Archived News Item

Reflecting on the Northern Territory Intervention

The Institute’s Specific Issues Committee, Indigenous Concerns, invites readers to reflect on the Northern Territory Intervention using the Young Christian Students-Workers framework: “See, Judge, Act”.

“See, Judge and Act”
One of the more morally confusing issues facing thinking Australians is the justice or otherwise of what is known as “The Northern Territory Intervention”.

In August 2007, the then Howard Government, with Mal Brough as the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister in Aboriginal Affairs, instituted what has become known as the “Northern Territory Intervention”. To be fair, the Minister, like many before him, had visited a number of Aboriginal communities. In his observations and meetings with community spokespersons, it was evident that despite time and money, some Aboriginal people, in some communities were living in abject poverty. Further, the social problems aligned with poverty were having a huge impact on the most vulnerable members of these communities – the children.

Many of us spent our teenage years involved with the movement known as YCS or YCW – Young Christian Students or Workers. This movement, begun by Joseph Cardijn in 1912, gave young Christians a framework (See, Judge and Act) for dealing with social issues and bringing about change where it was needed.

As citizens, it is our duty to reflect upon and critique the actions of our elected officials. There are many voices clamouring about the legitimacy and justice of the Intervention, despite the stated objective of improving the well-being of Aborigines in communities in the Northern Territory.

In the National Indigenous Times, Issue 163, October 2, 2008, in an article headed “The Intervention: A battalion of Human Rights breaches” it is noted:

“The Northern Territory Intervention breaches at least 25 of 46 articles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and also breaches almost half of the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which Australia endorsed decades ago." (National Indigenous Times, Issue 163, October 2, 2008)

Using the “See, Judge and Act” framework we might ask:

  • “Should this situation be happening?”
  • “Do you think this is right? What makes it right or wrong?”

In an article published in The Sydney Morning Herald in February 2009, guest writer, George Williams, the Anthony Mason Professor of Law at the University of NSW, wrote:

“The Howard Government’s intervention laws were passed in August 2007 to exclude the Racial Discrimination Act. The reason was clear. Parts of the intervention are racially discriminatory. For example, it quarantines 50 per cent of welfare income to be used for food and other essentials only for people living in Aboriginal communities. There is no exception, even for people who can demonstrate they are responsible spenders of their income.” (The Sydney Morning Herald, February 10, 2009)

On October 14, 2008, Sydney Morning Herald reporters, Stephanie Peatling and Joel Gibson, responded to the Report of the NTER Review Board, October 2008, commissioned by the Federal Government to assess the benefits or effects of the intervention. The following points are noted:

  • The intervention had not led to anyone being arrested for child abuse – the grounds on which the previous government justified the intervention.
  • Measures to increase school attendance had also been unsuccessful.
  • The board was scathing of several of the intervention’s good intentions, such as providing safe houses for victims of domestic violence. Shelters consisted of shipping containers grouped together… and people refused to use them because they were reminiscent of detention centres.
  • One of the main recommendations made was for people to be able to choose whether to have their welfare payments quarantined.

Using the “See, Judge and Act” framework we might ask:

  • “How does this situation affect those involved?”
  • “What are the causes and consequences of what is happening?”
  • “Why did people act as they did?”

There are many Australians who would wholeheartedly support the Northern Territory Intervention, among them some prominent Aboriginal leaders. As reported by Sydney Morning Herald reporters, Stephanie Peatling and Joel Gibson:

“The former Labor Party President, Warren Mundine, a supporter of the intervention, said the abolition of the Community Development Employment Projects program, except in remote communities, showed the Government was heading in the right direction and the review board was not… [The intervention] was about putting a clear message out there for what’s acceptable and what’s not… about creating an environment for economic development.” (The Sydney Morning Herald, October 14, 2008)

Using the “See, Judge and Act” framework we might ask:

  • “Is there anything you/we can do, no matter how small, to improve the situation?”
  • “Is there anyone we can influence to improve things?”
  • “What action can we take?”
  • “How can we make a difference?”

In an essay titled “Tradition, Truth and Tomorrow” Galarrwuy Yunipingu wrote:

“Although the wealth of the Australian nation has been taken from our soil, our communities and homelands bear no resemblance to the great towns and metropolises of the modern Australian nation. The intervention and what it promises is important. I do not set it aside completely. But I tell my family now: no government, no politician, no journalist or TV man, no priest, no greenie, no well-meaning dreamer from the city is going to put your life right for you. I have committed my clan to the future and my family supports me, even as it struggles with everyday life. And I will continue this commitment.” (The Monthly, December 2008 – January 2009 pp. 39-40)

An issue as complex as this requires our attention as it is having a profound affect on our brothers and sisters. It may be that we can look to the Spiritual Works of Mercy for inspiration.

To convert the sinner
To instruct the ignorant
To counsel the doubtful
To comfort the sorrowful
To bear wrongs patiently
To forgive injuries
To pray for the living and the dead

These precepts may be instructive, in this context as we ponder and reflect upon our relationships with one another and our relationship with the Creator God who loves each one of us.

The Institute of Sisters of Mercy proclaims dedication and intentionality around Indigenous Concerns. We are “professed” Christians! The concerns of the poor are our concerns.

“The faith-vision of Catherine McAuley’s apostolic spirituality was that Christ would consider as done to Himself whatever should be done to others. (Matthew 25:40) This, in turn, convinced her that she should be herself a sign of His presence among His people, just as she expected to encounter Him in the many areas encompassed by her ministry of Mercy.” (Nolan, Martin, OSA, “Apostolic Spirituality” in Mercy Readings Morning and Evening Prayer of the Sisters of Mercy, 1998, p. 955)

Let’s not put our Indigenous brothers and sisters in the “too hard basket!”
From: Institute Specific Issues Committee, Indigenous Concerns (Sisters Rose Glennen, Anne McGuire and Daphne McKeough). The Committee warmly invites your response to the article or the issue.

Contact: Carmel Heagerty RSM, Institute Justice Co-ordinator