Indigenous “crisis”: states and emergencies

Thanks to the gang here at Savage Minds for inviting me to guest blog for the week!

I returned a few weeks ago from a two-month field trip to Tennant Creek a small town in Australia’s Northern Territory. I’ve been working in Tennant Creek since 1995 with Warumungu people. This trip was focused on installing a community digital archive–a collaborative project that we have spent about two years on. I’ll get to that at the end of the week, but I want to begin my blogging here with a discussion of the “intervention” into Aboriginal communities that began in June of this year and has no clear end in sight (sound familiar?).

First, the “emergency.”

In June of this year the “Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle: Little Children are Sacred” report by Rex Wild and Patricia Anderson was released by the Northern Territory (NT) government. The report detailed child abuse (including sexual abuse) in Aboriginal communities and made dozens of recommendations for specific ways to address the problem including more community consultation, the use of interpreters, education, safe houses, etc. The report made it clear that this was not a new problem, and that solutions need to be long term and had to involve Aboriginal communities at every level (full report here, summary here). I’m not going to re-hash the debate that went on here at SM concerning the veracity of the report or who saw what where.

My purpose here is to examine and pose some questions about the relationship between settler governments and their indigenous populations in light of the events that followed the release of the Anderson/Wild report in Australia.

On June 21 2007 Prime Minister John Howard (who has been in office since 1996) and his current Minister for Indigenous Affairs Mal Brough called a special news conference to declare a national “state of emergency” in 73 Northern Territory Aboriginal communities and the town camps in Alice Springs, Tennant Creek and Katherine (see the map here). Using the Anderson/Wild report as their basis, they announced their intent to ignore “constitutional niceties” in order to adopt a plan that was “radical, comprehensive and interventionist.”

It didn’t take long for the crisis rhetoric to be undermined as some commentators noted that similar reports had been released consistently over the last ten years without so much as a peep from the Howard government. But these critiques were largely eclipsed by the emphasis on crisis–John Howard even likened the NT situation to the hurricane Katrina: “We have our Katrina here and now. That it has unfolded more slowly and absent the hand of God should make us humbler still.” This is one of the only mentions of the long history of problems predating the “emergency.” Most of the crisis rhetoric places the problem squarely in the present and thus The PM’s need to take “swift” action lest he be left looking like GWB post-Katrina.

What does the Commonwealth gain by defining Aboriginal communities as in crisis? How does this frame the way that Aboriginal issues are dealt with in the nation?

A little background…
Mal Brough has consistently criticized what he labels “communal” land ownership as being a roadblock to Aboriginal economic prosperity. He believes that land rights has been a failure and has lead to more indigenous hardship. In 2006 the Commonwealth was able to amend the Aboriginal Land Rights Act making leases of Aboriginal land easier (but still voluntary). For months before the “emergency” Brough had been working to entice Tangentyere Council to accept $60 million to “upgrade” and “normalize” the Alice Springs town camps. The Council held numerous meeting with community members and every time they knocked back by the $60 million because it came with relinquishing their ownership for a lease in perpetuity to the government. Howard and Brough desperately wanted a new way of managing both Aboriginal land–for development and investment–and Aboriginal lives. In 2004 Howard introduced the idea of “mainstreaming” to counter what he saw as the “failure of “self-determination” (which had been the stated government policy on Aboriginal affairs for decades). When Howard got into office in 1996 he began slowly chipping away at self-determination–particularly what he saw as “special rights” for Indigenous people. Mainstreaming was supposed to produce a “whole-of-government” approach whereby services to Aboriginal communities would be managed in an integrated manner by government agencies. One of the main goals of mainstreaming was to reduce red tape and improve the big three issues: health, housing and education. There is no evidence that this has been successful, in fact, given the government’s own admission of a crisis in Aboriginal communities, their mainstreaming has been a failure (see reports by the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy on self-determination, mainstreaming and the intervention here).

The stated crisis gave the Commonwealth the opportunity to suspend the Racial Discrimination Act, push aside Aboriginal civil and property rights, push aside the role of Aboriginal organizations, communities, and the NT government in confronting the issues of abuse and “law and order” and ram through over 500 pages of legislation with barely two days of debate. This legislation redefines the state’s relationship to Aboriginal people and land in the NT through welfare reform, mandatory leases, the suspension of Native Title claims,and prohibitions on alcohol (among other things). This is the biggest shift in Aboriginal policy in thirty years and yet there was little debate and the push back from Aboriginal organizations, some Democrats and Green Party members (both minor parties in Australia), activists and academics was met with hostility and bullying tactics along the lines of “if you’re not with us, you’re with the pedophiles” (for recent critiques of this on-going tactic check out this and this).

