What the 2007 Northern Territory “intervention” reveals about Australia’s Voice referendum

Amid the campaign surrounding the October 14 referendum to insert an indigenous advisory body, the Voice, into the Australia constitution, nothing has been said about the 2007 police/military intervention into scores of remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory (NT).

The NT intervention initiated by the Coalition government of John Howard, with the bipartisan support of the Labor Party, demonstrates all too clearly the regressive agenda of both the Yes and No camps in the current referendum.

John Howard and Kevin Rudd [Photo: US Department of Defense]

The Howard government announced the NT intervention in June 2007 amid a lurid, sensationalist media campaign about child sex abuse in Aboriginal communities involving paedophile and drug-running gangs. No evidence was produced at the time and the huge police operation resulted in no arrests.

With Labor’s support, the government rammed through a 500-page package of legislation that included the suspension of the Racial Discrimination, Land Rights, Native Title and Social Security acts and various UN human rights conventions signed by Australian governments.

The Northern Territory, Howard declared, was a “failed state” because it had failed to stop the alleged crimes and that an immediate emergency national response involving the military, police and scores of highly paid government bureaucrats was necessary.

The $587 million intervention—estimated at $1 billion in today’s money—had nothing to do with overcoming child abuse, alcoholism and other horrors, and was not designed to.

In line with the demands of big business think tanks, such as the Centre for Independent Studies, its real purpose was to slash welfare, break up so-called “uneconomic” Aboriginal communities and take control of Aboriginal land.

Aboriginal residents in the NT were used as guinea pigs to trial “welfare quarantining”—social control and welfare cutting measures—to be used in the future against other sections of the working class.

That it had nothing to do with addressing the social crisis in Aboriginal communities is demonstrated by the fact that over 600 military personnel, police and criminal investigators were deployed into 73 targeted Aboriginal communities. Some 800 government officials were sent to take over community land and facilities, and to enforce welfare cuts. Highly paid business managers were appointed to displace the elected councils. Nothing was done to address the lack of decent housing or improve medical services and schools.

We republish below the statement issued by the Socialist Equality Party in June 2007 condemning the NT intervention, exposing the lies and warning that similar measures would be extended to the working class more broadly.

When the Rudd Labor government took office in November 2007, it expanded the NT intervention. By the end of 2008, welfare quarantining had been forced on 15,000 Aboriginal people and the proportion of income quarantined was increased from 50 percent to 70 percent.

In 2012, Labor rebadged the Howard government’s program as “Stronger Futures,” extending the measures for another ten years. $3.4 billion was committed over 10 years—or just $340 million a year—that was subsequently slashed by the incoming Coalition government from 2013.

The emphasis remained on policing and compulsion—more police, punishment for parents if their children did not attend school, welfare quarantining, and greater government control over Aboriginal communities. While the legislation underpinning Stronger Futures was allowed to lapse by the current Labor government last year, the punitive approach remains and living conditions and social problems in Aboriginal communities have only worsened.

Whether the Voice is established or not, the response of the Labor government to the social crisis facing Aboriginal people, will not be to provide the billions needed to fund proper housing, schools, health care and other services, but to further slash funding and boost repressive measures. Any Coalition government will do the same.

Particularly telling is the fact that leading indigenous advocates of the Voice such as Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton were vocal defenders of the NT intervention as opposition welled up in Aboriginal communities to their vilification and trampling of basic democratic rights.

Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton [Photo: National Press Club]

Pearson, a right-wing lawyer, declared that the NT intervention represented a valuable step towards ending the scourge of “sit-down welfare” in Aboriginal communities. Langton, a well-paid academic, berated Aboriginal people speaking out against the take-over of their communities, saying that were being influenced by ridiculous “conspiracy theories.”

Langton later appealed to the incoming Rudd government to maintain the intervention, absurdly describing it as “the greatest opportunity we have had to overcome the systemic levels of disadvantage among Aboriginal Australians.”

Pearson and Langton are advocates for expanding Aboriginal businesses and slashing welfare in the name of encouraging “individual responsibility.” They are representatives of a narrow layer of indigenous elite that has been deliberately fostered over decades and that views the Voice as the means to further enhance their influence, privileges and wealth.

The support of Pearson and Langton for the NT intervention is a sharp warning of what the Voice will do should it be established. It will aid and promote the agenda of demolishing limited welfare programs and fostering Aboriginal businesses, hand-in-hand with big business and government.

The SEP’s campaign for an active boycott is opposed to the racialist politics of both the Yes and No campaigns that can only divide workers and cover up the real agenda of war and austerity of the entire political establishment.

We reject the hypocritical claims that an indigenous advisory body to government and parliament will address the disastrous social conditions facing Aboriginal working people. Only by uniting workers—indigenous and non-indigenous—on the basis of a socialist perspective can the historic crimes of capitalism against the Aboriginal population be redressed and the social crisis facing the working class as a whole be ended.


