Paddy Gibson looks at how the ruthless imposition of Intervention measures in the NT has undermined resistance, and what this means for the future
The NT Intervention (Northern Territory Intervention Response, NTER) was launched by Liberal Prime Minister John Howard just before his final election campaign in 2007. It was an attempt at a final dispossession, to sweep away the “Aboriginal problem” and to bury the idea Aboriginal self-determination.
Throughout his eleven-year term he promoted conservative historians fighting “history wars”, denying the frontier massacres and the Stolen Generation.
Howard argued it was the failings of Aboriginal people themselves, and their refusal to assimilate into “mainstream” culture and the market economy, that were to blame for the third world conditions in many communities.
In the NT where the Commonwealth can exercise direct control he planned to smash Aboriginal organisations and disperse Aboriginal communities living on their land. He ripped up the Land Rights Act. He announced the abolition of CDEP, an employment program employing 7500 Aboriginal people, which had been just enough to keep remote communities functioning.
Once again, Aboriginal people were to be subject to a protectionist regime controlling their lives and forcing them to assimilate.
When the Intervention first broke, very few in Australia’s progressive institutions were willing to openly denounce it. The Labor Party capitulated, voted for it and then expanded it when they took office in 2007.
Howard mercilessly exploited the emotive issue of child abuse to silence, or stifle, any criticism.
A open letter to Minister Mal Brough initiated by the Australian Council of Social Services and signed by 60 organisations on June 26 2007 said, “we welcome your commitment to tackling violence and abuse” while meekly noting “in their present form the proposals miss their mark and are unlikely to be effective”. The letter called for more “consultation”, but not for an end to the Intervention or for Aboriginal control.
Many Aboriginal communities themselves however, seeing what was at stake openly resisted the NT Intervention from day one. Within a week, Aboriginal women in Alice Springs led a protest rally that burned a copy of the legislation.
Their resistance won support from both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal activists across Australia. An Alice Springs meeting of a new “National Aboriginal Alliance” which included left wing Aboriginal leaders from the eastern states such as Michael Mansell and Larissa Behrendt slammed the plan as an “invasion”.
After Labor’s election in November 2007, there was a national call for a rally in Canberra. On February 11 2008, the day before Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generation, more than 2000 people marched from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy to Parliament House protesting the Intervention. This was one of the biggest rallies for Aboriginal rights since the 1988 Bicentenary march.
City-based committees such as the Stop the Intervention Collective Sydney saw that the battle over the Intervention had significance far beyond the NT. Across Australia, a serious fight was needed to challenge the Intervention and the impact of racism on the political system. The power of wider social forces outside isolated NT communities would be crucial to actually beat back the Intervention.
In 2008 there was a series of public forums and street demonstrations as Labor conducted a “review” of the Intervention. A convergence in September 2008 featured a meeting of the “Prescribed Area People’s Alliance” (PAPA), with more than 100 delegates from Aboriginal communities living under the Intervention issuing a statement for full repeal of the laws. Five hundred people marched through Alice Springs, the biggest protest in Central Australia since the 1970s marches for Land Rights.
A complaint by PAPA regarding the Intervention was upheld by the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
But by 2009 however the Intervention was well and truly entrenched. CDEP cuts and the abolition of local government councils had seen thousands of jobs lost and millions of dollars of community assets confiscated.
The “review” had found widespread evidence of discrimination and misery under the Intervention, but Labor did not budged an inch. Government Business Managers sat safely in compounds on formerly Aboriginal land.
More than 15,000 people had been given a new BasicsCard to control their Centrelink payments, and confine spending to particular shops. The groundwork was in place to ensure that the new political order would continue long after the 5-year “sunset clause” attached to NTER legislation.
Central to this was forcing Aboriginal communities to sign “voluntary” 40-year leases that would last beyond the compulsory leases imposed by the NTER. The government first moved against the Alice Springs town camps, represented by the Tangentyere Council.
Tangentyere had successfully resisted a pre-Intervention ultimatum from the Howard’s Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough. But Labor’s Minister Jenny Macklin was more ruthless, threatening to compulsorily acquire the town camps forever unless Tangentyere signed a 40-year lease.
