Lest We Forget: The Harmful Policy Legacies of the Northern Territory Intervention

Editor: The fourteenth anniversary of the intervention was met without any coverage in Australia’s mainstream news media. Considering the below, this silence is deafening and damning.

The date 21 June 2021 marks the fourteenth anniversary of the day the Howard government, with Opposition support, intervened in Indigenous affairs and population management in the Northern Territory, deploying its constitutional powers, and its fiscal and military might.

Using the pretext of addressing universal dysfunction in remote Indigenous communities, a national emergency response, the Intervention, was declared, and the government deployed its monopoly over the legal use of force and violence. The privilege of citizenship was erased for remote-living Aboriginal people in seventy-three prescribed communities that had been government settlements and missions in an earlier policy epoch.

The Intervention sought to revisit and amplify a colonial attempt by the Commonwealth in the 1950s to assimilate Indigenous peoples, some then still living at or even beyond the frontier, speaking Aboriginal languages, largely adhering to their own laws, customs, beliefs and values. Government policy looked to reform those with tradition-influenced ways of living into compliant mainstream subjects.

This assimilation project deployed brutality, including the taking away of children and the deliberate destruction of distinct lifeways in the name of Western development. By 1972 the assimilation project was assessed a failure and was abandoned, assumed dead and buried forever as forms of self-determination, self-management and community control became the bases for a more benign and humane approach.

One can debate the so-called outcomes of the new ‘self-determination’ approach from 1972 that was more keenly attuned to global trends to decolonise subjected populations.

But two things are certain.

First, the Australian settler state and society has never given up on an overarching goal to assimilate—now more politely couched as ‘normalising’ or ‘mainstreaming’—remote-living Indigenous peoples. In other decolonising places, assimilation is more bluntly called what it is: absorption (in the United States) and cultural genocide (in Canada).

Second, self-determination was never properly resourced on any equitable needs basis that by reason of fairness took into account historical injustice and extreme remoteness. Despite the passage of the Racial Discrimination Act (Cth) in 1975, the policy approach remained fundamentally racist: Aboriginal people in remote places were treated as second-class citizens, with poor access to all services, including health, housing, education, employment and community infrastructure.

The Intervention set out to eradicate the ‘self-determination’ approach and unleash restorative free-market capitalism on remote places, to be expertly guided by state schemes to modify behaviour and educate and train the workforce.

Having failed once in the Northern Territory, the Commonwealth was back for another go, this time targeting not just individuals classified as deviant irrespective of their local status or behaviour but also targeting communities, kin networks and organisations that had been judged as failures according to the ideological metrics of the powerful.

This was to be a once-and-for all, do-or-die, big-daddy state intervention to eliminate Aboriginal ways and replace them with Western ‘Aussie’ ways. A year later, a national approach was introduced by the Rudd government to measure progress to sameness with unnegotiated, uniform  Closing the Gap statistical targets for all.

Fourteen years on, one looks back sadly at the devastation and havoc wreaked by the Intervention, with contemporary morbidity—long-term ill effects—experienced by many whom the imposed measures were supposed to heal and restore.

People in communities in the Territory have experienced over a decade of discriminatory racist exceptionalism, with state attempts to regulate all aspects of the lives of those deemed unworthy. The main triggers for such an assessment are whether a person is employed (in places where only three in ten adults have paid work) and whether they are seen as conforming to Western ways in the upbringing of their offspring and the maintenance of their households.

A set of disciplinary measures has been put in place, and the only route to liberation is conformity with settler-colonial ways of being. The only option available to those who resist is ongoing exclusion and neglect.

Crude and sophisticated forms of surveillance have been deployed in this biopolitical Intervention: people’s expenditures are controlled and managed with electronic cards; access to welfare is subject to draconian and onerous mutual obligation requirements; school attendance is policed by ‘yellow shirted’ school attendance and truancy officers; community stores are regulated by licencing officers; public housing is checked by tenancy officers; social workers seek out children deemed ‘failing to thrive’ to be taken to risky foster care outside community; and more and more police with extraordinary powers criminalise people for minor offences, many of whom are then sent to prison. These are hyper-regulated places supposedly normalised and opened to market capitalism.

