Sacred or Profane? The Australian Government’s Intervention in Aboriginal Communities

The headline for this post derives from the title of a panel discussion that took place on December 2, sponsored by the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection at the University of Virginia. Organized by curator Margo Smith, the panel was designed to raise awareness here in the US about the problems posed by the Intervention. Planning began shortly after Margo and I returned from Australia and the announcement of the scheme six months ago. We were joined in the discussion by Howard Morphy, Director of the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at Australian National University, Frances Morphy, Fellow at the Center for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, and Josh Wheeler, Associate Director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression at the University of Virginia.

The entire panel discussion, including a lively question-and-answer session at its conclusion, was recorded and is available from the Charlottesville Podcasting Network. You can listen to it online, or download it to your iPod! I will attempt to summarize the main points in this post, but I recommend that you have a listen to program itself–each speaker’s address lasts only ten to fifteen minutes–it’s an excellent historical overview and especially in the perspective provided by the Morphy’s, a fascinating, direct narrative of the history of white and Aboriginal contact and its consequences.


Margo began the session by providing an overview of the Intervention and the events beginning in 2006 which led up to the June 21 announcement of draconian measures in 73 remote Northern Territory communities. She spoke of Mal Brough’s attempt to take over the town camps at Alice Springs and the Lateline reports of mid 2006 that exposed trumped-up charges of sexual abuse as key triggers of the takeover. She then outlined the report, Little Children are Sacred, that was commissioned by the Northern Territory Government in response to those media reports. She outlined the findings of the Inquiry and its 97 recommendations, particularly the critical importance of genuine consultation with Aboriginal people. Another key point often overlooked in discussions of the report in its stress on the importance of long-term funding not tied to short-term outcomes: too often funding has been withdrawn when immediate results are not seen. She went on to outline the report’s recommendations for changes in policing, health programs, education and school attendance, the implementation of the Northern Territory Alcohol Framework, and improvements in employment, training and local industries. 

She then contrasted these recommendations with the actual imperatives that the Howard government actually went on to implement: alcohol restrictions, welfare “reform,” enforced school attendance, compulsory health checks, the acquisition of townships through five-year leases, the scrapping of the permit systems, the appointment of Government Business Managers to replace community councils, the ban on pornography, and the takeover of community housing.

Margo concluded with a brief sketch of the manner in which the legislation surrounding the Intervention was rushed through Parliament. She noted that the speed with which this legislation was introduced made it clear to many people that these measures were in large part pre-determined: this was an agenda that had been carefully prepared in advance, and was not at all a response to Little Children are Sacred, although the lack of consonance between the recommendations of that report and the actions of government also makes that transparent. Finally, there is the blanket vilification of Aboriginal people, hung on the single issue of child abuse, when the problems in these remote communities stem from decades of neglect, and in particular the last 11 years of inaction by the Howard Government.

Howard and Frances Morphy

Howard Morphy followed next, providing some general background on the community of Yirrkala, where he and Frances have conducted fieldwork since 1973. He began by pointing out a fact that often escapes notice: that the history of European colonization in northeast Arnhem Land is barely seventy years long. Thus, the Morphy’s have been working with the Yolngu people of the area for approximately half the time that sustained white contact has been occurring. 

Two years before Morphy arrived in Yirrkala for the first time, the bauxite mine and the mining town of Nhulunbuy had opened in close proximity to the mission settlement at Yirrkala. The Yolngu, from the moment they learned of plans to open the mine, saw trouble coming, for themselves and for their children. They knew that living in such close proximity to a new and alien culture would provoke direct threats to the stability of their way of life. They petitioned the government not to allow the opening of the mine. They attempted to ward off some of its worst consequences by demanding, for example, that the sale of alcohol not be permitted in Nhulunbuy and its surrounds. Of course, as history tells us, the Yolngu lost on all accounts.

In response, the Yolngu began moving away from the settlement at Yirrkala and its proximity to Nhulunbuy. By 1976, sixty per cent of the people who had been living there at least part of the year had retreated to their homelands hundreds of kilometers away. Based on his work in these homelands over the last 35 years, Howard has been able to observe that despite almost total neglect by the government, the homelands remained drug and alcohol free. He has seen no instances of child abuse and no youth suicide. In the homelands, away from Yirrkala itself, there is little violence. And yet near the mining settlement all of these conditions are, in Howard’s words, “appallingly high.”

