In 2007, there were 265 Indigenous children in “out of home care” in the NT. In 2013, the year Labor left office, there were 623. Researcher, Padraic Gibson explores Labor’s responsibility for the forced removal of so many thousands of children.
Kevin Rudd has had a busy schedule of celebrations leading up to the tenth anniversary of his Apology to the Stolen Generations. It appears he is working hard to ensure the Apology is cemented at the centre of his political legacy.
Jenny Macklin, who served as Minister for Indigenous Affairs under Kevin Rudd, is making similar efforts.
In an extended essay in Meanjin literary magazine, and in and subsequent media appearances, Macklin gives us a blow by blow account of behind the scenes arguments and anxieties leading up to the big ‘Apology Day’ on 13 February 2008. Macklin reminds us that the Apology “was not inevitable”. She casts herself and Rudd as brave fighters for Aboriginal rights, pushing back against racism of the Liberal party and in the electorate, to ensure the Apology took place.
Both politicians have also used their publicity to grandstand against the Liberal government, contrasting Turnbull’s rejection of the Uluru statement with their own, supposedly enlightened approach to Aboriginal affairs.
Macklin claims that her government was able to “combine symbolism and substance”, by taking measures to “address the shocking disadvantage suffered by Indigenous Australians” and “foster relationships with Aboriginal people based on mutual respect”.
The ugly truth however, is that Macklin and Rudd were central to the implementation of the Northern Territory Intervention, the most destructive and explicitly racist initiative in Aboriginal affairs since the days of segregation under the Protection regime.
“The ugly truth however, is that Macklin and Rudd were central to the implementation of the Northern Territory Intervention, the most destructive and explicitly racist initiative in Aboriginal affairs since the days of segregation under the Protection regime.”
The Intervention led directly to a three-fold increase in forced child removal in the NT and further drove a massive wave of Indigenous child removal across the country. The Aboriginal children graphically tortured in Don Dale Detention Centre were removed from their families under this policy – this, in my view, is the real legacy of Macklin and Rudd.
Both politicians, along with the entire parliamentary Labor Party, voted in June 2007 to accept the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act (NTER), originally introduced by John Howard. This legislation suspended the Racial Discrimination Act, marking Aboriginal people as second-class citizens and bringing communities under Commonwealth control. Huge amounts of money flowed into the construction of new punitive bureaucracies to micromanage Aboriginal people. Income management, Government Business Managers, invasive police powers: surveillance and control on a scale not experienced since Protection era.
When Rudd took office in November 2007, many Intervention measures had not yet been implemented. Labor became the face of the roll-out of the Intervention and Minister Macklin was one of its most enthusiastic champion. She assured Australia and an increasingly concerned United Nations, that Aboriginal people needed to be put under Commonwealth control for their own good. This would save the women and children from abuse.
By the time Macklin left office in 2013 rates of incarceration, child removal, unemployment and attempted suicide and self-harm had all increased dramatically in the NT. The NT Children’s Commission was reporting that “on the whole, the child wellbeing indicators in remote communities are getting worse” and shocking rates of family violence had not improved at all.
Labor and the Racial Discrimination Act
Macklin’s essay does not completely ignore the Intervention – it would be impossible to do so. As she acknowledges, the day prior to the Apology there was a mass demonstration against the Intervention led by NT Aboriginal community leaders (I actually helped to organise this rally, which marched on Parliament House in Canberra to oppose the policy). Incredibly, Macklin tries to distance herself from the racism of the Intervention, saying “Labor opposed the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, but very few people had heard this in the heat of the debate”.
No one had missed Labor’s lip service to the RDA, while voting in practice to suspend it. The main concern of NT leaders at the rally was that Labor use their newfound powers of government to re-instate the RDA and end the Intervention. But they did neither.
Labor kept the RDA suspended for three full years. They did so to prosecute an agenda to gain long-term Commonwealth control of Aboriginal land. In her essay, Macklin says that she argued to make remote housing a central focus of Rudd’s “practical” efforts in Aboriginal affairs. “I knew the overcrowding was horrific and addressing this need would be one very practical way to make sure we started to close the gap,” she writes. But in practice, Labor essentially used funding for housing as a weapon to crush Aboriginal control.
The Intervention imposed compulsory 5-year leases which placed Aboriginal township land in the hands of the Commonwealth. These leases were then used to transfer administration of all community housing stock from Aboriginal organisations to the NT public housing agency. This massive theft of assets was part of the broader war on Aboriginal self-determination taking place through the Intervention. In 2008, Labor began to insist that to receive any funding for new housing, or even housing maintenance, NT communities needed to sign long-term leases of between 40 and 80 years with the Commonwealth.
Earlier in 2007, while she was Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Macklin had opposed this policy. She quoted from the land rights anthem “from little things, big things grow” and scolded the Howard government across the chamber, “we do not want land tenure reform being made a condition of basic services”. Once in power however, she was ruthless in imposing these conditions.
Many communities refused give up their hard won rights to land and would not sign long term leases. They wanted to win back control of their own housing. They rightly identified that distant NT Housing officials were drastically mismanaging administration. They saw non-Indigenous contractors from outside communities being given all the maintenance and construction contracts, while good local workers languished on the BasicsCard.
“Racist laws, blackmail, cutting off resources to force migration, this is the reality of Rudd and Macklin’s ‘relationship of mutual respect’ with Aboriginal communities.”
A high profile stand-off came with the Tangentyere Council, who represent town camp housing associations in Alice Springs. Kevin Rudd and Jenny Macklin issued an ultimatum to Tangentyere – either sign long term leases or we will use powers granted under the NTER to compulsorily acquire your lands anyway. Tangentyere Director William Tilmouth called this, “a gun to the head”. Minister Macklin’s office had received advice from her Department that the powers of compulsory acquisition could potentially be challenged if the RDA was reinstated. So Macklin reneged on promises to bring back the RDA by November 2009, delaying until December 2010, just long enough to force Tangentyere to capitulate.
The Labor government announced that only 22 remote communities across Australia would receive funding for new housing, despite chronic overcrowding across many hundreds of communities. A COAG agreement signed by Rudd in December 2007 described these restrictions as a strategy to force Aboriginal people to leave communities considered economically “unviable”.
The COAG agreement established a category called “priority communities”, that is “larger and more economically sustainable communities where secure land tenure exists”. The agreement urges governments to “avoid expectations of major investment in service provision” outside these communities and encourages “facilitating voluntary mobility by individuals and families to areas where better education and job opportunities exist.”
Racist laws, blackmail, cutting off resources to force migration, this is the reality of Rudd and Macklin’s “relationship of mutual respect” with Aboriginal communities.
Stolen children and the NT Intervention
The contemporary mass removal of Aboriginal children from their families is at such a crisis point that it has become impossible for politicians to ignore. I first heard Kevin Rudd acknowledge this crisis in 2016, after protests from Grandmothers Against Removals and other affected families had forced it into the media.
Stolen Generation survivors themselves have also pushed the issue forward in media interviews about the Apology anniversary. Fay Moseley, who was taken from her family and abused at the Cootamundra Girls Training Home, told the ABC, “Ten years later, what’s changed? Nothing… they have to stop taking our kids”. The Sydney Morning Herald carried a weekend feature about Stolen Generation elders still hurting deeply, struggling to even have visits with grandchildren who have been taken into out-of-home-care.
In Macklin’s essay she acknowledges, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are being removed from their families at rates higher than at any time in the Stolen Generations era”. But despite this shocking reality, she completely fails to explore her own responsibility for the forced removal of so many thousands of children. She writes glibly, “the numbers of Aboriginal children being removed from their parents continue to rise. Plainly none of us have found the policy solutions.”
“In Macklin’s essay she acknowledges, ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are being removed from their families at rates higher than at any time in the Stolen Generations era’. But despite this shocking reality, she completely fails to explore her own responsibility for the forced removal of so many thousands of children.”
In a similar vein, Rudd has argued we “risk” another Stolen Generation, “not by design, but by default”.
History tells another story. The mass forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families under the Northern Territory Intervention was planned, budgeted for, and executed under the leadership and Rudd and Macklin.
