On an unsealed road in central Australia one Saturday afternoon late last year, a police car flashes its lights and directs the driver of a non-descript sedan to pull over. The driver and his female passenger, a married couple in their mid-twenties, are directed to get out of the car. The police have been called to attend an incident in a nearby town where protracted fighting has been reported over several weeks and have stopped this car out of concern that its occupants might be en route to join the fray. They search the car for weapons, but uncover nothing of interest. The boot of the car is full of firewood, which the couple had spent the past hour collecting.
On completion of identity checks, the police arrest the man for driving with a suspended licence. He is placed in the back of the police van. His wife is warned that if she attempts to drive the car — she does not have a licence — she too will be arrested. The police officers climb into their van and drive off, leaving the woman on her own, at sunset, on a lonely desert road with no supplies and no option but to walk the several kilometres back home as darkness descends.
This tale captures well one of the many paradoxes of the Northern Territory intervention. Increased police numbers on the ground are often quoted as a key marker of the intervention’s success. Women and children feel much safer now, we are told. It is only when we go to the ground and recall that any relations between Aboriginal people and police in the present are built upon a deeply fraught history that the prospect of increased policing takes on a different inflection.
The township this couple calls home has witnessed astonishing levels of arrests, even by local standards, over the past 18 months. Many are for vehicle-related offences. Many others result from another of the intervention’s measures — the outlawing of customary law, especially the use of payback to settle disputes. When Aboriginal people attempt to use their own customary measures to resolve significant transgressions, police who once turned a blind eye, are now legally obliged not to do so.
Through the prism of increased policing, we might conclude that the intervention has succeeded in entrenching the status of remote Aboriginal people as marginalised and criminalised. The escalating Aboriginal populations of Darwin and Alice Springs prisons, already reputedly the highest in the world, reinforce this view. But while this is a compelling analysis, the fuller picture is a great deal messier, less coherent and more disturbing.
The NT intervention was dramatically announced on June 21, 2007 by John Howard and Mal Brough. While hastily conceived, its key architects adeptly deployed the right mix of shock and awe tactics — a national emergency was declared in respect of widespread child s-xual abuse that necessitated the rapid deployment of the army, followed by a plethora of professionals. Brough articulated concise concepts; a centrally planned five-year program would “stabilise and normalise” prescribed communities with military precision before an orderly “exit”. The intervention was brought into being as an immaculately executed media event.
Yet as soon as the Commonwealth moved to implementation, the vision began to unravel. The intervention quickly shifted from a concern with child s-xual abuse and safety to a wider program of infrastructural development and social transformation. At the outset, the government grossly underestimated the extent of the historic backlog that would mean any expenditure of less than billions of dollars would be inadequate. Then it overlooked its capacity to deliver on the breadth and scale of what it promised.
So by just September 2007, the Commonwealth had negotiated and signed a new memorandum of understanding with the NT government — the same government explicitly vilified and emasculated in the declaration of the intervention — to hand back responsibility for delivery of all housing and infrastructure at prescribed communities, with the elixir of $700 million. Shamefully, this MOU also handed over responsibility for the more than 500 homelands with a stipulation that no Commonwealth money be used on new homelands housing.
When the Rudd government came to power, it continued with the various arrangements the Coalition had put in place, ensuring the intervention’s transformation from a five-year program into a fully fledged policy framework. Yet, as it became clear that this vision for improvement was beyond the capacity of governments to deliver, the focus was quickly pared down to 18 “priority” communities.
Some of the most damning analyses of the intervention can be drawn from the government’s own figures that show a set of “outcomes” for some measures that are worse than the situation reported in 2007. The Commonwealth’s own reports reveal escalating levels of unemployment and welfare dependence, growth in child hospitalisation and the intractability of low school attendance. Most alarming are reported self-harm and suicide rates that have doubled since 2007 — an appalling paradox given the rationale for the “emergency response”.
The sharp edge of this despondent picture emerges most clearly on the ground where the impact of the wholesale destruction of local institutions is revealed: community councils and many CDEP organisations gone; the loss of community-owned assets; a decline in community-focused enterprise development; and the dramatic decline in local control and governance. Residents of prescribed communities are deeply dispirited as they watch the rapid dismantling of three decades of work. Indeed community building itself — fostered in the self-determination era — has been under attack, and displaced by “normalisation” that privileges individual self-interest and responsibility.