The anti-Intervention campaign gathered significant institutional support for Tangentyere. A statement condemning the Intervention and Macklin’s attack, “Keep Aboriginal Housing in Aboriginal Hands”, was endorsed by a wide range of trade unions, welfare and Aboriginal organisations and published in The Australian newspaper in September 2009.
But even at this crucial point, very few of these organisations called their members to protest. Aboriginal Land Council’s could have put hundreds of streets, but preferred to “box clever” and not risk government funding. Reconciliation Groups circulated emails, but made nothing like the effort seen for the “bridge walk” in 2000.
Tangentyere eventually signed over the town camps, “with a gun held to our head” as Executive Director William Tilmouth described it. After Tangentyere fell, other major remote communities followed.
Nonetheless the campaign continued to fight. In 2009, hundreds of people from the community of Ampilatwatja staged a “walk-off”. They set up a protest camp on traditional grounds just outside of the NTER leased area. Senior Alyawarr leader Banjo Morton said at the time, “They had us penned there like bullocks in a yard. We needed to step outside of that yard and stand up”.
A trade union backed work-brigade traveled to Ampilatwatja, working with the local community to construct a house at the protest site. This was the first house built on Aboriginal land for Aboriginal people since the Intervention in 2007. It also began to rekindle solidarity networks with the unions that had historically played a central role in the fight for Aboriginal rights.
In 2010, Aboriginal workers being paid on the BasicsCard addressed stop-work and other union meetings in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.
By 2011, when the Labor government proposed a series of laws called “Stronger Futures”, organisations ranging from ACOSS to the Catholic Church condemned them. In the NT communities, people used the Stronger Future “consultation meetings” to express their anger. The Yolngu Nations Assembly released fiery statements that galvanised online support, including a petition of more than 40,000 signatures, “Stand for Freedom”, against Stronger Futures
But there was still no sign that the broader forces now clearly opposed the Intervention were prepared to force an open confrontation with the government that was needed. Many NT leaders became demoralised. The last anti-Intervention rally held in the NT was in June 2011, with the Prescribed Area People’s Alliance leading a crowd of 300 people through the streets of Darwin.
Conditions getting worse
Since the Intervention there are more than twice as many NT Aboriginal people in prison, more than twice the number of children are being removed, the unemployment rate is worse, third world health conditions such as trachoma and glue ear are rife, self-harm incidents have increased five fold and there has been no let up in the horrific rates of domestic violence.
There are no new houses outside sixteen “hub towns”, and even here these have made barely a dint in chronic overcrowding.
Removing publicly funded community development programs has not led to a booming market economy; it has just left people to rot in deeper poverty. There has no massive increase of Aboriginal jobs in the mining industry, but there has been a slow drift of even more people into overcrowded camps in urban centres where many are caught in cycles of homelessness and alcohol abuse.
The Intervention has increased the prominence of Aboriginal spokespeople willing to embrace punitive policies and corporate “solutions”. Noel Pearson, Marcia Langton and Warren Mundine have been joined on the national stage by NT Aboriginal Liberal politicians like the new NT Chief Minister Adam Giles and Bess Price.
In the 2012 NT election, the Country Liberals ran on a platform of restoring community control over local government and ending neglect of small communities and outstations. This cynically tapped the deep anger in NT communities at the process of reform since 2007—but it was enough to sweep them to power on the back of Aboriginal votes.
In power the Country Liberals have meted out even more brutal Intervention-style punishment, putting 100 more police in urban areas, establishing “mandatory rehabilitation”, criminalising Aboriginal drinkers and slashing the budget of support services.
The oppression confronting Aboriginal people across Australia has intensified since the NT Intervention.
There is deep anger amongst many grass-roots Aboriginal activists at the hollow symbolism of “constitutional recognition” being pushed by the government as the next great hope in Indigenous affairs.
A dogged fight against the national expansion of income management continues to keep the severe discrimination faced by Aboriginal people in the NT on the agenda.
We can’t say which issue will be the focus of the next wave of struggle for Aboriginal rights. But the lessons of the campaign against the NT Intervention will be crucial for that fight. The legitimacy of the “new assimilation” represented by the Intervention is in tatters. But the fight for Aboriginal self-determination needs to find ways to break through.