The ABC should be held to account for lies that justified NT intervention

Ten years ago, the Howard government, with the support of the Labor opposition, sent the military to occupy 73 Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory, an act so racist that the parliament had to suspend the Racial Discrimination Act to do it.

The NT Intervention’s proclaimed justifications of addressing sexual assault, child abuse, alcoholism and general unfitness of Aboriginal communities were always a cover for the land grab at its heart.

Recent testimony by child protection expert professor Sven Silburn at the royal commission into youth detention in the NT makes clear that there is no evidence that the claims of high child sexual abuse rates in Aboriginal communities were true. Nor have the lives of Aboriginal people in the targeted communities improved.

Yet the Intervention continues with bipartisan support, and income management is being extended to more and more welfare recipients. For government and opposition, the ideological battle has largely been won.

How did they win it? The 10th anniversary of this shameful assault on the rights and lives of Aboriginal people cannot be allowed to pass without reference to the central role of the ABC, particularly its Lateline program, in selling the Intervention.

Not that you will find any reference to this role in the ABC coverage.

ABC radio and television ran a series of items on the 10th anniversary. The overall tone was reflected in the title of a piece by Sara Everingham, “Northern Territory Emergency Response: views on ‘intervention’ differ 10 years on”. Very balanced, don’t you think?

Was it because of an excess of modesty that the ABC nowhere mentioned its own role? Or was it because the damage was already done, never to be spoken of again?

The moral panic the broadcaster was central in creating resulted in the demonisation of Aboriginal men as paedophiles and child abusers.

The Howard government had been laying the groundwork for the Intervention from at least 2006. For example, an aptly titled article by then health minister Tony Abbott, “The new paternalism”, spelt out some of the victim-blaming that would reach its height with the Intervention:

“Regardless of people’s cultural or ethnic background, poorer health and lower life expectancies are generally associated with low educational attainment, high unemployment, poor housing and high levels of substance abuse.”

But from the outset, the government attempted to find voices outside its own ranks to back its project. One of the first was an “anonymous former youth worker from Central Australia” who appeared on Lateline to substantiate Indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough’s claims about “paedophile rings” operating in Aboriginal communities.

The “youth worker” was in fact Greg Andrews, head of the Communities Engagement Branch within the Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination in Canberra. He had never lived in Mutitjulu, the community his supposed expertise helped to demonise.

A similar role in the liberal apology for the NT Intervention was played by Alice Springs crown prosecutor Nanette Rogers, turning on the Aboriginal people she had at one point sought to help. Rogers’ Lateline facilitators promoted her attacks:

“She’s been gathering information, documenting the shocking crimes routinely committed against Aboriginal women and girls [by Aboriginal men] … She’s so worried about the future of Aboriginal children, she’s given Lateline her dossier … its contents spell out a level of human degradation and suffering that she believes can no longer be tolerated.”

Given the credibility gap that the Coalition government faced by 2007 (it was about to lose the election), it was important for promoting the Intervention that it have wider backing, in much the same way that it was of great service to the Bush administration at the time of the Iraq war that, in addition to the usual neoconservatives, it could boast the support of prominent liberal intellectuals. Commentator Guy Rundle drew out this comparison:

“[In] the bizarre period of military humanitarianism … Australia has become the first member of the Coalition of the Willing to invade itself … [replaying] many of the political themes and manoeuvres acted out on a global scale in the years since September 11, now projected into a domestic space.”

Ten years ago, there was no evidence that the Intervention would help Aboriginal people. All of its rationales were lies. But it received widespread support, despite its overtly discriminatory nature. For that, recognition must go to the vile role of the ABC in selling it.