Noel Pearson is right about one thing – much of the criticism of the NT military occupation (and has it got a handy name yet – I’d suggest Operation Deja Vu) is not only beside the point, but arises from an exhausted politics of left and right that doesn’t effectively translate to this issue.

Take for example the profusion of political shazam words, with the National Sorry Day Committee speaking of ‘genocide’ — which it plainly isn’t, some talking of ‘paternalism’, which doesn’t capture what is going on, and that shazamest of shazam words ’empowerment’. So, no wonder Pearson was a bit grouchy.

Yet Pearson — as evidenced by his recent kid-gloves Lateline interview conducted by Dorothy Dix currently working under the name Leigh Sales — is cherry-picking the arguments he replies to, refusing to take seriously criticisms made by people such as his former writing collaborator Peter Botsman and echoed here, that Operation Deja Vu will fail not because it offends against rights, or is a land grab in disguise, still less because the PM’s motives in starting it are mixed to say the least, but because it is structurally and internally incoherent on its own terms. Pearson damns these critics as people “who are wishing for failure”. Presumably that includes Rex Wild, QC, one of the two authors of the report, who has come out against the operation in The Age today.

That incoherence is registered in Pearson’s picture of the plan, which would, he argues, take power away for a certain time in order to get things done, only for the state to subsequently withdraw. State apparatuses such as welfare agencies, according to Pearson, never cede power — while, apparently, state apparatuses like the police are always happy to. The approach is totally contradictory and desperate.

In fact, there are only two possible outcomes of Deja Vu, both of which are bad. Either the police and the army stay for years, running Aboriginal peoples’ lives, keeping them under close surveillance and being — as everywhere — drawn into the networks of corruption that incarceration and prohibition create, or they withdraw after a few months with no deep change having occurred, and everything resuming much as it was, except that prohibition has left the seeds of an Aboriginal mafia.

For Pearson, anyone who suggests the unthinkable — that Deja Vu might actually make things worse — is “willing it to fail”. As with the ‘surge’ in Iraq, any form of analysis will burst the bubble of magical thinking that the enterprise relies upon, so the character of the critics must be attacked rather than their arguments replied to. A similar mood can be heard in some of the letters here, which argued that the PM was at least “doing something” — in other words, the feeling of action was preferable to the evaluation of action itself.

It’s because, not despite, the fact that the issue is so appalling that cooler reflection is required than the rhetorical public emotionalism of the past days. What we know for a fact is that prohibition never works, that it builds organised crime, and that organised crime builds prostitution. Given that the Little Children Are Sacred report identified teenaged girls prostituting themselves to mining communities, and nascent networks running girls from central Australia to Darwin, there is an ample field for expansion.

Thus, it may turn out that this initiative’s gifts to Aborigines may be that it takes drug- and girl-running from an amateur to a thoroughly professionalised footing. But shhhh! Think positive and nothing bad can ever, ever happen.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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