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The intervention in context

Peter Billings (ed.), Indigenous Australians and the Commonwealth Intervention, special issue of Law in Context (Federation Press, Sydney, 2011)

Published: 5 Sep 2011

The Howard Government’s 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER), colloquially described as the ‘Intervention’, will form a major landmark of our country’s history in the 21st century.

To many such as me, it will be yet another dark chapter of Australia’s history and a classic repetition of the major mistakes that have plagued the relationship of the white community and the first Australians since the arrival of the First Fleet. To others it may have different connotations. What is important is that it be evaluated on the basis of evidence and not assertion, or the pursuit of short term political interests that so often cloud consideration of the issues.

This collection of essays achieves that object. It is true that the contributions do not come from apologists for the Intervention, but at the same time the tone is cool, credit is given where it is due and the arguments of those apologists are to be found within.

Most contributors concede that the objects of the Intervention evolved from a genuine concern to bring about a change in the relationships of Government and the Aboriginal community for the eventual benefit of the latter. While some, including me, may have doubts about that, all agree that the situation of most Aboriginal people in the NT in 2007 was completely unsatisfactory. However with some minor exceptions in relation to particular aspects of the Intervention, the authors say that there is little evidence that the Intervention has improved the situation and there is a considerable body of evidence that in most areas, it has either not improved it or has worsened it. This makes it more difficult to understand the Labor Government’s stubborn persistence in maintaining it.

Those who question why this is so appear to be unanimous in the view that the fault lies in the failure of successive Governments to appreciate that real change cannot be brought about by politicians and bureaucrats in Canberra or the NT, fuelled by polemicists such as Hughes and Johns, or people representing but one strand of Aboriginal opinion. The message that emerges from these essays is that unless and until the Australian and State and Territory Governments stop merely consulting Aboriginal people in the NT and instead bring them and their leaders into the decision making process as equals, any Government initiative will inevitably fail.

The tone of the essays is set by Peter Billings’ introduction and the evocatively titled first article by Tom Calma, “The Northern Territory Intervention-It’s Not Our Dream”. Calma provides a useful historical survey of the events surrounding the Intervention and what has followed and makes the point that one of its worst aspects was the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act.

In one stroke Parliament, by doing so, converted the Aboriginal citizens of this country into second class citizens and revealed the shallowness of the guarantee of racial equality provided by the RDA. This is something that should not only concern Aboriginal Australians but all of us.

Billings and Cassimatis are similarly critical of both Governments’ behaviour in relation to the RDA and the attempt by the Labor Government to preserve aspects of the Intervention as ‘Special measures’ upon the basis of questionable consultations with the Aboriginal people.

As Crowe points out in the final essay, while the Act does not form part of the Constitution, it is a law that Australians have come to rely upon as a bulwark against arbitrary and excessive Government actions.

Calma makes the point that the three elements of good Indigenous policy making are a human rights approach, Indigenous participation and government accountability to demonstrate the success or otherwise of measures taken. He says that the Howard Government and its successors have failed all three of these tests.

He and other writers point to the almost uniform condemnation of the Australian Government’s policies by UN and human rights bodies and individuals. This seems to be something that does not worry the major Australian political parties other than the Greens, but I for one feel very uncomfortable when my country behaves like an international pariah. The resulting damage to its international standing and capacity to influence human rights issues is immense.

In their chapter Arney et al document the shift in the thrust of the Intervention from preventing child sexual abuse to addressing Aboriginal disadvantage and the issue of neglect of Aboriginal children. As Thalia Anthony points out, statistics for child sexual abuse in the NT have been steady since 2003 with a slight decline in the rate of successful prosecutions

This is not surprising as the spectre of extensive child sexual abuse and paedophile rings so heavily relied upon by the Howard Government has proved to be a myth about as credible as its ‘children overboard’ myth in relation to asylum seekers.

The sad irony of the Intervention as documented by Anthony is that the major effect of additional policing has been  the increase in imprisonment rates of whites and Aboriginals alike for driving offences a number of which carry with them mandatory penalties of imprisonment.

Thus the focus of the Intervention has shifted from child sexual abuse to unlicensed drivers and unregistered vehicles. At the same time the already unacceptable level of imprisonment of Aboriginal people is driven higher in a Territory where imprisonment rates increased by 23% between 2006 and 2009 and where 82% of the prison population are Indigenous. These are shocking figures and the absurdity of how the Intervention has exacerbated this situation is evocative of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

These figures make a mockery of the need for increased police powers and the involvement of the Australian Crime Commission in the Intervention.

Marcelle Burns deals with the issue of Indigenous homelands which raises the troublesome issue of what the Intervention was and as continued by the Labor Government is, really about.

Burns view, which I share, is that successive Government policies towards homelands forms part of a wider neo-liberal agenda intended to destroy the culture of Indigenous people and convert them into typical ordinary dwellers living in an Indigenous version of market driven suburbia.

She argues that what amounts to the forced relocation of residents from homelands into some 20 designated settlements embodies an economic rationalist approach to Indigenous people at the expense of their rights under the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other international instruments, which Australia purports to support.

She refers to the resemblances between the Labor Government’s Closing the Gap policy and the Howard Government’s approach to Indigenous policy, with its emphasis on statistical equality over protecting and promoting Indigenous peoples’ human rights. This is mirrored by the NT’s Working Future policy of reducing education services in remote areas in order to force Indigenous people into larger communities.

Another example of this broad and sinister design not dealt with in this essay relates to the leasing by Government of Indigenous land by way of long term leases of land held by traditional owners in return for the provision of housing and services, the cost being paid by Indigenous people themselves out of mining royalties.

A number of contributors deal with the vexed question of income management, introduced as part of the Intervention and continued by the Labor Government in modified form. Arney et al refer to the Pearson led ideology behind this scheme. They and others are highly critical of the lack of effective evaluation of the program.

Billings and Cassimatis comment that the law and policy prescription applied in the NT, particularly to income management, has treated people as simply incapable of acting responsibly, irrespective of personal circumstances.

The authors point out that the Labor Government’s ‘consultations’ have been marked by their lack of transparency regarding summary reports and quantitative data and that these have been used to justify its income management scheme. They also suggest that there are instances where income management will actually promote, rather than reduce individuals’ dependence on state control, a point also made by Crowe in the final essay. They are critical of its blanket application to ‘disengaged youth’ and long term adult welfare recipients upon the basis that it is punitive and runs contrary to the universal right to social security. They are also critical of Government approaches that purport to set one set of universal rights against others, in this case the rights of children against that universal right.

Finally, in a broad philosophical discussion of the Intervention, Crowe examines the role of social space in enabling humans to live meaningful lives as applied to the Intervention.

He suggests that the lack of consultation and reliance on Anglo Australian law in response to criminality and socio-economic problems in remote communities has troubling colonialist overtones and that the substitution of the Government’s vision of Indigenous welfare for the views of those affected is a form of ‘epistemological violence’.

He says that Indigenous people must be able to shape their own space if it is to be meaningful and this requires a genuine commitment to self determination that is lacking from the Intervention. He uses income management as a particular example of pushing them into narrower spaces in which to live and controlling their lives thereby reducing their opportunity to live full and meaningful ones.

This contribution is a fitting note to end this series of essays which should give pause to the Federal and NT Government in making plans for the future of Indigenous people in Australia.

Alastair Nicholson was a barrister in 1982-88, Chief of the Supreme Court of Victoria in 1982-88, Chief of the Family Court of Australia in 1988-2004 and is currently a professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne. He has written and spoken widely on human rights issues.