The last sitting week of parliament before the winter recess may well be remembered for the historic senate vote made late into the night.
This legislation, with bipartisan support, agreed to the extension and modification of a contentious set of policies that are likely to have a profound impact on some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
No, I’m not living in a parallel universe where legislation was passed on the vexed issue of asylum seekers. Rather, I am referring to the passage of the Stronger Futures legislation. The three related bills will, in essence, extend many of the provisions of the Northern Territory Intervention (also known as the Northern Territory Emergency Response) until 2022.
Key parts of the legislation include:
Continuation of alcohol restrictions; the potential for income support payments to be suspended due to poor school attendance; and voluntary (as opposed to compulsory) leases of Aboriginal land.
Unlike the original NTER legislation, the Stronger Futures bills were designed to comply with the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.
This does not mean, of course, that the legislation was welcomed by all or even most Indigenous or human rights organisations. According to reports on Friday, Amnesty International Australia labelled the legislation a “travesty”.
The co-chairs of the National Congress of Australia’s First People (Jody Broun and Les Malezer) put out a statement saying that, despite the assurances of the government that the laws meet Australia’s relevant obligations, they should still be examined by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights.
Much of the resistance to the bills relates to what many see as being a flawed consultation process.
There is no doubt that the government went to great expense to discuss the legislation with Indigenous communities across the NT. According to documentation supporting the legislation there were more than 450 meetings across 100 communities in mid-2011.
However, it is not the breadth, but rather the depth of consultation that many have taken issue with. For example, Jacqueline Philips from Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation was quoted as saying the consultations were “grossly inadequate”, and that there were “high levels of distress, of anxiety, of confusion and opposition to these bills in communities”.
One difference between the current legislation and that which was passed in the dying days of the Howard Government is the reference to an independent review of the legislation after three years. One could argue though that, in order for this review to have credibility, it should commence now so that changes in outcomes and attitudes can be properly tested, rather than being reliant on individual recall.
Another major difference is the explicit focus on “Closing the Gap” in outcomes between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous population. For example, at the time of the May budget when the $3.4 billion for the Stronger Futures legislation was announced, the media release was titled “Investing to close the gap on Indigenous disadvantage”.
So how has the Intervention changed life in the Northern Territory? There are some data available that can provide answers.
We won’t have data on life expectancy for a while. However, it is worth considering how a few other socioeconomic outcomes have been tracking since the original intervention.
Even after adjusting for inflation, median household income for Indigenous households in the NT increased by about 12.7% between the 2006 and 2011 censuses. However, there were even more rapid gains for non-Indigenous households meaning that the gap actually widened over the period.
Employment data from the 2011 census isn’t available yet. However, looking at estimates from the Labour Force Survey (which for the NT has quite large sampling error) the best one can say is that there has probably been a small improvement in the proportion of the Indigenous population employed since the intervention, but that the gap between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous percentage still remains more or less the same.
Census data, however, shows that there has been both relative and absolute gains in terms of Indigenous education outcomes over the past 5 years or so. In 2006, 16.6% of Indigenous Australians in the NT aged 15 to 24 years were participating in some form of education. By 2011, this had risen to 22.4%. There was a slight decline in the same percentage for the non-Indigenous NT population (38.0% to 37.8%) meaning that the gap narrowed over the period.
The way 2011 census data is currently available makes it difficult to look at changes in early childhood education. However, using a rather crude proxy (the number of children participating in preschool as a percentage of the population aged three to five years), we can see some considerable gains.
In 2006, 22.5% of Indigenous children aged three to five in the Northern Territory were participating in preschool, compared to 36.3% of non-Indigenous children. By 2011, the Indigenous percentage had risen to 30.2% compared to 37.1% for the non-Indigenous population.
Support for and opposition to the Stronger Futures legislation and the original Intervention is about much more than socioeconomic status. However, in the long term, that is what these policies will be judged upon. At the moment the results are mixed.
Few would argue that the government should step away from remote Indigenous communities and historic underinvestment is in many ways what got us to the current state. However, if a week is a long time in politics, then a decade is an age. A 15 year intervention (of which we are five years into) should be based on the best available evidence.