In Morphy’s view, the government is trying to close down the homelands. Ironically, the impact of the Intervention will be to take the Yolngu out of safe environments that they have built in the last thirty years and place them directly in the path of danger by forcing them to move back to centers of population where the children will be exposed to drugs and alcohol and violence. It is one thing to understand the irrelevance of most of government’s actions to the recommendations of Little Children are Sacred; it is quite another to realize that they will actually force children to move into an environment that threatens their continued well-being. For the last ten years, the government has failed to respond to the Yolngu demands for better housing, education, and employment opportunities; now it is threatening and trying to close down the communities that have been safe havens.

Following Howard Morphy’s remarks, I had the opportunity to speak about the threats posed to communities throughout the Northern Territory by the abolition of CDEP, which I have written about elsewhere in this blog, for instance, on the occasion of the announcement of its suspension in remote areas, and its effects as documented on the television program Four Corners

I was also able to present some new material, particularly a response from Apolline Kohen of Maningrida Arts and Culture on the projected impact of the loss of CDEP on their operations.

MAC currently employs six CDEP arts workers who work in packing and freight areas as well as digital photography. MAC does pay top-up to all arts workers and this program has enabled arts workers to keep the flexibility they need to attend ceremonial obligations and funerals. Without our arts workers, it would be impossible to freight all the artworks we send every week.

Most of our artworks are sold via images sent to clients. Without efficient digital photography in place, our business would not be as successful. MAC looks after more than 700 artists from the region and buys about 10,000 works per year.

With the demise of CDEP, MAC is facing a crisis in terms of employment. It won’t be possible financially to keep all the workers and without the flexibility of CDEP in terms of hours & leave, none of our arts workers will be able to keep their newly ‘real job’ for very long. And, we will be very likely obliged to employ someone from outside the community to pack and photograph.

Without CDEP, the Maningrida community and region won’t function as well and this will also certainly affect the quality of the art productions.

In the week that elapsed between the election in Australia and our panel discussion, I paid close attention to reports in the newspapers about Labor’s election promises to roll back elements of the Intervention, as two prominent examples were the re-instatement of the permit system and renewed support for CDEP. But the day before we were to speak, a discouraging report appeared in The Age

Although the headline read “Indigenous expectations flying high,” reporter Annabel Stafford wrote that “hopes that the old CDEP scheme is to be reinstated are likely to be dashed. [Incoming Indigenous Affairs Minister] Macklin says she is not interested in bringing back the scheme, which saw some on CDEP payments for life. She wants to use CDEP to get people into training and positions with companies.” In the end, I was left wondering whether the new government will continue to pursue a policy of depopulating the homelands and refusing to consult with Indigenous people.

(l. to r.) Margo Smith, Will Owen, Josh Wheeler

Frances Morphy spoke next, offering insights on the effects of the Intervention based on time that she spent at Yirrkala during September and October of this year. Like Howard, she reminded the audience of the relatively short extent of colonization in this part of Australia, and the fact that frontier violence against Aboriginal people is still within living memory of the elders in these communities, a fact that contributes greatly to the fear that Aboriginal people are experiencing now.

Frances began by echoing the importance of government support and by explaining the complexities and the contradictions that are often involved in that support. For instance, the Department of Water was responsible for creating the Ranger program to help monitor the coastlines, but the funding for many of the Rangers themselves comes from CDEP. By abolishing CDEP, the government is undermining its own initiatives to guard against the introduction of invasive species from Southeast Asia.

This fragmented delivery of funding affects almost every aspect of life in the communities. Indeed, as Frances pointed out, government agencies act as “enclaves within enclaves”, separated from one another and the people they are supposed to serve. Their failure lies in their inability to conceive of Aboriginal communities as communities. Instead, they are seen as diverse collections of programs whose objectives are carried out in isolation and ignorance of one another.

Much has also been made in the funding battles of the high degree of accountability that Aboriginal organizations are forced to endure. Frances pointed to the endless paperwork and twelve-month cycles of funding that make long-term planning nearly impossible. But conversely, there is almost no downward accountability: if the government fails to deliver on its promises, most communities have no effective means of recourse, while failure on their part to complete paperwork in a timely fashion can be met with non-renewal of grants.

There are other ways in which communities are now at risk. The insertion of Government Business Managers (GBM) into the 73 communities struck me as I listened to Frances as one of the most pernicious. Many community organizations have built up considerable assets over the years–capital assets in terms of buildings, tractors, boats, and more. Any of these assets that were acquired with any portion of government funding, no matter how small a contribution that funding represented in the purchase, can now be seized by the GBM’s. This potential for asset stripping–$40 million worth in the case of the Bawinanga Corporation in Maningrida for example–is another subtle and little publicized method by which the Intervention threatens the integrity of the remote homelands.

These are examples of how the government takeover affects every aspect of Aboriginal life. As Frances forcefully put it, “It only happens to you if you are black, and it happens to you if you are black.”