What the Howard/Brough legislation accomplished was a significant shift in the way that Aboriginal people, communities, and organizations deal with the government in terms of everything from individual and family daily needs to community leases of land. The assumption behind the emergency and the subsequent legislation is that Aboriginal people cannot manage their lives–thus they need the government to micro-manage their incomes, make decisions about where they should shop, what they can buy, and where they should live. (see Jane Simpson’s post here for more on how the money is actually being spent). Significantly, none of the 97 recommendations from the Anderson/Wild Little Children are Sacred report have been implemented and both of the authors of the report have been critical of the intervention (see here and here).

What has been pushed aside with the crisis framework is the collaborative role of Aboriginal people, organizations, and communities in deciding the direction of and the changes necessary to tackle the problems that no one disputes exist. This is all top down. An anthropologist friend of mine who lives and works in the Central Desert said that at the first meeting between Aboriginal people and the “intervention” team in the Alice Springs area an Aboriginal man stood up to address the government officials and told them that Aboriginal people don’t want to see their kids hurt or not going to school, they don’t want rubbish houses and no proper roads, but that they had been “singing out for help” for years with no response from the government, and now the response ignored what they had been saying, ignored their land rights and ignored their place in the decision-making for their communities. In short, this man made it clear that the government’s new mode of (non) engagement with Aboriginal people and communities denied their place within their communities and within the nation.

The Howard/Brough declaration of emergency and the subsequent legislation were an attempt to radically alter the field of indigenous politics, representation, and action. They certainly did not invent the use of crisis as a political tool. But what they have managed to pull off is a relatively uncontested (the majority of the Australian public is still behind the intervention and there has been scant international coverage, let alone criticism) upending of indigenous rights. In stark terms the Howard government declared Aboriginal communities failures. Building on years of undermining Aboriginal self-determination politics and programs (through successive years of under funding, the dismantling of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in 2004–the only national Indigenous representative body– and constant political attacks on Aboriginal communities defining them as dysfunctional), the Howard/Brough crisis legislation has undermined (but not undone) thirty years of political work. The arrogance of claiming self-determination and Aboriginal communities failures after only thirty years of at best ambivalent policies and programs highlights the Howard government’s assurance that they can get away with this type of new paternalism. The Australian state has essentially declared part of their own territory a “failed state” and in doing so have laid the groundwork for an antagonistic relationship with its Indigenous populations. What they have not been able to get rid of though are the 6,000 Indigenous organizations throughout the country and their extended networks. Unlike “old paternalism” this new shift will face continual challenges by a now entrenched Indigenous sector (see Tim Rowse on this here).

In my next post I’ll address the militarization of the intervention as well as the failures of and reactions to the government’s plan throughout the Northern Territory.

update: links for my comment below in response to Strong:

Rudd’s support for the intervention, here.
Marion Scrymgour’s speech, here.
Also I should note that Scrymgour came under attack by Brough after this speech. He said she should resign since she isn’t on board with Labor in supporting the intervention. Apparently criticizing the government is not accepted in Australia anymore. She has not resigned, but she did back down some.

9 thoughts on “Indigenous “crisis”: states and emergencies

  1. Hi Kim, Thanks for coming over to SM for a bit — we are glad to have you.

    bq. But what they have managed to pull off is a relatively uncontested (the majority of the Australian public is still behind the intervention and there has been scant international coverage, let alone criticism) upending of indigenous rights.

    I am curious about who all in Australia may be criticizing the intervention, outside the ‘Indigenous sector’. What does Opposition say? Also, does anyone know if or how other regional (Pacific) politicians and activists have responded?

  2. Excellent post, Kim. Though I must say I don’t think the greater public is very much ‘behind’ the intervention. Rather I think the mood in the Australian hoi polloi is one of indifference, typically.

    But things are beginning to change, as increasingly, news from the Territory is hitting front middle pages, and then of course there are us bloggers, doing as much as we possibly can. Tonight’s Four Corners had a very interesting report (transcript here) from Maningrida and Finke about how the intervention has progressed so far. I plan to post something about it, but not tonight.

    It was great to see though, since it was the first time my family have seen even a little bit of what I’ve been harking on about for the past four months. The stresses on the Finke community store, where the manager has become an unpaid Centrelink accountant, or the orchard gardeners who used to be paid on CDEP, who can now sit back and live on the pittence that is the dole, or work their normal 25 hours a week for an extra, wait for it, $8.25 per fortnight, in “CDEP transition” top-up.

