Launch – Listening but not Hearing

By Sam Ryan
intervention

This article is part of our March theme, which focuses on an ongoing challenge to Australian society: Race & Discrimination. Read our Editorial for more on this theme.

On 27 February 2012, in a virtually empty House of Representatives, the Government’s Stronger Futures legislation was passed with little debate and no formal division. It is proposed to replace the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) laws – otherwise known as the Northern Territory Intervention – introduced by the Howard Government in 2007.

Many concerns have been raised regarding the legislation itself, but even the consultation process that was meant to inform it shows an alarming degree of disregard by the Government for the people its decisions will affect.

Co-author Nicole Watson believes that Stronger Futures is merely an extension of the intervention and its most discriminatory aspects.

On Thursday 8 March, former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser launched the Listening but not Hearing report at the Sir Zelman Cowen Centre, Victoria University. The report was prepared by the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology Sydney as an evaluation of the Stronger Futures consultation process.

Co-author Nicole Watson believes that Stronger Futures is merely an extension of the intervention and its most discriminatory aspects. Issues such as income management; land control; the removal of customary law as a consideration in legal proceedings or bail reviews; and alcohol restrictions continue to stigmatise Northern Territory communities and restrict self-determination.

Malcolm Fraser said that:

If there had been any good from the intervention, the Government would have been swamping us with statistics of fewer people in jail, of more people in the decent housing, of improved health, of better performances in schools, of higher attendances in schools.

Rather, he listed figures that suggest the opposite: a 41 per cent rise in Indigenous imprisonment; lower school attendance; inadequate housing; 38 per cent more children removed from their homes by social services; and a doubling of cases of self-harm and of suicide.

The consultation process for the legislation was conducted in more than 100 Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory between June and August 2011. Marking the Government’s consultation process against international law and best practice, the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning gave it a compliance score of just 26 out of 100.

The Government has refused to release the results of the consultation process …

Not only were local communities excluded from the design and consultation process, but consultations were based on dense documents that had not been translated into relevant Aboriginal languages and were provided just days (or minutes in at least one case, according to Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation CEO, Luke Morrish) before the consultation – making informed, in-depth discussion virtually impossible.

The Government has refused to release the results of the consultation process, making it difficult to measure and properly judge whether it was utilised, in good faith, to truly inform the legislation.

“Surely,” Fraser lamented, “the people that you are consulting with have some right to influence the outcome. There is absolutely no evidence though that any of the consultation influenced the outcome at all.”

He went so far as to comment that, given the tight timeframes and complex consultation process required, he “would be very surprised if the legislation were not being draft[ed] actually while the consultations were taking place”.

Minister for Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin referred the legislation to a Senate Committee, yet it passed through the House of Representatives before the committee could complete its report.

Perhaps tellingly, committee member and Country Liberals Senator Nigel Scullion recently stated that when visiting Ntaria (about 130 kilometres west of Alice Springs), one of the communities involved in the consultation, the committee spent most of the day explaining the legislation to members of the community, who did not “have any recollection of anyone visiting or certainly any consultation taking place.”

How is it that the progress of successive governments from both sides could be so easily undone …?

Where bipartisan support in Parliament may be seen as a positive sign of putting policy before party politics, the non-event that was the passing of Stronger Futures through the lower house seems to be a case of bipartisan indifference in the eyes of the Listening but not Hearing report. Legislation that could determine the relationship with Indigenous Australians in the decade to come was not important enough to be deserving of robust parliamentary discussion.

How is it that the progress of successive governments from both sides could be so easily undone by the Howard, Rudd and Gillard governments, without dissent from either the party in opposition or the general population? Fraser believes that, for many Australians, it may be a case of “out of sight, out of mind”:

If any government treated a small white community the way Aboriginal communities are being treated, and if that white community happened to be within reach of other people on the outskirts of Melbourne, on the outskirts of Sydney, there would be total rage by the whole of Melbourne and the whole of Sydney.

“And what does that say about us?”

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