Transcript by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Government’s response to the NTER review

Program: ABC Radio National


FRAN KELLY: Well, the catch cry of the Rudd Labor Government has been closing the gap of disadvantage between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It’s a major part of the policy has been the Northern Territory intervention. But when the Government reported earlier this month – sorry, when the independent review of this intervention reported earlier this month to the Government, it found that the effectiveness of the intervention had been hampered because it said it failed to engage those it was supposed to help. The review also called for the compulsory management of income from Centrelink and other benefits to be made voluntary. Well, the Government’s now responded, and the Government admits that more does need to be done to engage local Aboriginal communities and also on this whole issue of income management, it says that stays. The federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs is Jenny Macklin. She joins us now. Minister, good morning.

JENNY MACKLIN: Good morning, Fran.

FRAN KELLY: Now, the federal Labor Government is going to continue the intervention, so you’re obviously happy with the way things are going.

JENNY MACKLIN: Well we’re continuing the intervention because of the very acute levels of disadvantage in Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. That’s certainly one of the major recommendations of the review of the Northern Territory emergency response, recognising that the situation in these communities is still very acute, and there is a need for us to make sure that we invest in housing, and we make sure the children are going to school, that there are more police. All of these issues will need a long term commitment, both from the Federal Government and the Northern Territory Government.

FRAN KELLY: No doubt about that. I suppose, the question is, is the long term commitment is the intervention, the way to do that, and is it – are there indications that it is working, that it is successfully addressing these acute levels of disadvantage?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well, there’s certainly been some early indications of some improvements, but we’re the first to say there’s a lot more to be done. Certainly, people are saying that as a result of having more police in communities, people are seeing some reductions in the levels of violence and feeling a little safer, but a lot more needs to be done in that regard. And the review report was very strong in that regard. There’s a lot more that needs to be done to get children to go to school. That is an area I think where we’ve got a very, very significant problem. Far too few children even enrolled at school, let alone attending school on a regular basis. We’ve seen some improvement in the purchase of fresh fruit and vegetables. People are spending more on these basics that are meaning children are putting on a little bit of weight, which is obviously a good thing. But I’m the first to say we’ve got much, much more we need to do.

FRAN KELLY: Let’s just go to that whole notion of people starting to eat better, because one of the most contentious elements of the intervention I think on the ground was the compulsory income management, where everyone’s Centrelink payments were quarantined so at least half was spent on essentials like good food and clothing. The independent review recommended this scheme be made voluntary and only those who weren’t caring for their children properly should have their incomes quarantined. Why did you ignore that recommendation?

JENNY MACKLIN: These are difficult decisions and I certainly understand that a lot of people have very strong views about it. Many people really are desperate for the compulsory income management to stay because they can see that it really has been of significant benefit, particularly to women and children. But also to families who are benefiting from the increased purchase of food, and certainly we’ve got some strong evidence from a survey done of the stores in the communities that we’re talking about where there has been an increase in the purchase of food and a reduction in the purchase of cigarettes for example. So that’s certainly very clear evidence. I’ve also had a number of individual women come to me personally and plead with me to keep compulsory income management, because they said to me, they will never be able to choose to be income managed; that they just feel that they would be put under so much pressure that wouldn’t be an option available to them.

FRAN KELLY: So are they saying to you that it sort of helps with the power dynamic, that it gives them more power…


FRAN KELLY: … if they can say, no, the Government’s saying we have to do this.

JENNY MACKLIN: That’s exactly right. They don’t feel that they’d be able to make that decision in their communities or in their families. They feel that it’s going to mean a better life for them and their children if the Government continues compulsory income management. But that said, we do recognise that there needs to be a real re-engagement with Indigenous people in these communities in the Northern Territory. We’re determined to make sure that the nature of the compulsory income management that we develop will be consistent with the Racial Discrimination Act…

FRAN KELLY: How can you do that?

JENNY MACKLIN: One of the ways you have to do it is by talking with people and engaging people, consulting them and making sure that people are involved in the nature of the decisions that we make.

FRAN KELLY: But that still doesn’t get around the Racial Discrimination Act, does it? Unless people, you’re saying everyone invites the Government to do this, is that…

JENNY MACKLIN: Well sometimes you do need general measures to protect individuals, and the Racial Discrimination Act certainly understands that there is a place for special measures that are of benefit to Indigenous people, but in demonstrating that they are of benefit to Indigenous people, you have to involve them.

FRAN KELLY: Okay, but so – to do that, to not have to suspend the RDA in order to keep this compulsory income quarantining in place, you’re not going to have to take the dramatic step of extending it to the whole community, black and white?

JENNY MACKLIN: We’re going to just continue it in the way that it has been introduced so far. You’d be aware that we are trialling different measures of income management in Cape York, and we’re about to start following agreement with the West Australian Government, another approach in the Kimberley and in a suburb in Perth. So we are approaching this in a number of different ways, looking at how we can make sure that these welfare payments that are being made for the benefit of children are in fact spent in the interests of children.

FRAN KELLY: Minister, we’ve only got a minute or so before the news, but another concern the independent review raised was the intervention was not reaching the people it was set up to help, it didn’t engage the communities. You’ve accepted that criticism to some degree. How are you going to fix that?

JENNY MACKLIN: We have accepted that because we recognise that if you’re really going to bring about change, you have to bring people with you, and so we will spend a lot of effort in the next 12 months before we come back into the Parliament, engaging with Indigenous people in these communities in the Northern Territory, discussing with them the way in which compulsory income management, alcohol and pornography controls, leasing arrangements for housing, and other facilities in communities can best be implemented so that they are clearly for the benefit of Indigenous people.

FRAN KELLY: And just very briefly in terms of the leasing arrangement, the five year leases, the Government says it will now pay for those.


FRAN KELLY: What value, what’s that going to cost? What’s that worth?

JENNY MACKLIN: Yesterday, I wrote to the Northern Territory Valuer-General asking him to commence – in fact, undertaking those valuations. So that’s – that of course, will be an independent decision that will be made by him. In the meantime, we’re debating and discussing longer term leases with traditional owners and the land councils in these communities.


JENNY MACKLIN: So that’s underway.

FRAN KELLY: Thank you very much, Jenny Macklin for joining us.

JENNY MACKLIN: Thank you, Fran.

FRAN KELLY: Jenny Macklin is the federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, talking about the Federal Government’s response to the Northern Territory emergency intervention. It stays as it is, basically, at least for another year.