Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) - “The Intervention”

In June 2007, the federal government staged a massive intervention in the NT to “protect Aboriginal children” from sexual abuse. Without consultation Aboriginal peoples’ lives were heavily regulated, and many felt ashamed and angry. Despite wide-spread protests the intervention was extended until 2022.

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Selected statistics

Percentage of income-managed people in the NT who are Aboriginal [26]. More than 3/4 of those who managed to move off the scheme are non-Indigenous.
Money the government spent to advertise the Basics Card to local businesses in Bankstown, NSW, before introducing income management there [35].
Government spending in 2011-2012 to implement income management in the Northern Territory [35].
Money spent on bureaucrats to control Aboriginal welfare [42].
Hourly wage for Gurindji man Peter Inverway after the NT intervention [15].
Percentage of Peter's wage quarantined on his Basics Card [15].

This is our holocaust.—Statement by local Aboriginal people to Dr Stephen Foster, district medical officer for remote communities in the Northern Territory [41]

What caused the NT intervention

Sign saying:National emergency next 1,347,525 square kilometres. Intervention sign, a detail from an artwork by Chips Mackinolty, showing the size of the Northern Territory [54]

In August 2006 the Northern Territory government commissioned research into allegations of serious sexual abuse of children in Aboriginal communities. An inquiry was established to find better ways to protect the children. On 15 June 2007 the commission released its report, called Little Children are Sacred.

Less than a fortnight after its publication, on 23 June 2007, the federal government staged a massive intervention in the Northern Territory where the commission had collected its data, sending in army troops. They called it the ‘Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER)’. Aboriginal and non-Indigenous people however quickly labeled it ‘the intervention’.

The intervention has had consequences that will have repercussions for generations.—Prof Mick Dodson, Aboriginal leader [16]

[The intervention] is one of the worst policies inflicted on Aboriginal people in my life time.—Jeff McMullen, journalist, who has been visiting Aboriginal communities for many decades [41]

Intervention changes

Legislation passed by both major parties (Labour and Liberal)

  • removed the permit system for access to Aboriginal land,
  • abolished government-funded Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP),
  • subjected Aboriginal children to teaching in a language they don’t speak for the first four hours at school,
  • quarantined 50% of welfare payments,
  • suspended the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA),
  • expected Aboriginal people to lease property to the government in return for basic services,
  • compulsorily acquired Aboriginal land and
  • subjected Aboriginal children to mandatory health checks without consulting their parents, and against the sacred oath of doctors [47].

Under the discriminatory laws of the Intervention our communities are collapsing, we are prevented from being self-sufficient, from developing our community programmes and supporting our families. Our jobs on CDEP that we have been dependent on for the last 30 years, helped us to build our community, have been cut-off and everything has come to a halt. Our rights have been blocked.—John Leemans, a Gurindji man from Kalkarindji [25]

Intervention critique

The Prime Minster at that time, John Howard, said when presenting the intervention: “It is a disgrace that a section of the Australian population, that little children should be the subject of serious sexual abuse.” [44]

Critics of the invasion point out, however, that the word ‘child’ or ‘children’ does not appear once in the hundreds of pages of the NT Emergency Response Act.

Because the Act has plenty of references to land, many Aboriginal leaders see the intervention as a land grab to make it easier for miners to access Aboriginal land.

It seems impossible to draft the Act in the short time between publication of the Children are Sacred report and the start of the intervention.

On the day the intervention was announced Howard had been Prime Minster for 11 years. In that time there had been 13 official inquiries into sexual abuse of Aboriginal children, 3 of them federal [44] - enough opportunities for him to act.

Word cloud of the NT Intervention Act. Word cloud of the full text of the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007. The word child is nowhere to be found, but land and area are a-plenty. Large and red words appear frequently, small and grey words less. DMS stands for Degrees, Minutes, Seconds which relates to geographic coordinates of the land referenced in the Act, GDA means Geocentric Datum of Australia.

Others suspect that the intervention was part of “a real tradition in Australian culture of blaming the victim when it comes to Indigenous people” [1]. “People want to do something so they jump in and make all sorts of top-down decisions. But this ‘solution’ compounds the problem and sends a very powerful message to Indigenous people which says that ‘you are no good, you can’t sort out your problems, you need us to do it’.” Constant reiteration of this message causes Aboriginal people to internalise this victim attitude.

The abolition of Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) saw many Aboriginal communities lose their youth to work opportunities elsewhere, and increased levels of drinking [6]. Many enthusiastic local young workers missed out on work that was given to external contractors. Other communities’ economy simply collapsed after CDEP had been abolished.

Everywhere we went, everyone complained. Both men and women complained about pornography.—Pat Anderson, co-author of the 'Little Children are Sacred' report [3]

White cockies

In Aboriginal communities people coming in and talking to them and then going again while nothing happens are known as ‘white cockies’ [29].

“They fly in, squawk a lot, shit on you and then fly out again.”

No real consultation with Aboriginal people

Statement of Aboriginal elders against the Northern Territory Intervention “We are shocked by the failure of democratic processes.” Respected Aboriginal elders make a statement against the Northern Territory Intervention in February 2011. Click image to download the full statement (282 KB).

One of the main criticisms of the Northern Territory Intervention is that the government did not properly consult with Aboriginal people. It reminds Indigenous people of politics of the mission days when non-Aboriginal managers had dictatorial powers over almost every aspect of their lives.

We were not consulted; the intervention disregards Yolngu governance and law as if it was never there;… it disrespects our land rights, our culture and our rights as human beings.—Raymattja Marika-Mununggiritj, Co-Director Mulka Multimedia Centre, Yirrkala, NT [27]

The government sometimes provides documentation in English only, which is often the third or fourth language of Aboriginal people in remote communities. Discussions should be undertaken with interpretation and a full recording of the events, demands former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser [28].

In February 2011 a group of respected Aboriginal elders signed a document (see right) protesting against the ongoing intervention. Prominent signatories include Fraser, rights advocate Patrick Dodson, law professor Larissa Behrendt, former Australian of the Year Professor Fiona Stanley and former Family Court Chief Justice Alastair Nicholson [20].

