Last Drinks

I’ve been waiting for Paul Toohey’s Last Drinks: the impact of the Northern Territory Intervention (Quarterly Essay no 30) to arrive on these shores since The Australianpublished a brief excerpt from it (“Life and Death of a Crisis“) on June 7. I’m still waiting, but in the meantime Jonathan Shaw has put up a brief review of it on his blog Family Life, and kindly given me permission to quote him. And so, without further ado, and until I get to read the whole thing for myself, here is Jonathan’s review.

Paul Toohey isn’t afraid of rubbing people up the wrong way. He refers to what I assume is a psychiatric hospital as a loony bin, throws round disparaging generalisations about the Left, insists on talking of Aborigines rather than Aboriginal people, and so on. An extraordinarily wide range of public figures cop the rough edge of his pen, including John Howard, Mal Brough, Jenny Macklin, Noel Pearson, the authors of theLittle Children Are Sacred report, Galarrwuy Yunupingu and Clare Martin (especially Clare Martin!), the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (my union) … the list goes on. Despite all this swagger, and despite working unapologetically for the newspaper formerly known as the Government Gazette, currently the Opposition Organ, he does shed light on the Intervention/invasion/emergency response; he brings a number of Aboriginal voices into the conversation; he forces an acknowledgement of the dire complexity of the situation the intervention was intended to address, and on the complex issues involved in evaluating it. He’s a journalist first and foremost, and as such he doesn’t rush to an easy summary. His final section about a particular woman’s devastated, violent, alcohol steeped life ends with the sentence, ‘Hers was the real story of the Northern Territory.” But that’s more of a rhetorical flourish than anything. when he says

if you were still sitting around, months into the intervention, experiencing explosive waves of political sympathy and anger on behalf of Aborigines, it was a fair bet you’d never been to the Northern Territory

he comes close to putting his view in a nutshell. It’s all very well for people sitting in seats in the Opera House to hiss and boo the racism of the intervention (which he acknowledges), the accusations of near-universal child sexual abuse (which he agrees were slanderous ), but if you ask the women of Hermansburg, among other places, they’ll tell you their lives and the lives of their families have been improved. He also believes that the good effects of the intervention have been eroded to the point of cancellation by the ALP’s modifications of it.

One of the sweetest things abut the Quarterly Essay series is that each issue contains responses to the previous one. This one, more than any other so far, contains within itself a list of people who are challenged to reply.

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