A turbulent decade has gone by since the coming of the Northern Territory ‘Emergency Response’ (NTER), a policy revolution in the grand style, unveiled in Canberra on 21 June 2007 with high dramatic accents by the prime minister of the day, John Howard, and his keen-eyed aide-de-camp, Indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough. It became known at once as the ‘Intervention’—a project to transform the remote communities of the North. It was designed to be at once rescue mission and remedy for a raft of troubles: the cure for alcoholism, child neglect and passive welfare dependency, a scheme for restoring bush Indigenous men and women to their better selves. High ambitions; heroic-seeming dreams. In retrospect, it is plain enough that the Intervention failed; it failed absolutely, and it failed on its own terms, although, like most failures in Aboriginal policy, it lingers on, diluted, rebadged and refashioned, its key measures still obdurately in place. The reasons for this failure are multiple, and only some of them are well characterised in the debates still ticking over amidst the bureaucratic and academic circles that make remote Indigenous Australia and its well-being the focus of their professional lives. It is clear that the NTER brought chaos, upset and vastly increased levels of administrative surveillance and control in its wake, but much about the project’s long-term impact, during the course of its various incarnations under three successive Commonwealth governments, remains mysterious to its architects. The NTER has gradually taken on the aspect of a colonial endeavour, achieving the precise opposite of its stated aims, for the very reason that colonial endeavours often go astray: they aim to co-opt, and persuade, but the overseers of these efforts at social engineering cannot sense the way they seem to those they aim to change.
The prehistory of the Intervention is itself instructive: complex pressures built the weather for the storm. In 2005, after fifteen years as an Indigenous administrative panel, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) was shut down. This was the signal that the long-established paradigm for the management of Aboriginal affairs, with its vague lip service towards the idea of self-determination, had run its course. Something new was needed to fill the void, and something with a patina of novelty was available, in the form of the manifesto developed by Cape York lawyer Noel Pearson and his advisers, ‘Our Right to Take Responsibility’. This schema eventually bore fruit as the Cape York Welfare Reform Trial, heavily funded by the Queensland and Commonwealth governments, and still in its protracted test phase ten years on. Under this blueprint, which gradually found supporters in the higher reaches of the public service, the key measure for promoting behavioural change was the compulsory management of welfare income. Bush communities were seen by advocates of this approach as zones of deepening crisis, remote outposts ill adapted to the challenges and development opportunities of the present day. A similar view was being advanced in those years by the anthropologist Peter Sutton, whose ideas were eventually codified in book form in The Politics of Suffering. Inter-communal aggression, self-harm and suicide, patterns of violence in traditional Indigenous societies of the past—the picture Sutton sketched out helped solidify a sense that the time had come for increased direction and control of the bush communities spread across the Centre and the North. Various attempts at innovative governance were tried as stopgaps. The Council of Australian Governments adopted a strange reform project that assigned particular Aboriginal regions to individual federal ministers and their departments. A series of ‘shared responsibility agreements’ was unveiled. One of the first focused on the tiny community of Mulan, near Lake Gregory in the Great Sandy Desert: Mulan would receive a new petrol bowser in return for a pledge by its families to meet certain standards of health and hygiene, including keeping their homes rubbish free and washing their children’s faces twice a day. Arrangements of this kind at the Commonwealth level fell far short of revolutionary change, and the Labor government of the Northern Territory was also slow to react to multiplying media reports of child abuse and sexual coercion in the bush. These reports, amplified by accounts of court proceedings and the publicity efforts of social welfare groups, grew into a moral panic. The Darwin government eventually commissioned an inquiry, and entrusted it to Indigenous public health expert Pat Anderson and former director of public prosecutions Rex Wild. The resultant report came with a resonant title, Little Children Are Sacred. Its release was held up for six weeks while the Territory’s political gurus wondered how to spin its findings and extensive recommendations. In fact it would very likely have sunk without trace were it not for the tense little media conference Wild and Anderson gave to mark its launch. Close to the end of these proceedings, in response to a question, Anderson burst out with the phrase ‘rivers of grog’. Rivers of grog flowing through communities! While this was neither especially germane nor especially true, it was enough. Relieved journalists relaxed back in their chairs. The shock headlines were written. The next day, wheels began turning in Canberra, and just a week later Howard and Brough threw everything they had at the Territory’s Aboriginal social crisis.