The policy drivers of contemporary child removal were made crystal clear in the Bringing Them Home report in 1997 – a report which both politicians have referenced extensively. But while their references focus only on the past, the authors of Bringing Them Home dedicated the entire back third of the report to contemporary removals. The report argues:
Not a single submission from any Aboriginal organisation saw intervention from welfare departments as an effective way of dealing with Indigenous child protection needs … We have seen that Indigenous families were historically categorised by their Aboriginality as morally deficient. There is evidence that this attitude persists … A focus on child-saving facilitates blaming the family and viewing ‘the problem’ as a product of ‘pathology’ or ‘dysfunction’ among members, rather than a product of structural circumstances which are part of a wider historical and social context … The primary reason for welfare intervention in Indigenous communities is neglect. Social inequality is the most direct cause of neglect… problems which result in removals need to be addressed in terms of community development.
Bringing Them Home said that to stop contemporary removals, responsibility for Indigenous child protection needed to be given to Aboriginal-controlled agencies. A major transfer of resources to Indigenous communities – a ‘social justice’ investment package – was required for real community development to alleviate grinding poverty. The report argued for self-determination at the core of all initiatives in Indigenous affairs – nothing would be effective if not led by Aboriginal people.
The NT Intervention was the polar opposite of this approach, which I have already demonstrated through examples of how the racist laws were used destroy the capacity of Aboriginal people to exercise any control over their own affairs.
“In my work, I documented numbers of CDEP workers in Tennant Creek decline from 300 to 130 over 2009-10 and finally dwindle down to nothing by the time Labor left office. The social consequences were devastating as many people previously employed were thrown on the dole and started drinking heavily.”
Another central measure of the Intervention was the abolition of Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP), which had employed approximately 7,500 in the NT people before the NTER. These job cuts massively compounded the shocking poverty and living conditions that drive child removals.
As Shadow Minister, Macklin had opposed the Howard government’s proposed abolition of CDEP. She argued, “getting rid of CDEP in the remote Northern Territory communities will actually make communities, parents and children more vulnerable”. Once in power however, Labor proceeded to dismantle the program themselves. New people coming into the program were forced to work for their quarantined welfare payments, instead of award wages on CDEP.
Then the CDEP jobs began to be cut. In my work, I documented numbers of CDEP workers in Tennant Creek decline from 300 to 130 over 2009-10 and finally dwindle down to nothing by the time Labor left office. The social consequences were devastating as many people previously employed were thrown on the dole and started drinking heavily. At Ampilatwatja, a CDEP workforce of more than 60 people who had taken care of municipal services was replaced by a small number non-Indigenous contractors who could not maintain services. In late 2009, the community led a ‘walk-off’ in protest against the Intervention, as raw sewage flowed through the streets and houses were falling apart.
Aboriginal unemployment rates across remote Australia have skyrocketed from 11 per cent before the Intervention, to 28 per cent today. A figure that does not register the many thousands of unemployed people who are not registered with Centrelink and so receive no income at all.
While the Federal Labor government destroyed the capacity of Aboriginal people to keep their communities safe for children, they too massively expanded the budget of the NT Department of Children and Families (DCF) to visit remote communities and remove children into foster care. According to a 2012 report by Olga Havnen, then coordinator-general for remote Indigenous services, in 2010–11 DCF spent $47.8 million on keeping children in out-of-home care and $31 million on child protection workers: three times its pre-Intervention budget. Over the same period DCF spent just half a million dollars on intensive family-support services to assist struggling families.
The logical result of these policies was an explosion in the number of Aboriginal children removed from their families. On June 30 2007 there were 265 Indigenous children in “out of home care” in the NT. On June 30 2013, the year Labor left office, there were 623. The most recent statistics show almost 1000 Indigenous children in the NT “out of home care” system.
“On June 30 2007 there were 265 Indigenous children in “out of home care” in the NT. On June 30 2013, the year Labor left office, there were 623.”
Of course, many of these children were removed from real risks, from families grappling with chronic hunger, over-crowding, substance abuse and family violence. But overwhelmingly, they were ripped out of kinship networks full of love, capacity and willingness to look after these children, but denied the resources and opportunity to do so.
In a clear repeat of the Stolen Generations during the Protection era, many of Indigenous children have been removed hundreds of kilometres away from their communities, placed with non-Indigenous foster carers or in profit making institutions where they lose their language and culture. The rate of compliance with the “Aboriginal child placement principle” fell in the NT from 56% of cases in 2006-07 to just 36.2% in 2012-13.
