What is the Northern Territory Intervention?

The Intervention was directed at addressing the disproportionate levels of violence in Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory, as well as the systemic  disadvantage of Indigenous people, characterised by economic deprivation, unemployment, social marginalisation, inadequate housing and poor health and justice outcomes.  It was also a direct response to the Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle Report (‘Little Children are Sacred Report’) into sexual abuse of Indigenous children. This report was commissioned by the then Northern Territory Chief Minister, Clare Martin, following an interview on the ABC’s Lateline program, in which Alice Springs Senior Crown Prosecutor, Dr Nanette Rogers SC, commented that the violence and sexual abuse of children that was entrenched in Indigenous communities  was ‘beyond most people’s comprehension and range of human experience’. The then Commonwealth Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, indicated in his second reading speech that “[the NTERA]… and the other bills introduced in the same package are all about the safety and wellbeing of children and are “designed to ensure the protection of Aboriginal children from harm”.

The Little Children are Sacred Report was the result of in-depth research, investigation and community consultation over a period of over eight months by members of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry. The focus of their inquiry was instances of sexual abuse, especially of children, in Northern Territory Indigenous communities. The findings were presented to then Chief  Minister Clare Martin in April 2007 and released to the public in June. The striking facts, graphic imagery and ardent plea for action contained in this report saw this issue gain widespread attention both in the media and in the political agenda, inciting divisive debate and discussion.

The NTNERA was enacted by the Howard Government just two months after the report was released to the public, allowing little time for consultation with Indigenous communities. It was framed as a 'national emergency' with army troops being deployed to Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. This took place in the lead up to the 2007 Federal Election, in which the Labor Party under Kevin Rudd defeated the Howard Government after four terms of Liberal government.

The Northern Territory Intervention Measures

The Intervention in 2007

The Intervention was a $587 million package of legislation that made a number of changes affecting specified Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. It included restrictions on alcohol, changes to welfare payments, acquisition of parcels of land, education, employment and health initiatives, restrictions on pornography and other measures.

The package of legislation introduced included:
  • NorthernTerritory National Emergency Response Act 2007.
  • Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Payment Reform) Bill 2007.
  • Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment. (Northern Territory National Emergency Response and Other Measures) Act 2007.
  • Appropriation (NorthernTerritory National Emergency Response) Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008.
  • Appropriation (NorthernTerritory National Emergency Response) Bill (No. 2) 2007-2008.

In order to enact this package of legislation, several existing laws were affected or partially suspended, including the :

  • Racial Discrimination Act 1975.
  • Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.
  • Native Title Act 1993 (Cth).
  • Northern Territory Self-Government Act and related legislation.
  • Social Security Act 1991.
  • Income Tax Assessment Act 1993.

A raft of reforms and regulations were introduced by this package of legislation, including:

  • Restricting the sale, consumption and purchase of alcohol in prescribed areas. This included the prohibition of alcohol in certain areas prescribed by the legislation, making collection of information compulsory for purchases over a certain amount and the introduction of new penalty provisions.
  • 'Quarantining' 50% of welfare payments from individuals living in designated communities and from beneficiaries who were judged to have neglected their children.
  • Compulsorily acquiring townships held under title provisions of the Native Title Act 1993 with the introduction of five year leases in order to give the government unconditional access. Sixty-five Aboriginal communities were compulsorily acquired.
  • Linking income support payments to school attendance for all people living on Aboriginal land, and providing mandatory meals for children at school at parents' cost.
  • Introducing compulsory health checks for all Aboriginal children.
  • Introducing pornography filters on publicly funded computers, and bans on pornography in designated areas.
  • Abolishing the permit system under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976 for common areas, road corridors and airstrips for prescribed communities,.
  • Increasing policing levels in prescribed communities. Secondments were requested from other jurisdictions to supplement NT resources.
  • Marshalling local workforces through the work-for-the-dole program to clean-up and repair communities.
  • Reforming living arrangements in prescribed communities through introducing market based rents and normal tenancy arrangements.
  • Commonwealth funding for the provision of community services.
  • Removing customary law and cultural practice considerations from bail applications and sentencing in criminal trials.
  • Abolishing the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP).

Despite the Little Children are Sacred Report emphasising the importance of entering into genuine partnerships with Aboriginal communities, the Government implemented the Intervention measures with  speed. When the Bills were referred to the Senate Standing Committees on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, almost every witness lamented the ‘inability of primary stakeholders to meaningfully interact with the process that was being [established] to govern them.’

Changes under successive governments

After an initial focus on preventing child sexual abuse, successive federal governments re-designed and re-framed the Intervention. This involved linking the Intervention with the broader 'Closing the Gap' campaign, introducing new measures such as the BasicsCard and tougher penalties for the possession of alcohol and pornography. Changes were also made to the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act (see section on Human Rights). The current (2019-2020) package of legislation retains the support of the Liberal Government and is due to expire in 2022.

2008 Changes

The Intervention was introduced in 2007 by the Howard Government, but a change of government in September of that year saw the Labor Government under Kevin Rudd gain power. After some consultation and minor changes, the NTNERA and associated legislation was maintained.