From today’s position of retrospect, it is the set of assumptions made by the administrative class a decade ago and the resultant package of laws and regulations that bear detailed analysis, rather than the features of the NTER that initially galvanised the press. The use of the Army to roll out the first stages of the Intervention, the brief period when it seemed that checks into the health of children in the bush would be mandatory, the prime minister’s apocalyptic language and the covert war waged between the Commonwealth and the government in Darwin—all this is trivia by comparison with the prescriptions for reform embedded in the NTER, prescriptions that had been brewing for years in the social affairs bureaucracy. First, it was regarded as obvious that things in the bush were on the wrong track and the long-held precepts of remote-community development needed to be torn up. Second, it was assumed that communities could not run their own affairs, and traditional mechanisms of social control had broken down. Third, there was a quiet endorsement of the dark view of community life as a vale of tears, shadowed by grog-fuelled domestic violence and sexual predation. As with all caricatural views of reality, there was a justifying basis for these claims, but they simplified the picture too drastically to serve as a guide to the landscape. The bush Aboriginal world in both the Centre and the North of the Territory had relied on the long-running Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) for both work and funding, and in some regions CDEP was being corruptly run. The condition of children was poor in many communities: there was a pattern of child neglect, and there was abuse of children, then as now. There was inter-familial and inter-communal violence, much of it symptomatic of overcrowding, but that violence came in all four possible permutations: male on male, female on female, female on male and male on female—and only the last of these was consistently placed in the spotlight. Alcohol was widely seen as the fundamental problem in remote communities, but the reality was far more complex: licensed drinking clubs were operating in a number of Territory communities, and they continued to operate through the NTER’s early years; heavy drinking and its associated violence were far more a problem of urban-centre fringe camps than of the bush, and so matters remain today.
To combat the newly highlighted troubles of the Territory’s Aboriginal communities, the Commonwealth struck hard. A ban on drinking, gambling and pornography in remote communities and town camps, the abolition of CDEP and its replacement with new forms of workfare, increased public-sector employment, compulsory management of income for all welfare recipients by means of a ‘BasicsCard’, compulsory acquisition of community areas through five-year ‘township’ leases—these were among the key measures announced in the first flourish of the NTER, costed at just over half a billion dollars. But several of the more consequential changes filtered out with much less fanfare. They dovetailed with a drastic local government reform brought in by the Territory government in mid-2008: under its terms all Aboriginal community councils were done away with, and all Aboriginal-owned local assets were transferred to large, centralised shires. Community housing organisations disappeared from the map; their assets were taken over by Territory Housing, and rents soared sky high. The Coalition federal government, in the course of its last weeks in office, already foredoomed at the looming federal election, soon brought forward a handful of further measures: it gave the Territory bridging funds and handed over all responsibility for the outstations of the desert and the Top End to the politicians in Darwin; it launched a $650-million remote-community house-building scheme, the chaotic Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP). Minister Brough and his cabinet colleagues expressed the fond hope that business investment would now start flowing into the remote regions of the Territory: the idea of long-term leasing on Aboriginal land trusts shimmered into view.