In May 2013, just before Labor lost government, the CEO of DCF Jenni Collard made the extraordinary admission that while DCF was good at taking kids into care, it was “not very good at looking after them… If we are taking kids into care, we are not necessarily providing care that’s any better”. The recently concluded Royal Commission to the youth detention and child protection systems in the NT exposed the shocking realities of abuse faced by many children in DCF care, including those who went on to be tortured in detention facilities while still under the care of the Minister.
Pat Anderson, the author of the Little Children Are Sacred report which Howard used to justify the Intervention, gave evidence to the recent Royal Commission. As Dr Thalia Anthony has highlighted, Anderson argued that:
“The Intervention legitimated an attitude that Aboriginal people can only be dealt with as problematic. Anderson said that cruelty towards children in detention was ‘an extension’ of the abuse of Indigenous people under the Intervention. It produced a ‘general moral decay’ that ‘has allowed children being put in hoods and restraint chairs’… For Anderson, there is ‘no doubt in my mind’ that the ‘disempowerment’ and ‘appalling’ treatment of Aboriginal people living under the Intervention culminated in the torture of Aboriginal children at Don Dale.”
I have witnessed firsthand the way these racist attitudes fanned by the Intervention corrupt the judgement of child protection workers, leading to the removal of NT children from perfectly capable households. Some of these stories feature in Larissa Behrendt’s new film ‘After the Apology’. Despite the enormous increase in the NT child protection budget since 2007, the number of non-Indigenous children being removed by DCF has actually declined under the period of the Intervention, and can only be seen as a clear indication of institutional racism.
How Labor left Aboriginal affairs
Labor’s parting shot in Aboriginal affairs was the introduction of the Stronger Futures legislation, which continues many of the key racist measures of the Intervention until at least 2022. These laws were introduced despite strong opposition from Aboriginal organisations, community leaders, trade unions, social service peak bodies and more. Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser said of the laws, “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.”
The impact of the “racist, paternalistic” mentality of the Intervention had national consequences. On June 30 2007, the statistics that were available when Rudd made his apology, there were 7,917 Indigenous children in “out of home care”. When Labor left office in 2013, there were more than 14,000 and the number placed with Aboriginal family had also declined.
These thousands of children removed from their families are Federal Labor’s stolen generation. It is a legacy of destruction that will have consequences more far reaching than the fleeting sense of optimism and goodwill generated by the Apology. Rudd and Macklin are just as responsible for ripping these children from their mother’s arms as any politician in the 20th century.
We need serious commitments to self-determination, a complete turn around from the paternalism and assimilationist bipartisan approach that has characterised Indigenous affairs over the past decade or more. The Liberal government have extended Labor’s cruelty even further, whether through the massive funding cuts of Abbott’s horror budget in 2014, or the even more exploitative CDP scheme which forces Aboriginal people to work for 25 hours a week for Centrelink payments, often on a BasicsCard or Healthy Welfare Card. Child removal has continued to increase exponentially. The figures from June 30 2017 show more than 17,664 Indigenous children are in “out of home care”. It is important the Liberals are defeated at the next election.
“Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent removing Aboriginal children from their families while Labor were last in office. They must now make commitments of hundreds of millions more to return children to their families and communities and provide the resources and assistance required to rebuild shattered lives.”
But for Labor to have any credibility in offering an alternative that will bring real change, they must unequivocally apologise for the destruction of communities and mass removal of children under the racist Intervention. To mark the anniversary of the Apology, Labor have announced that a national summit on First Nations children will be held within 100 days of forming government. A signal for genuine change would couple this with commitments to repeal Stronger Futures legislation and associated measures such as compulsory income management.
Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent removing Aboriginal children from their families while Labor were last in office. They must now make commitments of hundreds of millions more to return children to their families and communities and provide the resources and assistance required to rebuild shattered lives.
There is a blueprint for stopping child removal and rebuilding communities in the Bringing Them Home Report. Aboriginal people don’t need more “consultation” or “advisory” roles – they need control of their own communities, children and land.
Padraic Gibson is a Senior Researcher at the Jumbunna Institute, University of Technology Sydney. He has been active in protest moments against the NT Intervention and the contemporary removal of Aboriginal children. Follow him @paddygibson