Once a month the Murdoch-owned Australian newspaper publishes a business-affairs supplement called ‘The Deal’. The May issue was dedicated to what it called ‘The new agenda: celebrating indigenous success’. Across forty-eight pages a series of short, upbeat, public relations–style reports spruiked Indigenous business ventures, start-ups and individual entrepreneurs. Sponsored by the Commonwealth Bank of Australia and the Business Council of Australia, the magazine included some heavy promotion of the federal government’s Indigenous Procurement Policy as well as giving Andrew Forrest space to advance his own review of Indigenous jobs and training and the credentials of his Fortescue Metals Group. The Deal’s vision of a newly staked trajectory for Indigenous persons via individualised, capital-led transformation coincides with significant media attention to the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Mabo decision, the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 referendum and the culmination of Indigenous people’s caucusing on constitutional recognition at Uluru in May 2017. The passing of another anniversary has however been strikingly absent from these liberal progressive celebrations: the tenth anniversary of the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER; the Intervention).
In June 2007, the Howard government’s declaration of the NTER put small remote communities squarely in the national spotlight as places and populations requiring intensive governmental attention. What commenced as a set of spectacular pronouncements and actions to urgently attend to concerns of child welfare quickly expanded into a raft of measures with far-reaching consequences, including the transformation of land-tenure arrangements, the introduction of a new income-management regime, and the disbanding of the CDEP scheme. The Northern Territory government subsequently introduced a series of large-scale changes in the same spirit, replacing community government councils with regional shires and ending its already limited support of bilingual education. Thus a dramatic political event morphed quickly into a cross-jurisdictional shift in policy approach, one that was consolidated over time with bipartisan support. While signs of this shift had been observable over a longer period, the Intervention paved the way for the comprehensive application—at least at the level of intention—of neoliberal principles to the bush. Places known as ‘communities’ with culturally distinctive ways of life were now to be addressed as ‘prescribed areas’, then ‘towns’, with individuals in need of reform.
The Intervention gave rise to a remarkable spurt of government-funded activity, much of which did not directly involve Aboriginal people but rather went on around them. To look briefly at just one example, housing: community housing associations, where they still existed, along with local workforces, were generally overlooked in the launch of an unprecedented national partnership agreement that injected $2 billion into housing construction and refurbishment over the course of a decade. At the outset the goal was to reduce residency rates from an average of 10.7 to 9.3 persons per house. Recent reporting suggests that this modest reduction in overcrowding will only be achieved with a significant further injection of funds and an expansion of the building program. Current budget projections include no funding beyond 2018. An additional $500 million was allocated to Territory Housing just to build capacity to manage the properties—a luxury never contemplated for Indigenous housing organisations—with a new punitive regime of tenancy agreements geared towards transforming residents’ ways of dwelling. A barrage of legal complaints was lodged against Territory Housing for its failure to attend to a multitude of reported housing malfunctions.
In 2007, the then minister for Indigenous affairs and the Intervention’s most vocal champion, Mal Brough, ran a high-profile media campaign to generate interest in an individual-home-ownership scheme echoing the ‘white picket fence’ sentiments of his leader John Howard. A sum of $100 million was allocated for loans, $25 million to build forty-five privately owned houses, and $10 million to administer the scheme. The program had the capacity to offer 460 loans. It stalled and was defunded in 2010 after securing the interest of a mere fifteen aspirant homeowners. In this and other areas, the Intervention unfolded as a messy conjunction of vigorously pursued ideological campaign, profligate waste of very substantial sums of public money, mismanagement of programs, and, for Aboriginal people, cycles of hope, disappointment, resistance and despair.
Already limited opportunities for employment and meaningful activity in small communities were further substantially reduced by the disbanding of the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme as well as wider cultural shifts in the running of community-based organisations. In place of community-based work programs, welfare-dependent residents were now subjected to unprecedented levels of surveillance by inter-governmental agencies. Income management was the first step in a wider suite of punitive arrangements applied to the unemployed. Where life in the bush once allowed Aboriginal people some degree of relative autonomy, and indeed the possibility of establishing places and activities beyond the reach of government, today such spaces of hope are difficult to find. The comprehensive intent of the new surveillance landscape is marked by the building of new police complexes, Centrelink offices and residential compounds in larger communities to house the ever-growing volume of work generated for their expanding and extensive bureaucratic machinery.
