Report of the NT Emergency Review Board

Full report available at

Executive summary below

Report of the NTER Review Board
Executive summary

The Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER), otherwise known as the ‘Intervention’, was announced on 21 June 2007 by the former Australian Government and received in principle bipartisan support from the then Leader of the Opposition.

The immediate aims of the NTER measures were to protect children and make communities safe. In the longer term they were designed to create a better future for Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory (see Appendix 1).

Child health checks and other administrative measures began almost immediately. Legislation in support of the NTER was passed by the Australian Parliament in August 2007:

* Northern Territory National Emergency Reponse Act 2007
* Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Payment Reform) Act 2007
* Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Northern Territory National Emergency Response and Other Measures) Act 2007

The operation of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 was explicitly suspended and the protection of anti-discrimination law in the Northern Territory was removed for the purposes of the NTER.

On 6 June 2008 the Australian Government appointed the Review Board (see Appendix 2) to conduct an independent and transparent review of the first 12 months of the NTER to assess its progress 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 Northern Territory (see Appendix 3).

From early July until late August 2008 the Board travelled throughout the Northern Territory for community and other consultations, visiting 31 Aboriginal communities and speaking with representatives of 56 communities, together with officials of numerous government and service delivery agencies. Over 200 public submissions were received.

High value was placed on consulting with Aboriginal people directly affected by the Intervention. The absence of a sound data baseline as a platform for evaluation gave greater weight to the consultations and discussions in assessing the impacts of the various NTER measures.

Assessment of key elements

The scale of the Review Board’s task reflects the scale of the NTER. While there is frequent reference to 73 Aboriginal communities as its focus, in fact the measures apply to ‘prescribed areas’. These areas include all land held under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory) 1976, all Aboriginal community living areas and all Aboriginal town camps: over 600,000 sq km. Maps of prescribed areas are in Appendix 4, and a list of prescribed communities, outstations, town camps and community living areas within prescribed areas is in Appendix 5.

Prescribed areas encompass more than 500 Aboriginal communities: 73 of the larger settlements were targeted for intense application of NTER measures. Over 70 per cent of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory live within prescribed areas. NTER measures directly affect approximately 45,500 Aboriginal men, women and children.

In many communities there is a deep belief that the measures introduced by the Australian Government under the NTER were a collective imposition based on race.

There is a strong sense of injustice that Aboriginal people and their culture have been seen as exclusively responsible for problems within their communities that have arisen from decades of cumulative neglect by governments in failing to provide the most basic standards of health, housing, education and ancillary services enjoyed by the wider Australian community.

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.

Despite these very significant drawbacks the Review Board has observed definite gains as a result of the Intervention. It has heard widespread, if qualified, community support for many NTER measures.

Aboriginal people welcome police stations in communities previously dependent on periodic patrols. They want to work cooperatively with police to build greater security and stability in their homes.

Similarly, there is support for measures designed to reduce alcohol-related violence, to increase the quality and availability of housing, to improve the health and wellbeing of communities, to advance early learning and education leading to productive and satisfying employment—these matters are uncontentious.

The benefits of income management are being increasingly experienced. Its compulsory, blanket imposition continues to be resisted, but the measure is capable of being reformed and improved.

People who do not wish to participate should be free to leave the scheme. It should be available on a voluntary basis and imposed only as a precise part of child protection measures or where specified by statute, subject to independent review. In both cases it should be supported by services to improve financial literacy.

Income management is in many respects representative of other NTER measures. If it is modified and improved, then the resistance to its original imposition might be negated.

The Board has examined the operation of all NTER measures and made recommendations to improve their effectiveness and fairness.

Adequate housing is fundamental to environmental health and safety. Sustained, substantial investment of public funds in community housing, requires security of tenure, which must rest on the payment of just terms.

It is not merely a matter of improving the operation of individual measures. A more integrated approach is needed. Just as housing issues underpin community health, so policing issues intermesh with family support which, in turn, is intimately connected with child and family health.

Support for night patrols falls under the Law and Order measure. Safe houses fall within a separate measure: Supporting Families. This kind of artificial division reflects divided government agency responsibilities and funding sources. It is a chronic problem in establishing effective integrated services in Aboriginal communities.

If the various NTER measures are to operate as a genuine suite of measures there needs to be adjustments in the machinery of government enabling better coordination of services, greater responsiveness to the unique characteristics of each community and higher levels of community participation in the design and delivery of services.

The protection of children from abuse was the catalyst for the Intervention. In this critical area the Board has recommended a highly coordinated response through the development of community safety plans.

These plans will link police, child protection officers, teachers, health staff, Government Business Managers and other key service providers with community night patrols, safe houses and women’s groups. Community safety plans will enhance local ownership and provide a more effective interface with government agencies.

A number of people in communities described the significant government investment associated with the NTER as an historic opportunity wasted because of its failure to galvanise the partnership potential of the Aboriginal community.

The Review Board has formed a very clear view on the historic character of the Northern Territory Emergency Response.

The situation in remote communities and town camps was—and remains—sufficiently acute to be described as a national emergency. The NTER should continue.

There is a need for a bipartisan commitment to a sustained national effort, and a sustained commitment of the funds necessary, to provide Aboriginal children and families in these communities with a level of safety and wellbeing comparable to any other Australian community.

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.

Sustainability and the way ahead

It is the considered opinion of the Review Board that there is a need to reset the relationship between Aboriginal people and the governments of Australia and the Northern Territory.

The relationship must be recalibrated to the principle of racial equality and respect for the human rights of all Australian citizens.

Sustained and sustainable improvements in the safety and wellbeing of children and families in remote communities will only be achieved through partnerships between community and government.

Durable partnerships are based on mutual respect. They also require structural support. The Board considers that place-based agreements—whether regional or local—can provide a framework for more effective community development and the coordination of government services.

Other matters need renovation to build the capabilities required for place-based agreements to work. They include Aboriginal leadership and community governance, funding arrangements and the machinery of government, professional training and integrated data capture.

The Review Board’s recommendations touch on all these matters. They are indicators of the way forward.

Robust frameworks, adequate resources, functional governance and professional capabilities are necessary—but without the genuine engagement and active participation of the local community, deep seated change will not be achieved. It must be nurtured within the community. That is the lesson of the Intervention.