Intervention motives more serious than mining

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Opponents of the NT Intervention have long maintained that its initial, stated aim—to protect Aboriginal children from sexual abuse—was an emotive smokescreen. So what is the real agenda, asks Paddy Gibson

The Australian Crime Commission, with extraordinary interrogation powers, reported in July that no “pedophile rings” operated in communities. The government’s own reports clearly show deteriorating conditions for children (see opposite page).
So what is behind the Intervention?

Many on the left propose an easy answer—the Intervention is  a land grab for mining companies.

Prominent journalist John Pilger has promoted this view, “The Territory contains extraordinary mineral wealth on Aboriginal land… (the Intervention) has all to do with open slather uranium mining and converting the NT into a global nuclear dump”.
Attempting to disarm their critics, Labor is actually planning to ban mining on land acquired through the Intervention. But they can do this because the Intervention has never been about mining.

Land takeover
The Intervention took out compulsory 5-year leases over Aboriginal land, creating “Prescribed Areas” where Intervention powers apply.Intervention laws have not give mining companies more rights over Aboriginal land--their agenda is assimilation

But leases are restricted to townships and do not extend out over the vast tracts of Aboriginal land that contain prized mineral deposits. The suspension of the “permit system” (which Labor has introduced legislation to reinstate), also only applied to the townships.

Mining companies gained no greater rights through the Intervention. They still need permission from Aboriginal landowners to explore or mine on Aboriginal land and must undertake these negotiations through appropriate Land Councils. The integrity of these processes had already come under attack through ammendments to the Land Rights Act passed in 2006.

Some have pointed to the sharp spike in mineral exploration taking place in the NT as evidence that the Intervention is about mining.
In 2007/08, money spent on uranium exploration in the NT jumped from $30.1 to $34.9 million, or 16 per cent. But in Queensland there was a jump from $9 to $24.2 million and Australia wide the rate of increase was 48 per cent. Increases were a result of the mining boom, and industry hopes of a “nuclear renaissance”, not the Intervention.

Pilger also claimed, “the government appropriated Aboriginal land near Tennant Creek, where it plans to store nuclear waste”.
But the land at Muckaty station earmarked for the dump continues to be owned by Aboriginal people through the Muckaty Land Trust. The government has secured an agreement with a tiny minority of people on the land trust, exploiting the poverty of the community by offering a $12 million package.

This analysis doesn’t deny the ruthlessness of the mining and nuclear industries. From the Angela Pamela uranium deposit near Alice Springs to the growing fight against plans for the Muckaty dump—people are fighting back and need solidarity.

Slashing services will increase the pressure on already desperate communities to strike deals with these industries, or look to others such as tourism. But Intervention laws serve a more serious and insidious purpose.

Assimilation
The appalling conditions facing Aboriginal people in Australia have long been a source of international embarrassment and domestic resistance.

John Howard vigorously blamed Aboriginal people and culture for these problems, arguing that “self-determination” had failed and that the only future lies through the market and assimilation into urban society.

This helped to entrench a more general “blame the victim” mentality. It also went hand in hand with his white blindfold side of the history wars that claimed Australia was settled peacefully and child-removal policies were necessary for “progress”. Such “white Australia” nationalism is crucial for promoting both the founding myths and ongoing legitimacy of Australian capitalism.

Rudd is forging ahead with Howard’s agenda. A self-serving consensus has consolidated among Australia’s elite that “the Aboriginal problem” can only be “solved” through forced assimilation.

The 5-year leases have been used to break up Aboriginal controlled service organisations, impose market solutions and pressure people to move into “economically viable” communities.

Authority and resources for community administration has shifted from community councils to Government Business Managers.
All the housing stock in remote areas has been transferred from locally controlled housing committees to the “mainstream” NT public housing agency.

The Intervention promised new housing—but now nothing will be built until 40-year township leases are signed.

And only a handful of communities—20 “hub towns”—are being offered any new housing, or increases in funding for basic services. Both NT and federal governments are attempting to force people living in hundreds of remote settlements to leave their lands and join the “mainstream”.

Bi-lingual education programs are being dismantled, as poor educational outcomes are blamed on Aboriginal languages, rather that criminal government neglect.

Macklin is promising to re-instate the Racial Discrimination Act and potentially soften the blanket welfare quarantine. Regardless of this, the core Intervention objective—eliminating “the Aboriginal problem” by smashing Aboriginal organisations, demonising Aboriginal people and forcing migration—will remain.

This is not the result of lobbying by the mining section of the capitalist class—the ideologically driven, racist attacks aim to shore up the legitimacy of Australian capitalism itself.

By Paddy Gibson

Website Comments

  1. Bob Durnan
    Reply

    Paddy
    You have made some good points here. However, picky as ever, I just want to point out a few significant errors.
    When you claim “Slashing services will increase the pressure on already desperate communities”, to what are you referring? If anything, services have been greatly increased by the Intervention. What evidence do you claim supports your contention? (If you mean the deterioration in housing maintenance services, this would be wrong, as the transfer of the old community councils’ housing assetts to the new Shires and then the NT Housing dept is not really part of the Intervention, as it was planned by the NT Govt well prior to the Intervention and I don’t think it was at all enabled by the NTER legislation.
    Similarly, it puzzles me when you claim that “The 5-year leases have been used to break up Aboriginal controlled service organisations, impose market solutions and pressure people to move into “economically viable” communities.” In Central Australia at least I can not see any evidence that would validate these contentions. What Aboriginal-controlled organisations have been broken up by the 5 year leases, or by other NTER initiatives for that matter?
    Finally, the statement that “Authority and resources for community administration has shifted from community councils to Government Business Managers” is not correct. The old community councils’ “authority and resources” have shifted not to the GBMs, but rather to the staff of the new Shires, which are a parallel but largely unrelated phenomenon. (The GBMs, who are generally much more community-development oriented and supportive of community control than the Shire managers are, are generally very frustrated by their lack of ‘authority and resources’ at their disposal to get things moving in the communities).
    The passing of the community councils is entirely unrelated to the NTER legislation and processes.

  2. Paddy
    Reply

    Thanks Bob,

    I don’t think the problems you point to are really “significant errors”. They stem more from having a very tight word limit (750 fits on a page of the magazine) to communicate a quite complex concept about the motivations of the Intervention.

    Unfortunately there wasn’t space to provide examples or pick up on the point you make about the local government reforms replacing community councils with the mega-shires. Some explanation of the shires was in an original draft but couldn’t fit in the final cut. I’ve got a bit more space here to pick on on some things that I agree would be good to clarify.

    I disagree that the community councils stuff is “entirely unrelated” to the NTER. I am not saying there is any conspiracy operating here. I know these reforms had been planned for many years. But an NT government committed to rationalisation and hostile to local autonomy used every opportunity to consolidate the introduction of the shires through the NTER.

    For example (as the article says) – the transfer of responsibility for the housing stock from locally based committees to the the shires used the mechanism of the 5-year lease (the SIHIP section of the NT Housing website told me this, and it was confirmed in an interview with a SIHIP media rep). The government simply took control of the buildings, gave them to NT housing, who are starting to impose market rent, have totally neglected their responsibilities and have fobbed off some administrative processes to the Shire.

    Similarly with the question of authority and resources. I know a number of stories about the conflict over closure of community council offices where the GBM played a key role – changing the locks, posting the notices about no access etc.

    In Tara, it was the GBM who oversaw the bogus ‘house painting’ program, where people were promised proper wages, worked for two months, and ended up getting paid “work for the dole” with bush-order ration boxes.

    The GBMs have become the ‘go to’ people for government and other major agencies in communities, usurping the role of local authority. That’s their explicit brief in the legislation. My impression from talking to people in communities is that the GBMs have a more well resourced and consistent presence in many communities than shire officials do. Ampilatwatja is a prime example. They have been kicked out of their offices, hardly ever see the shire, but the GBM has an office and all communications are directed to them.

    What Aboriginal organisations have been broken up using the 5-year lease? The housing organisations for a start. The threat of compulsory acquisition that comes with the 5-year lease has been used to massively pressure Tangentyere to essentially sign its own death warrant with the 40 year lease to the Federal government. While we differ on political questions of merit, surely you can’t argue that the 5-year lease is, by definition, not a massive attack on the concept of self-determination?

    “slashing services to desperate communities”?

    The Intervention gutted CDEP jobs that provided important services for many communities. The documentary by Julie Nimo for example shows how it impacted on community patrol services in Katherine. People employed through CDEP on outstations around Tennant Creek are about to lose those jobs which will have a big impact on their capacity to stay on country. Labor have somewhat stemmed the bleeding, but are going to put all remaining CDEP people on the BasicsCard and transfer control of the money away from community organisations.

    I do agree that its not primarily Intervention laws that are gutting services (though they confer powers which allow this to happen) – this comment was more made in reference to the homelands policy, which many people are rightly interpreting as an attack on their ability to remain “viable” and which will increase pressure to do deals with corporates to stay alive.

    It is pretty hard to deny that there is a general policy approach operating in remote communities which is about “mainstreaming” and essentially bleeding people into leaving. Why is SIHIP only building housing in a select number of places despite overcrowding everywhere? Why the oustations policy? Why not replace all the CDEP jobs with proper wages and services?

    If you don’t believe me, check out the Bennelong society website – who’s celebratory conference featured Mal Brough and Sue Gordon and see what they’ve got to say about remote communities. This is the ideology informing the intervention in its purest form.

  3. Bob Durnan
    Reply

    Paddy
    Yes, I fully realise that you were writing about the motivations for the Intervention, but in journalism (even when you are subject to severe space restrictions) I believe it is much better for writers to aim for lucidity and the conveying of accurate information rather than taking short cuts with too much compression. This especially applies in Indigenous affairs, as most of the readership has enough difficulty following the relatively esoteric debates about complex issues in remote places already, and many readers seem to make wrong assumptions when deprived of the detailed facts in a discussion.
    However, you have a point in relation to my use of the phrase “entirely unrelated”. I probably should have said “only marginally related”.

    I am less inclined to back off on my comment on the GBMs. Although there have been some (fairly isolated) cases of authoritarian behaviour by a few GBMs, on the whole they have been consultative with communities and helpful to community aspirations. I think you may be the victim of misinformation when you claim there have been “a number of stories about the conflict over closure of community council offices where the GBM played a key role – changing the locks, posting the notices about no access etc.” In each of the disputes of which I am aware concerning control of community council offices during the change-over period, it was Shire workers, possibly assisted by NT Local Govt staff in one instance, who changed locks and put up notices, and the GBMs seemed to stay well out of it. There were not very many of these kinds of disputes, and having now rung around some reliable contacts in other communities, it seems like nobody around here has heard of GBMs doing this kind of thing.

    On the house painting program: these projects were contracted to the private providers who had the contracts to deliver the WfD (Work for the Dole) program. So privately owned outfits such as ITEC and CEA organised them and organised payments. The work of the private providers was overseen, in the bureaucratic sense, not by FAHCSIA’s GBMs, but rather by DEEWR’s Community Employment Brokers (CEBs). So the GBMs don’t deserve the guernsey of opprobrium for any deficiencies in this program (which admittedly was – in some cases at least – a very poorly judged, designed and delivered effort) . In fact, I would be surprised if many of the GBMs didn’t share some concerns about the ways that WfD projects have (or haven’t) been delivered.

    Next up, you claim that “The GBMs have become the ‘go to’ people for government and other major agencies in communities, usurping the role of local authority. That’s their explicit brief in the legislation.” Well yes, they have taken on a badly needed co-ordination role, trying to co-ordinate the greatly increased traffic of service providers, researchers and others into communities, but this is not carried out in any authoritarian way, and does not mean that they are usurping all local authority: they spend much of their time consulting with local leaders and managers about all kinds of issues to guide them in the performance of their co-ordination roles.
    They do not over-ride the roles or decisions of the Shire managers, including the locally based Shire Services Managers and Shire Advisory Boards, but they do consult these people about all kinds of issues on a constant basis.

    Then you say “My impression from talking to people in communities is that the GBMs have a more well resourced and consistent presence in many communities than shire officials do. Ampilatwatja is a prime example. They have been kicked out of their offices, hardly ever see the shire, but the GBM has an office and all communications are directed to them.”

    This is wrong. GBMs have just themselves and one co-worker, if they are lucky, as many don’t. The locally based Shire Service Managers generally have a workforce at their disposal, varying in size according to the community, and have much better offices, communication equipment and accommodation then the GBMs and CEBs.

    I suspect that your example from Ampilatwatja can be explained by the fact that your informants spend very little time in the community, whereas the locally based Ampilatwaja Shire Services Manager lives in and spends much of his time in the community, and is usually available when people need to talk to him. He, not the GBM, uses the old community council offices, which are controlled and used by the Barkly Shire. The local Shire Services managers live in the communities and operate from the old community council offices, and are available to talk to community members about their concerns most of the time.

    The GBMs live and work in tiny rooms in demountables, along with most of the visiting service providers.

    Now to the Tangentyere question: you say “What Aboriginal organisations have been broken up using the 5-year lease? The housing organisations for a start.” Well, this is not true. Which “housing organisations” have been “broken up”? Certainly not Julalikari, Ingkerreke, Tjuwanpa, Urapuntja, Kalano, Tangentyere, or any of the smaller incorporated housing associations that I am aware of. Most of these seem to be thriving, with massive new contracts for maintenance &/or CDEPs &/or employment and training functions, particularly Tangentyere. By the way: neither Tangentyere itself nor the town camps are subject to the 5 year leases, although the town camp leases are categorised as “prescribed communities”.

    You say that “The threat of compulsory acquisition that comes with the 5-year lease has been used to massively pressure Tangentyere to essentially sign its own death warrant with the 40 year lease to the Federal government.” As explained above, 5 year leases have nothing to do with this one. There are none involved with the town camps leases, as they are not on Aboriginal inalienable freehold title land.

    I would argue “that the 5-year lease is … not a massive attack on the concept of self-determination” if I had time. I would put a case saying that it is a necessary, relatively small and defensible change to the Land Rights Act, carried out in the interests of the vast majority of local Aboriginal residents, who are generally not local traditional owners. If it provides for compensation for the small number of traditional owners who are affected by it, it is not an inordinate asssault on self-determination per se.

    Re “slashing services” and the role of CDEPs: I can’t pretend to be up to date with all the details of the CDEPs, but I do know that a lot of them have been resurrected, most being delivered by new “providers”. Judging by DEEWR’s poor performance in designing and overseeing the earlier CDEP and WfD changes, including a seeming inability to monitor and supervise their successful tenderers to deliver what they were supposed to be doing, I would not be at all surprised if there are considerable problems associated with these current changes in some instances at least; and this could well be affecting some service delivery.

    I am not denying that “there is a general policy approach operating in remote communities which is about “mainstreaming””, and I do not agree with many aspects of this trend. However, I think that it is incummbent on all of us to try to get our facts straight when publishing material about what is going on.
    Cheers
    Bob D

  4. Paddy
    Reply

    Bob,

    Some of the legalistic detail in my response might have been off. Aboriginal control of the town camps is undoubtedly under attack – I thought that is was the 5-year lease which gave the government the power to do this. It appears as though the zoning of “prescribed area” under the legislation is enough. Regardless, the Intervention legislation provides the govt with a range of sticks with which to beat people.

    You claim the 5-year lease is ‘in the best interests’ of communities. Why do leaked documents from the Ministers department then advise AGAINST formal consultation about the 5-year lease, because they knew people wouldn’t give the government the answers they wanted? Why do they think there is a ‘significant risk’ it won’t stand up to challenge under the RDA? http://www.nit.com.au/story.aspx?id=18137

    Footage of General Charlmers speaking to a crowd at Yuendumu in the early days was instructive for me. One of the biggest sources of anger was the 5-year lease. When challenged Charlmers said that the purpose of the 5-year lease was to allow the government to get housing built quickly! Looks pretty bogus now 2 years on and threats of nothing until a 40-year lease is signed.

    As we’ve already established, the 5-year lease has helped take control of millions of dollars worth of housing stock away from housing associations. I don’t know what you consider to be ‘thriving’, but having many workers slogging away to be paid half with ration cards (the end result of the changes to CDEP) and losing the decisive role in decision making I think are a steps backwards.

    Individual GBM’s might be the nicest people in the world, but the position is undoubtedly an authoritarian one. They arrived with, or soon after the army, built compounds surrounded (in the many cases I have seen) by barbed wire and have extraordinary powers. We could trade anecdotes about GBMs all day (the clinic at Santa Teresa wasn’t visited for the entire first year for example), but in many interviews I’ve done there is a strong sentiment that GBMs are a return to the days of welfare or mission managers. I’m sure there were plenty of nice hard working welfare managers as well, but the existence of these positions at all was predicated on the idea that Aboriginal people are second class citizens. If the intention was just to find “co-ordinators” far more could have been done to involve local people and you wouldn’t need coercive powers which have relied on the suspension of the RDA.

    Its the political differences which are starting to matter most Bob (and slandering people who are campaigning AGAINST the forces of “mainstreaming” in national newspapers is a funny way to express your disagreement with the trend), so I feel the exchange has reached the end of its usefulness.

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