1343 Aboriginal residents in 16 remote communities give their assessment of what the Intervention has achieved and the challenges to come.
By KIERAN FINNANE
The Northern Territory Intervention – “punitive” and a “betrayal of Aboriginal people” as conditions deteriorate even further, as the Stop the Intervention Collective in Sydney (STICS) would have us believe?
Or making some headway, as the responses of 1343 Aboriginal residents surveyed in 16 remote communities suggest?
Believe the STICS media release that paints a picture, without nuance, of devastation and despair?
Or the research results that discern the shades of grey, particularly between small and larger communities, and even discern some light? Your call.
The Community Safety and Wellbeing Research Study was commissioned by the Commonwealth Department of Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA, the one responsible of course for the Intervention) and was conducted by four social research companies, employing 50 local Indigenous people to work with them. They made three trips to each community between December last year and June this year, systematically asking residents, using a questionnaire, about the changes that have taken place over the last three years, producing quantitative data for statistical analysis. Residents also took part in discussions about their own experiences and priorities in their community, producing qualitative data.
The study summaries the key “very strong” messages from the survey as follows:
“The majority of people judge that their life has improved over the last three years. Qualitative feedback offered with this judgment stresses that employment has been a major factor in improving individuals’ lives.
“The benefits of employment are improved income, but almost more importantly many people stress that they are busy (and therefore not ‘looking for fights’) and feel that they are contributing to their community. Some adults also comment that their children are happier because they see their parents go to work more often.
“The second strong message is that young people are the epicentre of many community dynamics. There is an enormous policy challenge to create conditions in which it is more difficult for young people to opt for a ‘party’ lifestyle, and easier to get a job.
“The third strong message is that small communities are very different to large ones. There is very consistent and solid evidence from both quantitative and qualitative data sources that gains made over the last three years are much less pronounced in communities of over 1100 people; and that challenges in these large communities are more acute.
“There is scope for working to understand the precise nature of why larger communities are much more difficult environments in which to achieve positive change, and to fashion policy to address the very particular nature of the dynamics of large remote Indigenous communities.”
Following are some of the study’s findings.
Many lives and communities on the way up:-
The majority of survey respondents (58.7%) reported that their own lives were on the ‘way up’. The most common reasons cited were getting a job (23%), living in improved housing, and having more money.
Fewer people thought that their community was on the ‘way up’ (47.4%); however more people judged ‘way up’ than ‘no change’ (42.1%) or ‘way down’ (7.6%).
The most common reasons for citing ‘no change’ or ‘way down’ were that people are still living in overcrowded housing, find it hard to get a job, there is still a lot of family fighting and unhappiness about both the Intervention and the loss of Community Councils through the change to governance through the Shires.
Housing was not covered by the survey (which seems strange), but through the participative process improved housing received a third more votes than any other issue as the most important challenge still to be faced.
Children’s lives have improved:-
There is a very clear perception from the majority of survey respondents that the lives of children have improved over the last three years. The biggest improvement is seen to be children eating more food than three years ago, with 68.8% confirming this.
The qualitative data provides evidence that Basics Card and the school nutrition program are credited with creating conditions in which children have more access to food. The Basics Card (itself not covered by the survey) was voted as the third most important change to have occurred over the last three years.
Survey data also shows that children’s level of activity, their school attendance, health and happiness are all seen to have improved. It is clear that in some communities’ respondents’ perception of increased school attendance is at variance with school attendance data, which records a decrease in attendance in some sites.
There is a markedly lower level of the perception of increased school attendance in larger communities, with 20.1% of respondents in communities with a population of over 1100 judging that fewer children are attending school, compared to 2.9% in communities with fewer than 350 people.
Challenging issues relating to young people:-
The survey rated them as:
• not listening to the older generation (70.5%);
• kids and young people being out at night (64.5%)
• and sending nasty text messages (57.7%).
Qualitative feedback indicated that smoking marijuana is a major issue – creating violence, mental health problems and disengagement from employment and culture – with larger communities experiencing more problems with marijuana than smaller communities.
Two of the three least safe locations in communities revolve around young people – the youth drop in centre and sporting events.
A wide variety of dynamics in the youth demographic lead to fights – same sex peers fighting over jealousy and teasing, and couples fighting. Phone messaging and chat line posts are nominated as triggering a lot of fights.
(Interestingly, Jodeen Carney’s Youth Justice Review also pointed to problems with social networking mediums, naming “Diva Chat” as associated with an increase in violence in which adolescent girls participate – a “significant issue” raised during consultations with remote Indigenous communities.)
More activities for young people and more employment and training were voted as the second most important challenges facing communities.
Improved service provision has been the most important change:-
Service delivery is believed to be both the area of the most significant change over the last three years, and of the most important continuing challenge.
The services seen by respondents as having improved the most are the schools (83.3%), Centrelink (80.6%), clinics (78.3%), police (76.3%) and stores (76.2%). People would most like to see further improvement in housing and activities for young people.
People gave enormous credit to Night Patrols and police for helping to keep communities safe. There was considerable feedback to the effect that the best service is provided when the police, Night Patrol and community leaders work together.
However, the larger the community’s population, the more reduced the perception of the effectiveness of Night Patrols.
Increased police presence was voted as the most important change to have taken place over the last three years. Their role in stopping alcohol being brought into communities and in stopping family fighting has been particularly appreciated.
Services most frequently cited as being needed are drug and alcohol, and parenting services.
The substantial majority of respondents rate their safety highly, both at home and around most locations in their community, but the perception of safety decreases as the population of the community increases.
In the largest communities, with populations of over 1100, 22.5% of respondents rate children as ‘not safe’, 36.8% of respondents rate young women as ‘not safe,’ and respondents rate 30.1% of young men as ‘not safe’.
In communities with populations below 350, the comparable figures are 8.7%, 6.3% and 5.8% respectively.
Marijuana use becoming more of a problem than grog:-
People perceive that alcohol use has declined, while marijuana use has increased over the last three years.
Survey responses indicate that the most severe problem caused by substance use is perceived to be ‘going mad’ from excessive use of marijuana.
Qualitative data shows that there is also a perception that excessive use makes young people disinclined to work or to engage in cultural activities.
Communities with populations of over 700 experience more severe problems with both alcohol and marijuana.
Communities with alcohol outlets experience a statistically significant higher frequency of problems with alcohol than those who do not.
Qualitative data suggests that individuals may not be drinking less alcohol overall, however responses to the survey found 57.2% of respondents agree that less alcohol is consumed within communities, which improves the safety of residents.
There was some qualitative feedback that a number of people leave their ‘dry’ communities to travel to larger towns where there is easy access to alcohol.
Pictured: Top – Children during lunch break at Ntaria School in 2009. Their hot meal had been provided by a school nutrition program, the likes of which, along with the Basics Card, have meant that more kids over the last three years have been getting more food. Photo from our archive. Middle – Small communities seem to be doing better than larger ones. Titjikala in 2007, photo from our archive. Above – increased police presence in remote communities has been appreciated. NT Police traffic campaign photo.