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Human rights and the Northern Territory intervention

By Alastair Nicholson - posted Monday, 20 December 2010

Australia is the only western nation without a bill of rights and, indeed, is one of only a few countries in the world to lack such a bill. To me this is a strange paradox in a country that has in many ways been a world leader in promoting international human rights, and has not been slow to criticise human rights breaches by other countries.

Yet every attempt to introduce a bill of rights in Australia has been a failure at federal level, largely through lack of leadership and political will.

Today, there is no more graphic example of the need for human rights protection in Australia than the events surrounding the Northern Territory Emergency Response ("the intervention").


The Howard Government announced the intervention in June 2007, ostensibly to protect Aboriginal children from sexual and other abuse. In considering the motivation for the intervention it should not be forgotten that there were a number of mini-interventions driven by Minister Brough between early 2006 and the commencement of the intervention itself.

These were an attempt to close the Alice Springs town camps, 99-year leases of townships coupled with remote area housing, and the abolition of the permit system.

I think these actions indicate the real motivation for the intervention, which seems to be more about land than children. However a series of events involving some particularly troublesome crimes and issues in relation to children played into the government’s hands and made the intervention possible.

The intervention was made in response to a Northern Territory Government commissioned report, Little Children are Sacred. The report revealed a serious situation in relation to the abuse of Indigenous children in the Northern Territory and called for urgent action by the Northern Territory Government. Significantly, the authors said:

“… we have specifically referred to the critical importance of governments committing to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities … We have been conscious throughout our enquiries of the need for that consultation and for Aboriginal people to be involved.”

Six days later came the federal government intervention - entirely without consultation with the Indigenous people and ignoring the substantive recommendations of the report to which it was purportedly responding.


Some of the many objectionable aspects of the legislation involved:

  • the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975;
  • the adoption of income protection;
  • the removal of social security benefits where a child is considered to be in need of protection, where the parents reside in specified areas of the Northern Territory, or where a child has an unsatisfactory attendance at school;
  • preventing a court from taking into account Indigenous customary law or practices in sentencing offenders;
  • the acquisition of aboriginal lands by means of compulsory leases of up to five years duration;
  • restrictions on the use of alcohol and pornography on Aboriginal lands, coupled with heavy penalties for breach and offensive signage at the entrances to those lands; and
  • the abandonment of the Community Development Employment Projects Program.

It takes only a moment to appreciate the injustice of most of these measures so far as the Indigenous community in the Northern Territory is concerned.

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This is an edited extract of a speech given by the Hon Alastair Nicholson AO RFD QC at the annual general meeting of the Social Policy Connections Forum on 1 December 2010. Visit the SPC website for the full text.

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About the Author

The Honourable Alastair Nicholson AO, RFD, QC is the Former Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia. He is an Honorary Professorial Fellow at the Department of Criminology, University of Melbourne.

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