Alastair Nicholson says that the government “has not held proper consultations with the Aboriginal community as this [Will They Be Heard] Report amply demonstrates.”[9] He quotes an Elder from the Aboriginal community of Utopia as saying:

We feel here that the intervention offers us absolutely nothing, excepting to compound the feeling of being second class citizens. The only thing that we have gained out of the intervention is the police.—Utopia Elder [9]

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Gooda, predicts that “we will eventually learn from the Northern Territory intervention that top-down imposition of measures will never be sustainable. What happened in the NT, we all felt, whether we lived in the NT or live in Melbourne, added to the mistrust that we have in government.” [22] He too suggests “governments will be more effective if they develop service delivery models in collaboration with local [Aboriginal] communities”.

Even the government itself acknowledges the lack of consultation with Aboriginal people.

I acknowledge that the instigation of the NTER [Northern Territory Emergency Response] by the [Howard] government was a major shock to many Aboriginal people and communities in the Northern Territory and was seen as a serious affront. There was no consultation before it was initiated, and the nature of some of the measures and coercive tone utilised undoubtedly caused anger, fear and distrust.—Jenny Macklin, Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs [24]

Howard himself said that the Intervention was all about “mainstreaming” Aboriginal people:

“It was said to be about sexual abuse, but quickly, within a month, it came to focus on dysfunction in Aboriginal communities and then the real description of the intervention was laid out by John Howard in August 2007. He said it was about mainstreaming or normalising remote-living Indigenous Australians and he told residents at Hermannsburg that, while respecting the special place Indigenous people in the history and life of this country, he said their future could only be as part of the mainstream of the Australian community. That was what it was about.“ [48]


Professor Jon Altman of Deakin University is one of Australia’s leading authorities on remote Aboriginal communities. Watch him explain the history of the intervention, the ways in which it was supposed to work and how it has failed. (19 mins)

No “pedophile rings”

One of the reasons the government stated for the Northern Territory intervention was that it suspected ‘pedophile rings’ operating in Aboriginal communities.

But an ABS social survey showed that in 2005-06 (the year prior to the Northern Territory Emergency Response) only 4.2% of substantiated reports for Aboriginal child abuse and neglect were for sexual abuse compared to 9.3% of non-Aboriginal NT children. [56]

“The pedophile rings proved to be totally false and I have yet to read a report on the sexual abuse of a child perpetrated by an adult arising from the NT intervention,” says Ray Jackson, President of the Indigenous Social Justice Association [31].

He explains that what alerted the authorities was “consensual teenage sex and 15-year-old brides with their promised husbands. Aboriginal culture in practice.”

But the police treated such marriages as breaking the law and arrested the husbands. Under Aboriginal custom and law, such marriages are usually fully endorsed by both families.

Aboriginal people are cast as this mass, almost without humanity, so abuse of children is seen as spread out to all communities. If that was true, I should have seen pedophiles and neglectful mothers, but I didn't.—Julie Nimmo, director of the film 'The Intervention' [40]

“You are forcing us to abandon our culture”—
Aboriginal elder

I write because the so-called intervention in the Northern Territory is not working and there is a desperate need for another review.

I am a Senior Elder of the Liya-dhalinymirr clan of the Djambarrpuyrju People (Eastern Arnhem Land) and I also lecture in Yolngu Studies at Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory.

As far as I am concerned, the intervention has only created problems in my communities as well as remote homeland centres. It has made our people more frustrated and confused.

The white man’s way of thinking is being forced on us, and is forcing us to abandon our culture.

We desperately need the white authorities, Federal as well as Northern Territory, to come and talk to us at the community level.

There has not been enough consultation. Many in my community and others I speak to think the same way.

This whole process has been a huge waste of money that has left our people scared.

In fact, the intervention has led to the further destruction of our culture, ceremony and a loss of discipline among our people.

The white authorities don’t know what is best for us. They only think they do.

Governments class all Aborigines as the same, but they are wrong.

These white people and the bureaucrats do not go out to the East Arnhem Land communities where my people live, where there has never been alcohol, and there is no child abuse. There are Aboriginal people living on remote communities of Arnhem Land, in homeland centres, away from towns, away from the binge drinking areas, poker machine and gambling venues. These are people who are able to manage their funds and work, or want to work.

Quarantining of Centrelink payments should be optional – not compulsory. Quarantining might be okay for people living in town camps and cities, where alcohol and gambling is a problem, but it doesn’t work for my people living on remote Arnhem Land homelands where there is no gambling, no alcohol and no child abuse.

We are asking simply for understanding that in life there needs to be an understanding between two cultures. There needs to be respect between cultures.

Yingiya Guyula, Darwin, NT [5]

You can listen to more voices of Aboriginal people in the AWAYE! programme of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National, Elders on the Intervention (16 April 2011).

“A vicious Big Lie”—Journalist

Journalist Jeff McMullen has travelled widely among Aboriginal people for more than 40 years. He is a passionate critic of the Northern Territory Intervention. Here is an excerpt of a speech he gave in 2010 [47].

“The greatest tragedy in our history is that we keep repeating the same mistakes. When Aboriginal people ask for real help on their terms the government betrays their trust by treachery. The government so often creates a worse problem than the one it claims to be fixing. This is surely the case with the Northern Territory Emergency Response.

The viciousness of the Intervention, launched in June 2007 and stumbling on today, is that preposterous Big Lie which says that whole communities of Aboriginal people abuse their children, that Aboriginal parents en masse are incapable and irresponsible, that Aboriginal women cannot responsibly manage their meagre family budget, that Aboriginal men are all wife-beating, child molesting, drunken, apathetic relics of a past hunter-gatherer society that is finished. Let me say it again as I did in August 2007 when the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act was passed. This is a vicious Big Lie.”

Shopping with a ration card

Government ad advising people that their Basics Card is due for renewal. Government advertisement advising card holders that their Basics Card is about to expire [7]. Many Aboriginal people felt humiliated and were reminded of ration regulations of the mission days.

One measure of the Northern Territory Intervention was to impose income management in 2007 with so-called ‘Basics Cards’. To prevent Aboriginal people from spending welfare benefits on alcohol and junk food half of their income is subject to government control and accessible only through the Basics Card. The card was accepted at government-approved food outlets and in theory is meant to work similarly to a bank ATM card.

But studies and reports showed that the income management scheme did not succeed.

The Menzies School of Health’s 2010 study into compulsory income management and spending patterns identified no significant changes regarding the consumption of alcohol, cigarettes, and soft drink, nor to fresh fruit and vegetables [52].

A report in 2011 by the Equality Rights Alliance cast doubt on the government’s claim of broad support for income management amongst Aboriginal women [30]. It collated the views of more than 180 Aboriginal and African women affected by income management.

Key findings of the report include:

  • Habits didn’t change. 85% of the women surveyed said they had not changed what they bought because of the Basics Card.
  • No savings. 75% said it made no difference to their spending, 22% saved money with the card, and 2% said it cost them more to use it.
  • Not helpful. 74% said it did not make it easier to look after their family.
  • No respect. 85% said they did not feel respected when they talked to Centrelink, the agency administering the Basics Card. 74% felt that people weren’t as nice to them when they saw them using a card.
  • Not safer. 70% of the women said they did not feel safer since the introduction of income management.

Some card users didn’t know how to use the card, get its balance, how to report problems with their card, or to apply for a greater percentage of their welfare payment to be available as cash. The elderly and people with literacy and health issues are particularly vulnerable.

Others are embarrassed when they approach supermarket check-outs. “At check-outs in Woolworths and Coles… we have got one line for the black people who have these special basics green cards and you have got the other check-outs which are open to the general public. It is an embarrassment,” notes Aboriginal elder, Richard Downs [39].

A 2012 independent evaluation of income management in the NT found no clear evidence of the value of the program. At best, some people perceived that they were being assisted by the program. More than two thirds said they felt discriminated against by income management, three quarters felt it was unfair and a similar number reported feelings of embarrassment [53].

Another report, Evaluating New Income Management in the Northern Territory, released in December 2014, confirmed earlier findings when it found “no substantive evidence of the program having significant changes relative to its key policy objectives, including changing people’s behaviours”. [55] It did not find any evidence of income management achieving its goals.

People still need cash for lunch money for their children, school excursions, to assist family members, or for cash-in-hand payments for goods and services. Authorities have not considered these cases which led to people finding their own ways of getting cash. Some businesses simply charge higher prices to the welfare card, and giving people cash or a carton of beer in return. A few people turned to prostitution to get cash. [58]

Welfare cards prevent people from managing their money. Since all bill payments are set up by Centrelink to automatically come out of the welfare card, people are unable to make their own decisions about which bills should be prioritised and which ones could be paid late. [58]

Each person subject to income management in the Northern Territory costs between $6,600 and $7,900 in remote areas, and $4,600 in the five trial sites. More than half a billion dollars was spent by June 2013 [53].

About 35,000 people have been on the BasicsCard in the Northern Territory since its introduction, more than 90% of them Aboriginal. [55]

I am on the BasicsCard like thousands of my people. I am capable of acting in [Redfern Now,] an internationally-acclaimed drama for our national broadcaster [ABC], but because I'm black and from the NT, the government says I'm incapable of managing a Centrelink payment.—Patricia Morton-Thomas, Aboriginal actor [51]

Shopping with the Basics Card “utterly useless”

Here’s the first-hand experience as presented by Bev Manton, Chairperson of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council [13].

“Shopping with a ration card in the NT roughly consists of the following scenario: You enter one of the few stores in town where your ration card is accepted, completely unaware of the balance remaining, and with no easy way of checking that balance.

You can choose any item in the store, but without an idea of the balance, one tends to select the cheaper, less healthy products to avoid the shame of returning those items to the shelf when you go to pay.

Fresh foods, including red meat, vegetables and fruit can only be bought in very small quantities (if they’re even provided); they’re just too expensive.

You then head to the checkout and wait in line, but when you go to pay for the shopping, there’s not enough credit on your card. As the murmurs and whispers grow in volume behind you, you’re directed to another aisle down the end of the supermarket, which has been set aside for ‘you guys’.

It’s at this point the knock-out punch comes as you’re told you can’t afford about one-quarter of what you need to feed the family.

In places like Camel Camp, only 250kms north-east of Alice Springs, there’s simply nowhere to access decent fresh food. There’s limited access to health care, no roads - only tracks, and the living conditions are unfathomable to most Australians.

Out here, the so-called ‘Basics Card’ is utterly useless.”

It's a degrading, humiliating and pride-sapping emotional whipping of the highest order.—Bev Manton, Chairperson of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, about using the Basics Card [13]

Video: Watch Kylie Sambo talk about income management

Kylie Sambo from Tennant Creek responds to the expansion of income management to new categories of youth at risk. From July 2013 income management was compulsorily applied to all people under 25 exiting prison or receiving the “unable to live at home” allowance from Centrelink.

False statistics?

In mid-2009 the government collected data on the effectiveness of welfare quarantining in Aboriginal communities. The government’s own Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs developed the evaluation approach and managed the data collection.

To no surprise it found that two thirds of people being income-managed “had a positive view” of the program—“a joke”, as the Australian Greens party put it [21].

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare refused to be involved in the data collection for ethical reasons [21].

Similarly, after the introduction of the Healthy Welfare Card in 2015, the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, said during a tour of an Aboriginal community in 2016 that the card had made a “positive difference” to the community and could be rolled out to others—a statement community members disagree with. They have “a sense of shame” when they have to pay for items on the card [58] and feel discriminated against, disempowered and voiceless. Even a health economist had his doubt, saying “it is hard to see how they [the government] will have evidence of the program’s impact on which to base an informed policy decision”. [58]

FOODcard—an Aboriginal-controlled alternative

In 2004, three years before the NT intervention, the Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation (ALPA), one of the largest financially independent Aboriginal employers in Australia, introduced a FOODcard which works similarly to the government’s BasicsCard [17]. Here’s how it compares to the Basics Card and the Healthy Welfare Card, introduced in 2015 [17][19].