    Strong, the leader of the Maori party in New Zealand (I can’t remember the actual name of the party nor his name) was very critical of the entire saga, for one. The opposition have given their ‘in principle’ support, but have promised, if elected in three weeks’ time, to roll back the changes to the CDEP program and re-instate the permit system, which, typically, has been dismissed by the government as (take your pick) a backflip, showing weakness, letting pedophiles win, etc. These are the bully-boy tactics that Kim referred to.

  3. Hi Strong,
    I posted this earlier this morning but it didn’t come through…so here goes again.

    The Labor party has supported the intervention and the legislation from day one. There is an election going on and apparently to avoid a “wedge” Labor is going along with the Coalition on this one. Kevin Rudd the Labor party leader has said he will continue if Labor gets in at the end of November (see this news story today).

    Several NT Labor politicians, however, have come out against it. At the beginning of October Labor leaders said they would reinstate CDEP if elected (see my blog post here. Most recently, Marion Scrymgour–the first Aboriginal female Cabinet Minister in an Australain government, gave a scathing speech condeming the intervention:

    “John Howard and Malcolm Brough, this evening I am doing far more than merely criticising you and your government’s assault on Aboriginal Territorians, I am condemning its motivation; I am condemning its operations; and I am condemning-outright-its moral basis and the moral authority you purport to exercise in “saving the children”

    As for Pacific leaders, some Maori groups have condemed the intervention, but I haven’t heard anytyhing else–It seems to have barely made the news outside Australia, except through indigenous activist networks.

  4. Strong-
    (Third time is a charm, hopefully this will post, I’ll add the url links above in the post b/c the comments doesn’t seemt to like them!).

    Labor has backed the intervention and the legislation from day one. There is an election on though and so people in Australia tell me that the Labor party doesn’t want the intervention to become a “wedge” issue. But as of today, Kevin Rudd, the leader for Labor, has pledged to keep on keepin’ on with the intervention (see Rudd link above).

    However, several Labor politicians from the NT have denounced the intervention. Most recently Marion Scrymgour the first Aboriginal female Cabinet minister in an Australian Government. About a week ago she gave a scathing speech, here’s a tidbit:

    “John Howard and Malcolm Brough, this evening I am doing far more than merely criticising you and your government’s assault on Aboriginal Territorians, I am condemning its motivation; I am condemning its operations; and I am condemning-outright-its moral basis and the moral authority you purport to exercise in “saving the children”.”

    (read or listen at the link above).

    I haven’t heard much from others in the Pacific or elsewhere condeming the intervention. Some Maori groups have. I don’t think it has made “mainstream” news outlets outside Australia…any one else see anything?

  5. Thanks, Kim, for lucidly placing this recent attack on indigenous autonomy in historical and political perspective. I learned a lot from your post. Nursel Guzeldeniz at Culture Matters reports that a book has been quickly published to address the Howard government’s intervention in the Northern Territory: Coercive Reconciliation: Stabilise, Normalise, Exit Aboriginal Australia, edited by Jon Altman and Melinda Hinkson. Have you had a look at this? Was wondering what you thought.

  6. LL,
    Yes I picked up a copy in the Sydney airport of all places! I’ve only read the first two chapters, but it looks like a great resource (it only covers the first two months of the intervention though). For a thoughtful review see Will Owen’s review on his blog:Aboriginal Art and Culture: An American Eye

  7. Jangari,
    I think you are right, indifference is probably more what the “public” feels, if one can monitor such things. As I was leaving a few weeks ago it did seem that the news was trickling out of the NT and into the “mainstream.” The mainstream news outlets still seem to be backing the intervention though, I think. At least in a sort of “something had to be done” sort of way. I wish Rudd would define Labor’s position more clearly. I know he says he will maintain the intervention–but in the same guise? With Chalmers in command?

  8. I agree there, I think Labor just know how much of a wedge issue it could be, and this election campaign is, in my memory at least, the closest the two parties have ever been on policy. The only differences are Iraq and industrial relations. Elsewhere (I’m sure you know this) they’ve basically mirrored the government’s policy to avoid wedge politics as much as possible.

    I just have to assume, for my own sanity, that Labor have a better holistic world view in these regards, especially in the sorts of aspects that don’t translate well into election-campaign policy teasers. I mean to say that they may be substantively close to the government on most areas of indigenous affairs, but may place a greater importance on bilingual education, for example, or for the recognition of the rights of indigenous people, self determination, the social value (rather than fiscal value) of community-based living, etc., all of the things that the government reject, but not publicly – you sort of have to sift through the policies and know a great deal of background on all ministers (and have a healthy degree of cynicism) to see it.

    I’m sure you know what I mean, having been around and about, more or less, for over ten years.

Comments are closed.