Then came the turn in the wheel of political fortune: at the November 2007 election the Coalition government was swept away. As his first act in parliament as prime minister, Kevin Rudd delivered a heartfelt apology to members of the Aboriginal stolen generation. The atmospherics of Indigenous affairs were transformed, but despite this surface shift, and the introduction of a set of newly minted, idealistic-sounding slogans, the deep policies of the NTER, based on intensified external control and oversight, remained in place. The change of governmental stripe was not, then, a point of inflection so much as an opportunity for consolidation. Here the divergence between the political aims of the NTER and the intent of the departmental mandarins in Canberra comes into focus. Minister Brough had little time to consolidate his venture, and its design changed during the few months he was at the Intervention’s helm, but there seems no reason to doubt his private claim that he expected income management to achieve swift results, and that the entire package of social controls were indeed seen as an ‘emergency response’ of limited duration—a classic ‘short, sharp shock’. The view of the social services and welfare agency leaders was quite different, as their actions made plain. They saw the NTER as a long-haul operation, and built themselves vast control rooms in Darwin and Canberra to oversee a far-reaching reform campaign: economic-reorganisation plan, behaviour-change regime, regional-development push and recalibration of state-funded work programs all rolled into one. Hence a range of measures for the long term made their appearance in the NTER from the outset: new infrastructure was proposed for the larger remote communities, government business managers—more reporting agents than promoters of Aboriginal interests—were brought in, the bizarre campaign to secure ninety-nine-year leases over the Intervention ‘townships’ gathered force.
A question lurks unasked here in the undergrowth: might a strong, short-term Intervention have achieved results? The level of restriction and constraint necessary to shift entrenched behaviour patterns through compulsion was never on the drawing board: it would have been necessary to limit all financial flows into communities, and run them on the lines of mission establishments in the early to mid-twentieth century. Movement controls to prevent passage from communities to urban centres, internal passports, intensive policing to limit alcohol and drug trafficking—it is safe to say that none of these draconian measures were ever on the drawing board. In essence, despite all the sound and fury, the Intervention as it unfolded had the character of an elaborately performed and constantly modulating spectacle. Its greatest impact in its ten years has proved to be not the infusion into the remote world of a new spirit of free enterprise but the insertion of a cadre of long-term supervisors, helpers and program coordinators: these became the shock troops of the new paradigm, brimming with all the tenderness of the administrative state. The actual workings of the control system, above all the ‘BasicsCard’, have proved profoundly paradoxical. In the old dispensation, CDEP, paid locally for labour locally performed, served to tie part-time workers to their communities. The new card, accepted for approved goods throughout the Territory by accredited merchants, had the effect of loosening this bond: it freed welfare recipients to travel to towns where alcohol was freely available, and receive welfare payments delivered electronically into their government-sponsored debit accounts.
But little of the NTER’s effect on the ground could be discerned in the initial media coverage: the shock and the noisy taking of positions by interested authority figures was all the story. With the change of government after six hectic months of initial surveys of remote-community health and well-being by Intervention teams out in the field, the story was transformed into a revised narrative, with fresh points of controversy, and new benchmarks to assess progress. The quasi-military drive to reach and reorder all remote settlements in the Territory became an eager, almost despairing quest for evidence of upturn. ‘Closing the Gap’ was the declared goal. The Intervention had taken on the trappings of social remediation on the frontier, and over the following years it was artfully reimagined by Labor, and refinanced: indeed it grew into an amorphous, uncontrollable enterprise, so shapeless it eventually required a nonsensical new mantra, ‘Stronger Futures’. The program preferred by the incoming minister for Indigenous affairs, Jenny Macklin, was more supportive than corrective in its overt accents. It emphasised the rights of women, and it succeeded in circumnavigating charges of racial bias by a simple expedient: income management’s scope was extended to include all welfare recipients in the Territory, whether Indigenous or mainstream. For the six years that Macklin shaped and oversaw the NTER it became a Labor program, decked out in progressive rhetoric, and this transfer across the political divide blunted some of the radical critiques aimed at the project. It also generated one of the more peculiar features of the enterprise: there was suddenly a pressing need for the government to secure Aboriginal assent to the coercive control regime—hence a frenzy of consultations designed to achieve this goal. Local opinions now mattered. The media version of Indigenous sentiment since the first days of the NTER had been sharply etched: a few familiar, fluent spokespeople gained prominence as the voices of remote communities, and their positions tended to be strongly partisan, whether in favour or against. In truth, Aboriginal men and women in the prescribed communities of the Territory held, at first, a range of nuanced views on the Intervention. To the extent it can be gauged, the evolving pattern seems to have been quite consistent across regions and groups. Initial apprehension, low-key hopes for additional resources and infrastructure, patient anticipation of some concerted set of programs to improve the quality of daily life—these were all common enough, alongside a pervasive sense of frustration, helplessness and disempowerment, but feelings shifted in slow, subterranean fashion as the policies and personnel revolved and the years went by, and they have now settled into a different kind of mindset, darker, and harder for the outside world to read. The longing in political circles for Indigenous support naturally placed a premium on opposition, and lent strength and purpose to anti-Intervention protest initiatives, on the radical Left, in the pro-Aboriginal archipelago and in the social-sciences academe. But the most paradoxical beneficiaries of the sudden elevation of remote-community Aboriginal affairs to national priority were the veterans of the Indigenous leadership—almost all from non-traditional Indigenous backgrounds. Outrage was their default stock in trade, and this in turn made the handful of contrarians who saw potential merit in the Intervention valuable dialogue partners for the government of the day. Warren Mundine established his reputation as a social conservative through his support for the NTER’s headline goals. Melbourne University’s Professor Marcia Langton became an aggressive public advocate of increased protections for remote-community Indigenous women. Cape York’s Noel Pearson, as the legitimising patron saint of intervention schemes and licensed explainer of Aboriginal affairs in the columns of the Australian newspaper, emerged as a force in the ideological contest under way.
Once it became clear that the NTER was going to endure, the next stage was inevitable: the program took on a life and quality of its own, and became a self-sustaining ecosystem. Facilitators, managers, experts, community-development specialists and health and culture workers in their hundreds revolved through a sequence of remote posts from Docker River in the Petermann Ranges as far north as Croker Island off the north coast of Arnhem Land and Bickerton in the Gulf of Carpentaria, filing reports to each other and on each other’s performance. Funds flowed for a wide range of activities and schemes designed in the vague hope that increases in social cohesion might result, and the lion’s share of those funds went to pay the salaries of public servants and consultants, rather than on programs with impact on the lives of Aboriginal men, women and children in the bush. Many studies of the mid-period Intervention have been prepared, both by the mandarinate and by independent investigators. The episode has even helped enliven a newish discipline, the anthropological study of departmental bureaucracies—and surely no fieldwork has ever uncovered a potlatch system quite so strange to outside eyes.
In passing over these years in brief review, a look at what the different principals believed they were doing helps light the way. The Darwin Labor government, which had been placed in the dock by Brough and Howard, and brutally skewered for its failure to advance the interests of the bush, now saw a chance of redemption, and a means to boost its regional development plans and budget at federal expense. It defenestrated its long-term chief minister, Clare Martin, on the day after Rudd’s national electoral triumph, and replaced her with the vapid Paul Henderson. The Territory was given carriage of key NTER programs: extra Commonwealth money began pouring in, and a good percentage of the flow was simply diverted into the Darwin treasury as ‘management’ fees. The chief exhibit here is the flagship housing program, which failed to build a single house in its first year of operation, had by its midpoint demolished more bedrooms than it had built, and had by its end mushroomed into a profit centre for several interstate conglomerates. Grotesque fees shelled out to consultants, quiet backhanders in the subcontracting daisy chain, unchecked overcharging, shoddy workmanship, ill-conceived designs—this was the Northern Territory’s SIHIP in all its glory. The results are evident on the ground: Aboriginal families in many remote communities still live twenty to a home today, after a series of further, even more costly programs, and maintenance standards have become abysmal—a little detail that in itself does much to explain the persistence of poor health, domestic tensions and bad school results. One can inspect the handiwork of the Intervention era’s high-cost house-building campaigns in the new suburbs of communities like Wurrumiyanga on Bathurst Island and Angurugu on Groote Eylandt, and despair: straight streets, identikit bungalow-style houses, all the charm of communist-era residential blocks in Irkutsk or Krasnoyarsk.