In rehearsing all this surveillance, I am not suggesting that there are no problems. Most communities face massive social and economic challenges. But these are largely the result of poverty and disadvantage that has snowballed after decades of neglect, not a direct consequence of Indigeneity.

What have these cruel attempts at behavioural reprogramming achieved as individuals, communities and their organisations have experienced the intensification of the old assimilationist approach?

In some places there is better physical infrastructure—houses, schools, shops, even swimming pools. Some of this is funded from mining moneys from mineral extraction on Aboriginal-owned lands. And kids are getting better dental services and in many places school lunches.

But all the available official statistics tell us that the behavioural Intervention to assimilate, develop and close the gaps is failing: unemployment is higher than ever, school attendance is lower than ever, poverty rates are higher than ever (more than 50 per cent of people live below the poverty line), overcrowding in public housing is everywhere and—most damning of all—more than 40 per cent of households report running out of food, many living in rich Australia are going hungry, and people are dying prematurely because of poverty.

The intentional destruction of existing institutions has been a disaster for the 50,000 Indigenous people living in remote NT communities. Unfortunately, there is no accountability for this failure and waste—neither for the architects of this approach nor for their political masters. Both sides of mainstream politics are to blame for this abject failure of policy and practice, yet neither side is apologising or seeking the radical change in direction back to self-determination and community control that is so urgently needed.

Instead the national project remains to open Aboriginal lands for mineral exploration and extraction; to train Aboriginal people to be precarious labourers; and to use black capital from the Aboriginals Benefit Account (that holds royalties raised on Aboriginal-owned land) in this risky developmental process.

This ongoing process of extraction is now dressed up as ‘co-design’, the new buzzword alongside old buzzwords like ‘workability’, ‘reform’ and ‘development’. (One is reminded of Paul Keating’s warning in 1995: ‘Beware the whispered word workability’—workability for whom? Development for whom?)

Some of the current approach reeks of indirect colonial rule, Canberra capture and deal-making with northern elites to get its imposed way; some reeks of selective amnesia, a national speciality, overlooking the millions and millions wasted and the harm done in the name of improvement; and some reeks of path dependency and lazy policy-making by governments and a political reorientation to fresh priorities like ‘constitutional recognition’ and ‘Treaty’ by many Aboriginal people and their allies.

Things can and must be better. Paradoxically, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a glimpse of what is possible, as remaining Aboriginal peak and community organisations played the major role in ensuring there were no COVID-19 infections or deaths in remote places. For a time, a combination of COVID welfare supplements and less mutual obligation improved living conditions and allowed the revival of old productive ways. Aboriginal people again mobilised grounded resistance and persistence to live on and care for and live off their country and its natural resources.

We cannot wait another fourteen years, until 2035, before common sense prevails. Intervention measures, now maintained under Stronger Futures laws to 2022, must end.

To conclude on a positive note, it is important that local institutions and political organisations are again empowered so that local voices in all their diversity can be heard. It is time to fund remote places equitably, now perhaps adding compensation for the harm done since 2007 as well as before. As a nation, we need to stop wasting dollars on what does not work—dogged maintenance of Intervention and Stronger Futures failures. Instead we must move to support success that is evident in many places in environmental management, carbon farming, cultural industries and the provision of care. These successes accord with local aspirations and have all been driven by local initiative, effort and (where they have survived) local organisations. The amplification of these successes will benefit all: the residents of remote Aboriginal communities as well as national and global interests.

Note: This is an edited version of a presentation made on 20 June 2021 at a conference called ‘The Endless Intervention: First Nations Speak Out’, convened by the Intervention Rollback Action Group (IRAG) in Mparntwe (Alice Springs) and Stop The Intervention Collective Sydney (STICS) in Sydney.

