Stronger Futures Intervention, not so strong locals say
The Stronger Futures Intervention now involves revoking welfare payments to parents who fail to send their children to school, but locals say such strategies aren’t the answer. Rosemary Hill reports.
The Warlpiri people at Yuendumu have told the government they refuse to force their children to go to school while English-only teaching remains in place.
One of the aims of the new federal Stronger Futures legislation is to expand the Improving School Enrolment and Attendance Through Welfare Reform Measure (SEAM) to Indigenous communities across the Northern Territory.
Parents who fail to enrol their children, or whose children are absent from school more than five times in any year without a valid reason, will have their Centrelink payments suspended and could have their benefits cancelled.
71 Yuendumu community members recently submitted an open letter to Senate on the issue expressing their position on the SEAM initiative.
“We don’t agree with forcing our children to school when we have lost our Two Way or Bi Lingual Programs,” the letter said.
“This is just another way of taking our children away, from our language, our knowledge and us Warlpiri parents and grandparents,”
The Federal Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FAHCSIA), Jenny Macklin, intends to keep the N.T Intervention in place through Stronger Futures for another ten years.
Close to 400 organisations, groups and individuals have sent submissions to a Senate committee inquiry into the Stronger Futures related Bills. Many are calling for the Minister to scrap the Bills and start again, this time working in serious consultation and partnership with Indigenous communities.
Opponents cite racial discrimination, paternalism, ineffective research and a return to assimilationist policies as predominant traits of the new strategies.
Manager of the community-operated Yuendumu Mining Company, Frank Baarda, said, “The Intervention has done probably irreversible damage to the social fabric of this community, taking away local partnerships, local authority and respect for local Elders.”
Mr Baarda has lived in Yuendumu for 38 years. His wife, Wendy, an anthropologist and linguist, was involved in the 2009 Four Corners program on the N.T government’s changes to bilingual education.
Mapoon Community Councillor, Ricky Guivarra, said the Intervention in Cape York has reduced the rate of murders and serious violence in Aurukun. However, he says that the intervention hasn’t stopped people from smuggling in alcohol or taking other drugs, such as speed, kava or glue sniffing and that it hasn’t increased funding where it’s needed.
“They’ve really got to go for more community-based things, more cheaper options,” he said.
“Millions of dollars are injected … but the money goes into the bureaucratic rollout, to all the white bureaucrats for their travel and housing.”
Mr Guivarra said there is only a pittance left over for the actual communities and then outsiders criticise them for squandering government money.
Instead of just banning alcohol the government should focus on why people are driven to drinking, Mr Guivarra said. Cape York residents now have to go to Townsville to access the nearest rehab programs because community-based centres have folded from lack of funding.
And alcohol is not just an Indigenous issue, he said, but “white people have houses to hide behind.”
Mr Baarda said the Federal Government recently spent three million dollars building a new Centrelink office at Yuendumu. The office is surrounded by a fence topped with three strands of barbed wire.
Unemployed Yuendumu residents have to attend the privately operated Job Service Provider ITEC and most of the new, well-paid jobs have gone to people from outside the community.
Ms Macklin said in an email, “The Government has made it clear that the Stronger Futures legislation will comply with the Racial Discrimination Act.”
She said public meetings to discuss Stronger Futures were held in 100 communities and town camps and in major towns in the Northern Territory and there were also hundreds of less formal discussions across the Territory. Aboriginal interpreters were provided for most of the whole-of-community meetings.
“I am confident that the consultation process was thorough and fair.”
The Ramingining Elders, in a November 2011 media statement, speak for many Indigenous Peoples who do not agree: “What happened to democracy in Australia? We don’t want to have to fight against government. We want to engage with government, we want to take control of our lives and we want to build our future, but these policies leave us penned like animals with nowhere to go.”