Northern Territory Child Protection Minister Marion Scrymgour has retracted her description of of the Commonwealth Government’s Northern Territory intervention as the “black kids Tampa“.

The comparison’s quite inappropriate, of course. The NT intervention should not be seen as the Tampa. Rather, it’s the Iraq war – and not just because of the soldiers.

In her new book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein suggests that neo-liberalism today necessarily attaches itself to catastrophe. In essence, it’s much easier to inflict conservative economics upon a population already overwhelmed by misfortune.

She reminds us that contemporary monetarism became mainstream when Pinochet adopted it in Chile. He also physically annihilated his opponents, leaving Chileans incapable of responding to the systematic destruction of their welfare state.

You can see a similar process at work in Iraq. From the first day of the occupation, the Coalition Provisional Authority introduced radical free market reforms: slashing corporate tax, cutting subsidies, privatising national assets and so on. Every opinion poll showed Iraqis hate such measures but, after all that Shock and Awe, there wasn’t much they could do.

The worse Iraq becomes, the less media attention dull economic questions receive. With the outside world fixated on military matters, the stripmining of Iraqi industry continues unabated.

The people who brought you the Iraq war used the same technique after Hurricane Katrina. As Milton Friedman, the Godfather of neo-liberalism, explained, the catastrophe represented a grand opportunity to privatise the school system. “Most New Orleans school are in ruins as are the homes of the children who have attended them,” he explained in the Wall Street Jounal. “This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity to racially reform the educational system.”

So it proved. In the wake of the hurricane, the 123 public schools run by the school board were reduced to 4, while the number of publicly funded but privately-run schools increased from 7 to 31. Teacher unionists were sacked in droves; staff wages slashed.

And all this happened while most normal people were too busy coping with the death and devastation around them to pay attention to education.

Any of this sound at all familiar?

Imagine if the Howard government simply announced its intention to cut welfare in the Northern Territory, to overturn the Land Rights Act and the system of permits required to enter Aboriginal land, to replace elected councillors with unelected business managers, to abolish the Community Development Employment Program scheme and throw Aborigines onto ‘work-for-the-dole’ and implement a traditional social paternalism.

Everyone would know what that was about.

But, as in New Orleans, the genuine shock most people feel when confronted by intense human misery legitimises action – any action – even while it disarms critics.

Marion Scrymgour should stick to her guns. The measures underway in the NT bear as little relation to the recommendations of the “Little Children are Sacred” report as privatising education does to hurricane relief or selling off the oil industry does to toppling a dictator. And it’s not too late to make this an election issue.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey