Transcript by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Northern Territory Emergency Response

Program: The World Today


ELEANOR HALL: The Federal Government has signalled today that it is likely to continue with the controversial intervention in the Northern Territory that was put in place by the Howard government a year ago this week.

The Federal Indigenous Affairs Minster Jenny Macklin has now released a 12-month report card on the intervention that she says shows that progress is being made.

But while the Labor Party has continued with the intervention, it has always insisted that it will review the system before it guarantees support for it into the future.

The Minster announced the make-up of that review committee earlier this month and she spoke to me a short time ago about the Government’s plans for the intervention.

Now Minister your response so far to the 12-month report card on the Northern Territory intervention suggests that you’re satisfied with the way that it’s progressing. Does that mean that you’re not going to wait for the results of the review that you announced earlier this month before deciding whether to continue with the program?

JENNY MACKLIN: There certainly are some positive signs coming out of some of the measures.

For example, we’re getting reports back from a number of the stores in many of the Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory, that there has been an increase in the amount of food being purchased.

There is some evidence that some of the children at school, particularly as a result of the school nutrition programs, that children are putting on weight that they needed to put on.

So there’s some indication also of some improvements in attendance at school, but I’d have to say there’s a lot, lot further to go in that area.

So there’s some evidence of some improvement. There’s other areas where we really are expecting to see, and are going to need to deliver, significant improvements, and I’d certainly say that’s the case in relation to school attendance because we’ve got to get the children attending school and attending school on a regular basis.

That said, we certainly are looking forward to the major review that we’ve just announced. We expect that review to look at the evidence, to look at what’s working and to look at what’s not working and to advise us about the way forward.

ELEANOR HALL: Well the outgoing head of the task force, Sue Gordon, says there’s a lot of uncertainty in Aboriginal communities and she’s asked for you to put some guarantees in about the future of the intervention. Can you make any guarantees about future funding right now before the review team you’ve appointed reports?

JENNY MACKLIN: We announced just after the election in February that we would put additional funding into a range of new measures in the Northern Territory. So for example we have funded 200 extra teachers to be placed in schools in these 73 communities in the Northern Territory, so we recognise that that needs a long term commitment so the money we’ve made available is over the next four years.

We also announced in April, I achieved a major agreement with the Northern Territory Government to spend over $600-million to build new houses and upgrade a significant number of houses. That will be done over the next five years.

We know that we’re going to need an ongoing commitment in relation to a number of other issues but I think that demonstrates that we understand we’re in it for the long haul.

ELEANOR HALL: If you’re in for the long haul, if you’re going to continue with the intervention anyway, why bother with a review? Why not just allocate funding and give people already working there some certainty?

JENNY MACKLIN: Because I’m sure you would agree and everyone else would agree, you’ve got to get it right. You’ve got to look at the evidence, look at what’s working.

Where it is working of course continue those measures; where it’s not working or where there are improvements that need to be made, we should make them. I think we should always work on the basis of evidence and that’s the purpose of the review.

ELEANOR HALL: What’s a review going to give you though that this 12-month report card hasn’t already given you?

JENNY MACKLIN: Take for example the area of food security. We’ve been getting anecdotal reports about improvements in the quantity of food being bought, but we want to know exactly how that’s proceeding.

We’ve been getting anecdotal reports about reduction in alcohol consumption; we want to know if that’s the case across the board or whether we need to make different arrangements to keep pressing the point that we have to better control the consumption of alcohol.

The issues around policing, the issues around school attendance – there are a number of areas. Particularly I go back to this issue of school attendance. Yes there are some places where there’s been some improvement, other places not very much improvement. So I would suggest that we have a lot more to be done in this area of getting children to school.

ELEANOR HALL: Let’s have a look at some of the numbers in your 12-month review. The health checks still haven’t reached all communities; that was the prime reason for this intervention. A leaked report to Crikey dated just in mid-May showed that only 63 per cent of children in remote communities had received health checks. What’s the percentage now a month later?

JENNY MACKLIN: I’ve got the actual numbers here and what we’ve got is that almost 11,000 child health checks have been done and we’ve had some follow-ups occur. So there have certainly been, I think around 700 children have received follow-up audiology tests. We’ve also had some operations done, some surgical operations done for ear nose and throat and for dental treatment.

But this is another area where we certainly need ongoing commitment. There is additional funding in this year’s Budget for ongoing health follow-ups to be done for children.

But you’re right, this is an area where we do need to continually work and the Government and Nicola Roxon in particular, the Health Minister, is determined that we really embed this issue into improved primary health care in the Northern Territory.

ELEANOR HALL: And yet the intervention has been roundly criticised by the Australian Medical Association president Rosanna Capolingua. She says that the Government should be funding this properly and not relying on voluntarism from doctors. She says non-Indigenous Australians don’t have to rely on charity for their healthcare.

It’s a fair point isn’t it?

JENNY MACKLIN: I think what’s important, I don’t intend to play politics with this issue, I think what’s important is to recognise that there are many doctors around Australia who want to be able to contribute and deliver their services and be paid for it.

But to come into remote parts of Australia to deliver the health care that these children, and certainly in many cases their parents as well, need, we know that there’s a very serious shortage of doctors across Australia and of course it’s hard to get doctors into remote parts of Australia. I know this is a big issue for us. We want to work with the medical profession to make sure that we get the services delivered that children need …

ELEANOR HALL: How damaging is it then for you that the AMA has withdrawn its support for the intervention and is no longer recruiting doctors?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well I think the important thing is that we work with the profession broadly and that we make sure that we do get these services delivered both by doctors, nurses and other health professionals.

We’re going to need the support and services of a wide range of different health professionals. We understand that that’s critical for these children and that’s why we’ll be working with many, many different parts of the health professional workforce.

ELEANOR HALL: Now income management was another controversial area of the intervention. Your 12-month-report suggests it’s now operating in 52 of the 73 communities, but there has been a lot of criticism about it being a sort of nanny-style intervention. How do you respond to that criticism?

JENNY MACKLIN: I think it’s important when considering the effectiveness of income management that we listen to the people who have actually been part of it for the last six to nine months, and of course their experience varies depending on where they live.

This will be a critical part of the review, to look at the effectiveness of income management, to see whether or not it has actually delivered.

What we’re hearing anecdotally certainly has helped in some communities. I’m hearing from particularly women in communities that they now have more money that they can dedicate to food and clothing, the things that children really need.

And the other thing that a number of women say to me is that they’re less likely to be humbugged, they’re less likely to be harassed for money because everybody knows that half of their money has to be spent on essentials for children.

But this will be a critical part of the review – to look at the effectiveness of income management and see whether or not it really is delivering for children.

ELEANOR HALL: Minister thanks very much for joining us.


ELEANOR HALL: And that’s the Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin speaking in Canberra a short time ago.