In Canberra, the public service elite persisted with their own long-term agenda of intensifying control in the remote bush. The new desire at the political level to soften the Intervention was in conflict with the wish of the welfare bureaucracy to maintain and strengthen its coercive aspects: the result was a growing disparity between the propaganda aspects of the NTER and its ground-level processes. Aboriginal men and women soon realised that large sums were being spent on housing and facilities for the new overseer population in their midst. There was a reason. The bureaucrats wanted to strengthen a select number of larger communities, and set them on the road to becoming functional regional townships and administrative centres, their new infrastructure safeguarded by long-term leaseholds over Aboriginal land. Less viable, so-called ‘non-growth’ communities could be left to wither on the vine. To achieve this aim, old, inefficient economic structures needed to be recast, in much the same way that local councils had been expunged from the map. Aboriginal-owned stores, which had been precious supplementary assets for revenue-poor communities, were no longer in favour: instead, an entity known as Outback Stores and supported with Commonwealth money appeared on the scene. Behaviour change through preparing men and women for ‘workforce readiness’ was seen as a high priority; training specialists fanned out across the bush and signed people up. And there was a need to generate more active participation in the overt forms of community life. Non-government organisations received large, continuing contracts to provide social-support services. Art impresarios were funded to advance projects that might improve communal resilience, cultural vitality, well-being and health. Remote-community existence came to be punctuated by the morning arrival of white LandCruiser fleets bearing consultant armies keen for meetings to justify their travels in and out.
Federal Labor also pursued its own agenda, and positioned itself with anguished care. It had come to power with its options on the Aboriginal policy front severely constrained. Rudd and Macklin had backed the Intervention: they kept the NTER going partly from conviction, and partly out of fear of being painted as ‘soft’ on child abuse or of being accused of abandoning the communities of the bush. They tinkered endlessly with the new part-time local work schemes they had inherited from Brough. They created hundreds of publicly funded posts. They expanded Indigenous ranger programs. They agonised over details, and left the great levers of state control intact. This was an unpersuasive stance: yes to Intervention and its goals, but in a gentler, more palatable fashion. Their approach ended up satisfying no one: not their own engaged and committed cadre of idealists, who saw the NTER as a dreadful abrogation of Indigenous rights; not the enthusiasts of the new paradigm who believed concerted measures were the only way to achieve results. This dilemma intensified the keen desire in government for proof that the redesigned Intervention was working: for quantifiable, statistically tabulated outcomes. Were children eating properly and going to school? Was less alcohol being consumed, was domestic violence on the decline? The NTER was reviewed, and so were the reviews; the prime minister’s annual ‘Closing the Gap’ report card began as an Intervention initiative, intended to report on progress in improving Indigenous life conditions as measured by a range of formal, government-fixed targets. Rudd gave the first annual presentation of the figures to federal parliament in 2009, and the ritual has unfolded every year since: an empty ritual, since the statistics for all Indigenous Australians are now bundled together and thus serve to mask the true condition of the remote Aboriginal world.
That world was no longer as cowed or as passive as it had been in the early Intervention years. When the 2012 Northern Territory election came round, the Labor government in Darwin was, to its great surprise, thrust out of power because of a landslide swing against it by Aboriginal voters in remote-area seats: a vote against the Intervention and against the local government reforms that had drained all power and sense of autonomy from the bush. The new Territory chief minister, Terry Mills, was a centrist figure at the helm of a Country Liberal Party with a long tradition of indifference to Aboriginal interests. Mills made the bush a high priority, set up a close dialogue with Indigenous communities, and laid plans for a new compact between the government in Darwin and its Indigenous supporters. Within seven months he was gone, ejected by a redneck cabal. Aboriginal votes swung back hard against the conservatives at the first opportunity. It was clear by this stage, after years of experiments and controls and continuing amendments to coercive policies, that the community people who had been the intended beneficiaries of the ‘revolution in Indigenous affairs’ had little remaining faith in either side of politics.
