Indigenous mobility and the Northern Territory Emergency Response.

Author:Taylor, Andrew

A number of commentators have suggested that the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER), introduced in June 2007, has promoted the movement of Northern Territory Indigenous people away from remote areas towards towns. Using both census and interview data the authors show that rural to urban movement in the Northern Territory has been well established since at least 1991. Mobility pattens are complex and many moves are simply short-term. But the long-term trend amongst Indigenous people follows the rural to urban pattern that has been observed in numerous other locations within Australia and overseas. Indeed, in the short term the NTER is as likely to inhibit mobility from more remote locations to urban centres as it is to promote it.


The purpose of this paper is to assess the impacts that the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) may have on the intra-Territory migration patterns of Indigenous people. In doing so, we analysed data from the 1996, 2001 and 2006 census of population and housing to establish an understanding of the dominant formal migration patterns that have existed over the past ten or more years. The census data serve as a baseline against which we then used data collected in interviews with community members in four of the larger Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory in mid 2008. We applied the results of the analysis of the two datasets to postulate whether the dominant migratory patterns in terms of origins and destinations of migrants, length of migration events, and number and type of people migrating. This mixed method approach allows us to document both the long-term (residential) patterns of migration and the more short-term, seasonal and cyclical patterns.

The Northern Territory Emergency Response was a Commonwealth Government initiative arising from a 2007 report to the Northern Territory Government documenting abuse and neglect of Indigenous children, particularly in remote communities. (1) The NTER was formally commenced in mid June 2007, with a five-year timeframe. The NTER involved a range of measures applied mainly to remote communities in the Northern Territory. These included increased police and military presence in communities, tighter restrictions on alcohol and pornography, compulsory health checks for children, new housing construction, and a range of measures designed to increase school attendance and decrease spending on de-merit items such as tobacco, alcohol and pornography. (2) Chief among the latter was the Income Management Scheme (IMS) under which substantial proportions of welfare payments are held back from recipients and allocated to specific priority items such as food, children's clothing, housing and education. (3)

The small body of literature concerning Indigenous mobility in Australia includes some simple descriptions of census data, (4) and selected case studies of a few people in a few places. (5) The most comprehensive example of the former is the review by Taylor and Bell, (6) but this work examined only migration between regional areas and state capitals, and included data only to 1996. The later works tend to be informed by anthropological traditions that regard Indigenous people as the rightful inhabitants of remote Australia (7) and as having cultural and political imperatives to demonstrate continuous occupation of'country'. (8) In this way, mobility patterns are seen as circular and seasonal, but essentially embedded in a pattern of short-term population exchanges between various locations which provide economic, social and cultural inputs such as health and education services, access to alcohol and gambling, performance of cultural rituals and so on. Carson and Robinson (9) summarised the motives for mobility and the welcome and unwelcome consequences they might bring to the individuals involved and the populations in the origins and destinations.

The sentiment in much of the work on Northern Territory Indigenous mobility is that people should want to stay 'on country' in remote areas as far as possible but this seems at odds with what is known about patterns of migration among Indigenous people and rural dwellers internationally. From a theoretical perspective, the pull of 'country' (10) may be contrasted with the widely observed tendency for people with a new found capacity to travel to do so (11) and a universal attraction of the cities. (12) A lack of access to individual economic resources can restrict the distance travelled and the economic outcomes of migration, but may actually encourage mobility, particularly amongst the young. (13) Similarly, apparently poorer conditions encountered in new (urban) locations have not deterred immigrants, not have improving conditions in (rural) origins stymied the flow of out-migration. (14) In the Northern Territory Indigenous context, increased capacity to travel has emerged from legislative recognition of Indigenous rights, closures of some missions, expansion of welfare programs, exposure to popular media, and prioritising of education, training and employment. (15) This is in addition to global mobility facilitators such as improved transport networks and access to information and communications technologies. Just how Indigenous people, including the young, in the Northern Territory have responded to the increased capacity to travel is unclear.

This paper argues that an understanding of the impact of events such as the NTER on migration patterns requires knowledge of historical conditions as well as of the actions that people may or may not attribute to the NTER. We are critical of claims by academics such as Altman (16) and Taylor (17) which ostensibly blame the NTER for rural-to-urban migration of large numbers of particularly young male Indigenous people without consideration of historical patterns. Likewise, media sensationalism which blames Northern Territory Indigenous people 'drifting' across the border to take up (unwelcomed) residence in Mt Isa and other Queensland urban centres on the NTER (18) reflects a poor understanding of history. To illustrate, the NT News has reported on the migration of Territorians to Mt Isa since at least the late 1990s, (19) and we have found at least 600 articles in the NT News and Advocate newspapers about the urban drift of Indigenous people in the year 2000 alone. The prima facie evidence, therefore, is that recent observations of rural-to-urban migration represent a continuation of trends of at least ten or fifteen years (one suspects the lineage could be traced much further) rather than an emergence of new patterns of mobility.

The questions of interest to this research include:

* What type of migration (changes in residence) and mobility (short-term migration) patterns have existed between remote/rural and urban centres in the Northern Territory (seasonal, cyclical, residential and so on)?

* Who (largely in...

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