Surveillance is nowhere more intensely practised than in the arena of child welfare. In this issue of Arena Magazine, Thalia Anthony writes of the Intervention’s ultimate chilling paradox: though it was ostensibly launched to ensure better care of children, ten years later child removal and detention have become institutionalised at unprecedented levels. Over the past decade rates of youth detention have doubled; for female youth they have increased almost tenfold. Revelations of the brutal maltreatment of children at Don Dale triggered a Royal Commission enquiry, but any implementation of recommendations will be unlikely to touch the ‘tough on crime’ approach that has swelled the NT prison population. In 2016 the incarceration rate hit a fifteen-year high, the highest per capita rate in Australia, with 1 per cent of its population—more than 85 per cent Indigenous—behind bars.
In the dramatic shift in mainstream media representations that has accompanied this intensification of coercive governance, remote communities are now depicted as places of endemic violence and suffering. Such images legitimise governmental decrees that suggest better lives are to be found elsewhere. Yet when people from the bush arrive in regional centres such as Alice Springs they often face a hostile reception. They are commonly singled out for special attention by police, on the streets, in the Todd Mall and riverbed, in cars, and in shopping centres. Increasingly people from the bush are also drawn to more distant metropolitan centres like Adelaide for a variety of reasons. If they stay on for any period of time they are likely to end up in state-sponsored housing in outer suburbs, where rates of welfare dependency today are nearly as high as in desert towns.
In the aftermath of the Intervention there has been a profound shift in the terms of national attention to Indigenous affairs, and ultimately in the very ‘category of the Aborigine’, as Nicolas Rothwell observes in his detailed, devastating chronicle of the last decade in Indigenous policy. If the Intervention was an interregnum, a dramatic moment of flux and chaos between shifting policy paradigms, what is most strikingly displaced in its aftermath is any vision of Aboriginal communities as places that sustain distinctive, valued ways of life and where futures might be optimistically imagined and creatively pursued. Joe Morrison recalls the despair created by the pathologising of Aboriginal culture and customary law, the vilification of Aboriginal men, and the degradation of sacred sites that followed.
In the displacement being effected by this most recent phase of governmental fiat lie echoes of earlier state projects of assimilation and integration. But there are larger processes at work here—the displacement of hunter-gatherer dispositions and ways of relating by more abstract forms—that have greatly accelerated over the past decade. This contradictory set of processes commenced with the establishment of government settlements and missions, with their twinned impetus to extend welfare and security to Aboriginal people while cultivating new subjects who would relate differently to their environment and to each other. It is a process that has gathered pace with the commodification of country through the regimes that open sacred land to mining and transform relationships among owners of that land; and through the nation-building projects that consolidate these processes. It is a process further fuelled by the introduction of broadcast media and digital communications that supercharge the pace of life in bush communities, promote images of hyper-consumerist lifestyles to be pursued elsewhere, and support new kinds of hypermobility.
The past decade of punitive governmental attention to remote communities coincides with the passing on of many of the last generation of men and women who knew a radically different way of life outside of the settlements and missions. The loss of their knowledge and authority is very keenly felt as bush communities struggle to imagine and pursue activities that might revitalise their distinctive ways of relating to places and to each other. Reading these developments through the prism of the ‘creative destruction’ of the homelands movement, Jon Altman is moved to describe government intentions and actions as genocidal. Some will find this description highly provocative. However, in a recent submission to a government enquiry former Liberal Aboriginal affairs minister Fred Chaney and retired senior bureaucrat Bill Gray themselves criticised Commonwealth policies as ‘designed to drive Aboriginal people to the towns and the cities’ with assimilationist intent.
The vision of commercial success promoted by the Deal is the new face of Aboriginality in Australia. Here metropolitan cosmopolitanism is no longer understood as one outcome among a varied set of historical, locational and personal experiences but rather as the only game in town. In her editorial in the last issue of Arena Magazine, Alison Caddick considered recent writing that identifies the emergent conditions of capitalism’s collapse. In such volatile times we are led to believe that exceptional opportunities for advancement are within reach for aspirant Indigenous entrepreneurs. Yet the destabilisations of the present are leading some Indigenous activists to make an inverted observation, namely, that economic and environmental precarity means that we all now share the experience of being Aboriginal. These equally alarming visions shield from view the particular experiences of creative destruction and the distinctive cultural orders that are at stake. Attention to both is vital if those communities, as well as our own, are to envisage viable futures.