Media interest in the Intervention and public faith in the possibilities it held for change both declined at pace during Labor’s hectic time in power. Even though the Intervention’s core measures were kept in force by extending legislation, new themes became prominent. In June 2011, Julia Gillard went to Yirrkala on the Gove peninsula of North-East Arnhem Land to mark a mining agreement. There she gave prominence to the goal of recognising Indigenous people in the Australian constitution—an initiative that was swiftly taken up and came to predominate in debates on Aboriginal policy, the cultural-symbolic domain being much safer ground than any focus on infrastructure or communal well-being in the bush. The attention of urban-based Indigenous spokespeople began to turn away from intervention schemes and their management: these, after all, were complex ventures with no triumphant end points in sight. What was needed at this juncture was a new model, an innovation in governance structures, a scheme to test out and study, and the ideal blueprint was coughed up on cue by the brains trust of the Cape York Institute: the ‘empowered communities’ proposal. Empowered Communities began life as an opt-in scheme for Aboriginal regional groups to club together and find pathways to economic development in concert with advisers from the network of the Productivity Commission, but it evolved along familiar lines into a well-funded trial program, elevating a disparate group of state-funded local Indigenous organisations as vanguard forces for change.
A further turn in the relationship between the Commonwealth government and the remote communities inland and in the Top End came with the election in 2013 of the conservative Tony Abbott as prime minister: the first prime minister who had made personal engagement with traditional Indigenous society a feature of his public life. But Abbott, like all prime ministers, had to delegate, and despite his attempts to strengthen his bond with the remote world by spending a week each year running the country from a bush community, he was the captive of his counsellors, and was guided towards a handful of grandstanding initiatives designed to buttress the Intervention’s initial goals. As his minister for Indigenous affairs Abbott chose Nigel Scullion: a strange pick, given that Scullion was closely linked to the reactionary regime in the Northern Territory. As assistant minister he chose Alan Tudge, a former management consultant who had done a stint at the helm of Noel Pearson’s schemes in Cape York. Abbott set up an Indigenous advisory council, and commissioned a review of Indigenous training from the mining entrepreneur Andrew Forrest. The resultant document, which wandered far from its formal remit, sang the praises of income management. Its key recommendation was the blanket introduction of a healthy welfare card, a steroid-enhanced version of the standard BasicsCard that had been in use in the Territory for six years. Trials of the new card were set up in Ceduna and the Kununurra region of the North Kimberley, and the standard flow of governmental propaganda releases and media ‘exclusives’ promoting the trials and their first supposed successes began. Overall responsibility for Indigenous affairs passed to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Abbott gave his public servants a special goal to pursue: ensuring that Aboriginal children in remote bush communities went to school each day. Substantial resources and funds were devoted to this task; attendance figures, largely fictive, were collected and pored over. Scullion himself could be found in the field trying to round up children and direct them back to their classrooms, remote-community support teams were enlisted and paid to ensure a good roll-up every day—all to no great purpose: both attendance levels and test results remained poor. At the apex of the administrative machine, Scullion, guided by the bureaucracy, launched a wholesale redesign of the funding architecture for Indigenous programs. Fresh changes to the welfare and work-for-the-dole schemes in place in the bush communities were unveiled, and led to the revised ‘community development program’ currently in force. This new iteration of the ground rules for remote-community existence came into effect just as Abbott was turfed out of office, to be replaced by a prime minister much less caught up in the cause of Indigenous advancement, and just as the Department of Social Services in Canberra released a comprehensive, devastating overview of income management in the Territory. It was a striking document, and there is no good reason to gainsay its statistics, which coincide with subjective testimony. It concluded that the regime set in place with the 2007 Intervention had not promoted economic independence, and had not built skills or capabilities in remote communities and Aboriginal settlements, nor had it changed the pattern of spending on food, tobacco or alcohol. Rather, it had increased dependency on welfare payments and stripped away from the men and women covered by the program any incentive for personal management of their affairs and lives.
