Growing up under the NT intervention: 10 years later, what has changed?

Growing up under the NT intervention: 10 years later, what has changed?

Growing up under the NT intervention: 10 years later, what has changed?

Updated 26 June 2017, 15:55 AEST

Twenty-four-year-old Kylie Sambo was only 14 when the intervention was introduced and the military turned up in the Northern Territory.

Last week marked the 10th anniversary of the controversial Northern Territory Emergency Response, better known as the intervention.

Kylie Sambo, a 24-year-old Warlmanpa and Warumungu woman from Tennant Creek, was only 14 when the intervention was introduced and the military turned up in the Northern Territory.

Today she is an activist, a hip hop artist, and a full-time carer for her nephew.

But as a teenager, like many Indigenous youth, Ms Sambo struggled between her commitments to school and her cultural obligations.

At 16, she eventually decided to leave school to learn more about her culture. That's when she was placed on income management.

Income management, or welfare quarantining, which is now being rolled out nationally to much debate and protest, was one of the key measures of the intervention.

It initially meant that up to half of a person's government payments could be placed on a basics card, to ensure that money wasn't being spent on alcohol, tobacco, gambling or pornography.

It was also believed that it could help to protect Aboriginal women from humbugging (pressure from partners, family and community members), as they would have less cash to give, and have more money to spend on fresh food and other essentials.

It had a mixed reception when it was rolled out — and even today, there are vastly conflicting reports of its efficacy.

Though the stated objectives seemed laudable to many at the time, Ms Sambo believes there are too many practical shortcomings of the basics card, like not being able to use it in certain shops, or at all when travelling to other communities or interstate — and that it has further stigmatised many Aboriginal people in their own communities.

"It's hurtful for me to go into the shop with a basics card and everyone else is looking at me … wondering 'what is that card?'" she says.

"And when they do find out what that card is they're going to be looking at us differently, like 'oh, that person is an early school leaver' for myself, or 'that person has been in jail', or 'that person has problems with their kids, they're on the welfare'.

"(The Government) now has the power to put 80 per cent into the basics card and only 20 per cent into your account.

"Do you know how that feels? That feels very hurtful and very disrespectful to us — because you're here in our country. We're sharing this country with you, and yet you're still treating us like this."

While many teenagers are only just starting to think about their futures, Ms Sambo has dedicated a significant portion of her youth to fighting for a better future for herself and coming generations.

She has been heavily involved in the campaign against the NT intervention and the campaign to keep a uranium dump out of her home, Muckaty.

"I haven't had the chance to be like all the other young people and have fun and do everything that a young person is supposed to be doing," she says.

"I've been fighting throughout my teenage years and growing up. I've been fighting for my country, fighting for my family, fighting for my people. Trying to have a better life for my nephew and for the rest of my people back home."

Some might remember her song, Muckaty, that highlighted her community's anti-uranium dumping campaign for many other youth around the country.

After seven long years of fighting, Ms Sambo and her community eventually won that battle.

A year of anniversaries for Indigenous people

It has been a year of significant anniversaries and events for Indigenous Australia — 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum and the 25th anniversary of the Mabo High Court decision.

It also marks the 20th anniversary of the final Bringing Them Home report being tabled in Federal Parliament on May 26, 1997.

The date is now known as Sorry Day, commemorating those who have been affected by — and are still affected by — the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families.

But while these dates mark moments that have arguably brought positive change, the 10th anniversary of the Northern Territory intervention has not been celebrated.

Instead, it has been observed with significant protests and actions, by people like Ms Sambo, and many others, around the country.

Pat Turner, the chief executive officer of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations (NACCHO), regards the intervention as one of the most significant removals of Aboriginal rights in decades.

"It is the worst set of public policy I have ever seen — and I have worked in the public sector 40 years of my life," she says.

"The NT intervention was absolutely the worst and must never ever be repeated."

The NT intervention was instigated by a significant and unprecedented report — the Little Children Are Sacred report.

Pat Anderson, co-author of the Little Children Are Sacred report, has long said that the intervention did not address any of the recommendations from the inquiry preceding the report.

She has also been critical of the government's labelling of the situations identified in her report as needing overnight emergency legislation — not because the severity of the problems didn't qualify as an emergency, but because many Aboriginal people had been highlighting these issues for decades.

"The issue of Indigenous family violence and especially of the abuse and neglect of children — had been raised for many years at the highest levels by concerned Aboriginal people, communities and organisations," she says.

Ms Anderson says almost 20 years ago, the Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody report highlighted the fact that many Aboriginal families were "in crisis".

"In 1997 the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's Bringing Them Home report went further, highlighting the alarming numbers of notifications … of child abuse and neglect in our communities," she says.

"And in 2001, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Council … made the protection of children from abuse and violence (including sexual abuse) the second of nine priority areas for action by governments.

"So, it is a myth that governments did not know about Aboriginal child neglect or abuse until the storm of media and public concern broke in 2006."

No second chances

Ms Sambo was not yet born when the Mabo decision took place, and was only four years old when the Bringing Them Home report was tabled in Canberra.

Her generation were not alive in the days of Aboriginal people being forced onto missions and reserves and forced to live on rations.

But she says many are starkly aware they have been put in a comparable situation — a situation many Australians believed, and still believe, is a thing of the past.

"This colony, this Australia, is built on that violence and now we're getting accused for it — that we're the bad people when we're not," she says.

"Being given this basic card is basically saying, 'Oh, you're black, you're violent, you're different to everybody else'.

"We're still getting treated like this and it's not right. It happened years ago … and it's still happening today, so when are we going to get that change?"

Ms Sambo's comments paint a grey picture of life under the intervention.

"This is what it brought us: Our juvenile centres have gone up, there's so many young people that's going in there," she says.

"Why? It's been because they're mistreated back home. We don't get any second chances back there. Once we do something wrong, you're a bad person."

Looking to the future

It is poignant that the 10th anniversary of the intervention is happening during increased calls for treaty, or makarrata, and a meaningful voice for Indigenous people on Indigenous affairs.

For 200 years, Indigenous lives have been impacted by the policies of successive governments.

And even though Indigenous voices have called for different things during that time, there has always been one constant — self-determination.

Governments have pledged to do things "with Aboriginal people, not to them" for many years.

But Ms Sambo remains sceptical.

"I don't see it the way they do. I see us living in peace, just like it was before," she says.

"All of our tribes used to meet and make peace, not tear it down. We was living in a sustainable world … the old people before, the way they learned was a good way, a better way.

"But now it's hard for our old people to teach it to our younger ones, because of everything that's going on … it's the young ones that are going to be here when we're gone. That's why we have to act now, and as a young person I am going to fight."

She also has some strong advice for those in a position to make change in the Territory,

"Take away the welfare, not the kids," she says.

"Give back funding to the outstations so that everyone can go back to their homelands and establish something good. Stop giving Centrelink staff so much money just to keep people on income management.

"And, of course, stop putting out dumb and stupid policies that will only affect us, and that will take up so much money that could be put to good use … But there's still more to be discussed, that needs to be done, because we're still broken, we still are."

Her views are echoed by Ms Turner, who is calling for a new relationship with governments.

"Sit down with us, Malcolm Turnbull, and your government … what we want is to determine the structures that govern us," she says.

"We want our share of the resources. They want a futures fund, we want a futures fund … it's a rich country, they can find their way. We understand fiscal constraint, we've lived it all our lives."