At the same time, the intervention’s “prescribed communities” have been subject to unprecedented levels of surveillance by an influx of transitory agents: police officers, tenancy officers, truancy officers, training officers, employment brokers, Centrelink officers, store licensors and housing construction crews — but no badly needed dentists or mental health workers — all supposedly under the watchful gaze of the co-ordinating government business manager, granted supreme statutory powers over those who come and go, displacing the authority of traditional owners under the abolished township permit system.
This new cadre of well-intentioned helpers lack historical sense of people and place and have thin cross-cultural understandings. The newcomers get priority housing quickly constructed, while the few new houses for Aboriginal people are overcrowded even as they are completed, with anticipated occupancy rates of over nine persons per house. Newly erected Centrelink offices and expanded police compounds dominate the community landscape, symbolically enforcing the central place of these authorities — that discipline welfare expenditure and school attendance — in the lives of town residents.There is a compelling argument for reading the intervention’s debilitating outcomes as no mere accident of mismanagement but as shrewdly intended, crafted to eliminate distinctive Aboriginal ways, offering no choice beyond the neo-liberal program of moral restructuring. The quest to eliminate any institutions with a semblance of self governance is implicit to this process, as is the need to depoliticise. Settler colonialism insists that there is only one way: elimination of Aboriginal societies as a logical and necessary component of modernisation. Everywhere, David Harvey reminds us, the historic geography of capitalism, which voraciously looks to spatially expand, wreaks creative destruction on resisting peoples and institutions.
As we reflect upon what the state’s end game for NT Aboriginal lands and people might be, we would be foolish to ignore current events in the Pilbara and Kimberley regions. NT Aboriginal lands are highly minerals prospective and yet subject to Australia’s strongest right of consent for traditional owners. In order to secure territory for mining, upon which Australia has become dangerously dependent, the state requires compliant populations pursuing individualistic materialist dreams as well as regulated “securitised” territories.
The form of statecraft deployed in the intervention sees discourse and reportage as the main game, with no real expectation of bringing about structural change on the ground. The state and its supportive agents promulgate abstract Utopian notions of “real economy” in places where most people struggle just to sustain themselves and their families day by day. These places are far removed from the experience of most Australians who see only media representations.
And so a program for normalisation is shaped according to a need to demonstrate progress in formulaic statistical terms. Carefully crafted media campaigns locate the minister at the hand-over of a newly completed house, this singular event stands for success, distracting us from the messier stories of bureaucratic mismanagement, budget blow-outs, contractor rent seeking, delays, shoddy building practices and planned shortfalls. The government has responded to critiques by demonstrating the art of not being held accountable. Oft-articulated commitments to close gaps have been quickly forgotten or shifted to some far off future date that will ensure no particular government, or complicit bureaucrat, can be held responsible for failure.
While mainstream media give voice to the intervention’s Aboriginal supporters, others have responded with resistance and creativity. Yuendumu is the last remaining community to have refused to sign over 40-year leasehold of land to government control. This town’s good-humoured locals waged a war with signs counteracting the shame-inducing “No liquor, no p-rnography” intervention signs with their own: “Welcome to Yuendumu, if you want p-rn, go to Canberra”.
In Arnhem Land, the Yolngu Nations Assembly threatens to boycott commercial dealings, including exploration licence applications, if the Stronger Futures bills are passed. Elsewhere in Arnhem Land, a sprawling business camp of hundreds of people engaged in ceremonial activity was defiantly erected in sight of the main road to Maningrida, much travelled by bureaucrats. In central Australia, the Eastern Alyawarr call for United Nations scrutiny.
Outside the glare of the media spotlight, no one in government or bureaucracy would contest the view that the intervention has failed to make a significant dent in Aboriginal disadvantage. Yet in the language of the present, the problem is merely a technical one — it is a matter of simply getting the “policy settings” right. This way of talking reflects an unshaken belief in the future of capitalism, at the very moment its global foundations are shaking. Similarly there has been much talk in recent years of the need to “reset” the relationship with indigenous Australians. This is the abstract language of bureaucratic engagement, a kind of distance relationship that remote living Aboriginal people distrust.
Other kinds of distant relations are possible — indeed crucial — for the future of Australia. Hope, the anthropologist Michael Jackson suggests, in its most substantial form, is the condition for becoming “other or more than one is or was fated to be”. The stark and seemingly unbreachable divide between Aboriginal people and the rest of us will only begin to close in mutually enriching ways when our attitudes fundamentally alter and incidents such as the one with which we began are no longer commonplace.
*This is a slightly amended version of the opening editorial of the just released special issue of Arena Magazine No.118, which focuses on the impacts of the NT intervention launched five years ago today