What can we conclude from this comedy of errors? The detailed social targets and economic-advancement plans of Commonwealth and Northern Territory policymakers remain unfulfilled. The push to build ‘growth townships’ worthy of the name in the remote bush has stalled. The constant workfare and welfare-system reforms have left the affected Indigenous communities impoverished, dispirited and full of resentment. The panic over sexual abuse of children, chief pretext for the 2007 ‘emergency’ declaration, has wholly receded from public attention, but the picture of restless, poorly schooled, vulnerable teenagers brought up in pulverised communities in the bush remains unchanged. The Intervention’s measures to control drinking have been a decade-long joke: the police patrol dutifully, but they have no idea how much contraband alcohol is being smuggled into the Territory’s towns and surrounding outposts, and grog is more yesterday’s and today’s than tomorrow’s problem. Chronic marijuana use is sky high among the younger generations in both town camps and communities, in both the tropics and the desert. The few attempts to estimate the scale of the problem point to a pandemic. Drug seizures on access roads and at island airports suggest a voracious and unchecked demand, supported by a seamless supply.
It is a bleak scorecard. Few of the principals and interest groups in this saga emerge with much credit—and a brief survey of the NTER in its relentless drift and evolution over the time span of the past decade can only begin to hint at the ineptitude of the venture, the poverty of imagination in its design and implementation, and the scarcely veiled profiteering at its heart. It was trumpeted as a new beginning, a project to constrain behaviour, the better to advance the interests of those its dictates controlled—but so stifling was the weight of bureaucratic management that the wider horizon of the promised future never came into view. The die-hard Indigenous supporters of the NTER failed to grasp the fate their advocacy condemned them to, as noisy controversialists in the wider Australian world of debate, and figures without credibility among their own people. In the great social services departments of Canberra, those charged with running the operation’s various phases never worked out what policy levers to pull, at what time and in what sequence, and never had to face any consequences as a result of this epochal failure. The government ministers who launched and prolonged the operation swiftly gave up any serious hope that it would transform the bush, and gradually lost their belief that remote-community Aboriginal people were capable of change. Politicians on both sides of the ideological divide resorted to spin, misleading press releases and manipulation of the media in a bid to stave off serious press coverage—all the persuasion techniques of modern advertising came into use, so much so that nothing a government source in either Darwin or Canberra puts out in regard to the affairs of remote Aboriginal Australia can now be taken on trust. Meanwhile the national media, initially obsessed with the atmospherics of the NTER, soon dropped off their coverage of the process, and eventually abandoned their commitment to intensive reporting of remote-area Aboriginal life. As for the class of the progressive intelligentsia, readers of journals like this one, their offence is twofold. Before the Intervention, in the long unravelling of the welfare era, their silence in the face of bush Aboriginal society’s ongoing troubles and their unwillingness to identify and highlight the social pathologies at work in remote Indigenous communities was itself a form of tactful complicity, a conspiracy of piousness; after the Intervention came, it was government, and government alone, that was the target of their energetic outrage at a time when clarity of thought, calm public advocacy and constructive moral vision were what was needed.
Large-scale transformations were under way in remote Indigenous society as the Intervention’s measures were imposed. It dovetailed with those deep-seated trends, it altered them, it exacerbated them. Their unchecked advance is the true legacy of the past decade. Whatever modicum of goodwill existed between the remote Aboriginal world and central authorities vanished after June 2007—for the NTER’s system of controls paid no heed to the distinctive emotional climate of the bush, nor to the positional impact the measures being imposed might have. In remote communities, with their frontier history and their shared memories of previous dispensations, from the mission and ration station times through to the ATSIC period, the NTER seemed just another policy reversal—something being done to them by unaccountably vast and serried outside forces, for reasons that were never especially clearly articulated, with aims that shifted repeatedly over the years. Despite all the consultations and attempts at cooperation made by the NTER’s various agents and administrators, this reaction predominated: it lay unspoken inside the answers to every survey question, it hovered on the edges of every conversation and every community meeting. For those whose lives were disrupted—even, paradoxically, if they were disrupted with some positive effects—the new order was just another chapter on the frontier, just another demonstration that the precepts of Aboriginal tradition never change, while everything in Australian governmental law is mutable. What had been given in past times, various slight forms of local autonomy—over councils, housing, local business enterprises, even if only in token fashion—could be, with the best of declared intentions, taken away. This was clear, this was the import of the initial measures of the NTER. The upshot was a kind of patient indifference, a mood of waiting, of gradually developing resistance—but a resistance defined by inertia rather than by protest, a resistance without words, an attitude or inclination more than a strategy or stance. This mood explains why nothing much has changed, in the Northern Territory bush, in Cape York, or in the various regions of Western and South Australia where spin-off versions of the 2007 Intervention have been tried: there has been no revolutionary awakening because no one’s consciousness has been changed. Resistance can take many forms. It reaches far beyond failing to send children to school, to attend training courses or work for the dole: self-neglect, indifference to ill health, stupefaction and self-harm are its shadowy outer provinces, where the personal and the political join hands.
This internal emigration under way across the Aboriginal Territory has wider consequences. Traditional Aboriginal groups, whether in Central Australia or the Top End, have been under pressure ever since contact times: missions, welfare regimes, external influences and mass media and communications have been the solvents of profound change. How to absorb influences and at the same time preserve the belief-world one’s language and past incarnates: this has been the challenge for the bush, and it has played on the minds of some post-colonial administrators as well. The Intervention, which flooded the remote world with outsiders, brought disruption at a new pitch of intensity. It had the character of a command: here is the economy of the wider world, merge with it, assimilate to it. This dictate served to disrupt whatever adaptations to outside forces had been taking place. Though no one likes to countenance the thought, the last few decades in Aboriginal affairs, devoted though they have been to preserving traditional culture, have been a time when tradition and even its memory has been passing away. A profound shift in the national imagination is the chief result: the category of the Aborigine has changed. The Intervention, by infantilising the bush, and helping to spread the idea that traditional-accented communities were violence-plagued and atavistic curios, did great damage to the image of classical desert and northern culture: the NTER years coincided with the collapse of the market for traditional Indigenous art, and formed a component part of the decline in prestige accompanying that collapse. A generation ago, the image of the bush Aborigine was primary—as symbol, as bearer of Indigenous cultural authority and authenticity, as the figure standing at the national history’s first page. Today things are different in ways that are difficult to discuss, largely as a result of legal sanction, the rise of identity politics and the new gradient in Aboriginal demographics. There are now more than half a million Australians in the regions and the cities who identify as Indigenous and are of non-traditional background, as against 100,000 or so bush Aboriginal people living in remote areas who speak an Indigenous language as their mother tongue. This larger Aboriginal population’s members are increasingly well educated; their concerns are with history and the remediation of dispossession, with cultural and constitutional reform and with the claiming and securing of economic and political power. They now define the category of the Aborigine: to be Aboriginal is to be post-traditional, of complex descent, to be desirous of concessions and rights from Australian society, and recognition and a status of authenticity above all. The rise to power of this majority has inevitably had the effect of eliding and marginalising the remote Aboriginal world, which only lingers on as a set of islands in a stormy sea of state surveillance and controls, subjected to the outside eye in every sense. The working through of these deep transformations is the truest legacy of the Intervention decade.