In 2008 Rudd publicly apologised to the members of the Stolen Generations on behalf of the nation. In 2009, Rudd also declared support for the most substantive framework for the rights of Indigenous peoples, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The previous Howard government had voted against the ratification of this treaty. Article 3 of the Declaration states that:

'Indigenous peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development'.

The failure to recognise this right to self-determination would become one of the major points of criticism for the Intervention. Others included a complaint that the Intervention violated the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

In 2009 Rudd implemented the BasicsCard.  The card is still used to manage income in prescribed areas of the Northern Territory (although a change to a new system, the cashless Debit Card, is expected in early 2020). It cannot be used to purchase alcohol, tobacco, tobacco-products, pornography, gambling products or services, home-brew kits or home-brew concentrate.

During the period between 2009 and 2010 the Rudd Government committed itself to a re-design of the Intervention, with a focus on reinstating the suspended provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA). The Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Act 2010 (Cth) repealed the 'special measures' that had been created under the original Intervention to suspend the operation of the RDA. However, the new legislation continued to fall foul of the RDA because land acquisition and compulsory income management measures overwhelmingly  affect Indigenous Australians.

The focus of the government then changed slightly, concentrating more closely on the need to 'tackle the destructive, intergenerational cycle of passive welfare' (see then Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin's second reading speech). The Rudd government explicitly linked the Intervention to the 'Closing the Gap' targets, shifting the focus of the Intervention from the protection of children from sexual abuse to the reform of the welfare system.

2012 changes

The legislative basis for the Intervention was due to expire in 2012.  It was then incumbent upon the Commonwealth government to make decisions regarding the Intervention's future. Under the Gillard Government, the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Act 2012 (Stronger Futures) replaced the NTNERA and extended the Intervention for a further ten years to 2022.  The Stronger Futures legislation comprises three principal Acts (the Stronger Futures package), plus associated delegated legislation. The three Acts are:

  • Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Act 2012;
  • Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Act 2012; and
  • Social Security Legislation Amendment Act 2012.

In 2013, the  Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights examined Stronger Futures and the related legislation in their 11th Report. They noted that although the Stronger Futures legislative package repealed the Northern Territory Emergency Response ('NTER') legislation, it retained three key policy elements:

  • The tackling alcohol abuse measure: the purpose of this measure was 'to enable special measures to be taken to reduce alcohol-related harm to Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.
  • The land reform measure: the land reform measure enabled the Commonwealth to amend Northern Territory legislation relating to community living areas and town camps to enable opportunities for private home ownership in town camps and more flexible long-term leases.
  • The food security measure: the purpose of this measure was 'to enable special measures to be taken for the purpose of promoting food security for Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory'. The modifications create a 10 year timeframe whilst most provisions other than the alcohol measures being reviewed after 7 years.

The key changes imposed under the 2012 Stronger Futures legislation package consist of:

  • Expansion of income management through the BasicsCard and the increase of 'quarantined' payments.
  • Increased penalties related to alcohol and pornography, with as much as 6-months jail time for a single can of beer.
  • Expansion of policy that links school attendance with continued welfare payments.
  • Introduction of licences for 'community stores' to ensure the provisions of healthy, quality food.
  • Commonwealth given power to make regulations regarding the use of town camps.

{Sources: SBS Factbox, Stronger Futures in the NT, Listening but not Hearing Report}

Although consultation with Indigenous communities did take place, there was much criticism of the nature of the consultative process and the extent to which it was acted upon. The 'Listening but not Hearing Report' by the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning concluded that "the Government's consultation process has fallen short of Australia's obligation to consult with Indigenous peoples in relation to initiatives that affect them".

The Australian Council of Human Rights Agencies has also stated that it was 'invasive and limiting of individual freedoms and human rights, and require[s] rigorous monitoring'. Amnesty International commented that the new package of legislation was the same as the original 'Intervention, but with the pretence of being non-discriminatory.'

2014 changes

The current Intervention legislation is not due to expire until 2022.

In a speech in February of 2014, then Prime Minister Abbott identified the importance of closing the gap through investment in Indigenous programs, with a specific focus on school attendance. However, his speech was followed by substantial budget cuts to Aboriginal legal and health services, early childhood education and childcare, and the consolidation of 150 Indigenous programs into 5 core programs. While the 2015 Budget reinstated funding to Family Violence legal services, these ongoing cuts are expected to detrimentally affect attempts to Close the Gap of Indigenous disadvantage.

The 2015 Budget modified the  Stronger Futures NPA, redirecting $988.2 million in funds to a new National Partnership Agreement on Northern Territory Remote Aboriginal Investment (NPA) over eight years. The NPA prioritised schooling, community safety and employment. This funding also aimed to help the Northern Territory Government take full responsibility for the delivery of services in remote Indigenous communities. Additional funding was made available to extend the income management scheme until 2017. However, the NPA halved expenditure on health measures, minimising the extent to which the Commonwealth could control COAG target measures. The  reduction in monetary outlay was particularly incompatible with the NPA’s objective of supporting integrated hearing and oral health services directed at children in remote communities.

Government administered funding of $1.4 billion, previously available under Stronger Futures, was transferred to the NPA, but was delivered by the Departments of Prime Minister and Cabinet and Social Services, outside the NPA framework.