Since the Australian government introduced the BasicsCard the number of FOODcard users has plummeted from 700 to 120 [18].

Fact It took two years until Centrelink allowed the store in Mapuru (about 500 kms east of Darwin) to accept the BasicsCard. Before it did, residents had to charter an aircraft for $500 to travel to the next store [14].

FOODCard vs BasicsCard, Healthy Welfare Card
 FOODcardBasicsCardHealthy Welfare Card (indue card)
 ALPA Food CardBasics CardHealthy Welfare Card
Year introduced200420072015
Available in how many communities1473target: all regional communities
Aboriginal communities consulted about card?YesNoNo
Terms and conditions available inEnglish, Yolngu MathaEnglishEnglish
Card isvoluntarymandatorymandatory
Percentage of income put on cardcard holder decides50%, determined by Centrelink80%
Card can be used bycard holder, family members, homeland centres, councils, school organisationscard holder onlycard holder only
Securitypassword, microchipPINPIN
Items not available with cardalcohol, tobacco, pornographic material, gambling services, toys, high-sugar and high-fat foodalcohol, tobacco, pornographic material, gambling servicesalcohol, pornographic material, gambling services, drugs
Service fees covered byALPAgovernmentgovernment
Cost per person per year?$4,500 .. 7,700?

Evaluations over time: Did the intervention succeed?

The Intervention failed, and most politicians know this as fact. However, evaluating the Intervention is not an easy task. Impartial data is difficult to find and there is a mass of complex and conflicting information.

Evaluation by Monash University

In 2015, the Monash University evaluated the Closing the Gap targets that were set by the government and considered human rights concerns to score major features of the Intervention out of 10. [57] Here is a summary of their scores and findings:

  • Employment and Economic Participation – 3/10 Little progress has been made on improving employment outcomes in the Northern Territory, and the gap is, in fact, widening.
  • Education – 5/10 Some gains were achieved in certain education areas, but overall secondary school attendance rates have seen a considerable decrease and NAPLAN results indicate little change in literacy and only incremental improvements in numeracy at both primary and secondary levels.
  • Health and Life Expectancy – 4/10 While there have been some improvements to Aboriginal child mortality the rate of improvement is far too slow to close the gap. The situation is particularly bad for Aboriginal people living in the Northern Territory, whose life expectancy is nearly 15 years shorter than that of non-Aboriginal Australians.
  • Safer Communities – 4/10 This target aims to make Aboriginal communities safer through a focus on the prevention and reduction of crime rates, alcohol and drug abuse, family violence and child abuse. It takes a ‘tough stance’ on crime but couples this with community protection and education efforts.
  • Lowered Incarceration rates – 0/10 Not only has there been no improvement, the rate of Aboriginal Australian incarceration has continually risen. In 2015 there was not even a target concerning Aboriginal incarceration rates.
  • General compliance with human rights – 4/10 Despite the government’s insistence that the Intervention was upholding the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the 2007 Intervention legislation is widely regarded as incompatible with international human rights law standards and practices.
  • Special Measures – 3 /10 The measures implemented under the Intervention cannot be characterised as ‘special measures’ under international human rights law because they do not positively advance the human rights of Aboriginal Australians by creating more favourable conditions or conferring benefits.
  • Racial Discrimination – 3 /10 By suspending the operation of Section 10 of the Racial Discrimination Act in relation to the Intervention, the government effectively denied protection to Aboriginal communities affected by the legislation.
  • Right to Self-Determination – 2/10 The measures of the Intervention have acted to disempower Aboriginal communities. Governance has shifted from the responsibility of the community to centralised government agencies. Aboriginal people had 50% of their benefits controlled by government.
  • Right to Social and Cultural Rights – 3 /10 Legislative amendments allowed the government to compulsorily acquire Aboriginal land. It stripped Aboriginal owners of control over their property in order to acquire 65 Aboriginal communities. Income management through the BasicsCard restricted the right to social security and violated of the right to family and private life.
  • Right to be consulted – 3 /10 Every stage of the Intervention since its inception in 2007 has had issues surrounding the level of consultation with Aboriginal communities. The government conducted consultations for the 2012 Stronger Futures legislation on decisions that had already been made. It used a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach that failed to properly consult with Aboriginal communities.
  • Right to Social Security – 4/10 Because the government applied income management as a blanket rule and gave no case-by-case consideration for Aboriginal people living in ‘prescribed communities’, the conditions limit how Aboriginal people can enjoy their right to social security.
  • Rights of Children – 4/10 The Intervention quickly shifted focus from protecting children from sexual abuse to economic and infrastructure development. Intervention policies which were aimed at improving Aboriginal children’s lives did not address underlying and structural causes of maltreatment and abuse.

After 4 months

4 months after the intervention a survey of 5 communities [27] revealed that

  • no sexual abuse referrals had been made from any of the 5 communities,
  • no computers had been audited for pornography,
  • the alcohol management regime had not changed in 3 of the 5 communities,
  • alcohol consumption had not been reduced in three cases,
  • income had not been quarantined in 4 communities,
  • work for the dole schemes had not been abolished as mandated,
  • school attendance had improved in 3 locations,
  • voluntary health checks, appointment of a government business manager and new houses for intervention staff were completed in all 5 communities, but
  • new houses for Aboriginal residents had not been built in 4 communities.

After 6 months

6 months after the intervention began [2]

  • no new charges had been laid in connection with child sexual abuse,
  • no new community-based services to ensure the safety of children had been established,
  • $88 million had been spent on bureaucrats to control Aboriginal welfare payments.

According to Dr Djiniyini Gondarra, an Elder from the Djirrikaymirr people, the intervention has failed to improve health and had, in fact, intensified depression and loss of hope amongst Aboriginal people [8].

The doctors were on $5,000 a week.—Ali Cobby Eckermann, Aboriginal poet [6]

Aboriginal poet, Ali Cobby Eckermann, also mentioned that consultants were paid $300,000 to consult with 12 communities, but their results were not used in any way.

