1. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are the Indigenous Peoples and traditional custodians of the land now known as Australia. They are diverse Peoples with some 250 language groups and nations and are known as having the oldest living cultures in the world. However, their way of life, identity and wellbeing is under threat from the ongoing effects of colonization and attempts to assimilate them into non-Indigenous “Western” ways.
2. In light of these concerns, particularly those expressed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and the churches in Australia, the World Council of Churches (WCC) sent a “Living Letters” team to Australia in September 2010. The team visited several Aboriginal communities and heard stories and experiences of the “Intervention”. The “Living Letters” team expressed concern about the discrimination, oppression and racism they observed and which Aboriginal People experience on a daily basis. They also expressed dismay at the lack of consultation and negotiation by Governments at all levels.
3. Across Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are over represented in all areas of disadvantage. In many communities there are people living in extreme poverty without appropriate access to health services, education, employment, and housing. In some communities the effects of dispossession, forced removals from families, inter-generational trauma, racism and poverty manifest as social issues such as alcohol and drug addictions, violence and social breakdown.
4. While the situation is dire for many in all parts of Australia, in the Northern Territory (NT) of Australia there are particular challenges for many living in Aboriginal communities. For example, the life expectancy gap for all Indigenous Australians is less than for non-Indigenous Australians, but the gap in the Northern Territory is one of the highest at 14 years. Infant mortality rates are up to four times higher than for the non-Indigenous population. In many NT communities there is a lack of access to health care, housing, clean water, electricity, and education. The more remote the community the worse the situation gets.
5. In 2007, the Australian government introduced the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) which came to be known as the “Intervention”. This was introduced in response to a report on Aboriginal child sexual abuse called Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle “Little Children are Sacred”. The report made 97 recommendations to address the Aboriginal child sexual abuse highlighted in the report. Although this report was commissioned by the local NT government, the Australian government did not wait for their response. Rather, it claimed that this report identified a “national emergency” that required an immediate “Intervention” and announced a wide range of policies which were to be implemented in “prescribed areas”, all of which were Aboriginal communities in the NT.
6. The “Intervention” measures were broad in nature and addressed welfare reform and employment; law and order; education; family and child support; child and family health; housing; land tenure; and governance and management of the “Intervention”.
7. While there was no dispute that the NT needed a significant influx of resources and programs, and it was acknowledged that there had been many years of neglect by government, there were many concerning aspects of the “Intervention”. These concerns included the lack of consultation; the compulsory acquisition of five year leases over Aboriginal owned and operated land; compulsory alcohol and pornography bans; the cessation of an employment scheme called the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP); compulsory health checks for all children; and promises of increased resources for health and education. Also introduced was compulsory income quarantining. This meant that anybody in a prescribed area who was on a welfare payment was given a card to access their money, but they were only allowed to spend this half of their income on food, clothes and other essential items, in certain shops. This applied to all Aboriginal people on welfare whether they were parents or carers of children or not and whether they had problems managing their money and providing for their families or not. Notably the “Intervention” legislation did not address one single recommendation that came out of the Little Children are Sacred Report.
8. Additionally, many aspects of the “Intervention” were discriminatory and the government found it necessary to suspend aspects of the Racial Discrimination Act (1975) in order to pass the necessary legislation to implement the “Intervention”. This meant that nobody had any redress to complain about the discriminatory aspects of it.
9. The “Intervention” policies brought much shame to Aboriginal Peoples. The nature of the policies and much of the discussion at the time implied that they were the cause of their own disadvantage. At a practical level the “Intervention” had a severe impact on day to day life. For example, people were not able to spend their money how they wanted and felt shame at having storekeepers telling them they were not able to buy some items. They also felt embarrassed that much of the discourse implied all Aboriginal Peoples were alcoholics and paedophiles. In fact, one of the first actions the federal government took was to place a sign at the entrance to every Aboriginal community prohibiting alcohol and pornography in those communities. The government used claims of a paedophilia ring in the Northern Territory to justify the “Intervention”, but did not include a sufficient amount of consultation and negotiation with the Aboriginal community in the investigation of these allegations and resolution of the situation.
10. Many human rights advocates, church groups and communities themselves have spoken out against the “Intervention” but not all the criticism has been domestic. Australia has come under international scrutiny of the situation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Professor James Anaya, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples visited the Northern Territory and expressed concern about the discriminatory nature of many of the aspects of the intervention and the contravention of many international human rights standards to which Australia is a signatory.
11. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has also commented on the “Intervention” and said: “The Committee regrets the discriminatory impact this intervention has had on affected communities including restrictions on Aboriginal rights to land, property, social security, adequate standards of living, cultural development, work, and remedies.”
12. The “Living Letters” team reported that in every place they visited they were told that life had not improved under the “Intervention” and that it had in fact deteriorated. Their message to those who had so generously shared their lives and stories with the members of the “Living Letters” team was that they do not stand alone. They expressed a sense of responsibility to ensure that their voices do not go unheeded.
The WCC Central Committee, meeting in Geneva 16-22 February, 2011, therefore:
1. Expresses solidarity with the Indigenous Peoples of Australia, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, and their right to live in traditional lands; maintain and enrich culture and ensure traditions are strengthened and passed on for generations to come;
2. Urges the Australian government to end the “Intervention” and instead to engage in proper consultation and negotiation processes which are genuinely inclusive of Aboriginal Peoples, which will better empower and enable them to identify their own aspirations, issues of concern and which will involve their full participation in creating and implementing solutions;
3. Requests the Australian government to ensure that policies affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples comply with international conventions and, in particular, conform to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the International Labour Organization’s Covenant 169;
4. Calls on WCC member churches to continue to raise awareness about the specific issues facing Indigenous Peoples and to develop advocacy campaigns to support the rights, aspirations and needs of Indigenous Peoples;
5. Encourages WCC member churches to support the continued development of theological reflection by Indigenous Peoples which promote Indigenous visions of full, good and abundant life and strengthen their own spiritual and theological reflection.