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Marcia Langton on the NT Intervention

30 November, 2007

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.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. snehal permalink
    16 March, 2009 6:22 pm

    nice blog!I am happy reading this paragraph.Political criteria must be changed.

  2. Peter Donnelly permalink
    28 April, 2011 11:14 pm

    Marcia, watched you on the Q&A show this evening while surfing channels including Foxtel. Have also seen your face on this & that.

    However, couldn’t be more impressed with your performance at your own pace. There were opportunities to put down the simple minded comedian, but you abstained with grace.

    Spent time on Groote Eylandnt Marcia as a young man working. Stayed at N’dunga camp site before moving to Alyangula. It was the best experience of my life. The beautiful aboriginal children running around naked at the only supermarket. All laughing out loud with mischevious intent melted the heart. I thought I was in paradise even though it was 12 hours per day on, and off in the 70s.

    Without patronising, I had more genuine hugs & tears from the indigenous workers at the concentrater when eventually leaving. To this day it I often think about them.

    You reminded me of the intelligence and love that the people on the ground had before white activist came along to make their own lives have meaning.

    I’m so glad to have seen this performance tonight Marcia. There is hope for a genuine conciliation between the original inhabitants of this land & them that keep pouring in thinking it’s a great way to relieve the congestion in their own lands.

    The leftist dyed bright coloured hair of the ALP/ Greens never gave a toss.

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