On 6 June 2008 Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin announced a comprehensive review of the NT Intervention rolled out by her predecessor Mal Brough in July 2007.

The Terms of Reference for the review, now known as the Yu Review, included, where here relevant:

The NTER Review Board will:

1. examine evidence and assess the overall progress of the NTER in improving the safety and wellbeing of children and laying the basis for a sustainable and better future for residents of remote communities in the NT…
2. consider what is and isn’t working and whether the current suite of NTER measures will deliver the intended results, whether any unintended consequences have emerged and whether other measures should be developed…
3. in relation to each NTER measure, make an assessment of its effects to date, and recommend any required changes to improve each measure and monitor performance.

In making these assessments and recommendations, the Review Board should give particular regard to the government’s intention that Indigenous interests be engaged to ensure effective policy development and implementation processes…(emphasis added)

The Yu Review was publicly released by Macklin on 30 September 2008.

In relation to engagement by those politicians and bureaucrats responsible for the development and implementation of the Intervention the report was scathing.

These excerpts are from the Executive Summary:

Support for the positive potential of NTER measures has been dampened and delayed by the manner in which they were imposed. The Intervention diminished its own effectiveness through its failure to engage constructively with the Aboriginal people it was intended to help.

The single most valuable resource that the NTER has lacked from its inception is the positive, willing participation of the people it was intended to help. The most essential element in moving forward is for government to re-engage with the Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory.

And apart from the failure to engage with the Aboriginal people the subject of the Intervention, the Yu Review also found that the Intervention was constructed and pursued in an information and evidence-deficient vacuum insufficient to properly inform the establishment of the Intervention or to justify its continuation.

From page 16 of the Yu Review:

Apart from some initial scoping data, there was little evidence of baseline data being gathered in any formal or organised format which would permit an assessment of the impact and progress of the NTER upon communities. The lack of empirical data has proved to be a major problem for this Review and is an area that requires urgent attention.

Three weeks after the release of the Yu Review Jenny Macklin’s announcement to The Sydney Institute on 21 October 2008 that “…we must continue sound, evidence-based policy interventions that close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians,” gave some heart to many concerned about the way the Federal Government policies in the NT had been designed and implemented.

That Macklin considered that she even needed to mention the word ‘evidence’ in relation to the development and implementation of policy shows just how far from the norm the Intervention was.

Within the week she’d turned that on its head. As John Tomlinson noted in a piece published by Online Opinion:

Contrary to recommendations made by her own Review, Minister Jenny Macklin has decided to continue, for at least another year, with compulsorily quarantining half of the Centrelink payments paid to Aboriginal people living on 73 Northern Territory communities. Minister Macklin says she is maintaining quarantining because some women from the communities have asked her to continue it.

So much for sound evidence-based policy-making – at least in the Federal sphere. And there has not been much evidence since that time that Macklin’s words to The Sydney Institute were little more that empty rhetoric.

I’d have some serious reservations about according anyone in the NT Government with more than a passing familiarity with the concept of evidence-based policy-making.

A prime example of this is the ‘cobbled-together-over-the weekend’ policy introduced by then NT Education Minister Marion Scrymgour in late last weekend that mandated that all children in previously bilingual schools in the NT, who overwhelming have an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue, be given 4 hours of English only education each morning. A bit like teaching Mongolian to a classroom full of Swahili speakers.

And while there is no reference to an evidence base or community consultation in the recently announcement by the NT government of a new policy called “Working Future“, that policies roots reach back to a decision in September 2007 by Mal Brough to hand responsibility for homelands (Governments prefer the term ‘Outstation’) funding to the NT Government by 1 July 2008.

In October 2008 the then NT Indigenous Affairs Minister, Marion Scrymgour, released the NT government’s Outstations Policy Discussion Paper that sought to “…stimulate consultation and discussion over the development of a Northern Territory Government policy on outstations.”

As the ABC reported in mid-October 2008, the major premise of the discussion paper was that a large number of homelands in the NT would have their funding and in-kind government support withdrawn from 1 July 2009:

Govt moves to shut down Indigenous outstations. The Northern Territory Government is formulating a new policy to stop funding to remote outstations that aren’t fully established and permanent. The Minister for Indigenous Policy Marion Scrymgour has released a discussion paper on small remote communities and has called for community feedback.

A total of 43 submissions were received in response to the discussion paper and Pat Dodson was engaged to head a team to conduct a number of ‘community engagement’ sessions over a two week period in December 2008.

The Community Engagement Report (“the Dodson Report”, available here) of those consultations points, yet again, to the lack of available data upon which to base the policy outlined in the discussion paper and the need to collect data to measure the impact of the proposed policy:

For example, it is important to quantify what costs may be incurred by not investing in homelands. For example, loss of potential income from arts and tourism industries; loss of health and wellbeing; increased human services and infrastructure costs (e.g. correctional services, public housing, homelessness, police, alcohol and drug rehabilitation) through approximately 10,000 remote Indigenous Territorians moving permanently to larger communities and towns/ cities with some expected increase in anti-social behaviour. Finally, the cost benefit analysis needs to account for the significant contributions which homelands make (and could potentially make) to the cultural, social, health, environmental, economic and security values enjoyed by all Territorians and all Australians.

