Sorry About the Intervention

As Australia marks two years since its historic apology to the indigenous population, the emergency measures in the Northern Territory may be giving the government something else for which to say sorry.

February 13 marks the two-year anniversary of the Australian government’s historic apology to its indigenous population. Beamed on live television throughout the country, tens of thousands gathered before screens in city squares, community centers and school assembly grounds to watch newly elected Labour Prime Minister Kevin Rudd say sorry. Indigenous Australians, some of whom had traveled for days to watch the apology from the lawns of Parliament House, wept as Rudd apologized, especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, a policy which continued into the 1970s, resulting in what are now known as the Stolen Generations. Rudd declared the apology to be a turning point for the nation, the beginning of a new chapter in Australian history in which indigenous and nonindigenous Australians would “tackle, together, the great practical challenges that indigenous Australia faces in the future.”

“Great practical challenges” is something of an understatement – indigenous Australians have a life expectancy 17 years shorter than nonindigenous Australians; they make up 2 percent of the Australian population, but 25 percent of its prison population, and many live in conditions of abject poverty unthinkable to the nonindigenous majority. While there are indigenous Australians living throughout the country, the Northern Territory is by far the most indigenous region in terms of population, land held under native title and prevalence of culture. While there is no denying the widespread poverty and despair in many parts of the Northern Territory, it is also where the land rights movement began in the 1960s, and where indigenous cultural practices are still at their strongest today.

In June 2007, a report was released containing allegations of widespread child sex abuse in indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. Then Prime Minister John Howard, whose conservative government had for the past decade refused to apologize to the Stolen Generations, held a press conference to announce that the sexual abuse of indigenous children was a national emergency. He was going to use constitutional powers to override the Northern Territory government and pass emergency laws that would save these children from the pedophile rings, rampant hardcore pornography and “rivers of grog” that were apparently plaguing their communities.

Howard’s government drafted, passed and enacted the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act within weeks. The act suspended Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act, so that people living in “prescribed areas” – all of which were indigenous communities – could be subject to a range of measures that no other Australian citizens were subject to. Measures included compulsory five-year leases of their land to the federal government, a total ban on alcohol and pornography, compulsory income management for all welfare recipients, the abolition of the permit system for entry onto indigenous land and a police task force with special powers of detention and interrogation. To assist with the implementation of these measures, the government initially sent in 600 uniformed troops.

These emergency measures, collectively known as “the intervention,” were taken out in the lead up to the November 2007 federal election, in which Howard suffered a resounding defeat. The apology by Kevin Rudd to Australia’s indigenous people was his first motion to Parliament as prime minister and marked a clear symbolic departure from the Howard era of race politics. This symbolic change has not, however, been met with policy change. As the intervention approaches its two-and-a-half-year mark, the Rudd government is showing no indications of rolling it back. This is despite the release of its own monitoring report last October, which showed that the intervention is failing to improve the lives of indigenous children or their wider communities. Since the intervention, school attendance rates have decreased while child malnutrition has increased, as have alcohol and drug abuse incidents and rates of domestic violence.

The government’s response to the report is that the apparently poor outcomes are simply a result of increased state surveillance and reporting. Even if this is true, it is notable that despite the substantial increase in police numbers and powers, over the entire two-year period that the intervention has been in operation, only 22 people have been convicted for child sex offenses compared with 15 people in the previous two years, and four of the recent convictions were of nonindigenous people.

Indigenous women are leading the political campaign against the intervention. Mount Nancy town camp resident Barbara Shaw speaks openly about the intervention making it more difficult for indigenous parents to feed and clothe their children. Shaw explained how compulsory income management means that indigenous people have to shop at particular stores in towns, so that those who live remotely are forced to travel hundreds of kilometers in order to purchase food, clothes and other essentials.

The compulsory income management also means that indigenous people often have to stand in a separate line at store check-outs. The obvious stigmatization and shame brought on indigenous people because of intervention measures were part of what led the UN’s James Anaya last August to condemn the intervention as not only indicative of Australia’s “entrenched racism” against indigenous people, but also inconsistent with Australia’s obligations under international law.

While some have labeled the intervention a government “land grab,” the motivations behind the measures seem more complex than that. Although it is true that the land over which the government has compulsorily acquired five-year leases is potentially valuable mining country, the terms of the leases prohibit the government from undertaking or allowing any mining activity. And excluding their mining potential, these remote areas are worth very little in terms of market value. What is at stake here is the cultural battle between white and black Australia. While there is no doubt that Australia is now a well-settled colony, the indigenous presence remains a persistent blight on the otherwise happy story of “the lucky country,” particularly in the Northern Territory, where the long-term effects of colonization are most evident – both in terms of the social devastation caused by decades of often violent racial repression and in terms of the stubborn survival of an indigenous culture radically different from the dominant settler culture. Under the intervention, indigenous Australians are effectively being given two options. The first is to become “good indigenous people,” who spend their money wisely, live in government controlled housing and open up their land and their culture to the rest of Australia – both in terms of state surveillance and in terms of the tourist industry, which clearly stands to benefit from the abolition of the permit system and the “cleaning up” of remote communities. The second is to disperse and quietly disappear into the bush or into the prisons. Either ways solves “the problem” of indigenous Australians.

In defiance of both options, one indigenous community has walked off their land and set up a new, permanent camp outside the boundaries of the intervention’s “prescribed areas.” Ampilatwatja, a community northeast of Alice Springs, has been subject to one of the government’s compulsory five-year leases since the intervention began over two years ago. During that time, residents have seen no improvements in their living conditions. The breaking point came when the outmoded septic tanks – straining from overcrowded housing and poor maintenance – burst, causing raw sewerage to flow through the area. The following week, Minister Macklin announced that Ampilatwatja would not be receiving any new housing support under the intervention.

In the words of Ampilatwatja walk-off spokesman Richard Downs, “We have no other choice but have now decided and agreed upon to return to our grandfather’s, mother’s country”. February 14, the community formally opened its first house on an area of bushland outside the reach of the intervention. The “protest house” is intended to be a hub for activists resisting the intervention as well as a place where indigenous Australians can reclaim control of their lives and their culture. It is a sad irony that the two-year anniversary of Rudd’s apology to Australia’s indigenous people will be marked by yet another generation having to move off their land to escape government policy.