Ten years ago, the Howard government did not hold back in announcing and rolling out the NT Intervention (officially known as the Northern Territory Emergency Response, or NTER). Howard’s dramatic press conference, and the scenes of the hundreds of ADF soldiers entering remote communities, captured the attention of the press for months.
The shock and awe was real. Remembering these beginnings, Utopia elder Rosalie Kunoth-Monks told Stand Up 2017, a conference in Alice Springs marking ten years of Intervention:
When the Intervention hit us, with Mal Brough [then Indigenous Affairs Minister] riding roughshod over us, we didn’t know what hit us. Backing him was the military in uniform and backing him was the police. Unless you’ve gone through that you won’t know the full nightmare that was the Intervention … That’s the legacy that my granddaughter is living now.
Today, almost nobody is prepared to defend the policy, though the devastation marches on. The Intervention has been a catastrophic failure on anyone’s terms – perhaps why its architects have been conspicuously silent on its tenth anniversary.
In 2007, Howard claimed the suite of control measures on Aboriginal people, and 73 prescribed communities in the NT, would end a supposed crisis of child sexual abuse. The stigma is still felt by Aboriginal men. Matthew Ryan, an advocate for his community of Maningrida in Arnhem Land, explained, ‘It’s an insult to us. It disempowered the men … when we walk the street, we still feel afraid.’
There was never a child sexual abuse crisis. Not one single prosecution has occurred since the Intervention started, and the Crime Commission has since refuted the government’s original allegations. But the Intervention measures have wrecked havoc on Aboriginal lives. As Yolngu Nations Assembly representative and Independent MLA for Nhulunbuy, Yingiya Mark Guyala, says:
Looking back now, Intervention has been ten long wasted years … incarceration rates have risen, it’s grown really high … Indigenous [communities] have been defunded; people removed from homelands, and forced to live in mega communities, which has caused disaster, a lot of pain. The kids are getting skinnier.
Labor, fresh from then PM Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generation, made the Intervention a permanent fixture from 2008, and passed the Stronger Futures legislation in 2012 that enshrines the measures in law until at least 2022.
The confected abuse scandal was a fig leaf for a wider agenda: to close down ‘economy unviable’ Aboriginal communities. Following the line of argument laid down by Coalition favourite Noel Pearson in the years preceding, the government claimed repressive measures were the solution to social problems. For them, issues in remote communities could be explained not by a history of dispossession, racism, and neglect, but by a lack of responsibility on behalf of Aboriginal people, a culture of welfare dependency, and a resulting lack of private investment. The solution was the free market, delivered by the state’s jackboot. Communities were to shape up, or ship out.
The seizure of millions of dollars in community assets, including housing, and the installation of Government Business Managers (GBMs) to oversee community affairs took control from the hands of remote communities and placed it with the federal government. Original five-year compulsory leases were replaced with 40 to 99-year leases from 2011, when the Labor government and Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin refused to offer basic services and housing without communities signing over their land.
In 2008, the NT Labor government, working hand in glove with the federal one, dissolved local community councils and replaced them with mega-Shires almost totally outside of community oversight. Then they announced a ban on teaching in Aboriginal languages for the first four hours of the school day. If this suite of disempowerment wasn’t enough, on top of it came the quarantining of 50 per cent of welfare payments onto the BasicsCard, and bans on alcohol and pornography.
After the abolition of thousands of jobs through CDEP (Community Development Employment Program), the federal government has now reshaped it into a new scheme called CDP (Community Development Program). While the old scheme paid about the minimum wage and was community controlled, the new scheme pays $11.10 an hour (and for many workers, half that goes on the BasicsCard). Workers are providing free labour for Shires and private companies, and they face eight weeks suspension if they miss work. ‘It’s a form of slavery,’ Matthew Ryan explains. ‘We’re working hard for peanuts. People are hungry under the CDP changes … There’s less money to provide food for the kids. It’s starving our people … you might as well give us rations, like back in the old days.’
And while communities have signed away their land, the promised housing has been what Matthew calls ‘a band aid job’. While up to 1000 houses have now been built, many were replacement of old stock, and there’s little to show for the spending, argues Mt Nancy Town Camp resident and activist Barbara Shaw:
The money for housing that the Intervention was meant to bring in, mostly went to refurbishments and rebuilds … a lot of contractors have made a lot of money out of it. Contractors are still going out … Overcrowding still continues to this day … communities have been saying, where is the money? Show us the results in our communities, town camps, outstations, and homelands.
Most of the money went to administration, while, as Arrernte woman Elaine Peckham explains, ‘They took away services from homelands.’ For Elaine that meant moving off her homeland and back into Alice Springs. It’s a familiar story, as Aboriginal people from remote communities have flocked to town centres to access basic services and try to find work.
Moreover, almost no progress has been made on child mortality or adult life expectancy, and rates of disease and disability have increased, according to a major Monash university study. There’s no evidence the alcohol bans have reduced harmful drinking habits, but they continue to stigmatise Aboriginal people, who are often refused service at bottle shops and harassed by police for public drinking.
The racism is stark, and demoralising. Aboriginal people under 25 in the NT now have the highest suicide rate in the country. Speaking at the opening night of Stand Up 2017, Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra OAM, a Yolgnu elder from Elcho Island, said, ‘Our souls are in jail. The government has created the damage.’
As scores of Aboriginal activists and supporters gathered at Alice’s Pioneer Football Club hall, north of town, to share these stories and plan the future of the campaign to stop the Intervention, back in the town proper a public forum gave voice to the racist population in Alice Springs. A policeman told the crowd that the solution to the ‘problem’ of Aboriginal kids on the street was ‘more arrests’.
And that, in a nutshell, is the government’s plan of action. (Furthermore, special legislation now prevents the courts from considering Aboriginal culture, customs and law in bail and sentencing.)
More Aboriginal children and teenagers are locked up than ever before (overall, the numbers have doubled), and in the NT and around the country they are being removed at a rate higher than the period of the Stolen Generation (in the NT, the figures have tripled over the Intervention period, from 265 children taken in 2007, to 920 in June 2016).
Last year, the images of children and teenagers being tortured in Darwin’s Don Dale prison shocked the nation. They are the Intervention’s children.
Special thanks go to the Intervention Rollback Action Group (IRAG), organisers of Stand Up 2017, the Aboriginal spokespeople (many of whom travelled long distances to share their experiences) whose testimonies informed this article, and to Mara Bonacci of 3CR for additional research.