Just over a year ago, the former Australian government (the conservative Howard government) launched an ‘intervention’ into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory in apparent response to the damning report, Little Children are Sacred. Although the Intervention has so far failed to address the 90-something recommendations in this report, in other aspects it has had some successes and some abysmal failures. For those who aren’t familiar with the NT Intervention, in its early days it was hailed by some as a saviour for Aboriginal people, and by others as a return to the assimilationist and racist policies of the past.
A year on, and we’ve got a new government (a so-called ‘progressive’ government) who’ve not really done anything startling except try (and to this date, fail) to reinstate the permit system. Prompted by a report about white trash on Aboriginal communities in today’s Australian newspaper, I’ve decided to post some of my own firsthand observations of the NT Intervention. Please note that I am someone who lives and works in Aboriginal Central Australia every day. I’m going to tell good and bad, just as I’ve seen it. It might not be what some people want to hear.
What I’ve Witnessed
These are the things I’ve seen that have upset me about the intervention:
- It couldn’t happen in any other Australian state. The Federal Government rode roughshod over the NT government. They can impose their laws and overturn our (Northern Territory) laws at any moment because we’re just a territory, not a state. This PISSES me off.
- The ‘one size fits all‘ approach to rolling out programs and funding. One size doesn’t fit all. There are nine Aboriginal language groups in Central Australia – that’s equivalent to half of Europe. Nine different Aboriginal ‘nations’, and many regional variations within these ‘nations’. What works in Germany, ain’t gonna work in Italy. Same goes here, boys. You need to spend some time in communities, talking to people (Aboriginal people) before doing anything. I can’t believe after four decades of Aboriginal activism that people still haven’t learned this most basic lesson.
- Left wing sympathizers who’ve NEVER BEEN TO AN ABORIGINAL COMMUNITY. I will make no secret that I am a left-of-centre person. It should be obvious from my blog’s content. However, if you’re going to comment on Aboriginal people and the conditions in their communities and you’ve never set foot inside an Aboriginal community (let alone seen the Intervention firsthand), then as far as I’m concerned you have no right to speak at all about the Intervention at all. You have no credibility and no understanding. Full stop. You are simply regurgitating second hand evidence*. Do us all a favour: shut up (please) or; visit an Aboriginal community and talk to some Aboriginal people. Better still, spend a week living in an Aboriginal community and then you might have something intelligent to say.
- The MASSIVE amount of money that has gone into employing and housing new public servants to roll out ‘nothing’ programs. After 12 months, all we can really see of the Intervention is some draconian anti-pornography and drinking laws and a few very large signs. Oh yeah. And the disbanding of CDEP – even in the places where it was working. The money wasted on these things should be spent on housing, health and education in Aboriginal communities. For example: pay top wages for top teachers and keep community schools open 5 days per week instead of 3 ½ or 4 days. What? You didn’t know that community schools were only open part time? Another reason why you need to visit an Aboriginal community.
- Senior public servants from Canberra who are bullies and have no idea about Aboriginal people or the Northern Territory. See my advice to left-wing ‘theorists’ at point 3 above.
- So-called ‘anti-intervention protesters‘ – middle-class wannabe ferals from the Eastern states (professional protesters) who came to Alice Springs to protest at the request of a few Aboriginal people. A few days later, these same people were protesting against uranium mining. Get lost. You have no idea, either.
- Government Business Managers (GBMs) – the ‘head honchos’ installed by the Federal Government to oversee the roll out of the intervention in individual communities. According to many Aboriginal people, GBMs are an elusive lot. They are rarely seen in the communities they’re supposed to be managing. Indeed, some people suspect they might just be ghosts or exist on paper only.
- The nonsense about land grabbing. People who say that the Intervention is a ‘land grab’ have probably never read the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act 1976, let alone understood the reasons that the Federal Government had to suspend the Racial Discrimination Act 1976 in order to create secure -and politically expedient- leases in communities. If the Federal Government hadn’t done this, they would be negotiating for the next 5 years with the land councils before they were able to construct a single new house. (NB: one land council is totally dysfunctional; the other is the most powerful force in the NT outside of the major political parties -something many Central Australians are VERY worried about). Also the arguement about ‘land grabbing’ ignores the fact that I opened this section with: if the Federal Government wanted to take away Aboriginal people’s land in the Northern Territory THEY COULD HAVE SIMPLY DONE SO!
- Not enough skilled professionals. We have jobs, jobs, jobs. We need teachers, doctors, nurses, health workers, admin staff, builders, carpenters etc etc. You name it, we need it. Quite simply, there are not enough people to fill all the job vacancies in the NT. Move here and make a difference. Please.
*A friend of mine got into an online ‘discussion’ with one of these people (a post-structuralist theorist, to make matters worse) last year. My friend was going through a very hard time personally, not to mention dealing with the Intervention on the community in which she lived (and still lives) … well… she tried to take her life thanks to this left wing fruit-punch. The person admitted online that she’d never been to an Aboriginal community – yet was calling the intervention ‘genocide’ and comparing it to conditions in Iraq and the treatment of asylum seekers by the former Australian government. She had the hide to relentlessly attack and refute my friend’s firsthand reporting of the intervention on a very well-known anthropology blog.
Tomorrow, the good stuff I’ve seen.
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Speaking as a complete ignoramus on aboriginal matters in Australia…this reminds me of a lot of the discourse about Native Americans in my country, particularly the “one size fits all thing.” Often, it seems, people on the vaguely leftish side of things are most passionately into stereotyping those people they romanticize, rather than looking seriously at conditions and political situations applying to actual human beings (I mean, why talk about public housing, chronic unemployment, and substance abuse when you can talk about magical mystical…whatever?). Whenever you read a sentence that includes the phrase “the Native Americans say…” or any variation on it, you know it’s bullshit (even if it’s a Native America saying it). There were as many as a thousand Native groups in what is now the U.S., with different beliefs, different languages, and different political principles–some lived semi-communally and seemed to live relatively peacefully with one another and their natural environment, and some very definitely didn’t–and many of them really didn’t get along with each other and still don’t. Then, if I can’t go into another country without being expected to defend politicians I voted against…I guess people just prefer to put people in as few boxes as possible….
Anyway, thanks for this bit of education about aboriginal issues–sadly, all I know is the magical mystical version pushed by the same people who sell fake Native American vision quests….
Hi Dr Jay,
I could tell some hilarious stories about New Age seekers (all Germans for some reason I’ve never understood) who come to Central Australia seeking Medicine Men/Women, shamans, healers etc. and the stupefyingly insensitive consequences. But maybe I’ll save it for an amusing post some time.
Yes, there were about 200 language groups and over 600 dialects of Aboriginal language in Australia at the time of colonisation (1788). Now, there’s only about 50 that are spoken and only about 20 that could be described as ‘healthy’. And of course, Aboriginal people didn’t all get on and still don’t all get on. I know of one dispute that’s been going on for over 100 years!
I guess what’s been done by the government is a step in the right direction – but it’s got bogged down in administrivia and has ignored the diversity of Aboriginal people on the ground.
As for post-structuralists and leftists who don’t bother to look past their next latte … AGGGHRR!!!!
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