Australian government imposes military-police regime on Aborigines

Socialist Equality Party statement
23 June 2007

Under the cynical guise of protecting indigenous children from sexual abuse, the Howard government announced on Thursday a “national emergency” plan to take control of dozens of Aboriginal communities throughout the Northern Territory and impose virtual martial law conditions. Over coming weeks, police and troops will flood into as many as 60 towns and camps to enforce a series of draconian measures.

Welfare and family payments will be halved, with the seized portions transferred to food and clothing vouchers. All payments will be cut off if children fail to attend school or are considered “at risk.” Forced labour will be imposed, via “work for the dole” programs, to “clean up” communities.

In “prescribed” zones across the Northern Territory, all children under the age of 16 will be subjected to compulsory medical checks for sexual abuse. Alcohol and X-rated pornography will be banned, with individuals as well as suppliers facing imprisonment.

At the same time, the existing permit system, which allows indigenous communities to restrict access to their lands, will be scrapped. Business managers—so-called “tsars”—will take charge of all public housing and government enterprises. These people will function as modern-day versions of the “administrators” and “protectors” who exercised complete authority over Aboriginal reservations in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Colin Wilson with his grandchildren at Alice Springs town camp, Northern Territory, Australia, April 2008. [Photo by WSWS/John Hulme]

Federal parliament will be recalled for a special mid-winter session to pass extraordinary, yet-to-be-seen legislation to authorise the takeover. The proposal was immediately endorsed by the Labor Party, whose leader Kevin Rudd pledged to give Prime Minister John Howard whatever support he needed.

Howard insisted that the catalyst for his government’s “hardline approach” was a recently released Northern Territory government inquiry report, “Little Children are Sacred,” which found that child sexual abuse was serious, widespread and often unreported. But Howard and Minister for Indigenous Affairs Mal Brough have brushed aside the report’s findings and recommendations, which called for better education and family support services, together with empowerment of Aboriginal communities.

The report concluded that “most Aboriginal people are willing and committed to solving problems and helping their children.” Aboriginal people were “not the only perpetrators of sexual abuse”—it existed throughout Australia and internationally. In indigenous communities, the roots lay in social problems that had developed over many decades: “the combined effects of poor health, alcohol and drug abuse, unemployment, gambling, pornography, poor education and housing, and a general loss of identity and control.” Above all, “Improvements in health and social services are desperately needed.”

On the contrary, Howard’s package includes not a single cent for health care, education, housing or social services. Such is the acute shortage of medical staff throughout indigenous communities, the government is asking doctors to donate their services to implement the mandatory medical checks. While the myth is routinely peddled that millions of dollars have already been “squandered” on Aboriginal welfare, every available statistic points to decades of chronic under-funding.

Less than three months ago, Oxfam Australia condemned Australia’s “health gap”—the fact that the federal government spent approximately 70 cents per person on the health of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders for every $1 spent on the rest of the population. The “Close the Gap” report ranked Australia as the worst among wealthy nations at improving the health of indigenous people. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders still died nearly 20 years younger than other Australians, and infant mortality was three times higher.

Dr Paul Bauert, head of pediatrics at Royal Darwin Hospital, denounced the government for ignoring the huge medical challenge produced by poverty-related illnesses. The indigenous children he had seen suffered “pus coming out of their ears, rheumatic heart disease, pus in their lungs [because] they’re living in a house with 20 other people, with three bedrooms and one bathroom and one toilet.” He said existing resources were “minimal,” with the Northern Territory having only a quarter of the doctors needed to conduct regular visits to remote townships.

Far from addressing this social catastrophe, Howard’s measures will deepen it.

What will happen to the families whose welfare payments are cut off? What will be done with those children who fail the medical checks? How many more Aboriginal men will be jailed, when the indigenous imprisonment rate is already 30 times the national average?

According to Aboriginal health specialist, Dr Ben Bartlett, conducting forced medical examinations would be traumatic and could, in itself, constitute sexual abuse. Another expert insisted that the inevitable result of the government’s “knee-jerk… military response” would be increased suicide and violence. “There will be greater feelings of despair,” said Southern Cross University professor Judy Atkinson, the author of three previous reports on child sexual abuse in indigenous communities.

Child welfare workers are warning of a new “Stolen Generation” of children placed in institutions or foster homes. Already, figures released this month by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show that the number of children aged between 12 and 17 removed from their family in 2006 rose to 9,276, up one-third since 1998. Of these children, 1,170, or about 13 percent, were indigenous, although indigenous people make up just 2 percent of the population.

Howard’s political agenda

At Thursday’s media conference, Howard declared that “constitutional niceties” had to be cast aside for “the care and protection of young children.” In the first instance, the new regime will be imposed in the Northern Territory, which operates under a different legal framework than the states. But Howard has called for urgent meetings with the six state Labor governments to adopt similar blueprints.

