Six years of shame: Aboriginal assimilation and the NT Intervention

Six years after Howard sent in the troops to Aboriginal communities to begin the Northern Territory Intervention, Paddy Gibson surveys the impact of assimilationist policies

On June 21 2007, Liberal Prime Minister John Howard launched the Northern Territory Intervention. The Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) was suspended to allow the imposition of an explicitly racist regime over Aboriginal lives and communities. The army was sent in to Aboriginal lands as a “shock and awe” tactic to send a clear message that the Commonwealth was in complete control.

Howard had fought assiduously to re-establish the politics of assimilation throughout his eleven years in office, to push back the gains made by the Aboriginal rights movement and the fight for self-determination. He mercilessly manipulated the issue of child sex abuse and wild assertions about “pedophile rings” to push his assimilation agenda.  Those assertions were disproven by extensive investigations by the Australian Crime Commission.

Howard’s new assimilation project also came with a hard neo-liberal economic edge. He declared that Aboriginal people had “no future outside the Australian mainstream”.

Funding agreements with the NT government restricted productive investment to a handful of larger communities—the rest were written off as “economically unviable”.

In 2012, Labor passed Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory, a package of laws extending most Intervention measures until 2022. Draconian controls first mooted as an “emergency response” have become the touchstone for Aboriginal politics into the foreseeable future.

The impact

The Intervention has had a devastating impact on Aboriginal communities. At the core of this has been the destruction of employment opportunities and municipal and other community services with the closure of the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP). A recent report by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) reform council found that the NT had the highest level of Indigenous unemployment.

After six years of the Intervention, the NT Children’s Commissioner Howard Bath says that, “on the whole, the child well-being indicators in remote communities are getting worse”.

Most disturbing is the huge increase in the rate of suicide and self-harm. A recent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commission report says that between 2001-2005 and 2006-2010, the incidence of Indigenous youth suicide in the NT increased by 160 per cent. In contrast, non-Indigenous youth suicide had declined by one third. The number of incidents of attempted suicide and self-harm being reported in remote communities has exploded by more than 500 per cent.

The report noted: “We know that feelings of hopelessness and disempowerment contribute to vulnerability to suicide. These types of feelings are well documented and widely acknowledged symptoms of the local government reforms and the Intervention.”

Aboriginal imprisonment has almost doubled since 2007, giving the NT one of the highest imprisonment rates in the world. The number of Aboriginal women being incarcerated is now more than three times pre-Intervention levels. Conditions in NT prisons resemble concentrations camps, with 15 people in a cell, thin mattresses on the floor and cells which flood when it rains.

More than twice the number of children are being removed from their families by child protection authorities (see back page).

Despite racist legislation and a massive police crackdown, alcohol-related domestic violence incidents have increased with every year of the Intervention. Fewer children are going to school, despite three layers of punishment for parents—fines from the NT government, income management through Centrelink and cuts to Centrelink payments under the new School Enrolment and Attendance Measure (SEAM).

The $700 million Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP) has done more to line the pockets of multi-national construction companies who won the contracts than alleviate the shocking housing conditions in Aboriginal communities; more than 20 people in a house is still common.

The government’s own figures show there will be no improvements in overcrowding rates. New housing is only planned for 16 of the hundreds of Aboriginal communities and outstations. The NT Housing department has taken over administration from Aboriginal organisations, leading to increased rents and deterioration in services.

The compulsory five-year township leases seized through the Intervention lapsed in June 2012. But the government is putting a new ultimatum to communities—sign a 40-year lease over housing stock and administrative buildings or suffer cuts in funding.

National agenda

Besides the devastation in the Northern Territory, the Intervention has provided the framework for spreading the politics of assimilation and punishment across Australia.

In every state, more punitive measures are imposed on Aboriginal people. The number of Aboriginal children being removed by child protection authorities has increased 68 per cent over the years of the Intervention.

Labor cut CDEP across Australia, crippled communities and threw more than 20,000 Aboriginal people out of work.

Rene Adams, head of the Toomelah Aboriginal Co-op in North West NSW told Tracker magazine, “all people who were on CDEP are basically unemployed now… Mental health issues and suicides have increased. There’s more drugs, more violence, more alcohol. It’s heart breaking.”

Since the Intervention, the government’s major Indigenous employment initiative has revolved around a corporate venture, Australian Employment Covenant (AEC) and GenerationOne, run by mining boss Andrew Forrest. It supposedly aims to get 50,000 Aboriginal people into jobs pledged by the corporate sector.

When the AEC was set up in 2011, the then Labor Indigenous Employment Minister, Mark Arbib, told the Senate that the explicit aim of the AEC was to “mainstream” Aboriginal people away from their communities. “The issue that you are raising, which is people in remote areas being mobile enough to move from, say, Yirrkala down to Melbourne to take up a job through the AEC, is extremely difficult… [but] I am confident that we will see further improvement, because we are making the connections now that allow for better chanelling of people into jobs.”

More than 50,000 “pledges” have now come in from corporate Australia—but these are pledges, not actual jobs. Only 14,000 jobs have been secured in the last five years, and according to the AEC’s own figures 30 per cent of the jobs did not last six months.

Andrew Forrest says he has personally contributed between $50-100 million of his personal fortune to the project. It would have been far better if he had just handed the money to Aboriginal organisations to fund vital services. The AEC is being supported by a slick “campaign” called GenerationOne to similarly drive assimilationist “solutions”. In May, they threw their weight behind a social media campaign to push for more government funding for the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation—an organisation which funds places for Indigenous children in elite private boarding schools. Meanwhile in the schools that most Aboriginal people attend the “close the gap” education indicators are going backwards.

Collingwood AFL CEO Eddie McGuire has been a very public supporter of GenerationOne, yet, in the middle of the AFL “Indigenous round”, managed to “joke” about Aboriginal Sydney Swans captain Adam Goodes being “King Kong” and suffer no consequences.

The Intervention has failed to smash the idea of self-determination. If anything its dramatic failures have on the one hand increased the opposition to the notions of assimilation behind the Intervention, and on the other increased the institutional support for policies backing Aboriginal self-determination.

Hundreds of submissions from across Australia were made to an inquiry into the proposed laws, calling on the government to abandon Stronger Futures, including from the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the Australian Council of Social Services and national Aboriginal organisations. A statement by the Yolngu Nations’ Assembly in Arnhem Land rejecting the Stronger Futures bill was supported by the Uniting and Catholic Churches.

Empty symbolism

At the ideological level the government is trying to cover their deprivation of Aboriginal people and their ongoing racism with symbolic gestures.

The first was Kevin Rudd much-acclaimed apology to the Stolen Generations. Now we have the government-backed push for constitutional recognition of Indigenous people. The first politician to seriously float this idea was John Howard in the final month before the 2007 election, immediately after he launched the NT Intervention.

Six years after the troops went into NT Aboriginal communities, Paddy Gibson surveys the damage of assimilationist policies

In late May, Labor, Liberal and corporate leaders participated in the launch of a flashy government funded campaign for changes to the constitution, branded “Recognise”.

But there will be no recognition of Aboriginal people’s rights to land—or rights to anything at all. There will just be a simple statement that Aboriginal people were here before colonisation.

The support by Australia’s political elite for constitutional recognition is designed to incorporate Aboriginal leaders into a tokenistic process that provides cover for the ongoing racism and devastation wrought by government policy.

“Recognise” offers no relief from Stronger Futures or the shattering of Aboriginal communities through child removal, deaths in custody, increasing incarceration, funding cuts and disempowerment.

Nor will it offer any protection from an Abbott government determined to push through more draconian Intervention-style policies and market-based amendments to the Land Rights Act to undermine collective ownership.

The ongoing campaign against the spread of Income Management and the growing outcry over the new Stolen Generation, can be the basis for pushing back the offensive begun by the Intervention and renewing a rights-based campaign for self-deteremination.


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