Northern Territory National Emergency Response

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Alcohol and Pornography Ban Warning sign at an Aboriginal community near Alice Springs Northern Territory

The Northern Territory National Emergency Response (also referred to as "the intervention") was a package of changes to welfare provision, law enforcement, land tenure and other measures, introduced by the Australian federal government under John Howard in 2007 to address allegations of rampant child sexual abuse and neglect in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities.[1] Operation Outreach, the intervention's main logistical operation conducted by a force of 600 soldiers and detachments from the ADF (including NORFORCE) concluded on 21 October 2008.[2] In the seven years since the initiation of the Emergency Response there has not been one prosecution for child abuse come from the exercise.[3]

The package was the Federal government's response to the Territory government's publication of Little Children are Sacred, but implemented only two out of ninety-seven of the report's recommendations. The response has been criticised, but also received bipartisan parliamentary support. The then Prime Minister Julia Gillard has and continues to support the response, though her predecessor (and successor) Kevin Rudd did make some adjustments to its implementation. The Emergency Response has since been replaced by the very similar Stronger Futures Policy.

Political context

The response was introduced during the lead-up to the 2007 federal election, at which the incumbent Coalition government led by John Howard, in office since 1996, was defeated. The policy was criticised as rushed and poll-driven,[4] although it gained the broad support of the Rudd Labor opposition and some Aboriginal leaders.

The response also came at a time of increasing debate over the future of federalism in Australia, in particular the proper extent of federal power into areas of government traditionally managed by the states and territories. It was one of a number of federal interventions enacted in 2007. Other state responsibilities targeted by the Australian Government at the time included seaports, workplace relations, the Murray-Darling river system and public hospitals.

The policy was initially insulated from criticism because of the sensitive nature of the issue and the fact that the national Parliament faces no constitutional barriers to overruling the Northern Territory government, unlike the governments of Australia's states, which have some constitutionally preserved areas of legislative power.[5]


The legislation introduced as part of the package included:

  • the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007;
  • the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Payment Reform) Bill 2007;
  • the Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment ( Northern Territory National Emergency Response and Other Measures) Bill 2007;
  • the Appropriation (Northern Territory National Emergency Response) Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008; and
  • the Appropriation (Northern Territory National Emergency Response) Bill (No. 2) 2007-2008.

Notably, Clause 132 of the first Bill stated that the provisions of it are classified as 'special measures' under the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and therefore exempt from Part II of the Act. While the main elements of the intervention were otherwise kept in place, this exemption from provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act was brought to an end in 2010.[6]


The $587 million package came into effect with the passage of the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007 by the Australian Parliament in August 2007. The nine measures contained therein were as follows:

  • Deployment of additional police to affected communities.
  • New restrictions on alcohol and kava
  • Pornography filters on publicly funded computers
  • Compulsory acquisition of townships currently held under the title provisions of the Native Title Act 1993 through five year leases with compensation on a basis other than just terms. (The number of settlements involved remains unclear.)
  • Commonwealth funding for provision of community services
  • Removal of customary law and cultural practice considerations from bail applications and sentencing within criminal proceedings
  • Suspension of the permit system controlling access to aboriginal communities
  • Quarantining of a proportion of welfare benefits to all recipients in the designated communities and of all benefits of those who are judged to have neglected their children
  • The abolition of the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP).

Howard, Rudd and Gillard Government policy

The Northern Territory Intervention was originally drafted by the Howard Government, with Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough being the chief architect. The Rudd Government took office in 2007 and pledged to continue the policy, though Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin ended the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act in 2010. The Labor Party replaced Kevin Rudd with Julia Gillard in 2010 and the Gillard Government also pledged to continue the Intervention.

By February 2011, the original architect of the policy, former minister Mal Brough was arguing that the Intervention Policy had become stagnant and wasn't going to work unless it was revitalised.[7] In April 2011, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott proposed consultation with Indigenous people over a bipartisan Federal Government intervention in Northern Territory towns like Alice Springs, Katherine and Tennant Creek which would cover such areas as police numbers and school attendance in an effort to address what he described as a "failed state" situation developing in areas of the Northern Territory.[8]

Prime Minister Gillard toured Northern Territory Communities in June 2011 and told the media "I believe the intervention has made a difference", citing the provision of meals to children, and better child health and welfare outcomes and a reduction in aggravated assaults.[9]

Reaction and debate

Though the plan achieved broad bi-partisan support in the Parliament, it has also been criticised by the Northern Territory Labor government, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission[10] and by several Aboriginal leaders and community spokespeople. The plan was also given strong support by other community groups and Aboriginal leaders.


The use of sexual abuse as the catalyst for the intervention has been subject to debate. One view is that sexual abuse is a 'trojan horse' for other purposes such as regaining government control over disputed land.[11]

Racial Discrimination Act

The measures of the response which have attracted most criticism comprise the exemption from the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, the compulsory acquisition of an unspecified number of prescribed communities (Measure 5) and the partial abolition of the permit system (Measure 10). These have been interpreted as undermining important principles and parameters established as part of the legal recognition of indigenous land rights in Australia.

In 2010, James Anaya, a United Nations Special Rapporteur, found the Emergency Response to be racially discriminating and infringe on the human rights of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.[12] Anaya acknowledged that emergency action was needed but said that measures like banning alcohol and pornography and quarantining a percentage of welfare income for the purchase of essential goods represented a limitation on "individual autonomy".[13]

Organisations such as Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) have argued that breaching the Racial Discrimination Act is not necessary in order to protect the children in the affected areas.[14]


More generally, a lack of consultation with Aboriginal community leaders is often cited by critics of the response,[15] alongside the fact that the action addresses very few of the specific recommendations contained in the Little Children are Sacred Report, while introducing many measures not suggested in the Report.

While finding some support among organisations like the Australian Greens, Anaya's Report was widely condemned in Australia, with the Rudd Government's Indigenous Affairs Minister, Jenny Macklin, saying that her duty to protect the rights of children was paramount. Opposition Spokesman Tony Abbott queried whether Anaya had adequately consulted with people who had lived through the intervention; indigenous activist Warren Mundine said the report should be "binned" and Central Australian Aboriginal leader Bess Price criticised the UN for not sending a female repporteur and said that Anaya had been led around by opponents of the intervention to meet with opponents of the intervention.[16][17]


The intervention in the Northern Territory has come under fire by a variety of groups. Claims made by critics of the intervention are as follows:

  • In 1999, a report titled Violence in Indigenous Communities was prepared by Dr Paul Memmott, but was suppressed until 2001 and not acted upon.[18]
  • An inter-governmental summit on violence and child abuse was held in 2006. This pointed to the cost and blame shifting that characterised federal-territory and state relations, but no further action was taken.[18]
  • The United Nations has expressed concern over the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, writing to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in March 2009 following a complaint made to the UN by a collective of Aboriginal communities.[19]

A delegation of Northern Territory Aboriginal leaders met with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay at Charles Darwin University in May 2011. The delegation stated that the situation had deteriorated under the intervention. There is greater discrimination against them, Ms Pillay said they told her. Firstly, they said there's been an intervention and it started off badly without them being consulted, and secondly, there is insufficient respect for their land, she said. The delegation said Aboriginal people were under pressure from the Gillard government to sign leases over land they already own. They see that as a land grab, Ms Pillay said.[20]


Some Aboriginal commentators and activists, such as Noel Pearson, Marcia Langton and Bess Price, have offered support, criticising aspects of the response while believing it to be necessary and worthwhile.[21][22][23][24][25] The Aboriginal leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu initially supported the response, but by 2010 had lost faith in it.[26][27][28][29][30][31]

Following the announcement of the intervention plan by the Howard Government, Cape York Indigenous leader Noel Pearson offered support, telling ABC Radio on 22 June 2007:

Writing in February 2008, Aboriginal academic Marcia Langton rejected arguments that the Intervention had been a "political ploy" and argued that the policy in fact marked the death of a "wrong-headed male Aboriginal ideology":[32]

Aboriginal leader and former Australian Labor Party president, Warren Mundine spoke against critics of the Intervention in 2010, saying:

In 2011, after more than three years of the Intervention, Central Australian Indigenous leader Bess Price told ABC television:[16][17]

See also


  2. Ashby-Cliffe, Jane (13 November 2008), "Reaching the end", Army, Canberra, ACT: Defence Newspapers (1202), p. 4<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Pazzano, Chiara (20 June 2012). "Factbox: The 'Stronger Futures' legislation". SBS World News Australia. Retrieved 28 April 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "Australia restores race discrimination act". BBC News. 22 June 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "NT intervention stagnant, just another failed plan: Mal Brough". The Australian. 26 February 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "AM - Abbott calls for new intervention in Alice Springs 21/03/2011". 28 March 1989. Retrieved 26 April 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Submission of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee on the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Legislation, 10 August 2007.
  11. Altman, Jon (2010). Culture Crisis: Anthropology and Politics in Aboriginal Australia. UNSW Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Anaya, James (February 2010). "Observations On The Northern Territory Emergency Response In Australia" (PDF). Retrieved 18 June 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. "NT Intervention". Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation. Retrieved 4 April 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "Indigenous Rights: Request for Urgent Action on NT Intervention from UN CERD (Sept 2009)". Human Rights Law Centre. Retrieved 4 April 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. 16.0 16.1
  17. 17.0 17.1
  18. 18.0 18.1 Re-imagining the Australian state: political structures and policy strategies
  19. UN 'concerned' over suspension of Racial Discrimination Act
  20. "Intervention facing UN criticism". The Age. Melbourne.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. Pearson fears for Indigenous parents' freedom.
  22. Noel Pearson discusses the issues faced by indigenous communities.
  23. Pearson, Politics aside, an end to the tears is our priority.
  24. Tony Koch & Dennis Shanahan, Get parents who shield abusers: Pearson.
  25. Bess Price Against change for the wrong reasons.
  26. Top leader now backs Territory intervention.
  27. Indigenous leader signs 99-year land lease to Govt.
  28. Paternal feelings help thrash out pact for nation.
  29. Galarrwuy Yunupingu, The challenge begins.
  30. Whose coup? Canberra and clan both celebrate a deal.
  31. [1] Yunupingu loses faith in intervention

External links

Further reading