LAWS to extend the Northern Territory Intervention (NTER) have been criticised by local and national heads of Catholic organisations, with one leader describing them as “the deepening of a wound that a future Prime Minister will need to apologise for”.
The leaders, including those from the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council (ACSJC), the St Vincent de Paul Society and the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry (ACM), have all criticised the Federal Government for a lack of consultation with indigenous communities on the new legislation.
Some have also pointed to an increase in Aboriginal incarceration and youth suicides and believe these are linked to “degrading aspects” of the original Intervention laws.
The proposed Stronger Futures laws, a new version of the NTER which was introduced by the Howard Government in 2007, have been the subject of a Senate inquiry since last June.
St Vincent de Paul Society national chief executive Dr John Falzon, who gave evidence before the Senate inquiry on March 6, described the proposed new laws as “straight-out paternalism” and the “imposition of solutions from the top to problems best understood by people on the ground”.
ACSJC chairman Bishop Christopher Saunders of Broome said the laws were a “travesty at the heart of which is a mentality that believes the opinions of Aboriginal people simply do not matter”.
ACM head Graeme Mundine, whose organisation made one of more than 450 submissions received by the Senate, said the inquiry had completely ignored one of the key recommendations of the Little Children are Sacred report used to justify the 2007 NTER.
“This was that any intervention should be done in consultation with the Aboriginal people which has definitely not happened,” he said.
“Critics will say it’s too expensive to consult the more than 70 communities being dealt with under the Intervention.
“But most of the money so far has gone into white pockets and not to the communities it was meant to help anyway.”
The new laws propose extending federal controls in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities for another 10 years when the current Intervention expires in August.
The Stronger Futures legislation passed through the lower house of Parliament on February 28.
It was expected to pass the upper house with the support of the Opposition.
A contentious aspect of the NTER has been the quarantining of welfare payments.
The measure based in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities has been criticised as being “discriminating” and “racist”.
Those under the compulsory scheme are issued with a “Basics Card”, quarantining a set amount of the welfare benefit which enables them to buy groceries.
Plans are to extend the scheme in July from the Northern Territory and Cape York in Queensland into trial areas including Logan in Brisbane; Rockhampton, Queensland; Bankstown, NSW; and Shepparton, Victoria.
Dr Falzon said the St Vincent de Paul Society was “completely supportive of voluntary involvement in the scheme”.
“But the society is very much against it being imposed compulsorily,” he said.
“It’s a dangerous weapon; a blunt instrument; one that’s against people’s dignity and their right to control their own affairs.
“They’re being treated like naughty children.”
Brisbane archdiocese’s Catholic Justice and Peace Commission executive offic-er Peter Arndt said quarantining of welfare payments was disempowering and “clearly racist”.
“It’s been inflicted on people irrespective of whether they’re handling financial affairs properly or not,” he said.
“The scheme doesn’t take into consideration things like how well a family is managing to set their children up for school.
“It says: ‘We’ll impose the measure because these people belong to a particular Ab-original community’.”
Federal Government claims that real progress had been made under the current NTER were dismissed by all the heads.
Mr Mundine said “they keep telling us that things are improving” but he queried the evidence.
“The fact is suicide rates, particularly among young Aboriginals, are going through the roof and are now, most likely, among worst in the world,” he said.
“Imprisonment rates for Aboriginals have also increased.
“The proposed new laws will make it worse – for example possessing one bottle of alcoholic drink can lead to six months in jail and a six-pack can mean 18 months in jail.”
Dr Falzon and Mr Mun-dine said their organisations were determined to oppose “Intervention Mark II” if it passed into law during the past week.
“The Australian Lawyers Alliance say they are thinking of mounting a challenge to the new laws based on the fact that no one’s been consulted – it’s a breach of the (United Nations’) Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People,” Mr Mundine said.
(Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin recently said about 100 public meetings had been held in various communities as part of the Senate inquiry and that she had been present at most of them.)
Dr Falzon said the battle would not end with the passing of the Stronger Futures legislation.
“Vinnies have an obligation to support those who are marginalised and, as in this case, treated with contempt,” he said.
“How many people are needed to come and tell the Government this is a deepening and broadening of a wound that a future Prime Minister will need to apologise for?”