And the government has sought to shift the blame to the communities. They have seized on what they call the failure of land rights. But as Frances pointed out, land rights were about rights, not about development. Yet the government has moved to seize community lands under the subterfuge that giving land back to Indigenous people has not produced economic development that it was never intended to produce in the first place. 

Lack of investment, not the granting of land rights, is responsible for the lack of economic growth. The abolition of CDEP will assist in another slight of hand shifting of blame. Three hundred CDEP positions that can support local businesses like art centres can be used to create only twenty permanent jobs. Twenty workers cannot provide the services that the communities will require. And thus the government has set these new enterprises up for failure from the start.

What investment there has been to date under the Intervention has largely benefited the Government Business Managers and the Centrelink employees responsible for monitoring the welfare payments quarantine. New housing initiatives have so far been limited to housing for such employees from the outside, and have not been directed at relieving the overcrowding that contributes to social dysfunction in these communities.

As Margo pointed out in her introduction, three unexcused absences by a child from school will result in garnishing 100% of welfare payments. But there are not enough seats in most schools for children, and not enough resources to make education for those who do attend effective. Frances noted that teachers associations have begun to refuse to hand over attendance records.

Health checks for children have been funded. Funding for follow-through measures to treat whatever these checks uncover is not yet forthcoming.

There are, however, plenty of meetings. Frances said that the Yolngu say it is “snowing white” in Yirrkala. In the month that she was in Yirrkala, Frances attended eight meetings. One of these was a planning meeting devoted entirely to deciding which assets to strip from the community.

Yirrkala has been offered funding to build youth education hostels, where children can live, at a remove from their communities, while going to school. Although the Yolngu have been asking for the resources to construct such accommodations in the homelands, the government has shown no interest in those proposals. They want to build hostels in Nhulunbuy to channel the children into the mines. And as Howard Morphy pointed out earlier, into a town where alcohol and violence are appalling problems. 

In the end, Frances sees small signs of hope. There has been organized resistance. The Yirrkala people twice told the government administrators to go away, refusing to meet with them until they had real plans to make positive change occur. In Maningrida the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation has sent a challenge to the High Court, and other challenges based on the racially discriminatory nature of the Intervention legislation have a chance of succeeding. More than anything else, though, the Intervention has focused attention on the problems that do exist in Aboriginal Australia, and has exposed the high cost of fixing them.

The final presenter, Josh Wheeler, helped to make some of these government actions comprehensible to the American audience who might be less well versed in parliamentary forms of government. He did so by posing a question that helped to make the situation a bit more real to the audience, asking whether such actions could possibly take place here in the United States. With self-professed lawyerly good humor, he answered his question, “Yes and no.”

In explaining “No,” Josh noted the differences in the Australian and US constitutions: the fact that there is no Bill of Rights in the Australian Constitution; rather there are only what are referred to sometimes as the “Five Flimsy Freedoms.” There is no guarantee of freedom of speech, and none of equal protection or due process as we have in America.

Similarly, the system of checks and balances built into the American government does not exist in the parliamentary structure where the executive branch of government is drawn from the legislative. The Prime Minister and his Cabinet are all members of Parliament. In this system, it is much easier for the majority party to push legislation through the Parliament quickly. It is, however, also much easier to later undo such legislation in Australia than it is in the United States.

But if one wondered if “Yes,” an action like the Intervention could take place in America, Josh suggested that we ask the American Indian. Although many of the laws that established the reservation system in America are quite unconstitutional, there was no constitutional challenge at the time they were enacted. As Josh put it, the Constitution that protects us is only as good as the people who interpret it. The Constitution in America means what the courts tell us it means, and they have told us, for example, in bygone times, that segregation of the races was acceptable.

The separation of powers in the American government can also be easily overcome in times of national crisis. Abraham Lincoln, widely regard as the greatest American President, suspended constitutional protections during the Civil War, and Franklin Roosevelt interned Japanese Americans during World War II. 

The bottom line, for both America and Australia, is that we need to be especially skeptical when the government declares an emergency, and tells us we must take action because of a crisis. As a people, we have the ability to effect change. Policy should reflect the problems it is design to address. We must ask where is the evidence that supports the government’s claims.

As immersed as I have bee in following the news of the Intervention since returning from Australia in June, I still found much of interest and insight in the other speakers’ remarks on Sunday afternoon. I have tried here to summarize some of the high points of the testimony offered to our audience. Together, I feel we painted a rich portrait of the state of affairs in Indigenous Australia in the wake of this declaration of a “national emergency,” and hope that you will find listening to the podcast to be illuminating and instructive.

Good fellowship and a bit of holiday cheer at the conclusion of the day. (All photos thanks to Harvey Wagner.)

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