The racist disgrace of the Northern Territory Intervention
The racist disgrace of the Northern Territory Intervention)

Fifteen years ago, the John Howard federal Coalition government launched a military invasion and occupation of Aboriginal townships and lands in the Northern Territory. More than 600 military and police personnel, accompanied by a phalanx of government bureaucrats, entered 73 Aboriginal communities, placing them under the unilateral control of the Australian army.

Bearing the name Operation Outreach, the same name given to the US Department of Defense’s “humanitarian” relief program in the wake of the US military’s invasion and devastation of Afghanistan, the invasion came just six days after Howard first announced the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) on 21 June 2007.

In Mutitjulu, the small community at the centre of what would become known colloquially as the “Northern Territory Intervention”, residents feared that the army would take their children away. Located 460 kilometres south-west of Alice Springs and home to 1,500 residents, the community was gripped by terror as military jeeps rolled into the remote township.

Speaking with SBS’s National Indigenous Television (NITV) in 2017 on the tenth anniversary of the Intervention, Mutitjulu resident Dorethea Randall recalled the fear and panic experienced by her community:

“I’ve never seen my family and the community members so nervous and scared. There were some family members, especially a lot of our mothers, who’d experienced the Stolen Generation. They ran up to the sand dunes to hide their kids, so you can just imagine they were reliving something they’d experienced.”

Another Mutitjulu resident, Gary Cole, recalled the apprehension that swept the community, telling NITV: “We heard they was coming, and some people were hiding in their houses, thinking, ‘Oh, they’re gonna come and start shooting people and taking over our community’. A lot of people were scared, we were all scared”.

At the 21 June press conference, flanked by Mal Brough—the minister for Indigenous affairs—Howard declared there was “a national emergency in relation to the abuse of children in Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory”. Howard and Brough then outlined measures to be imposed, including bans on the possession of pornography and alcohol, as well as forced medical examinations of all Indigenous children under 16.

Income support and family assistance payments would be linked to school attendance, while 50 percent of welfare payments would be quarantined. Howard also announced that the federal government would “take control of townships through five-year leases”, “scrap the permit system for common areas and road corridors on Aboriginal lands” and increase policing.

Howard justified the measures by citing the Little Children Are Sacred report, which had been commissioned by the Territory government and outlined allegations of child abuse and family violence in Aboriginal communities, as well as the systemic disadvantage experienced by Indigenous people—including economic deprivation, social marginalisation, unemployment, poor health and inadequate housing. The report, however, was not the first received by the federal government on the issue, nor was it the first to link the cause of family violence to lack of investment in Aboriginal communities and the failure to provide basic services and infrastructure.

Through the late 1990s and into the 2000s, several reports were furnished to Howard’s Coalition government by a range of state and federal departments, as well as Aboriginal and non-Indigenous organisations, including one in 1996 from Secretariat National Aboriginal & Islander Child Care proposing a national strategy to prevent child abuse and neglect in Aboriginal communities.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), abolished by Howard in 2004, had also provided reports on the issue between 1996 and 2004, while working to develop programs to combat family violence. However, in his first budget after being elected in 1996, Howard cut $460 million from ATSIC, and over the next decade continued to reduce funding to the Indigenous body before abolishing it. These funding cuts ensured ATSIC was never able to fully address issues affecting Indigenous communities, including family violence.

Writing three days after the start of Operation Outreach, Sydney Morning Herald columnist Alan Ramsey noted that the Coalition had also received a major report on violence in Aboriginal communities written by Dr Paul Memmott in August 1999, but waited eighteen months to release it. Ramsey asked rhetorically what Howard had done in response to Memmott’s report, noting he did not call out the troops or send in the police. Instead, the report, documenting many of the same issues in Little Children Are Sacred, was ignored by Howard’s Coalition. However, things changed abruptly in the lead-up to the 2007 federal election, with the prime minister suddenly discovering a national emergency in Aboriginal communities. As Ramsey correctly concluded, Howard’s “national emergency” was purely political.

In many ways, the NT Intervention was to the Coalition’s 2007 federal election campaign, what the Tampa affair and the “children overboard” scandal had been to its 2001 election campaign. In 2001, less than three months out from the election, Howard’s government manufactured a “border crisis”, refusing to allow a Norwegian freighter to dock in Australia after its captain had rescued more than 400 refugees from drowning in the Indian Ocean.

Howard used the events surrounding the MV Tampa to craft a new “border protection” policy, making it the centrepiece of the Coalition’s election campaign. Six weeks later and just four weeks out from the election, Howard and his ministers again played the race card, this time falsely claiming that asylum seekers had thrown their small children into the ocean to force the Australian navy to rescue them and bring them to Australia.

In 2007, the race card played to advance the Coalition’s electoral fortunes was the Intervention, the focus this time on Aboriginal communities rather than asylum seekers.

The Intervention, however, was not just policy on the fly. As Professor Jon Altman, who has written extensively on the Intervention, notes, the NTER had “a considerable policy history”, according with Howard’s long-held ideological beliefs. Writing in the Journal of Indigenous Policy on the first year of the Intervention, Altman explained that reshaping Indigenous affairs was “a core ideological issue” for Howard, with this being “evident in a series of ‘antis’: anti-ATSIC, anti-native title, anti-reconciliation, anti-the rights agenda, anti-apologising to the stolen generation in 1997, anti-land rights and anti-the diverse intercultural institutions of Indigenous Australia”.

Prior to the Intervention, Howard had long sought to demolish and dilute not only Indigenous institutions but also rights. In a subsequent 2021 Arena article, Altman argued that, with the Intervention, Howard “set out to eradicate the ‘self-determination’ approach and unleash restorative free-market capitalism on remote places”, this being “expertly guided by state schemes to modify behaviour and educate and train the workforce”.

To enact the Intervention, legislation was subsequently passed on 16 August 2007 with the support of the Labor Party. Costing $580 million in its first year, the legislative package ensured the enactment of the measures announced at the press conference, along with the denial of compensation to traditional owners for the Commonwealth’s compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal townships and lands, while also excluding consideration of customary law and cultural practices in sentencing and bail decisions.

It also suspended the Racial Discrimination Act, denying Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory anti-discrimination protection under the law.

The speed with which Howard was able to orchestrate the Intervention was in part due to sensationalist reporting carried out by the media, in particular ABC’s Lateline. In June 2006—one year before the Intervention—Lateline ran a sensational story on the alleged abuse taking place in Mutitjulu, showcasing an interview with a man claiming to be a “youth worker” living in the community. The “youth worker”, whose face was concealed and voice digitally distorted, claimed to have witnessed several incidents of child sexual abuse, widespread domestic violence against Aboriginal women and sex slavery.

However, as investigative reporter Chris Graham would expose in a 2007 National Indigenous Times article, “Bad Auntie”, not only were the allegations false but the man was not a “youth worker” at all. He was Greg Andrews, an assistant secretary in the Office of Indigenous Policy, advising Mal Brough on violence in Aboriginal communities. And Lateline was aware of his real identity.

However, as Graham explained in another article in 2015, the damage was done: “The morning after Lateline’s scoop, [NT Chief Minister] Clare Martin announced her government would hold a major inquiry into violence against children in Aboriginal communities”. The result was the Little Children Are Sacred report, used by Howard to initiate the Intervention.

Although Howard’s Coalition was swept from office in November 2007, Kevin Rudd’s new Labor government continued and extended the Intervention. Speaking in June 2008 at the Queensland ALP conference, Rudd claimed that the Intervention had made a major difference and that communities felt safer “with more police on the ground”. Speaking just four months after issuing an apology to the Stolen Generations, Rudd outlined his determination to “maintain momentum” and continue the Intervention. The Racial Discrimination Act remained suspended for another three years.

Labor governments redesigned and extended the Intervention. When the legislative basis for it was due to expire in 2012, it was replaced with the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Act, ensuring the Intervention continued for another ten years. Stronger Futures resulted in the expansion of income management, increased payment quarantining and penalties relating to alcohol and pornography, including up to six months in jail for the possession of a can of beer and eighteen months for a six pack. It also expanded the policy linking school attendance and Centrelink payments and the Commonwealth’s powers regulating Aboriginal townships, while continuing the suspension of the land permit system.

Subsequent Coalition governments under Tony Abbot, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison continued to tinker with Stronger Futures, while cutting funding from frontline Aboriginal organisations and programs, including legal and health services and early childhood education programs.

While successive Labor and Coalition governments continued to support the racist Intervention, the impact on NT Aboriginal communities has been devastating. In a 2019 letter to then Minister for Indigenous Affairs Ken Wyatt, Aboriginal leaders documented the increasing and ongoing socio-economic disadvantage within their communities caused by the Intervention.

The letter, issued by the Intervention Rollback Action Group, noted that Aboriginal men were widely and wrongly being labelled as child abusers and that the Intervention had resulted in loss of community control, governance and assets, the closure of community organisations and pressure to sign over land, along with an increase in racism and negative stereotyping. The letter noted that “the Intervention has taken away people’s control over their lives and is insidiously and seriously affecting health”, resulting in a rise in suicide rates. Excessive policing had also increased incarceration rates and the removal of children, “entrenching a sense of helplessness in future generations”.

In the wake of the election of the Albanese Labor government, Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory have continued to organise, demanding an end to the intervention. As part of the 18 June National Day of Action, launched after the acquittal of Northern Territory cop Zachary Rolfe for the 2019 murder of 19-year-old Warlpiri teen Kumanjayi Walker, Warlpiri Elders called for armed police to be removed from Indigenous communities, as well as “the complete repeal of all Intervention laws and the restoration of our community control” with all Intervention funding being “re-directed to our expert community services” to allow for “grassroot” solutions.

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