It is no secret that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are one of the most disadvantaged groups in the world. Indigenous peoples have a harder time gaining employment, accessing quality education and healthcare, experience higher rates of incarceration and have a much lower life expectancy than non-Indigenous people. The blatant racism and discrimination experienced by Indigenous peoples is perhaps best evidenced by the implementation and extension of the Northern Territory National Emergency Response, or the ‘Northern Territory Intervention’ as it is known colloquially. Implemented by both the Labor and Liberal governments, it focuses on the control of Indigenous communities. I will refer to these policies and measures collectively as the ‘Intervention’.
The Intervention was catalysed by a series of Lateline stories by Tony Jones, uncovering what he believed to be a paedophile ring in Northern Territory communities, accompanied by extremely high rates of child sexual abuse. In response to the uproar caused by these allegations, the Northern Territory government commissioned the Little Children are Sacred report. The published version of the Little Children are Sacred Report contained 91 recommendations to address issues of child sexual abuse in Northern Territory communities. Less than a week later, Howard called a press conference. As I’m sure you can imagine, it was long winded, with journalists demanding to know how the government would address the findings of the report. Howard claimed that Australia was facing a national crisis; and that it was the responsibility of the Federal government to enforce order and propriety in Northern Territory communities. The Northern Territory National Emergency Response policy was the proposed mechanism for achieving this.
And so, the invasion began. Freedom was taken away and replaced with a 21st century state of paternalism.
Soon after the policy was announced, the Federal government suspended the Racial Discrimination Act and Land Rights Act. While Intervention defenders claim the temporary suspension of these acts were necessary to implement these policies, I would argue that a policy that calls for the suppression of fundamental human rights should be seriously questioned. Many asserted that Intervention was introduced as a means of control and assimilation – and reflecting on its documented effects, it is difficult to argue against the:
Increased police presence and control in Indigenous communities; Community Development Employment Projects funding cancelled and projects dissolved; The rate of male incarceration has double and female incarceration has tripled; Families have been forced to sign over their properties to the Commonwealth government and pay rent to continue to reside in their family homes; Removal of customary law and cultural practice considerations in the sentencing process of the legal system; Blanket ban on alcohol and pornography; and Compulsory income and welfare management plans and ‘Basics Cards’.
The funds that have been funneled into the income management system are arguably better spent on improving health care, community centres and education programs. These initiatives are an effective way to address issues identified by the Intervention and Stronger Futures policies, as opposed to the oppressive, intrusive, paternalist state that has been implemented instead.
It appears that Abbott is continuing his previous governments’ mistake of neglecting to consult with communities and elders before implementing polices for Indigenous peoples. The majority of Indigenous communities and elders have long campaigned for self determination and Indigenous control over Indigenous issues, but the Abbott government perpetuates the tradition of ignoring this. Instead of taking the opportunity to reduce excessive funding to policing Indigenous communities and redirecting it into sorely needed community projects, the government has increased funding.
Barbara Shaw, an Alice Springs resident whose community has been affected by the Intervention believes “It’s the old assimilation policy back again, to control how we live.”
To date, over 20,000 Indigenous peoples have lost their jobs due to the cancellation of Community Development Employment Projects and Aboriginal Community Government Councils. Shaw also observed that Public Housing officers (who are really no more than glorified police wannabees) have replaced community initiated and controlled Night Patrols that previously occurred. She believes that the presence of these officers has not had a positive effect and it is easy to see that their function is not to serve and protect, but serve as a constant reminder that Indigenous people have been made prisoners in their own homes. There is much community disapproval towards this policing and particularly towards the blanket ban on alcohol. Any Indigenous person found in possession of any alcohol is subject to excessive on-the-spot fines and possible incarceration. In order to properly enforce this policy, police powers have been increased to allow entrance to a person’s house at any time and without consent or warrant to search for alcohol. Signs throughout Alice Springs listing the prohibition of alcohol have been vandalised in dissent, signs now sporting phrases such as “More Sorry Bullshit” and “Stop the Racism”.
It was revealed late last year that since the Intervention was rolled out, there have yet to be any prosecutions of sexual abuse. Despite this, both Labor and Liberal parties have voiced their continued support for the Intervention, promising to extend these policies into the foreseeable future. What has resulted is a dramatic rise in incarceration rates (largely attributed to the fact that 6 months’ jail time can be given to anyone in position of small quantities of alcohol), a 500% increase in reported instances of attempted self-harm and suicide and a 68% increase in the rate of removal of Indigenous children from their families.
Human rights are fundamental rights. They are afforded to everyone, regardless of sexuality, gender, class or race. They are universal and egalitarian. All human beings are born free and equal and it is not for the government to arbitrarily choose who is afforded these rights. There is no longer remains a justification for the Northern Territory Intervention – the statistics prove it has done catastrophic harm to communities of people who are already amongst the most disadvantaged in the world, whilst failing to address the issue it set out to combat. The Intervention has simply become yet another method of assimilation and control that has resulted in the subjugation and untimely deaths of far too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
Fool me once, shame on you – but fool me twice, shame on me – the government can be sure as hell that we will never forget what they have done to our people, and this time, we won’t accept your apology. The history books can only document the Northern Territory Intervention as the White Australia Policy of the 21st Century.