In June 2007, following the tabling of the “Little Children are Sacred” report, the Australian government introduced the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act, prescribing a number of drastic measures, some contravening the Racial Discrimination Act and others revolving around land use.
A massive military and police emergency response ensued. The stated aim was to combat child abuse, though there was no reference to children in this massive bill.
“It is a disgrace that a section of the Australian population, that little children should be the subject of serious sexual abuse.” Prime Minister John Howard said at the time.
This extraordinary and costly action has had immense and long-reaching effects on Indigenous communities and identity. As the Intervention morphed into ‘Stronger Futures’ in legislation passed by the successive Labor government, many commentators have been asking what the justification for this continuation is, given the increasing rates of suicide, child health problems and unemployment.
Using methodology endorsed by the World Health Organisation, an Australian Indigenous Doctors Association report found that the Intervention would potentially lead to “profound” long-term damage, and that any potential benefits to physical health were largely outweighed by negative impacts to psychological health, social health and wellbeing, as well as cultural integrity.
Eva Cox AO, one of Australia’s most esteemed sociologists, writes “There is little (if any) evidence of overall improvements in affected Northern Territory communities. Often there is deterioration in indicators such crime statistics, self-harm injuries and suicides, school attendance and NAPLAN results, child protection or other possible wellbeing statistics that appear in a wide range of official NTER reports and NT statistics.”
The real reasons for this intervention have never been fully explained or justified to the Australian public. In spite of constant opposition by Indigenous communities, most significant Elders, various peak human rights Australian and international organisations and other well known Australians, the situation remains the same with only a few cosmetic touches.
The basic premises of this Intervention were deeply flawed, resulting in a serious breach of human rights – the issue has never been fully debated nationally nor was there any significant consultation of the Indigenous communities most affected.
The report from the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights that was released in 2013 cast doubt over the Government’s consultation process with Aboriginal peoples of the Northern Territory.
It states that, “despite the evident efforts by government to consult with affected communities, the process appeared to have fallen short of what was required for a genuine process of consultation with the communities carried out in a culturally appropriate and sensitive way concerned.”
In her Lowitja O’Donoghue Oration of 2013, prominent Indigenous woman Olga Havnen (pictured right), described graphically the effects of the intervention on the ground.
“In the contest of societies with dominant and minority cultures, such as Australia, the widespread and persistent suppression of minority cultural practices causes severe disruption, making our communities susceptible to trauma, collective helplessness and endemic maladaptive coping practices,” she said.
She counted the ways in which the dominant culture’s decision-makers had taken power. First the soldiers had arrived. Then, Aboriginal-run organisations and community government councils were rapidly dismantled.
The Aboriginal “work-for-the-dole” CDEP program was “allowed to wither away”. (The CDEP was criticized as being merely a “make-work” program, leading to pointless paid activities such as painting rocks. However, it did have uses, including paying artists to paint.)
“Fourth, the introduction of mandatory, universal income control and the introduction of the Basic Card, although welcomed by some welfare recipients, has nevertheless had a major impact on the ways people use and control their money,” Havnen said.
Fifth, the “emergency response” introduced in the name of child protection “universally painted men as violent drunks, paedophiles and consumers of pornography, and women as passive, helpless victims,” she said.
And while the introduction of alcohol controls across all Northern Territory “prescribed areas” was welcomed in some areas, it played havoc in others.”
After the success of the anthology A Country Too Far, a collection of writings about the issue of asylum seekers, we thought the same template could also be very useful for contributing to the debate on the Northern Territory Intervention.
We asked some of Australia’s best writers and thinkers to analyse and illuminate one of the most invasive, puzzling and unprecedented actions by a government in Australian history – Larissa Behrendt, Eva Cox, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, Raimond Gaita, Melissa Lukashenko, Tara June Winch, Alexis Wright, among many others – and we thought publishers would jump at it in the same way they did on the issue of asylum seekers.
They didn’t. We had no takers. On several occasions an editor was very keen to contract but it became clear that the marketing departments were turning it down in those cases. They didn’t believe it would be feasible financially.
But we are determined to publish this book and bring a new perspective and urgency to this issue (we are on board with small publisher Concerned Australians) through poetry, non-fiction, fiction, memoir, and eyewitness accounts.
It will be a significant contribution to a desperately needed national debate… most importantly it will give a voice to the indigenous community, which has largely been without voice.
The Hoopla is also all eyes on these issues.
* The anthology on the intervention, edited by Rosie Scott and Anita Heiss, is now being crowd-funded, organised by Janice Haworth, Marie Milne and Ann Long, who heard Anita Heiss speak at an event. Go here to make a donation to help raise funds for the publishing of the book
*Dr Anita Heiss is the author of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and social commentary books. She is an Indigenous Literacy Day Ambassador and a proud member of the Wiradjuri nation of central NSW. She is a role model for the National Aboriginal Sporting Chance Academy and an Advocate for the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence. She is an Adjunct Professor with Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, UTS and currently divides her time between writing, public speaking, MCing, and being a ‘creative disruptor’. She was a finalist in the 2012 Human Rights Awards and the 2013 Australian of the Year Awards and listed as Australia’s #27 Favourite novelist. She lives in Sydney. Follow her on Twitter @AnitaHeiss
*Rosie Scott is an internationally published, award-winning novelist, essayist and short story writer. Her last novel Faith Singer was included in an international list of ‘50 Essential Reads by living Writers’ compiled by the Guardian, Orange Prize Committee and the Hay Literary Festival. She has worked extensively in fields centering on human rights and co-edited with Tom Keneally the acclaimed anthology on detainees A Country Too Far. She was recently nominated as one of the 100 most influential people in Sydney in education for her work in educating the public about asylum seekers. She was also a co-founder of Women for Wik. You can see her website here.