The appointment of AFP officer Shane Castles to the task force leading the Howard government’s intervention in Aboriginal communities raises many questions.

Is the intervention in the Northern Territory going to be modelled on our intervention in Solomon Islands?

Let’s hope that the government has learnt some lessons from its involvement in the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), where Castles served as police commissioner (and was effectively expelled after falling out with the Sogavare government).

RAMSI has clearly shown it’s not good enough to create “law and order” and “stability” in a community without addressing the underlying social and economic causes of the community’s problems.

In Solomon Islands, Australian troops and police were deployed in July 2003 as a circuit breaker to end violence, but then there was no coherent plan for the intervention force to deal with the causes of this violence: issues relating to land, youth unemployment, food security and the economic and environmental effects of resource exploitation (especially illegal logging).

After the initial deployment of troops and police, RAMSI spent much of its time strengthening the machinery of government in Honiara and promoting “good governance.” But the April 2006 riot in the capital, with the looting and burning of the city’s commercial areas, highlighted the limits of RAMSI’s role.

Australian officials, largely focussed on a limited mandate of reforming the government bureaucracy and privatising government services, have been dragged kicking and screaming into a broader development mandate in remote areas, addressing rural development, agriculture and jobs.

The speed of the government’s deployment in the Northern Territory raises questions as to whether state and federal police are ready for the conditions that they’ll encounter.

In 2006, RAMSI’s former public affairs advisor sharply criticised the Australian police in the Participating Police Force (PPF) – she said that, in spite of good intentions, they were “a largely ill-prepared, inexperienced and, in many cases, fairly ordinary crew.”

A flurry of AFP and state police on the ground may be good for headlines, but sending them into Aboriginal communities for six months will have little effect, especially if they have limited language skills or cultural awareness of the places they’re moving into.

The RAMSI intervention has shown that the formula “law and order first, community development second” doesn’t work. The two need to go hand in hand. But community development involves mobilising community members – giving them the authority and resources to manage their own lives. It also involves long-term investment in social infrastructure, including housing, transport and energy supplies.

The Solomon’s experience has shown that the deployment of police is an important component of community security. But without long-term commitment of funds, the vast amounts spent on deploying police to remote communities can leave limited resources for the community leaders who are responsible for policing when officers are no longer on the beat: members of women’s organisations, religious leaders and customary leaders.

Is the Howard government, which has abolished ATSIC and reduced the authority of many Aboriginal-run institutions, really capable of really empowering local indigenous leaders?

Working relations between the Sogavare and Howard governments have foundered over Julian Moti – an alleged child s-x offender – while Alexander Downer’s paternalistic lectures have alienated many hard working public servants in Honiara, as well as the undoubted crooks in the local government.

Are we heading down the same path in the Northern Territory?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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