The prime minister claimed he detected a new “mood” among “average Australians” who felt shame and anger about the sexual abuse of indigenous children and expected governments to respond. With the enthusiastic assistance of the media, he is seeking to divert legitimate public outrage at the terrible conditions in remote Aboriginal townships away from those responsible—successive federal, territory and state governments.

Howard’s claim to be concerned for the plight of poor indigenous children is contemptible. In reality, he is using the social distress caused by decades of official neglect and deprivation, on top of two centuries of massacres, dispossession and forced separation of children, as the pretext for a new form of state repression. Alcohol and substance abuse, domestic violence and sexual abuse are symptoms of deep and longstanding social problems: poverty, deprivation and denial of essential infrastructure and services, including health care and schools.

The government’s turn—with full bipartisan support—to punitive police-state measures against the most disadvantaged layers of the Australian population has far-reaching implications for the lives, social conditions and basic democratic rights of all working people. During his media conference, Howard revealed that federal cabinet is drawing up similar measures for all welfare recipients. Precedents are being established, using the most vulnerable members of society, that will be extended throughout the country.

At the centre of the new scheme is a massive land grab. The Howard government will override the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act and the 1976 Land Rights Act—which granted land tenure to Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory—in order to take over land, initially through five-year leases. No compensation will be paid to the current landholders, despite a constitutional requirement to do so. Instead, they will be paid “in kind”—through government services—a proposal reminiscent of the days when cattle station owners gave Aboriginal workers rations of tea, sugar and flour in lieu of wages.

To enforce these deeply anti-democratic measures, police will be mobilised from across the country, backed by military units. According to Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough, a former army officer, the police will arrive in military vehicles and the army will provide logistical backup for frontline policing.

Brough likened the situation to a community being struck by a cyclone or flood. “Certain things have to be put aside. Certain normalities have to be discarded.” But the epidemic of ill-health and abuse among indigenous children is not a natural disaster—nor has it emerged overnight. It is a social disaster, which is now being exploited to radically extend the domestic role of the armed forces.

While Labor is marching lockstep with Howard, and a whole layer of privileged Aboriginal leaders is collaborating with the government, significant voices of opposition have already emerged among health professionals, scholars, lawyers and local Aboriginal leaders. Among them is the winner of the 2007 Miles Franklin literary award, indigenous writer Alexis Wright. She accused the government of “riding roughshod yet again, trampling heavily, bringing down the sledgehammer approach.” This opposition will grow and broaden as the true character of the government’s takeover becomes clearer.

As numbers of commentators have observed, there is an element of desperate election politics in Howard’s announcement. Facing the prospect of defeat at this year’s election, according to opinion polls, Howard is anxiously seeking another reactionary diversion, like the 2001 “children overboard” refugee accusations or the 2003 “weapons of mass destruction” fabrications.

But the plan is part of a wider agenda. Throughout his political career, Howard has made a point of whitewashing the genocidal policies carried out during the past 200 years against Australia’s indigenous population. His government has dismantled representative Aboriginal bodies, such as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and consistently blamed Aboriginal people for their own plight. He has also sought to abolish native and communal title. Under the Northern Territory takeover, entire communities are likely to be dispersed and their land cleared for unfettered exploitation by mining companies and pastoralists.

Virtually every media outlet, including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, has adopted the government’s line. The Murdoch media, in particular, has hailed Howard’s announcement. According to Nicolas Rothwell’s “analysis” on the Australian’s front page, Howard moved with “rapier speed and devastating force” to sweep away “a generation’s worth of political assumptions” and impose a “completely new pattern of surveillance and control” on indigenous people.

While this assault has a distinctly racist component, it is directed against the entire working class. As the social polarisation produced by more than two decades of “free market” policies intensifies, the Howard government is erecting the scaffolding for a police state. At the same time as it turns to militarism abroad—in Iraq, East Timor and the South Pacific—to realise its economic and strategic agenda, the Australian ruling elite is trampling over basic civil liberties and democratic rights at home.

The Socialist Equality Party calls on the working class as a whole—indigenous and non-indigenous alike—to oppose Howard’s deeply reactionary plan and make a political break with the entire official political apparatus, including the Labor Party. What is required is the unification of the working class on the basis of a socialist program to completely reorganise economic and social life to meet human need, not corporate profit. Such a program must include the allocation of billions of dollars in resources to overcome the social disadvantage suffered by Australia’s indigenous population, and to rectify the historic crimes perpetrated against it.

Note: Under conditions of compulsory voting, which makes it a crime to urge a boycott of the vote itself, the SEP calls on workers and youth to register their opposition by casting informal ballots and join our active boycott campaign in the lead-up to October 14, that goes well beyond the individual act of voting.

Authorised by Cheryl Crisp for the Socialist Equality Party, Suite 906, 185 Elizabeth Street, Sydney, NSW, 2000