Tracking the Intervention

For the past couple of nights a special Four Corners presentation, “Tracking the Intervention” has aired on Australian television, and can now be seen in its entirety on the web. It is well worth the time to watch it: the published transcript doesn’t have the coherence of the broadcast. You need to see it to understand it.

This is not simply because it’s a television program that relies on visuals as well as narration and interviews. There’s nothing quite like having a look at the Maningrida health-care clinic, which is funded by the Northern Territory government as is indistinguishable from any suburban medical office I’ve visited here in my home town. Then contrast that which the demountable clinic flown in for the use of the Emergency Task Force: two tin shacks connected by a blanket that provides some shade. You have to wonder whether the Commonwealth is spending its money wisely. 

A moment later, when Geoff Stewart, a medical officer at the Maningrida Clinic, notes that the $83 million the Commonwealth is spending on the Intervention’s health checks could “bring all health services across the Northern Territory up to a level of funding where we’d all be expected to be able to provide a comprehensive range of primary health care services,” it’s hard to find any logic. Except of course, that the health checks are a one-time cost, whereas adequate funding to provide continuing health services in these communities would require continuing investment that has so far not been discussed.

The second half of the program focuses on the more advanced state of the Intervention at the southern end of the Territory, in Aputula, where “income management” or quarantining of welfare as it used to be known, is already in place and CDEP is history. The confusion in the community store, the clear lack of comprehension that people show, is hard to watch. So is the anger and frustration at the simple unfairness of the blanket quarantine that Ray Ferguson and Pauline Coombes express.

And then there’s the men who formerly worked in the community orchard. This was CDEP funded work, and it’s gone now. The men’s wives (some of them) have gotten “real” jobs at the Aged and Child Care Centre. As a result, the men’s payments for “transitional” work in the orchard have been cut dramatically. Perhaps the most outrageous moment in the show comes when they hear that their payments for two weeks work, at 25 hours a week, is now a total of $8.24. Eight dollars!

But most of all, the program is worth watching because it’s one of the few opportunities available to hear Aboriginal people speak for themselves. Some of them have good things to say about the Intervention, and bad things to say about CDEP. Others are angry, disgusted by hypocrisy and repeated meaningless promises. But it’s all too rare that these people voices are heard and the emotions are seen.

The Four Corners website devoted to this program also provides access to the Constructive Engagement report on the impacts, limitations, and possibilities of the Intervention, commissioned by the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation; to the summary of the Territory’s summary of the Report on the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse(i.e. Little Children are Sacred); and to a long list of other reports and news items, along with links to Aboriginal organizations. 

There’s also a link to another Four Corners program, “The Cape Experiment,” broadcast last July. I haven’t watched this latter show yet, but it’s a similarly in-depth look at Noel Pearson’s program out of the Cape York Institute that presaged the debacle in the Territory and should be well worth watching.

In related news, Kim Christen of Long Road is the guest author at the anthropology blog Savage Minds this week. Kim is summarizing her experiences of the Intervention and will be reporting on the work she’s done establishing a digital cultural archive at Tennant Creek in recent months. While much of what she has to say here has already appeared at Long Road, the commentary from the Savage Minds community, most of whom are not Australianists, is as fascinating as Kim’s own insights and reporting.

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