The Language of an Intervention


Image thanks to Fiona Katauskas

As the red dust settles on the legislation enabling Federal intervention into the lives of Northern Territory Aboriginal people, the surrounding debate has polarised into the rock-hard resolve of the Government and its supporters, versus the passions and pessimisms of those not persuaded.

At last, serious dollars are being spent to address the flinty social landscape that is the experience of many who live in the NT. But given that yearly cascades of evidence have documented the extent of social disadvantage experienced by many Territorians, and given that the Government has had more than 11 years to do something about it, some are skeptical about the timing of the action. Is it a challenge to Federal/State demarcation? An attempt to wedge Labor? Is it about securing the uranium lands? What else might explain why this is happening now?

In any case, the chosen solution to these issues reflects the Federal Government’s beliefs about the nature of the ‘problem.’ In this, the Prime Minister and his Ministers are continuing a long history.

Talk is revealing. An examination of speeches and documents delivered by Federal politicians since 1972 shows two things: first, that four key ideas about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have pervaded official conversations; and second, that the policies enacted have been consistent with those conversations.

The four ideas concern frames of control and responsibility; capacity and competence; the nature of the ‘problem;’ and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as ‘not us’ or ‘Other.’ If language used in the policy environment represents Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as not competent, irresponsible, the source or cause of the ‘problem’ and ‘not us,’ then it is no wonder that policy emerging from that environment entrenches a limited view of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In other words, the 2007 NT intervention fits with the prevailing wind of the policy climate.

Yet the wind has switched direction during the latter Howard years. The rhetoric of ‘practical reconciliation‘ has been replaced by ‘securing the ground‘ and is therefore a very visible rejection of the idea that Australia’s Indigenous peoples must, with ‘our’ help, become ‘us’ to succeed.

Such thinking had produced Howard Government policies aimed mostly towards integration and assimilation, requiring their subjects to become ‘us’ to become independent (albeit in a form which meets with the approval of those in power). Thus far, outcomes in education, health, welfare, employment and housing illustrate that most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have not become ‘us’ in terms of the quality of life enjoyed by most Australians.

But it would seem that, in the absence of comprehensive social gains, the thinking underpinning assimilationist public policy has been replaced by the idea that ‘they’ are so different (as made manifest by the widely-portrayed ‘uncivilised’ behaviours of alcoholism and child abuse) that ‘they’ will never quite be ‘us.’

And because ‘they’ are not ‘us,’ and never will be, ‘they’ are therefore unable to look after ‘their’ most vulnerable ‘we’ have to protect ‘them.’ This explains the ideological position and policy imagination from which the NT intervention emerged: protection, control, supervision.

This is further supported by administrative events. Between December 1972 and November 2001, a stand-alone bureau advised the Federal Government on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. In November 2001, the function moved to the Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs. One might surmise that the underlying policy goal of a Department which linked immigration, multicultural and Indigenous policy was to bring the ‘others’ into the realm of Australian citizenry as defined by the Howard Government. Much effort was expended to shape, deliver and control programs which sought to help Indigenous people become ‘us.’

But something changed. Ministers complained loudly (right up to and including the Press Conference in June that announced the NT intervention) that they could not see value in a decade of policies and programs. With failure to secure population-wide improvements in health and education attributed (at the time of its abolition) to the ‘ATSIC experiment,’ politicians were emboldened to discard any notions of political correctness about reconciliation.

Despite ‘our’ efforts to bridge the divide through ‘practical reconciliation,’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were never going to get over ‘their’ past and develop the social cohesion to form functional, safe communities. The proof was on the ground and on the television for all to see.

But also easy to see was that ‘they’ needed to be protected from the worst excesses of social breakdown exacerbated by ‘their’ own failures to behave in a civilised way. The portfolio was moved in January 2006 to Families and Community Services, and a policy frame of protection rather than participation and self-management came to determine policy.

The NT intervention has its roots in that portfolio shift. The intervention  clumsily promoted as a response to Anderson and Wild’s Little Children Are Sacred report makes manifest a return to the frame of protection, even requiring special measures under the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act. Welfare, economic participation, health decision making and, by default, where some citizens live are again under the control of the Federal Government.

Clearly something had to be done, and despite commentary that elements of the legislation have little to do with protecting children, Minister Mal Brough says his program will serve that purpose in the long run.

But how often have we heard that before? Is it really different this time, or is it another ‘flesh-coloured bandaid’ a short-term remedy that happens to have the same complexion of Howard’s view of the world?

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.