NT Intervention: Australia

Aboriginal children at mission

The “intervention” into indigenous people’s lives in the Northern Territory, Australia, deserves more international attention than it is receiving; and given its continuation of a way of ‘managing’ aboriginal populations that has dark eugenic resonances, is also relevant to the ‘what sorts of people should there be?’ project.

The intervention was introduced by the previous Howard government when its approval ratings were flailing prior to last year’s election, in what can be seen as a last ditch effort to raise the prejudice, fear and hatred that won him the election in 2001 (just on the heals of September 11). The action involved creating a state of emergency in remote aboriginal communities, and then deploying the army and ad hoc teams of social workers, doctors, and bureaucrats into the area to examine children for signs of sexual abuse. It also has led to the quarantining of welfare payments, bans on liquor and pornography, and (perhaps more controversially) the suspension of what little self-determination indigenous people had in this area, such as the permit system (more about this below).

Apparently in response to a report commissioned by the Northern Territory government, “Little Children Are Sacred“—a report which detailed and proposed solutions to endemic hardship suffered, especially by children, in remote communities of the Northern Territory (sexual abuse being just one of these hardships)—the government called a state of emergency in these communities. Focusing only on sexual abuse and ignoring poverty, the Prime Minister said to Australia that this situation was “our Katrina“.

(Perhaps this rather bad-taste comparison was an attempt to indicate the critical nature of the situation, and that, like a natural disaster, it was “no one’s fault”—certainly not the government’s. In actual fact, the simile indicates that, as with the New Orleans delta, the situation of remote aboriginal communities was a disaster waiting to happen, and largely the result of governmental neglect and class/racial discrimination)

The intervention, as it turned out, was not a rapid response to the “Little Children” report, and ignored most of its recommendations (which addressed poverty and disadvantage)—in many instances going directly against them. And as Rebecca Stringer’s article on the intervention suggests, the government’s actions conduce more to a devolution of land rights and racial discrimination laws than a genuine attempt to address the problems of these communities.

Indeed, the ‘permit system’—which enables aboriginal communities to decide who comes onto their land; and who has contact with their children—was the first thing to go, and as events transpire it is fairly certain that this only benefits mining companies, not the children it is said to protect.

What’s more, however, the approach taken by the government appears to be continuous with the colonial paternalism that, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, saw governments systematically remove aboriginal children from their parents in the attempt to “assimilate” them into the community, both culturally and racially. And here comes the eugenics angle: this assimilation was connected to a program of breeding out of aboriginality, whereby indigenous people needed permission to marry, and marriage was decided with a view to watering down black blood. It is hardly surprising that in the present context—and with the stolen generations still in living memory—many aboriginal mothers, upon hearing about the intervention, took to the hills to hide their children, just as their mothers and grandmothers had done before them.

Along with these measures, a system operated such that aboriginal wages were kept in trust accounts largely inaccessible to their rightful beneficiary (except in the form of ‘pocket money’ doled out—and often rorted—by authorities at their own discretion). So the quarantining of welfare benefits can also be seen in this light.

Although the present government apologised to the stolen generations on its first day of business, there has been no attempt to dismantle the NT intervention measures. Indeed, a committee reviewing the situation has been stacked with pro-intervention stakeholders. It would seem that the intervention is too convenient for governments (and the business interests they wish to appease) to want to reverse.

After the apology, there is a unique opportunity to address systemic injustices suffered by aboriginal people in the NT and elsewhere. The present policies, however, are only deepening the divide between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia. It is therefore critical that people remain interested and vocal about what is happening in the NT, both within Australia and internationally.

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8 thoughts on “NT Intervention: Australia

  1. I’m not sure why anyone would think I am suggesting a conspiracy. Far more mundane than that, I’m afraid. Simply, there is a conflict of material interests between remote aboriginals and government, and governments have a far greater ability to skew things in their own interests. This is why academics and journalists should scrutinise what they do.

    Furthermore, ideology (not conspiracy) has a profound influence upon how indigenous people in Australia are perceived. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to find patent overtones referring to a Hobbesian state of nature, for instance, in John Howard’s own rhetoric (see Stringer’s article for a reference to this speech).

    So, Iain Hall, please give us a break: all suggestions of mutual interests between government and business do not equal conspiracy theory. There’s a difference between criticism and paranoia.

  2. I must admit that I am surprised to find that you are up and about at this time of the morning Joanne, (but that is an aside )

    I’m not sure why anyone would think I am suggesting a conspiracy. Far more mundane than that, I’m afraid. Simply, there is a conflict of material interests between remote aboriginals and government, and governments have a far greater ability to skew things in their own interests. This is why academics and journalists should scrutinise what they do.

    I suspect from the nature and tone of this piece that you are one of those academics who are essentially arguing that indigenous people are some sort of cultural artefact to be preserved in the aspic of apartheid like separation from mainstream Australia. The problem is that such separation, so beloved by the left, is to a large extent what has underpinned so much of the abuse in remote communities, nothing has helped this more than the regressive permit system that you praise in your piece. No doubt you would have been more than happy to denounce the pass laws in South Africa, well to my mind the effect of the permit system is no less pernicious.

    Furthermore, ideology (not conspiracy) has a profound influence upon how indigenous people in Australia are perceived. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to find patent overtones referring to a Hobbesian state of nature, for instance, in John Howard’s own rhetoric (see Stringer’s article for a reference to this speech).

    Mother hood statements are easy Joanne, solutions are harder. I don’t give a toss about “Hobbesian state(s) of nature” the bottom line is that children are being abused, and there is no future for any of the remote communities if the people do not find a new reason to get up in the mornings other than a search for the bottle or the bong. For all of your criticisms of the intervention it is clearly working, children are starting to go to school sales of nutritious food has risen as the consumption of grog has declined the “rights agenda” has been shown to be the distraction that it clearly is. People are finally willing to admit that some remote communities should be allowed to close and people should be encouraged to move to larger centres where there are work and eduction opportunities. The future for indigenous Australians is not as exhibits in an open air museum, where they can be studied and patronised by academics or gawped at by tourists, it is along side other Australians in every walk of life and any where that their talents may take them.

    So, Iain Hall, please give us a break: all suggestions of mutual interests between government and business do not equal conspiracy theory. There’s a difference between criticism and paranoia.

    It is not I that should be giving anyone a break Joanne, it is left leaning academics (not unlike yourself) who want to go of on ideological cavorts that essentially want to pigeon-hole indigenous Australians and limit them to the roles and situation that are consistent to the vision of aboriginal people as ‘noble savages” or victims of “white oppression”
    I could go on but I have to rouse my children soon and prepare them for school but please feel free to read any of my pieces about indigenous issues.

  3. Iain Hall said:

    … but please feel free to read any of my pieces about indigenous issues.

    Why would anyone bother reading a blog where only approved persons can comment?

  4. Ingo
    only your first comment has to be approved you are just being silly to complain about what is the normal practice on most wordpress blogs.
    Cheers
    Iain

  5. Iain,

    Virtually all of the blogs I happen to read (and trust) have an open comment policy. But I admit that my experience may be misleading as to what ‘normal’ commenting practice across all blogs is. I prefer acceptable or recommendable practices over normal practices anyway.

  6. Ingo,
    since January 2007 there have been 43,557 spam comments posted to my humble blog that have been stopped by the Askimet software and If I did not maintain the policy of enabling the “first comment must be approved ” policy all of them would have had to have been manually removed. The purpose of moderating that first comment is to ensure that a commenter is genuine and not some scumbag trying to sell Viagra or penis enlargement. I have been blogging for several years now you are the first person I have come across who seems perturbed by the prospect of being asked just once to be checked out before being given free access to comment. In fact I think that I had to wait for the blog owner here to approve my first comment and I bet you did too (unless you are a member of this site).

  7. Pingback: NT Intervention National Day of Action « What Sorts of People

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