After 12 months

After one year [4][43],

  • key aspects of the intervention have not happened or are happening slowly,
  • convictions for child sex abuse were just a few cases higher than before the intervention,
  • referrals to child protection authorities were no different from any other year,
  • voluntary health checks replaced forensic medical examinations which were found to be intrusive and possibly unlawful,
  • reports of substance abuse were rising,
  • school attendance remained static,
  • sales of junk food and tobacco had rebounded strongly and returned to historic levels, a fact contrasting with official government reports of improved health food and drink purchases [10],
  • 18 communities got a police presence, however, Docker River has been pleading for one since 1990 [43],
  • the government struggles to determine what works as it didn’t set up proper benchmarks [43].

As intervention measures last, people find alternative ways to access prohibited items. This challenges a central tenet of income management—that mandatory restrictions can modify people’s spending habits.

It has proved to be far more complex and costly.—Jenny Macklin, former Indigenous Affairs Minister [43]

After 2 years

The Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs’ report Closing the Gap in the Northern Territory reveals that [46]

  • convictions of child sexual abuse involving Aboriginal perpetrators have “barely changed”,
  • school attendance stagnates with no more children going to school than before the intervention,
  • reports of domestic violence rose 61% (possibly due to higher police presence),
  • substance abuse is up 77%,
  • alcohol-related crime rose 34% (possibly because possession of alcohol became illegal in some communities),
  • no reduced tobacco consumption despite welfare quarantining.
Intervention statistics
Aggravated assaults+41%-23%slight fall
Convictions for assault+29%+29%-10%
Alcohol-related incidents+28%+28%-5%
Substance abuse-related incidents+47%+47%-7%

Source: [33].

After 3 years

Read the analysis by Professor Jon Altman from the Australian National University, NT intervention three years on: government’s progress report is disturbing.

Journalist Jeff McMullen in a speech in September 2010 looked back on the intervention [47]. “I can only say to you that there is no doubt that the Northern Territory Intervention has been the most damaging policy inflicted on Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people since the policies of the Stolen Generations.

“The evidence is in the increase in suicide, violence and alcohol rage under the Intervention. The Menzies School of Health Research, the Rural Health Alliance and the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association, separately investigated the impact of the Intervention and concluded that whatever extra attention had been brought to these children was far outweighed by the additional trauma inflicted on them.”

McMullen continues: “Under Article 5 [of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination], the former Chief Justice [of the Family Court, the Honourable Professor Alastair Nicholson] presented evidence that the Intervention had not improved the lives of Aboriginal people.

“A June 2010 survey of elders indicated that most people believed that there were now fewer jobs and Aboriginal unemployment appeared to be rising around the country…

“The Australian government’s own reports show that for two years in a row child malnutrition is up despite millions of dollars spent on income management and the discriminatory practice of welfare quarantine cards.”

After 4 years

A report finds that alcohol-related police “incidents” have risen from 3,239 incidents in 2007-2008 to 4,870 in 2011 [50].

In June 2011, the overall imprisonment rates of Aboriginal people in the NT had risen by 40% [50].

After 5 years

The rate of suicide among Aboriginal girls has “greatly increased” since the intervention was launched [36]. Girls accounted for 40% of all Aboriginal suicides of children under 17 years, a rate which is “the most in the Western world”. Prior to the intervention the suicide rate was “significantly lower” and in 1980 it was zero [36].

Not one person has been prosecuted for child sex abuse.

Other statistics include [52]:

  • Reported suicide incidents have increased by almost 500%, from 57 incidents in 2007 to 261 in 2011.
  • There was a 69% increase of children getting taken into out of home care compared to 2007 figures.
  • School attendance rates have dropped from 62.3% just before the Intervention to 57.5% in 2011.
  • There has been a 40% increase in Aboriginal incarceration.
  • Prisoners are being held in 3rd world prison conditions, 12 to 14 in a cell in Alice Springs, mattresses on the floor and one hand basin and toilet between inmates.
  • Police reported incidents of domestic violence in “prescribed areas” have dramatically increased - from 939 in 2010 to 1,109 in 2011.

After 8 years

Paddy Gibson lived for 12 months in Alice Springs. At a special meeting of the Stop The Intervention Collective in April 2015 he gave a presentation looking at the continuing impacts of the NT Intervention, now known as ‘Stronger Futures’ on Aboriginal living conditions, incarceration and child removal rates.

After 10 years

Professor Jon Altman from Deakin University, and Senator and Greens politician Rachel Siewert reviewed the NT intervention after 10 years. Here is what they found [59][60]

  • Hurt and distress. Aboriginal people are deeply hurt and distressed from the sheer brutality of the intervention which reminded them of being treated like children during the time of assimilation.
  • No hope, no power. People feel a deep sense of hopelessness and disempowerment as they realise how Western norms count more and are expected to be adopted by Aboriginal people.
  • Feeling vulnerable. The fact that politicians could decide, without consultation, to intervene in their communities, has left many feeling vulnerable, dependent on the state, and susceptible to racism.
  • Poverty. There is “growing evidence” that people in communities are getting poorer. Adjusted for inflation, adult incomes have “dropped significantly” and fallen further behind non-Aboriginal wages. And because the Welfare Card quarantines a lot of their money, people are struggling to pay cash, for example at a garage sale or at a market
  • No progress. Despite the National Partnership Agreement for Remote Indigenous Housing in the NT spending $2 billion in 10 years to reduce overcrowding, rates of overcrowded houses needing one or more bedrooms in “community after community” have either remained unchanged or increased.
  • No jobs. The abolition of the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme has been “an unmitigated disaster” as it replaced part-time community-managed work with below award, externally monitored work- for-the-dole.
  • Welfare Card has failed. The card has failed in its objectives because health research suggests that control over one’s own life choices and autonomy are huge factors in good health outcomes. The government extended the card because half of the surveyed participants said they were worse off than before. A card trial area in South Australia has seen a large jump in robbery and related offences (up 111%), aggravated robbery (up 120%), non-aggravated robbery (up 400%) and serious criminal trespass (up 20%), all of which did not appear in a government report.

