“There have been some improvements to Indigenous child mortality with this target on track to be met by 2018. However, despite narrowing the gap in life expectancy, the rate of improvement is far too slow to close the gap. The situation is particularly bad for Indigenous people living in the Northern Territory, whose life expectancy is nearly 15 years shorter than non-Indigenous Australians
The Northern Territory intervention has failed to deliver substantial reform in any of the areas covered by the Close the Gap goals and has also failed to meet Australia’s international human rights obligations, an independent report has found.
Nearly a decade after the Northern Territory intervention, residents of Indigenous town camps in Alice Springs are fighting to regain control of their lives as they wrestle with longstanding social problems
Photo above: Aboriginal children playing at one of the town camps in Alice Springs when the intervention started in 2007. An independent report shows the strategy has failed to deliver substantial reform in any target area. Photograph: Anoek de Groot/AFP/Getty Images
The report, by the Castan Centre for Human Rights at Monash University, rated the intervention, which was rebadged in 2012 and now operates as the “stronger futures” policy, four out of 10 for its general human rights performance and failed it against seven other human rights measures, including the right to self-determination.
It also gave fail marks to every Close the Gap measure except education – which it scored at five out of 10 for improvements in primary school attendance – and urged the government to include incarceration rates as a new Close the Gap target, pointing to an “increasing and inordinate amount of Indigenous Australians being incarcerated”.
Malcolm Turnbull is set to deliver his first update on the Closing the Gap targets on Wednesday.
The national targets were set by the Council of Australian Governments in 2008, a year after the NT intervention began, and, according to the most recent update delivered by the then prime minister Tony Abbott in February 2015, most are not on track to be met.
The target of getting all Indigenous four-year-olds in remote communities into early childhood education was missed in 2013, with just 85% instead of the target of 95% enrolled.
The 2015 update, which Abbott described as “profoundly disappointing”, said the targets of closing the life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a generation, halving the gap in literacy and numeracy by 2018, and halving the gap in employment outcomes by 2018 were not on track. Literacy and numeracy rates had not improved since 2008 and Indigenous employment had fallen.
Two more targets, to halve the gap in child mortality rates by 2018 and to halve the gap in year 12 completion rates by 2020, were listed as on track.
However, the author of the Castan Centre report said it appeared unlikely that any of the targets would be met in the Territory.
“The intervention was meant to improve the lives of Indigenous people in the Northern Territory, but at this rate the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people may never close in many areas,” Dr Stephen Gray said.
He urged the government to adopt a new target of reducing Indigenous incarceration rates, as was recommended by the Close the Gap steering committee in 2014.
According to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data, Indigenous people made up 3% of the population but 27% of the prison population, and 52% of all young people in detention. In the NT, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples make up 86% of the adult prisoner population and 96.9% of young people in detention. Incarceration rates are up 41% since the start of the intervention.
In November, the Australian Medical Association called rates of Indigenous imprisonment a “health and justice crisis”.
“I think there’s a perception that because family violence is such a crisis, because assault rates and child abuse are at such a crisis, we should not be always going on about Aboriginal imprisonment rates,” Gray said. “That sense that you can’t improve one without worsening the other is false.”
Amnesty International agreed, telling Guardian Australia that “any efforts at Closing the Gap cannot ignore these areas of massive inequality and the role that law and justice policy play in disadvantage.”
Reports of child abuse in the NT have decreased since 2010, but there has been a 500% increase in reports of self harm or suicide by Indigenous children and a sharp rise in the number of Indigenous children in care.
Gray said it was difficult to unpick the complicated mass of policy that governed the lives of Indigenous people in the NT, and that made it difficult to evaluate.
The intervention began with bipartisan support under the Howard government in 2007 as a response to a report about horrific levels of child sexual abuse in some Aboriginal communities, and was delivered as a complex suite of laws that altered everything from welfare payments to land tenure.
There was this presumption of rampant child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities,” Gray told Guardian Australia. “It has been the excuse for a large number of other reforms that don’t really relate to child sexual abuse or family violence at all, like land reforms. It’s got very little to do with the original goals of the intervention.”
In 2008, the Rudd government reshaped it to focus on the new Closing the Gap targets but punitive measures remained, including more police, the removal of customary law and cultural practices from consideration in sentencing, quarantining welfare payments of those judged to have “neglected” their children, and tough penalties for possessing alcohol or pornography, as did the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act.
The Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act expired in 2012 and was extended by the Gillard government until 2022, under the new name of the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Act. The Racial Discrimination Act was reintroduced but the percentage of an individual’s welfare payments that could be quarantined under the BasicsCard increased to 70%, and penalties for possessing porn or alcohol in dry communities, including a single can of beer, increased to six months’ jail.
By then the government had produced 98 reports and seven parliamentary inquiries into the intervention, a weight of information Gray said obscured its negative effects, particularly the impact on human rights.
“There’s a danger that things get out of check because of the swift pace of apparent change,” he said. “Because wheels keep turning, another policy gets rebadged, funding gets moved, but the real pace of life in Aboriginal communities remains the same.”
The result, the report said, was that many of Australia’s international human rights obligations, including the right of Indigenous peoples to self-determination, continued to be “directly and knowingly violated or ignored”.
Prof Jon Altman, from the Alfred Deakin Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation, said the Castan Centre’s evaluation of the intervention was too generous. The government deserved a zero out of 10, he said, for its attempts to improve education, and a negative score on employment rates which had gone backwards since the decision to abolish the community development employment projects (CDEP) program, which employed about 33,000 Indigenous people, particularly in remote communities.
Altman, who has spent 40 years working in Aboriginal communities in the NT in particular, said the services previously delivered by community-led CDEP organisations were now being done by non-Indigenous organisations, while many who had worked under CDEP remained on “passive welfare”.
Aboriginal people are exceptional. When we can all acknowledge that, the gap will close
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“The state needs to admit that it’s actually doing worse than Aboriginal community-based organisations,” he said
Altman argued the Close the Gap program should be abolished, saying it was assimilationist, had alienated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and had produced no significant benefits.
“It’s all based on a policy, an ideology, that progress in closing the gap will require people to adopt western norms,” he told Guardian Australia. “And that’s a pretty hard line. It really doesn’t leave people much wiggle room if they don’t want to be changed.
“My advice to the prime minister is to stop talking about closing the gap and start talking about improving people’s wellbeing and livelihoods, because those things are taking a hammering.”