Anaya noted that these efforts could be possible without the discriminatory policies of the Intervention (2010).
Indigenous psychiatrist Associate Professor Helen Milroy has warned that if the Intervention results in further dispossession or a sense of powerlessness, this could constitute a 're-traumatisation' of Indigenous people (Calma, 2007).
Positive outcomes and responses:
There have been some positive outcomes of the Intervention:
- Many children had health screening associated with the Intervention. Over 50 per cent of Indigenous children in the Northern Territory were screened in the first 18 months (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2009).
- By 2012, 94 per cent of children identified through screening as needing a referral had been seen by a specialist (Maguire, 2017).
- By 2011, Scott & Higgins noted that 2,241 jobs had been created since the start of the Intervention; however, economic development would require ongoing 'commitment and innovation' (2011).
- In a survey of over 1,300 NTER community members, 58.7 per cent reported they felt their lives were better than they were three years before (Scott & Higgins, 2011).
- Community governance and capacity has been strengthened with some investment under the Intervention (Scott & Higgins, 2011).
- Some additional mechanisms for local community engagement and local community planning introduced from 2010 (Scott & Higgins, 2011).
However, Scott & Higgins cautioned that long-term outcomes are unknown and that it is difficult to attribute outcomes positively or negatively toward individual measures (2011).