Vale Michele Harris: A Tireless Campaigner Against The NT Intervention

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On Monday this week, Michele Harris passed away. Michele Harris was one of the leading figures of concerned Australians (cA). CA has a terrific website, full of useful information, reports, books and speeches on the Northern Territory Intervention and Stronger Futures legislation.

Looking through the website, one can see the major role played by Michele in many of its projects.

For example, there is the “Will They Be Heard?” report, which was a scholarly response to the government’s alleged consultations with Aboriginal people in 2009. cA initiated and coordinated the report, which compared government claims about the consultations, with video footage of government consultations at Bagot, Utopia and Ampilatwatja.

The government was seeking to defend its policies in the Northern Territory, by claiming consultations vindicated their racially discriminatory policies. Alastair Nicholson, formerly Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia, wrote an introduction to the report, beginning by singling out the contribution by Michele Harris and her “tireless enthusiasm”.

As there was no evidence that the NT Intervention – under the Coalition, or in its slightly altered form under the ALP – had redressed the grim socio-economic conditions of Aboriginal people, the government instead started claiming that Aboriginal people loved the measures.

White Australia never paid much attention to what was being done to Aboriginal communities. If Jenny Macklin wanted to claim remote Aboriginal communities, or simply the women and children among them, actually loved these measures, most people in the major cities had no way of knowing what these Aboriginal communities really felt. Concerned Australians did their best to make sure that we knew what Aboriginal communities were saying.

For example, in 2010, they produced a book, This Is What We Said, which provided the views of Aboriginal people, in their own words, about what the NT Intervention had meant to them, and how it had affected them. It concluded with what “some others” in Australia had said – like Malcolm Fraser, Larissa Behrendt, Rex Wild, William Deane, Mick Dodson and more.

Michele Harris, Georgina Gartland from cA, and Nicholson produced a submission to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2010 on “The Despair of Aboriginal Communities in the Northern Territory”. The Committee duly expressed its concern about the NT Intervention, which is also viewable on the cA website.

In 2011, the ALP government ran a new round of consultations with Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, this time to justify a raft of legislation extending the NT Intervention, known as ‘Stronger Futures’. Jenny Macklin, the Indigenous Affairs Minister at the time, duly announced that Aboriginal people had decided that they wanted the government to cut their welfare payments if their children didn’t go to school.

When she was asked what evidence she had that this policy would achieve positive results, Macklin responded by saying "the message loud and clear from Aboriginal people, from parents and grandparents is that they want this".

cA, seeing the inevitable coming, had a report ready. Michele Harris and Rose McKenna wrote the report, Cuts to Welfare Payments for School Non-Attendance: Requested or Imposed? It drew on transcripts cA prepared from 10 public meetings the government had held with Aboriginal communities in the NT. No-one supported the mooted welfare cuts, but made a range of other suggestions – which were totally ignored by the government.

They recorded Aboriginal people venting their frustration that the government kept saying it would listen to them, and then kept ignoring what they actually said. One community worker consulting for the government noted that demands for the return of bilingual learning was “a message I've got in every single community I've gone to”.

Yet the government report on the consultations claimed that Aboriginal people had expressed “mixed views” on the issue. Harris played a crucial role in ensuring that this lie would be publicly exposed – though it would have been more publicly exposed if more journalists showed the slightest interest in the issue, and didn’t just relay government lies about the NT Intervention.

Transcripts of the consultations from 2011 were used for a report responding to the government roll-out of Stronger Futures, called Listening but not hearing.

In 2012, cA put out a book called A Decision to Discriminate. With her customary humility, Michele underplayed her role in the book she wrote, calling herself only an editor. I commented at the time that the contribution the book could make to public debate was ‘inestimable’, in a glowing review I wrote at Overland, before running a collection of quotes in another post at Overland.

One particularly useful quote from the book came from Senator Nigel Scullion, presently the Indigenous Affairs Minister, then the shadow spokesperson on Indigenous Affairs. He observed: “There is a fundamental thread through most of the feedback we get when we talk about consultation. When we get to most communities any observer would say that Aboriginal people more generally hate the Intervention. They do not like it. It invades their rights and they feel discriminated against.” Scullion voiced his suspicion that the consultations had been a “monumental failure”. This didn’t stop him from voting for the legislation, and publicly voicing the party line on the policy.

Sadly, I never met Michele personally. We occasionally corresponded by email: she was always very warm, kind and gracious. I regarded her as a tremendous campaigner for Aboriginal communities in the NT. She did a lot to ensure that we could hear from them in their own words. This had a subversive effect, due to government claims about what Aboriginal people in the NT were saying, and due to the corporate media’s disinterest in investigating government claims.

A special word of condemnation should be made of the shameful role ABC has played in Aboriginal affairs, exposed in particular by my boss, New Matilda editor Chris Graham.

Georgina Gartland posted the following on behalf of cA:

“We of ‘concerned Australians’ were deeply saddened to hear of the death of Michele Harris OAM in Sydney at 9.45 pm on Monday 1st June 2015. Michele was an extraordinary person who had a deep love and compassion for all people. Wherever there was a need she brought her great intellect, insights and organising abilities to bear, which included those facing trauma both here and abroad. She especially had a deep, abiding relationship and constant dialogue with the First Peoples of this country, especially in the Northern Territory, and sought at all times to work with them in overcoming the continuing disempowerment they have suffered from governments over the years.

We will miss her wisdom and constant strength: a woman in mission to her last breath. There is now a challenge to continue the work that she has fostered. Our thoughts are with Ed, her husband, and family as they face the future.”

Michele’s passing is a real loss: I’d like to offer my condolences to her friends and family. Michele may never have won the fame I think she deserved, but her work was valuable, and Australia is poorer now that she’s gone.

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