Review of a Decision to Discriminate: Aboriginal Disempowerment in the NT

Posted on November 8, 2012


In recent months I have taken to conducting a straw poll to gauge how aware ‘average’ people are about the Northern Territory Intervention and its successor Stronger Futures. By average I mean people who aren’t connected with the various advocacy networks active on this issue. Stronger Futures is the euphemistic name given to the new incarnation of the 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Response (known as the Intervention). My suspicion that the majority of Australians are oblivious to the NT Intervention and its impact on Aboriginal people is usually confirmed when my question is met with blank stares quickly followed by glazed eyes as I launch into my ‘Intervention 101’ talk.

The lack of awareness amongst Australians about what is arguably the most extensive and far reaching Indigenous policy agenda implemented in the past forty years is genuinely concerning. It is hardly surprising though in an environment where mainstream media reports on the Intervention generally fail to provide depth or analysis and rely on a few favoured voices for comment. A new book from ‘concerned Australians’[1], A Decision to Discriminate: Aboriginal Disempowerment in the Northern Territory[2] is a powerful antidote to the scant attention paid to the diverse opinions and experiences of NT Aboriginal people. This book gives voice to those who have been most affected by the Intervention and presents a picture of widespread dissatisfaction which has largely been ignored by Government, media and consequently the wider population.

A Decision to Discriminate draws on transcripts of hearings held earlier in 2012 as part of the Senate Inquiry into the Stronger Futures Bills. In addition to views expressed through hearings there were over 450 submissions to the Inquiry, the vast majority of which were highly critical of the Bills. The submissions came from a diverse range of people and organisations including: Aboriginal communities; lawyers; welfare agencies; human rights groups and Churches. Despite this wide dissent Stronger Futures was passed by both Houses with only Independents and Greens opposing it.

In one sense the Inquiry process failed Aboriginal people as their clearly expressed views were ignored by all but a handful of legislators. A more optimistic view though is that through the Inquiry these views are now on the public record and available to all. Understandably, transcripts of parliamentary Inquiries are not generally high on the reading list of the average Australian but an engaging and comprehensive summary of the key issues raised in the hearings is found in A Decision to Discriminate.

The book gives a brief summary of the legislation and through selected quotes addresses topics ranging from the impact of the Intervention on communities to Self-Determination. Specific areas of the legislation are also addressed, such as alcohol management plans, income management; customary law; and SEAM – the controversial plan to penalise parents through welfare cuts if their children don’t attend school. For critics who might suggest that the authors have cherry picked specific quotes to highlight an agenda the full transcripts are available on the concerned Australian’s website.

It is clear from the points of view presented in this book that Stronger Futures is controversial and there is little, if any, agreement with either the minutiae of the policies or the broader premises upon which the Government has based its action. Senator Scullion, the Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs, shows some insight into the level of disagreement that the Senate Committee heard when he said:

When we get to most communities any observer would say that Aboriginal people more generally hate the Intervention. They do not like it, it invades their rights and they feel discriminated against. [3]

Despite these observations Senator Scullion and his Parliamentary colleagues supported this legislation. No wonder then that Aboriginal people feel they are not being listened to.

The lack of proper consultation and real dialogue with communities is leaving Aboriginal people feeling disempowered by yet another patronising, ‘top-down’ approach which will most likely create more problems than it fixes. No doubt, in a couple of decades we will all be transfixed by a future Prime Minister apologising for this too. Will we then hear the average Australian say “we didn’t know”? Through A Decision to Discriminate we are all offered an opportunity to ‘know’ and to listen to what Aboriginal people are saying. Only by listening and genuine engagement with Aboriginal people can we hope to effectively work together to create true Stronger Futures.   

Gabrielle Russell-Mundine

The book is available to purchase at

[2] Harris, M. (ed.) (2012) A Decision to Discriminate: Aboriginal Disempowerment in the Northern Territory, concerned Australians, Melbourne

[3] ibid., p 35