NT Intervention on the ABC
On Thursday the ABC program Difference of Opinion addressed the topic of the Northern Territory intervention. Entitled A New Deal for Indigenous Australians?, the program featured a panel of Indigenous leaders debated the merits of the Intervention in front of an audience.
The panel was made up of Sue Gordon, Chair of the NT Task Force; Tom Calma, Acting Race Discrimination Commissioner; Olga Havnene, CEO of the Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the NT (and Women for Wik organiser); and Lowitja O’Donaghue, Inaugural Chairperson of ATSIC.
The context of the debate was both the NT Intervention and the recent surprise announcement by John Howard that he had suddenly become interested in reconciliation after 11 years of doing everything in his power to undermine any form progressive policies in relationship to Indigenous Australia.
While announcing his change of heart on reconciliation and his willingness to hold a referendum on putting a mention of Indigenous Australians into the preamble of the Constitution (but not into the body mind you). Howard claimed that he had recently discovered the value of “symbolic” gestures, as if a decade of refusing to apologise to the Stolen Generation isn’t a symbolic gesture.
Actually, I think the move was a symbolic gesture, but more towards the Australian electorate than towards Indigenous Australia. A week before he announced the election it was pretty clear he was trying to demonstrate to the electorate that although he was an old dog he still has some new tricks to play.
Back to Difference, the opinions expressed by the panel were varied, which helped to illustrate that there is certainly no consensus even within Indigenous Australia about the merits, or lack thereof of the Intervention. As would be expected, Sue Gordon was a lot more upbeat about the Intervention and claimed that people in many remote communities were very happy to have part of their income quarantined. This was hotly disputed by the other panelists, who emphasised the confusion and lack of information in these communities which has bred a lot of uncertainty and fear about what the government would be doing. I was particularly impressed by Olga Havnene, who made the point that although the Intervention is ostensibly addressed at protecting children from abuse, there is no mention of children in the new legislation and it is very hard to see how many of the policies are supposed to contribute to child protection.
A couple of the panelists also pointed out that the real tragedy of this process is that there has been virtually no consultation with Indigenous Australians at large, and specifically with the remote communities being targeted. Thus even if some of the policies might have some objective benefits for some members of the communities, they don’t contribute to any sense of empowerment or control within the communities themselves.
In any case, there is a strong contrast between Howard’s proposal for “reconciliation” as an essentially abstract notion and the concrete reality of the policies that are impacting on actual Aboriginal communities. Good ethnographic studies done in these communities would, I think, help to illuminate discrepancies of this kind.
The show’s website is worth a visit. It includes video from the program, the transcript, online forum and a poll about the Intervention.