In relation to policy development and further consultation, the Dodson Report notes that:

During the community engagement sessions in December 2008, participants were informed that further community consultation on the development of the homelands policy would occur in March through June 2009. It is recommended that during these future consultation sessions that all available data, including the outcomes from the economic modeling study and the cost/benefit analysis, as well as NTG proposed regional models of delivery are presented for public comment.

In relation to policy implementation and the delivery of municipal services to homelands, the Dodson Report recommends:

That the NTG facilitate and coordinate negotiations between Shires and Homeland Resource Agencies (HRAs) to determine as to whom and how the essential and municipal services are to be delivered to all those living in homelands within each Shire area. Those in receipt of such services must be consulted as part of this process. Consideration should also be given to Shires eventually taking over the delivery of all essential and municipal services to homelands as part of their responsibilities as the third tier of Government.

Much of the Dodson Report is couched in the sort of bloodless bureaucratese that infects most government-commissioned reports. But perhaps the most disappointing revelation is contained in the first footnote:

It should be noted that many of the written submissions to the NTG were made after the originally published submission deadline of 1 December 2008. Because of the lateness of many of the submissions, not all were read by the authors in time to be considered in this report. Therefore, the recommendations within are derived in the main from the community engagement sessions held between 1-12 December 2008. Readers should note that the Office of Indigenous Policy (Department of the Chief Minister) is currently preparing a full analysis of all written and video submissions for consideration by the NTG.

So much for the NT government’s aim of “stimulat[ing] consultation and discussion over the development of a Northern Territory Government policy on outstations.”

Other concerns with the NT government’s handing of this policy remain.

When, if ever, will Anderson’s Office of Indigenous Policy publicly release all of the 43 submissions provided to Dodson and his team? Or even it’s “full analysis of all written and video submissions”?

Where is the analysis of the costs of the estimated “10,000 remote Indigenous Territorians moving permanently to larger communities and towns/ cities with some expected increase in anti-social behaviour”?

Where is the “further community consultation on the development of the homelands policy would occur in March through June 2009”?

One week ago the Northern Territory Indigenous Affairs Minister Alison Anderson announced her government’s ‘Working Future‘ policy the outcome, apparently, of her government’s analysis of the October 2008 Discussion paper and the Dodson report.

Two days later she appeared on the ABC’s NT version of Stateline, where she was interviewed by Mel James, the best television journalist on NT television.

Mel had obviously spotted a striking similarity between key components of Anderson’s plan and that originally proposed by John Howard’s Indigenous Affairs Minister, Mal Brough, in 2007.

Mel put this to Anderson in no uncertain terms:

MJ – Alison Anderson, this sounds very much like the policy that Mal Brough was proposing. It’s exactly the same isn’t it?

AA – Oh look, this has been a policy that’s been delivered and, um, developed by the Henderson Labor government. It’s got nothing to do with Mal Brough whatsoever.

MJ – It does sound remarkably similar to the plan that he was putting forward when he was the Indigenous Affairs Minister.

AA – This is the…like I said Mel, this is a policy thats been developed by, er, the, um, Henderson Labor government…

But, nothwithstanding Minister Anderson’s claims of authorship, there is a direct line that runs from Mal Brough and the handing of responsibility for homelands funding to the NT Government in September 2007, through the office of Brough’s successor Jenny Macklin, to the present day.

On important part of that connection is the decision by Macklin that imposed Commonwealth government conditions upon the State and Territory Housing Ministers in relation to remote Aboriginal housing.

In mid- January 2009 the National Indigenous Times reported that Macklin directed the Housing Ministers by letter in which she:

…tells the state and territory housing ministers that Commonwealth funds must not be spent on public housing on Aboriginal-owned land in remote regions unless Aboriginal landholders first agree to lease their property.

“Ensuring sufficient tenure to support substantial government investment in housing and infrastructure on Indigenous held land must be the first priority in order to allow housing projects to proceed quickly,” Macklin writes.

“The Australian Government minimum requirements in this regard are… government must have access to and control of the land on which construction will proceed for a minimum period of 40 years.”

Macklin also directs the states and territories to embark on a series of “tenancy management reforms” aimed at ensuring that landowners are not able to intervene in the relationship between the government, as the public housing provider, and the tenant.

She also instructs the ministers to ensure that if Aboriginal groups are acting as public housing providers, that no construction begins until they agree to be replaced at any time “if required”.

I have more to say about the apparent willful blindness that affects successive Federal and Territory Ministers in their development and implementation of policies for the provision of services to Aboriginal people in remote communities – but I’ll leave that for another day soon.

What these examples show is that Governments have a responsibility to ensure that when they develop and implement policies, particularly where those policies affect Aboriginal people living in remote circumstances, they have a responsibility to firmly ground the policy development in sound evidence and qualitative, social science research. It goes without saying that these same factors need to be considered through the implementation and life of the policy.

The NT Intervention is an exemplary case study in the costs (both in money and policy effectiveness terms) of not properly designing and implementing policies in this area.

We can already see the costs of the abject failure of the NT Intervention – what will be the costs of failure of Working Future?