I wish I could say a few more positive things about the NT Intervention. But I can’t. All the Intervention seems to be doing is employing a hell of a lot of Canberra public servants with absolutely no idea about Aboriginal communities in Central Australia. Unlike other critics (to whom I shall not link) I don’t think the Intervention is ‘biowar’, ‘genocide’, comparable to the occupation of Iraq, or even a land grab. Rather, I think it’s an ill-thought out, but well-meaning, hodge-podge of random ideas put together by senior public servants with no bloody idea!
Here, for the record are a few things that seem to be working which have emerged from the Intervention:
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First an explanation.
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.
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Why don’t we study ‘up’?
Some personal reflections here. When I first embarked upon my PhD project, I was going out to study an Aboriginal community and look at how they interacted with two different government bodies. When I got out into the field, one of the Aboriginal people who worked for one of the government agencies said to me: “Not another anthropologist. We’ve had enough of them studying us. Why don’t you study your own culture?”
I changed the focus of my PhD project. I found that government institutions (the so called powerful) are as much ‘Others’ as the traditional subjects of anthropology: indigenous people, post-colonial people (ewww, I hate that term!), the poor. In the small agency I studied, were not only organisational hierarchies, but social kinship, cliques, political and ideological struggles, economics, language, insider rules, group identity … I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea. In the end, it was as every bit as exotic in comparison with the academic and anthropological cultures I’d been embedded in, as if I’d gone to Ambon or Nepal (my other fieldwork choices).
But somehow, it’s not the same. It’s not quite as legitmate doing fieldwork in one’s own culture (even if it is a very foreign culture) as it is doing the whole Malinowski-set-up-a-tent-amongst-the-natives-and-eavesdrop kind of anthropology we’re fed in undergrad courses.
Or is it?
Over to you