The federal government’s extraordinary intervention in several Northern Territory Aboriginal communities has bipartisan support among the mainstream political parties but has attracted wider political and social controversy. The use of defence force elements in the intervention has involved the ADF in this controversy for reasons both justified and unjustified. Neither cause is ideal.

It is not unusual, of course, for federal or state governments to call on ADF assistance in national emergencies. The two most common criteria governing the provision of ADF assistance are that the resources of the civil community are exhausted and require supplementation (as with natural disasters such as bushfires, floods and earthquakes), or that capabilities peculiar to the ADF are required (as with open-ocean search and rescue).

The military assistance rendered to civil authorities falls, constitutionally and professionally, into two definite categories: force and non-force situations. ADF use of force to aid civil authorities enforce law and order is extremely rare and has only occurred three or four times (all cases of riot) since federation. Non-force assistance covers everything else including bomb disposal, firefighting, search and rescue, logistic, communications or ceremonial support to events from the Olympic Games down to local fetes, infrastructure construction in remote communities, and the continuance of essential services during natural disasters or (very rarely) prolonged industrial action.

This history, and the well-established bodies of law and professional procedure applying, have not been reflected in media coverage and other commentary on the intervention. Most of this appears accidental ignorance but some seems deliberate. Some of the initial media reporting and public commentary referred to the intervention as an invasion and sought to highlight the involvement of the defence force to emphasise this partisan viewpoint. In some cases this degenerated into outright scaremongering and unfortunately caused some members of the communities concerned to wrongly believe that the Army was somehow coming to remove their children by force of arms.

Unfortunately, much of the commentary appears to have come from journalists and polemicists with little knowledge of the ADF, the Northern Territory or the law. It has missed the essential point that the ADF is only providing logistic and administrative support to what is a whole-of-government effort.

Furthermore, most of the commentary has ignored that the ADF, particularly the Army, has been working in outback Aboriginal communities since before World War II. Army surveyors mapped most of Northern Australia from the 1920s to the 1980s. The Navy’s coastwatcher networks have utilized Aboriginal members for nine decades. The Army’s various regional force surveillance and regional intelligence units across northern Australia have similarly had many Aboriginal diggers since the late 1970s. Various Army Reserve medical units have conducted their annual camps helping outback Aboriginal communities since the early 1950s. Army engineers have been building houses in such communities and running associated trade training schemes for nearly a decade. Since the early 1990s many members of the ADF have studied Aboriginal culture in detail while qualifying on Defence-sponsored cross-cultural awareness courses at Nungalinya College in Darwin.

There are sound reasons why the ADF is so rarely used to assist with domestic law enforcement (and strikebreaking), especially in areas other than aspects of border protection. There are also sound reasons why the defence force takes great care to preserve its acknowledged and respected apolitical status in Australian society ? and why governments of all political persuasions should take great care never to risk this status by involving the ADF in controversy.

The intervention in the Northern Territory is currently headed by a serving senior Army officer, Major General David Chalmers. He has often worn uniform when visiting Aboriginal communities, no doubt in part to emphasise his neutral status politically and more broadly.

A precedent cited for a senior Army officer heading an emergency task force is Major General Alan Stretton’s appointment following Darwin’s devastation by Cyclone Tracy in 1974. But this was a conventional national disaster, Stretton was the head of the National Disasters Organisation, he was only so appointed for a period of weeks while the emergency was at its height, and he handed over to the civil authorities as soon as he could. It is worth noting that the NDO evolved into Emergency Management Australia in 1993, was taken out of the Department of Defence in 2001, and has long been headed by a public servant rather than a military engineer.

Because of the attendant and growing controversy about the federal intervention in Aboriginal communities, it would be better if this long-term operation, emergency or not, was now headed by a civilian official, say a senior physician, rather than a military officer. This government has often relied on the professional “can do” approach of the ADF to overcome bureaucratic and other obstacles, but leaving Major General Chalmers in the position is now inappropriate on a range of constitutional, professional and community-unity grounds.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey