The NT intervention and the new politics of assimilation

CURRENTLY THOUSANDS of Aboriginal people from outstations and remote communities in the Northern Territory are living in unstable conditions in the major urban centres of Alice Springs, Darwin, Katherine and Mt Isa.

This crisis has been created by the core policies of the Northern Territory intervention. The intervention is designed to dispossess, to push people off their lands and into towns. Social problems which provided the rationale for the intervention are set to become more acute through the forced exodus taking place.

It is crucial that we break through the ideological commitment to assimilation that currently dominates Aboriginal affairs if we are going to re-establish a mass struggle for Aboriginal rights, push back the intervention and win real justice for Aboriginal people.

The revival of assimilationist politics under Howard

Two weeks before then prime minister John Howard’s announcement of the NT intervention Helen Hughes, an ideologue with the Centre for Independent Studies, released Lands of Shame: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘Homelands’ in Transition.

Hughes is an unabashed assimilationist. Her “solution” for the problems facing remote communities is cultural genocide. She describes Aboriginal culture as “stoneage” and discusses “the urgency of the evolution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditions to reasoning from evidence”, to achieve “freedom from sorcery and fear of spirits”.

Crucially, Hughes argues that people must be pushed from remote areas into towns: “it is time to stop dreaming and introduce practical policies… A core population concentration policy is far less revolutionary than it may appear…”

Hughes and Howard discussed Lands of Shame at length and the intervention took on many of its recommendations, from the abolition of the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) and radical reforms to the land tenure system through to a ban on judicial consideration of customary law.

Lands of Shame is the end point of the ideological commitment to assimilation that developed throughout the Howard years. Amanda Vanstone similarly married denigration of culture with forced calls for migration in 2005 when she derided remote communities as “cultural museums”. Tony Abbott, in a 2006 speech entitled “The new paternalism” paid homage to frontier missionaries and called for government appointed administrators to take over remote communities and force a shift into the “mainstream”.

Such confidence to speak openly about assimilation came through successive attacks from the Howard government on any law or structure that allowed Aboriginal people to exercise a modicum of control over their lives. Rights to exercise Native Title, already weak, were decimated through “bucket-loads of extinguishment”. Aboriginal services were massively defunded and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was finally dismantled in 2005.

Larissa Behrendt points to the assimilationist agenda at the front of government initiatives such as the “mainstreaming” of Aboriginal services, shifting control from Aboriginal community-based organisations to government bureaucracies. Howard also introduced “Shared Responsibility Agreements” (SRAs), tying government funding to humiliating conditions such as “face washing”.

The Northern Territory intervention and assimilation

The intervention is by far the most extreme manifestation of this assimilationist agenda. Rhetoric about the need to “normalise” communities is accompanied by punitive policies aimed at forcing migration.

The crudest method being used to shift people is the welfare quarantine. Negotiating the new “income management” system requires consistent attendance at Centrelink. Centrelink distributes storecards from major supermarket chains, which only exist in towns, instead of cash payments. The lack of cash means people are essentially stuck after they come in to do shopping.

The destruction of the CDEP programs is another major factor in forcing migration. CDEP employed about 7500 people before the intervention. CDEP workers were central to the operation of key services. Now 5500 of those jobs are being cut, robbing Aboriginal communities of both employment opportunities and basic services. The ensuing chaos has recently forced Jenny Macklin to allow the re-establishment of CDEP in 33 communities. But much of the damage has already been done and she stresses that this is a “transitionary arrangement”.

At the core of the assimilationist politics behind the intervention is the assumption that the culture and behaviour of Aboriginal people is responsible for the social problems and high levels of poverty facing many communities.

However the reality of life in these communities is one of criminal neglect by successive governments, a trend intensified under Howard. There has been a consistent denial of basic infrastructure and services.

Phillip Martin, who worked for Noel Pearson’s Cape York Institute, did research on life in Aurukun. Aurukun is one of the Queensland communities earmarked for another punitive welfare reform regime that was given backing by the package of laws passed through the NT intervention. Martin left in protest after all his evidence was omitted from the report before being sent to Mal Brough’s office:

“Infrastructure essential to the functioning of every community in Australia is simply absent in Aurukun… There is chronic over-crowding in community housing, where often more than 20 family members live in one broken down house… There is no Centrelink officer charged with supporting people to get “real jobs”. There is no AbStudy representative to respond to questions on education, and few people have home phones. There are no Department of Emergency Service officers. There is no permanent drug and alcohol counsellor. There is no permanent doctor and no dentist. Services that do exist-the school, the health clinic and police-are chronically under-staffed and resourced. If there was this much infrastructure missing in Sydney, there would be public insurrection.”

The NT communities face identical problems. As John Taylor, Deputy Director at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) says, “The vast majority (of prescribed areas) are substantially deficient across the entire range of selected services.” This cannot be explained by size and geographic isolation, as he says “even the largest of the remote communities do not have the full range of services and infrastructure”.

The government spends less than half the amount on education per child in Wadeye, one of the major Aboriginal communities, than on equivalent areas in the “mainstream” NT. 94 per cent of Aboriginal communities in the NT have no preschool and 56 per cent have no secondary school.

Ninety nine per cent of all Aboriginal communities in the NT have no substance abuse service and 99 per cent have no dental service. Only 54 per cent have state funded primary care services and 47 per cent have an Aboriginal primary health care service more than 50km away. The Australian Medical Association has estimated that $700 million is needed to bring up to minimum standard the basic infrastructure needed to maintain health, such as water and sewage. Similar statistics exist across the whole range of services.

It is clear that the coercive strategy of assimilation is prioritised over the provision of basic support. Tony Abbott’s speech in 2006, calling for a “new paternalism”, bemoaned the $6000 being spent on every Aboriginal person by the federal Government. According to HREOC, $7000 per person is being spent on implementing the system of welfare quarantining in the NT.

Labor and the intervention

The Rudd government has attempted some symbolic breaks with the politics of Howard, offering an apology to the Stolen Generations and pledging to “close the gap” in life expectancy. This in many ways reflects the depth of public opposition to Howard’s racism, and the pressure to re-establish some government support for Aboriginal communities.

However, in concrete policy terms, Rudd and Aboriginal Affairs minister Jenny Macklin have demonstrated that they are committed to assimilation. They are actively campaigning for not only the retention of the intervention but its expansion. They refuse to acknowledge the social break down taking place in the Northern Territory as a result of the intervention. They continue to deny people the limited legal protection afforded by the Racial Discrimination Act.

There are contradictions within the Labor party itself over this position. The party platform still carries commitments to “self-determination”, land rights and even a treaty. Many activists at the branch level are hostile to the open racism embodied in the intervention. While the Labor leadership supported the passage of the Emergency Response legislation essentially wholesale, murmurings about the pressures that would fall on remote communities came through in the brief Senate committee hearings, and spilled into public when Aboriginal NT Labor parliamentarian Marian Scrymgour savaged the intervention as a neo-colonial project.

Scrymgour has backed down, now publicly supporting the welfare quarantine. This illustrates the incredible strength of the consensus around assimilationist solutions. Throughout the Howard years, Labor leaders actively helped pave the road that led to the intervention, displaying a consistent unwillingness to politically challenge Howard’s initiatives.

The ALP supported the “Wik” amendments to Native Title and praised “Shared Responsibility Agreements” as an important step in encouraging accountability in service provision. Labor leaders first flagged the closure of ATSIC, eager to join the chorus of right-wing commentators blaming “corruption” in Aboriginal organisations for the problems facing communities.

Labor’s right-ward trajectory in Aboriginal affairs is part of their broader shift away from social democratic politics, towards racist social policy and free-market economics. Labor is driving the privatisation of public assets at a state level. While Rudd steps back from some of the most extreme elements of WorkChoices, his new industrial relations regime retains many of the restrictions on union power legislated under Howard. Refugees still face mandatory detention and Muslims continue to be demonised through the “war on terror”.

The logic that sees Labor call on workers to accept severe wage restraint while corporate executives are paid historic salaries is the same logic which requires Aboriginal communities to accept a complete absence of basic infrastructure while being forced to accept punitive controls to on their “behaviour”.

It is important to recognise that the assault on social democracy in Australia began in earnest under Labor. The Hawke and Keating governments took on free market reform as its major project, breaking up the power of unions, deregulating the economy and privatising major government services and assets.

In Aboriginal affairs, it was under Hawke and Keating that the serious gains being made by the movement for land rights and self-determination began to be turned back. Hawke reneged on previous Labor promises for the establishment of national land rights legislation after a relentless campaign from the mining industry and state governments. He also backed attacks form the state governments on grassroots movements asserting land rights from Noonkanbah to Roxby-Downs.

Hawke also pulled back from commitment to a serious political settlement between the Australian state and the Aboriginal population. He disbanded the National Aboriginal Conference, a national representative body that had been calling for a Makarrata (treaty).

Labor established the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) in the early 1990s in an attempt to compensate for these bitter blows. ATSIC initially had an appointed chair, little grassroots support and no teeth. Native Title, which flowed out of the Mabo decision made under Labor, only ever offered a stunted form of land rights to five per cent of Aboriginal people, and delivered far less.


This quarter century of defeats for the Aboriginal rights movement provides the context for the current re-emergence of assimilationist politics.

Until the early 1970s, assimilation was the official framework for government policy. Aboriginal people suffered the forced removal of children, restrictions on movement and control of income and continual land dispossession.

While these policies had always been met with resistance, it was through the 1960s that a mass movement calling for Aboriginal rights emerged in Australia. The movement connected with anti-colonial struggles around the world and began to challenge the government in earnest, advancing a clear demand for the self-determination of Aboriginal people.

In the current climate, “self-determination” is too often used to describe community efforts to overcome government neglect. Recently for example, Central Land Council spokesman David Ross praised a decision to purchase dialysis equipment from Aboriginal mining royalties as an act of “self-determination”.

This is a pale shadow of the demands advanced by activists who established the Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1972. They wanted full control over land, control over any policy that affected their people and a political settlement with the colonial state.

Their official claim in 1972 included an Aboriginal controlled state in the NT, legal title and mining rights to all other presently existing reserve lands throughout Australia and compensation for lands not returnable.

The movement made serious gains on the back of an uncompromising anti-racist politics, a commitment to mass mobilisation and support from powerful trade unions and the wider left. The remnants of protection boards were broken up, there were some concessions over questions of land, including the granting of large swathes of inalienable freehold title to people in the NT, the granting of citizenship rights, some funding for services to be controlled and delivered at the community level. This was all won through direct pressure from below.

Under Whitlam there was even an attempt to posture a formal government commitment to “self-determination”. This formulation was never intended to encourage the development of a political confidence amongst Aboriginal people or the capacity to challenge the interests of Australian capitalism.

The National Aboriginal Consultative Committee, established by Whiltlam in 1973, voted to transform itself into a Congress with policy making power and control over the budget of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs after the delegates grew frustrated with its purely advisory role.

The Whitlam government quashed this move, threatening funding cuts and the sacking of delegates. As we have already seen, Aboriginal control over policy was further weakened under Hawke, Keating and Howard.

The refusal of these governments to properly resource communities and allow the development of genuine self-determination is responsible for the level of poverty and disadvantage in Aboriginal communities.

The capacity of Indigenous people to control the affairs of their community is the only road to improvements in quality of life. For example, a study from the University of British Columbia by Michael Chandler shows that rates of youth suicide amongst Aboriginal people in Canada are dramatically lower where there is secure title to traditional lands, structures of self-government, community-directed education, health and fire services and resources for practice of traditional culture. Other studies have shown clearly how bad health in inextricably linked to the experience of racism.

The movement for Aboriginal rights needs to tackle assimilationist ideology head on and rebuild the strong, rights-based politics needed to build the power of Aboriginal communities against a hostile government.

Marcia Langton, a former “radical”, recently derided attempts by some Aboriginal delegates at the 2020 summit to revive the demands for a treaty, saying “Aboriginal children cannot eat rights”.

We need to be able to demonstrate that without a fight for rights, without power in Aboriginal communities, without an open challenge to the racism being entrenched by this assimilationist government, without the massive injection of resources needed to allow the development of living standards, Aboriginal children will be even hungrier.

Yuendumu, one of the biggest communities in the NT, has held off repeated government attempts to implement the welfare quarantine through a strategy of non-cooperation with intervention authorities. Harry Nelson, president of the community council says, “they won’t get this land while I’m alive”. Jeannie Nungarrayi Egan from the community council has said, “Nobody likes it, we have to control our own community, we’re going to push out the quarantine”.

If Rudd succeeds in entrenching the assimilationist ideas accompanying the intervention, he will disarm the fight of the labour movement and the broader left to shift Labor’s broader commitment to Howard’s legacy. Aboriginal people in the NT are fighting against racism, increased control and attacks on hard-won rights. This is a fight over the shape of the society we all live in. It needs urgent support.


Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the NT response to the federal government “emergency response” proposal available at

John Taylor, “Demography is Destiny, Except in the Northern Territory”, Coercive Reconciliation, ed John Altman and Melinda Hinkson, Arena, Melbourne 2007


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