The Intervention legislation of 2007, that continued as Stronger Futures laws from 2012, are a complex set of oppressive and racist laws… designed to discipline Aboriginal men demeaned by parliamentarians… as violent and dangerous and in need of radical cultural and behavioural modification.—Prof Jon Altman, Deakin University [60]

The level of spin by our government to shine the [welfare] card in the best possible light is something we should all be talking about.—Rachel Siewert, Senator [59]

Intervention creep

NT Intervention creep is a term used to describe Aboriginal people who flee from their smaller communities, which are covered by the intervention, into the larger cities such as Darwin or Alice Springs, driving up the number of homeless people. On any given night up to 500 people slept rough in Darwin in 2010 [12].

Intervention creep comes at a price—Darwin City Council is able to confiscate and destroy their belongings and fine them. In Alice Springs Aboriginal locals blame people escaping the intervention for a significant increase of lawlessness, drunkenness and violence, and putting more stress on the already overcrowded town camps.

This monster – intervention – needs to be destroyed and buried.—Dr Djiniyini Gondarra, Aboriginal Elder [8]

You cannot drive change into a community and unload it off the back of a truck. That is the lesson of the Intervention.—Northern Territory Emergency Response Review Report, 13 October 2008, p58

Northern Territory Intervention timeline

  1. 2006

    15 May: An ABCTV Lateline program reports on the abuse of Aboriginal children in NT communities.

    13 June: Northern Territory’s Chief Minister, Clare Martin, writes a letter to PM John Howard proposing a “holistic, intensive intervention to communities in crisis” but receives “no meaningful response”. [45]

    Watch the second part of a speech she gave at the 19th Maurice Blackburn Oration on 5 December 2012, where she recollects the events (note especially at 5:10 where she talks about the reason for the intervention):

    22 June: In response to the Lateline program the Chief Minister of the NT announces the government will establish an inquiry into child sexual abuse in NT Aboriginal communities.

    The Breaking the Silence report, commissioned in 2004 and covering only NSW, finds “massive” and “epidemic” child sexual assault in Aboriginal communities.

  2. 2007

    16 June: Little Children Are Sacred report is presented to the NT Parliament.

    21 June: Howard government introduces the NTER.

    24 November: Kevin Rudd becomes Prime Minister.

  3. 2008

    31 March: Tom Calma, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, releases his Ten Point Action Plan proposal as a way forward for the Australian government’s NTER.

    21 June: One year since the NTER began. Jenny Macklin, Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FAHCSIA), announces a new $17.6 million trial over three years. Parents who fail to enroll their children or get them to school regularly will have their income support payments suspended until they fulfil their obligations.

    24 July: Rudd government announces BasicsCard to manage the income of all Aboriginal Centrelink recipients in the NT.

    18 August: Medical specialists and officers make a submission to the NT Emergency Review Board detailing chronic under-funding of existing health services, a lack of consultation with health professionals and Aboriginal communities, and the inadequacy of performing child health checks, which often duplicated information that was already known, at great cost and with little benefit.

    8 September: Centrelink begins distributing BasicsCard in the NT.

    13 October: NTER Review Board provides independent review of the first 12 months of the NT Intervention to the Australian government.

  4. 2009

    3 April: Australia supports UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Declaration states that, among other rights, all Aboriginal people have the right to self-determination. The NTER has not given Aboriginal people their right to self-determination. In fact, the government dictates how Aboriginal people have to run aspects of their lives.

    21 May: Federal and NT governments respond to the NTER Review Board recommendations.

    25 May: Federal government announces proposal to compulsorily acquire Alice Springs town camps.

    June-August: Consultations and workshops run by the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) with Aboriginal people in the NT about future directions of the NTER.

    21 June: Two years since the NTER began. Protests against the NTER held around Australia.

    3 July: Australian Productivity Commission report reiterates two key points: 1) the need for reliable statistics measuring the effects of government measures, and 2) the importance of community ownership of projects and close consultation between community and government.

    The things that work generally work because of co-operative approaches between government and communities.—Australian Productivity Commissioner

    14 July: People from the Ampilatwatja community walk off their land in protest against the NTER, ensuring they are no longer subject to the NTER legislation. In August they seek refugee status from the UN as people displaced from their country.

    27 August: UN Rapporteur’s statement on the NTER released.

    1 November: The Australian government misses the self-imposed deadline to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities.

    It is a simple matter to restore the [Racial Discrimination Act]. Where the [Indigenous Affairs] Minister [Jenny Macklin] appears to be stuck is in trying to find a way to reconcile her desire to over-ride the fundamental human rights of Aboriginal Australians in the NT through compulsory welfare quarantining and mandatory leases with our international obligations not to discriminate on the basis of race.—Rachel Siewert, Greens senator [4]

  5. 2010

    24 February: The final report of the UN’s special rapporteur on Indigenous rights, Professor James Anaya, finds the intervention limits the rights and freedoms of Indigenous people in breach of Australia’s international obligations.

    21 June: The government passes legislation to re-instate the Racial Discrimination Act by extending compulsory income management nationwide. The administration is estimated to cost taxpayers $350 to $400 million dollars over the next four years, or about $4,000 a person a year [11]. Reports indicate that people under income management feel “severely demoralised” [11].

    Re-instating the [Racial Discrimination Act] restores dignity and helps Indigenous Australians to take ownership of their lives and to drive change in the NT.—Jenny Macklin, Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister [11]

    31 December: The Racial Discrimination Act is partially reinstated. Activist groups pledge the full reinstatement of the RDA.

  6. 2011

    7 February: Respected elders, a former Prime Minister and other non-Aboriginal ‘elders’ sign a statement against the ongoing Northern Territory intervention criticising its “discriminatory” nature and the “failure of democratic processes”.

    Newspaper article from the Koori Mail Elders issue a powerful statement in February 2011 demanding an end to the ‘nightmare’ of the intervention. “As people in our own land, we are shocked by the failure of democratic processes, of the failure to consult with us and the total disregard for us as human beings,” the statement reads. [23]

    June - August: The government holds ‘consultations’ in NT communities to get feedback on the intervention.

    4 November: Northern Territory elders and community representatives issue a statement rejecting an extension of the intervention legislation. Aboriginal people were “traumatised” by the intervention, and the government should talk to the elected elders instead of a “chosen few”.

    10 November: The government releases an evaluation report which finds that about 80% of people say new police, and 75% better night patrols, improved safety in their communities. The report cites half of the people surveyed strongly agreeing that services had improved. [34]

    23 November: The Australian government introduces the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2011 to the Parliament to extend the intervention. The new laws will be reviewed after 7 years and ‘sunset’ 10 years after their start.

    We have had enough! We need our independence to live our lives and plan our futures without the constant oppression and threats which have become central to the relationship between government and Aboriginal communities.—NT elders in their statement [32]


  7. 2012

    25 February: A Senate Committee reports back to government. The committee had travelled to Hermannsburg , Alice Springs, Maningrida and Darwin to record Aboriginal people’s evidence as to the harm that had been done to them by the intervention and their rejection of the new Stronger Futures legislation. Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin, who had asked for the Senate Inquiry, subsequently overrides the findings by bringing in an early vote.

    This unsavoury process shows just how little government cares about the views of Aboriginal people or about working in partnership with NT Aboriginal leaders.—Michelle Harris, journalist [37]

    28 February: The Stronger Futures legislation passes through the lower house. Among the new measures is a potential jail term of 6 months for the possession of a single can of beer, and 18 months for more than 1.35 litres of alcohol.

    8 March: On TV Channel ABC, former prime minister Malcolm Fraser criticises the new government legislation on the NT intervention.

    If you could translate it back over 100 years, I think AO Neville, protector from Western Australia, would be proud of this legislation. It is racist. It is paternalistic.—Malcolm Fraser, former prime minister [38]

    A protest poster reading 'Stop the Intervention - Repeal Stronger Futures' Protest poster against the Stronger Futures legislation.

    14 March: Senate Inquiry report published.

    30 June: Despite fierce resistance and a petition with 43,000 signatures, both government and opposition pass the Stronger Futures legislation, extending the Northern Territory intervention for another 10 years. The laws introduce tougher penalties for alcohol offences (up to 6 months imprisonment for a single can of beer and 18 months for a 6-pack), extend pornography restrictions and continue to prevent courts from taking customary law or cultural practice into consideration. The law introduces the most severe social security penalty in living memory – a 13 week non-payment period – for parents and carers whose children are not attending school regularly.

    July: The government extends income management to five new trial locations: Bankstown (NSW), Shepparton (VIC), Playford (SA) and Logan and Rockhampton (QLD).

  8. 2013

    January: A report by the Australian National Audit Office finds the federal government spends more than $100 million per year to administer income management in the Northern Territory.

    Over 17,000 people were on income management at the end of June 2012, costing the Commonwealth government between $6,600 and $7,900 dollars per person, per year [49].

    28 June: Marrickville Council in Sydney’s Inner West becomes the first local government body to pass a motion opposing income management. It passes the motion in support of local community services who placed a work ban on referring people to the scheme.

    1 July: The government expands compulsory income management in the five trial sites and the Northern Territory.

  9. 2017

    7 June: The directors of the Laynhapuy Homelands Aboriginal Corporation (Laynha) based in Yirrkala (North East Arnhem Land, NT) representing many Yolngu clans complain they have received “less services, less funding and less true engagement and consultation” since the intervention and that politicians are not listening to them. They demand self-determination from the government.

    23 June: The NT intervention has its 10-year anniversary.

    23–26 June: Participants of the Stand Up 2017 conference in Alice Springs assess the impacts of the decade of racist laws and map a way forward. They demand, among other things, the government repeal the intervention legislation and Aboriginal self-determination.

    Ten years too long. Ten years of hardship, neglect and broken promises. We want Aboriginal control.—Voice from the Yarrentye Arltere (Larapinta Valley) Town Camp [62]

    29 June: 5 Aboriginal elders respond to the anniversary and demand an apology to the men of the Northern Territory and their families and communities, the repeal of the Stronger Futures legislation and the return of self-determination and autonomy.

    28 August: In a Statement from Eminent Australians, 210 Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal signatories call for an immediate end to the intervention in the Northern Territory which they consider “an ongoing stain on the Australian nation”. [61]

Word cloud of the NT Stronger Futures Act. Word cloud of the full text of the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2011. The larger a word the more frequently it occurs in the text. How many positive large words can you find? How many negative ones?

Intervention resources

There is a growing number of resources on the Northern Territory intervention developing in Australia.

Government website
Explore the government’s website about the Northern Territory intervention at nterreview.gov.au/.

Concerned Australians
The website of Concerned Australians has many great resources about the NT intervention.

Bad aunty: The truth about the NT intervention and the case for an independent media
This article, written by Chris Graham of The Tracker magazine, is an extremely important historical document that exposes false reporting causing Aboriginal misery: A ministerial official posed as a community doctor and lied about paedophile rings and told all sorts of other lies to an ABC report, which helped trigger the intervention. Many Aboriginal people believed this story.

Audio: Kevin Wirri - Artist
Kate Finlayson produced a story about the NT intervention from the point of view of an Aboriginal artist, Kevin Wirri. Kevin lives with his family in one of the town camps that dot the dusty bed of the Todd River in Alice Springs. Kate returns after a long time to find her friend’s young son, Elton Wirri, has become a famous Aboriginal artist.
Audio: Kevin Wirri - Artist (ABC)

Working Group for Aboriginal Rights (Australia)
The Working Group for Aboriginal Rights (WGAR) publishes WGAR News which monitors the media focusing on the Australian Federal government intervention into Northern Territory (NT) Aboriginal communities along with other Aboriginal rights issues. The newsletter includes media releases, opinion pieces, news items and events, and is published about twice a week. To subscribe, email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) and include the words “subscribe WGAR News” in the message header.


View article sources (63)

Main timeline source: antar.org.au/abetterway/about/events
[1] 'When hearing the message is critical', NIT 14/5/2009 p.31
[2] 'Sea of black faces bound for Canberra', Koori Mail 417, p.7
[3] 'Innocence lost', Koori Mail 417, p.22
[4] 'Intervention protests as deadline missed', Koori Mail 463 p.7
[5] 'NT intervention review needed', Koori Mail 467 p.23
[6] 'Deadly Voices: An Intervention', Sydney Writers Festival, event 240, 23/5/2010
[7] Koori Mail 476 p.35
[8] 'Legal action warning over NT intervention', Koori Mail 477 p.18
[9] australiansall.com.au/archive/post/will-they-be-heard/, accessed 4/7/2010
[10] 'Curbs not working - research', Koori Mail 477 p.18
[11] 'Concern aplenty as welfare reformed', Koori Mail 479 p.8
[12] 'Dinner with the Long Grassers', Koori Mail 481 p.57
[13] 'Perpetuating neglect', Koori Mail 482 p.25
[14] 'World Council of Churches listen in Mapuru', Community Update, 14/9/2010
[15] 'For some workers, the struggle will never end', The Age 16/6/2010
[16] 'Dodson urges rethink', Koori Mail 489 p.28
[17] 'The Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation', ANTaR flyer, 10/2010
[18] 'Income management', ABC Stateline, 18/6/2010, http://www.abc.net.au/news/video/2010/06/18/2931255.htm, retrieved 15/1/2011
[19] 'ALPA FOODcard', http://www.alpa.asn.au/pages/ALPA-FOODcard, retrieved 15/1/2011
[20] 'NT Elders hit out at Govt approach', Koori Mail 494 p.12
[21] 'Scrutiny on income management', Koori Mail 494 p.12
[22] 'Gooda sees 'rare opportunity'', Koori Mail 495 p.8
[23] 'NT Elders demand end to 'nightmare'', Koori Mail 495 p.11
[24] Letter from Jenny Macklin to journalist Jeff McMullen, 2/3/2011
[25] 'How to Create disHarmony?', media statement, Concerned Australians, 21/3/2011
[26] 'Bias warning over welfare', Koori Mail 497 p.32
[27] 'NT intervention: Study finds Govt is dragging its feet', Koori Mail 414 p.40
[28] 'Govt Intervention review draws fire', Koori Mail 505 p.5
[29] 'Meetings a mixed bag', Koori Mail 506 p.13
[30] 'Report raises income management doubt', Koori Mail 509 p.14
[31] 'Queries on child abuse statistics', Koori Mail 509 p.25
[32] 'No More! Enough is enough! - Statement by Northern Territory Elders and Community Representatives', 4/11/2011
[33] 'NTER report shows falls in crimes', Koori Mail 512 p.16
[34] 'Response to NT Intervention heats up, Koori Mail 513 p.8
[35] 'Supplementary Budget Estimates - 20 October 2011, Answer to questions on notice', Senate Community Affairs Committee
[36] 'Girls at greater risk of suicide since intervention', SMH 11/2/2012
[37] 'Democratic process in tatters', Online Opinion, 29/2/2012, http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=13309, retrieved 3/3/2012
[38] 'Fraser labels NT intervention laws 'racist'', ABC Online, http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2012/s3449248.htm, retrieved 14/3/2012
[39] 'Intervention condemned', Koori Mail 462 p.6
[40] 'Documentary follows Territory intervention', Koori Mail 435 p.30
[41] 'Intervention a sick joke, say doctors', Koori Mail 433 p.9
[42] ''Sea of black faces' bound for Canberra', Koori Mail 417 p.7
[43] 'The intervention we had to have', SMH 21/6/2008
[44] ''Just imagine if it was Marrickville'' SMH 23/6/2007
[45] 'Howard took no interest last year: NT', SMH 23/6/2007
[46] 'NT intervention failing to make a difference: report', SMH 31/10/2009
[47] 'The Search for Common Ground', Jeff McMullen, address in Parramatta Town Hall, 8/9/2010
[48] 'Human Rights: Myths And Realities In The Year 2012', Ron Merkel QC, 11 December 2012
[49] 'Income management admin costs over a million a year: Report', National Indigenous Radio Service, 31/1/2013
[50] 'NT government cuts services, reverses Aboriginal gains', GreenLeft 9/2/2013, greenleft.org.au/node/53272, retrieved 18/2/2013
[51] ''My Family Is Calling For Justice'', NewMatilda.com, 6/12/2012, newmatilda.com/2012/12/06/my-family-calling-justice, retrieved 11/4/2013
[52] 'The case against compulsory income management', The Stringer 6/5/2013
[53] 'Joint Statement: Six years of the NT Intervention is six years too long', Australian Council of Social Service 21/6/2013
[54] Journal of Indigenous Policy- Issue 14, June 2013, title graphic
[55] 'More income management flagged for NT, despite report finding 'no evidence' it works', ABC News 18/12/2014
[56] 'A statistical overview of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia: Social Justice Report 2008', Australian Human Rights Commission, 2008, Appendix 2, p.309
[57] 'The Northern Territory Intervention - An evaluation', Dr Stephen Gray, Faculty of Law, Monash University, July 2015, http://www.monash.edu/law/centres/castancentre/our-research-areas/indigenous-research/the-northern-territory-intervention/the-northern-territory-intervention-an-evaluation, retrieved 9/8/2016
[58] ''Ration days again': cashless welfare card ignites shame', The Guardian Australia, 9/1/2017
[59] 'Cashless Cards And Rising Crime: An Intervention That Keeps On Giving', New Matilda 21/3/2017
[60] 'The debilitating aftermath of 10 years of NT Intervention', Land Rights News, Northern Edition, July 2017, pp.18–19
[61] 'Statement of Eminent Australians on the continuing damage caused by the discrimination, racism and lack of justice towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, exemplified by the continuation of the Northern Territory Intervention', Concerned Australians, http://www.concernedaustralians.com.au/media/Eminent_Persons_Statement_Aug_2017.pdf, retrieved 29/8/2017
[62] 'Ten Years Of Intervention – Stand Up 2017 – Standing Up Standing Strong Standing Together', Intervention Rollback Action Group, 29/6/2017

Cite this article

An appropriate citation for this document is:

Aboriginal culture - Politics - Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) - “The Intervention”, retrieved 22 November 2018