Marcia Langton on the NT Intervention
In the wake of Labor’s stunning victory over the weekend there is a lot of speculation about the future of the Northern Territory Intervention. One indigenous commentator on this is Professor Marcia Langton, who has never been one to mince her words. She has written the following article, published in today’s Sydney Morning Herald, which says a lot about the complexities of the intervention and the social problems it is supposed to address. She points out the gender and generational dimensions of “the problem” and draws attention to the role of power within the indigenous population itself. Her approach suggests that the question shouldn’t be “intervention, yes or no?” but “intervention for whom?”
It’s time to stop playing politics with vulnerable lives
Marcia Langton, November 30, 2007
The crisis in Aboriginal society is a public spectacle, played out in a vast reality show through the media, parliaments, civil service and Aboriginal world. This obscene and pornographic spectacle deploys a special mode of dehumanising abuse and parody, and ultimately shifts our attention away from the everyday crises that Aboriginal people endure, or don’t endure, dying as they do at excessive rates.
This spectacle is not a new phenomenon in Australian public life but the debate about indigenous affairs has reached a new crescendo, fuelled by the uncensored exposé of the extent of Aboriginal child abuse.
More than a century of policy experimentation with Aboriginal people climaxed with the Commonwealth Government sending the army and a specialist taskforce into the Northern Territory, the only jurisdiction where it has such broad powers.
It legislated more than 500 pages of emergency intervention measures that subvert self-government powers of the Northern Territory in the most extraordinary federal takeover in Australia’s history. In some critical respects, the outcome is what many have recommended for decades: interventions to prevent the abuse, rape and assault of Aboriginal women and children and decisive action against the perpetrators.
The federal legislation and the emergency taskforce constituted a slap in the face for the Northern Territory Government led by the then chief minister, Clare Martin – a bracing vote of no confidence in her government’s capacity to deal with the Aboriginal crisis.
Even though the Commonwealth provides funds to the Northern Territory Government on the basis of the disadvantages of the population, it was the Commonwealth, rather than the Territory Government, that became the villain of the piece in the public debate about the intervention.
Last Sunday Labor’s Trish Crossin and Warren Snowdon reportedly demanded that the intervention be halted, with a list of demands: the reinstatement of the Aboriginal work-for-the-dole scheme; the removal of measures to limit alcohol sales; and the reinstatement of permit restrictions for Aboriginal communities that had been not just isolated from the outside world but effectively quarantined from the larger society and economy. It remains to be seen whether the Prime Minister-elect, Kevin Rudd, will honour his commitment to the intervention.
Now Martin and her deputy, Sid Stirling, have resigned.
There has also been a spill in the chairman’s position at the powerful Northern Land Council. Wali Wunungmurra, one of Galarrwuy Yunupingu’s cousins, was elected to the position. Just before the federal election, Yunupingu supported the principal intention of the intervention in a public lecture at the University of Melbourne.
The political earth is moving after so much pretentious, vain, and ultimately anti-humanist dancing with symbols while the practical responses to the crisis never came.
There’s a cynical view afoot that the emergency intervention was a political ploy – a Trojan Horse – to sneak through land grabs and some gratuitous black head-kicking disguised as concern for children. These conspiracy theories abound, and they are mostly ridiculous.
Those who did not see the intervention in the Northern Territory coming were deluding themselves. It was the inevitable outcome of the many failures of policy and of the strange federal-state division of responsibilities for Aboriginal Australians. Added to this were the general incompetence of the civil service and the non-governmental sector, including some Aboriginal organisations, lack of political will and the dead hand of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.
The combined effect of the media campaign for action and the emergency intervention has been a metaphorical dagger sunk into the heart of the powerful, wrong-headed Aboriginal male ideology that had prevailed in indigenous affairs, policies and practices.
It’s time for the voices of women and children to be heard. It’s time for both the federal and the Territory government to stop playing politics with the lives of the vulnerable and shut down the alcohol take-away outlets, establish children’s commissions and shelters in each community – as Noel Pearson has suggested – and treat grog runners and drug dealers as the criminals that they are. Otherwise, they will all have the blood of the victims on their hands.
Professor Marcia Langton is the Inaugural Chairwoman of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne.