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The Aboriginal population of Australia has face many economic and health difficulties. The population of Aborigines is made of both urban and remote populations; both however have adverse ratings on various social indicators including education, health, unemployment, poverty and crime (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2002, pp 20). Negative outcomes have been endemic in the history of the Aborigines, a situation that remains the same to date. Due to the low social indicators among the Aborigines as compared to the rest of Australia, there have been several policies and legislation aimed at changing the situation. The Northern Territory Intervention is one such attempt but like most policy and practice it has failed to achieve effective impact. This paper describes the interventions in the Northern Territory Intervention and identifies a program that has actually been successful amongst the Indigenous people in an attempt to come up with suggestions that can be applied to programs and policies addressing the issues of the Aboriginal people.
The Northern Territory Intervention was an initiative of the Howard government in June 2007 (Tsey and Every, 2000, pp 509). The intervention was initiated in response to sexual abuse of children but it had larger aims of dealing with issues other than the more direct causes of child abuse. The measures for the intervention were to be started in prescribed areas. These included the Aboriginal land as defined by the Northern Territory Act of 1976, Aboriginal community areas given as freehold to Aboriginal corporations and town camp areas which had been declared under the Northern Territory 2007 Act (Commonwealth of Australia, 2007, pp12).
The NT interventions covered education, family health, child health, welfare reform, employment, housing, land ownership and law and order. Excessive drug use and violence were also among the issues to be addressed by the emergency measures (Commonwealth of Australia, 2007, pp15). Some measures drew some amount of controversy such compulsory health checks for Aboriginal children and quarantining some welfare payments to certain specific purposes by changing the Community Development Education Program (CDEP) to an employment and jobs services program (Tsey et al, 2005, pp112 ). The NT intervention was welcomed as a whole but some of its aspects have been criticized strongly both by the Aboriginal community and those outside the Aboriginal community. Due to heavy criticism, the compulsory health checks for children were removed. When there was change of office, other changes were made such as the reinstatement of CDEP and a greater commitment for the review of CDEP’s operations.
The Aboriginal people largely felt that their culture was being blamed for problems that had been brought about by years of low government spending in education, housing and other services. Most of the electorate assumed that the poor school attendance rates of the Aboriginal children were due to poor parenting. An evaluated trial however indicated that this was just one of many factors that influenced school attendance (Behrendt, 2008, pp6). Evidence has pointed out there are differences in school attendance in children of one family. Additionally, school attendance was influenced by overcrowding. Criticism was leveled at the attempts to link welfare to behavioural change with the argument that use of such punitive measures would only be effective in adding stress to an already dysfunctional situation (Tsey, 2008, pp8-10). Noel Pearson, an influential Indigenous reformer and thinker held that the focus on policing and alcohol was important but there also needed to be a strategy in which social and cultural ownership could be built (Pearson, 2007, pp 4, pp6). Many commentators condemned the approach used by the Federal Government in hastily preparing legislation that would underpin the intervention. In their approach there was hardly any consultation with the community (Havene, 2007, pp5).
The Aboriginal people and others too felt that the interventions under the NTER were discriminatory. This is supported by the fact that the Racial Discrimination Act was suspended when the policy was rolled out (Berhendt, 2008, pp6). The policy took away the rights of the people and left them without an avenue through which they could seek redress. The way in which it was applied was also questionable as it covered everyone in the prescribed areas regardless of whether they had children or not. Some veterans who had fought in the war also found their pensions quarantined. The use of slogans likes ‘you can’t eat rights’ by pro-reform and pro-welfare groups justified this kind of action. Other slogans used to justify such actions include statements like ‘this is for your own good’. All these however just seem to be excuses to trample on human rights under the pretext that the ends justifies the means. It indicates total disregard for human rights and shows poor policy making. The failure to use research when determining policy may be somewhat to blame for the adoption of false dichotomy policies that assume either/or situations as the NT interventions have done.
The data obtained to describe the success of the NT intervention has also not been sufficient to support its existence. For instance, the government claims that the interventions have led to increased consumption of fresh food because community stores are selling more food (Berhendt, 2008, pp6). The basis of this ‘evidence’ however is only ten phone calls made to community stores which asked whether there had been any increase in sales of fresh foods. Six of these ten said yes, while three said no and one said that they did not know (Berhendt, 2008, pp6). This evidence is very inconclusive as it does not tell us who bought the food, whether it was the people affected by the quarantined income or whether it was public servants or the army who were involved in rolling out the intervention. Briefly, this is not hard evidence because there was not even data available about the consumption rates before the intervention that would be compared with fresh food consumption rates after so as to effectively say that the intervention has had the effect of increasing fresh food consumption.
Success in achieving impact with the Aboriginal community perhaps lies in tackling complex issues such as reconstruction of community norms that are based on social responsibility and social norms. By looking at programs that have been successful in indigenous people perhaps we can learn something. Evidence show that to get Aboriginal children to go to school certain things work, such as programs that allow the Elders of the Aboriginal community into school, having lunch and breakfast programs and Aboriginal teachers aides as well as Aboriginal teachers (Berhendt, 2008, pp7). Educationalist Chris Sarra has developed a program in which children’s self esteem and confidence are built by engaging their culture while focusing one academic excellence (Berhendt, 2008, pp7).The programs that have been effective show that it is important to build a relationship with the community in which the community members are empowered.
The Family Wellbeing empowerment program was developed by indigenous people based in Adelaide. This group had been affected by the stolen generation policies, they were among the children who had been taken out of their families and raised in foster homes or government institutions from around 1910 to 1970 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2002, pp21). The people who designed the FWB program felt that little was being done to assist the Indigenous families to develop the capacity and skills to address the hurt and pain of the past as well as the daily challenges of being a marginalized community (Tsey and Every, 2000, pp 114). Difficulty in addressing daily problems led to statistics which indicated very high drug abuse rates among Aborigines (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2003). The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2005, pp10) reports that the Aborigines were more likely to consume alcohol to a level that would increase their risk for harm both in the short-term and long-term as compared to other Australians.
The group conducted a survey to find out about the survival experiences of contemporary Indigenous Australians. The results of the consultations were the basis of the FWB program. The content of the program relies heavily on a wide variety of spiritual and therapeutic traditions for example meditation and visualization. These were considered appropriate and suitable for the Indigenous Australian population as well as adaptable to the needs of non-Indigenous Australians.
FWB began in 1993; they held informal meetings within the community where the people shared their daily experiences and provided support for one another (Tsey, 2008, pp7). This led increased awareness on the power that can be accrued from information sharing in supportive and safe groups. The program then developed into a flexible but structured learning process in which there are five stages consisting of about 30-40 hours of learning in a group. The most central thing to the community is the opportunity to articulate and reflect the values that guide people in dealing with their past and their current social relationships.
The first stage deals with the basic needs of a human being and some behaviors that may result when these needs are not met for example substance abuse. The second stage deals with the change process and the opportunities change presents for developing strengths and qualities. The third stage deals with family violence and an analysis of values related to violence and abuse as well as skills of healing from relationships that are destructive. Stage 4 focuses on the importance of having a balance in life, the importance of traditions and values. The final stage provides practical experience to enable people who have gone through the previous stages to become skilled and confident facilitators in the program.
A follow-up study on the people who had participated in the FWB program indicated the positive effect of the study (Tsey, 2008, pp 8). The participants reported being able to cope better with stressful situations without necessarily turning violent or turning to alcohol. They also reported relating better with their family members and children. The impact of change and personal empowerment seemed to have a lasting effect (Tsey, 2008, pp10). The success of this program is however tempered by the fact that sustainable and consistent government support for programs that actually worked among the Indigenous people was low. This coupled with the urgency and large scale of work required so as to help others within the community creates a significant barrier to change.
The program described above indicates that one of the best ways to reduce the disparity between non-Indigenous and Indigenous people is to involve the Indigenous people in the delivery and design of programs in their communities. The FWB participants have continued to be contact and resource persons as the program has expanded (Tsey, 2008, pp10). Making Indigenous people central to program delivery can be done by rebuilding the interface between the Aboriginal community and government by use of representative structures in which people can consult and work with the Indigenous people. Training and education are also important for capacity building but this should include changing from simple solutions such as removing children from homes to take them to boarding schools to a wider range of strategies which build on the capacities and skills of both adults and young people who still need to maintain contact with their loved ones even if they do leave home for better education opportunities (Berhendt, 2008, pp7).
Other ways of increasing Indigenous people participation include increasing the number of Indigenous people who are engaged in development of Aboriginal policies especially those working in the public service. Providing flexible work systems that have the comprehension that most of the Indigenous community does not have a viable workforce. This will assist in providing services to the community while at the same time building skills and capacity within the community (Berhendt, 2008, pp 6-7).
Most of the policy targeting Indigenous people has always been intervention or emergencies. The problem with such an approach is that it rarely looks at the underlying issues thus the long term problems which need to be addressed are often not addressed. Disadvantage requires solutions that are long term rather than reacting to a crisis. This means providing adequate resources for provision of essential services and implementation of programs that involve Indigenous people.
The use of evidence based solutions will also be necessary in a bid to achieve the indigenous health and well being that is required. Research needs to be carried out after implementation of programs to find out how effective these programs have been using proper research methodology. Where a program is found to be successful the reasons behind its success can be identified and the program perhaps applied to another indigenous community. Where failure has occurred, the reasons for the failure also need to be identified so that these are not repeated. All in all the importance of inclusion of indigenous people cannot be overemphasized as well as a combination of bio-psycho-social components in managing the low social indicators amongst the Indigenous people.