‘It’s Raining Motorcars’: Mining and the destruction of Aboriginal Sacred Sites

Jack Green, Seán Kerins, 20 May 2021

We were out in Gudanji country, a place some of us older people know well. But we didn’t know where we were. The river had gone, huge mountains of waste rock were piled high in the sky, blocking our view of The Barramundi Dreaming… We were lost in our own country.

About the author

Jon Altman

Jon Altman has a background in economics and anthropology and is an emeritus professor at the Australian National University. He works on practical issues around environmental, economic and social justice for Indigenous peoples in Australia and beyond with a number of not-for-profits. He has been an active participant in the Arena project for 20 years.

More articles by Jon Altman

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Thanks for the article – but the image is bit off-putting, it was taken thousands of miles away at Rottnest Island (Wadjemup) Aboriginal prison (near Perth) 120 years ago.

Hi Bruce,
Thanks for the feedback. Unfortunately due to various different constraints I can only use open source copyright free imagery for Arena Online. Also as visual editor I prefer to be illustrative rather than descriptive. Hope this clarifies things for you.

I like many Aust need to know what happened , I know it wasn’t good & I know indigenous men esp had their voices power dignity removed . The real crime is the actions of a racists liberal gov headed by Howard & co of which many members sit on & cont to profit from stolen land stolen labour stolen lives … Downer & Taylor’s family fortunes sit on the backs of indigenous people to this day ! No apology no compensation no shame in their behaviour & def no change in site ! This disgusting act needs to be documented & broadcast Australia wide.

Jon this article sums up this deeply flawed time in our history aptly. The apathy of our media in this deeply concerning . Thank you to both you and Arena . Australia has regressed as a Nation over the past 30 years again. Thank you for this article and all your work and advocacy in this and more over very, very many years.
In hope that heart and minds of our politicians and wider Australia will learn the truth and act to end ongoing Interventions.
Time is long overdue for mainstream Australia , and our politicians to learn from, and to respect the inherent wisdom of the knowledge holders/ cultural leaders of our lands. And to engage with the people as you so clearly demonstrated in your work for over 40 years with groups.
Has not the profoundly destructive NT Intervention and its ten year strengthened destructive extension (Stronger Futures and Related legislation) , nor the Juukan Gorge destruction in WA last year taught us anything? Ministers continue to plot , to deceive and weaken First Nations human, indigenous and land rights. Hence the deeply concerning WA draft heritage bill and now Minister Ken Wyatt’s plan to again amend the ALRA-NT!! Despite its rhetoric of local decision making , empowerment etc its seems Traditional Owners will be further sidelined and lands freed up for mining and other [government] strategic purposes purposes, communities will get smaller access to the ABA?
Time is long overdue to for politicians , at the Federal level, to work with Traditional owners and Custodians -the cultural leaders and their true representatives- towards an agreements. As our last book, “In The Absence of Treaty” (2013) , concluded,

“In the Northern Territory, the one piece of legislation that has brought some comfort has been the Aboriginal Land Rights
Act of 1976. We have already heard, however, from the Chair of the NLC, Wali Wunungmurra [RIP], of his desire to protect this
legislation from further amendments and from the whims of Government.
It is well and truly time for a government with strong leadership to sit down with Aboriginal peoples from across the country to negotiate the real terms of engagement. The symbolism of the past few years, of the Apology and the Welcome to Country, can never, on their own, be more than hollow offerings. Underlying them is the need to negotiate the just terms of a working relationship, a legally binding contract,
to provide Aboriginal peoples with the certainty required to move forward to true self-determination.
We should not forget that Australia is the only Commonwealth country that does not yet have a treaty with its First Peoples.5” p 55. http://www.concernedaustralians.com.au/media/In_The_Absence_of_Treaty.pdf

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