Intervention09 (The Beat Goes On)

A century ago, William Garnett South, the Protector of Aborigines in South Australia, railed against the Aboriginal missions at Point McLeay and Point Pearce for their failure to turn their residents into productive members of society. In South’s view, only government intervention could save the day.

In advocating the taking over of these two stations I am not moved so much by the desire of saving tax-payers’ money as by a wish to raise the constantly increasing number of half-castes, quadroons, and octoroons from the idle, thriftless habits of the black to the level of the white race. This I regard as most important, as in the settled districts the blacks are rapidly dying out and being replaced by a race of half-castes, quadroons, and octoroons, who in turn must inevitably be merged into the general population. It is therefore desirable that nothing should be left undone that will help convert these people into useful members of the community instead of allowing them to grow up dependants [sic] (Report of the Protector of Aborigines for the Year Ended 30 June, 1912, p. 6, quoted in Nettelbeck and Foster, In the Name of the Law, Wakefield Press, 2007).

Today, more than eighteen months after its inception, the current Intervention seems to be alive and well and rehearsing South’s agenda, minus the eugenics.

Eleven months after the Apology, the Rudd Government no longer appears to feel the need to be sorry for policies that, like those of the early twentieth century, aim to force Aboriginal people into accepting the mores and laws of White Australia. The emphasis may have changed from sociology to economics, from genetics to banking, but the underlying assumption that the land must be used and controlled according to the interests of powerful non-Indigenous interests remains unchallenged. Remote Australia must be recolonized in order to be saved, run the arguments being reported in The Australian last week.

“A few years from now, anyone visiting the remote Northern Territory will see a very different picture to the Aboriginal slum towns that are such a confronting feature of the north today,” writes Paul Toohey in “A new lease of life” (January 13, 2009). The secret to the success of this magical thinking lies in 99-year leases.

Toohey rightly notes the major problem that Mal Brough wanted to address in amending Section 19 of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act to allow for these 99-year leases. Businesses and government are loathe to make investments in facilities that could improve the market prospects of the towns for housing or commercial enterprises when there is no secure title underlying that investment. Because the land itself in inalienable under the ALRA, investors have no guarantee that arrangements will not be swept aside, that assets constructed on Indigenous-owned land will have the permanence required to repay that investment. (There is a dismal irony in government agencies and businesses refusing to invest in properties that may be suddenly seized by Aboriginal landowners.)

Hence, the 99-year lease; even Indigenous Affairs Minister Macklin’s proposed 40+40 year leases are insufficient:

There is common agreement among governments that town leases must be significantly longer than 40 years. While self-sufficiency is the ultimate aim for these places, picture the situation 20 years from now, in 2029: governments will still need to build some Aboriginal housing; new businesses will be looking for opportunity; or existing companies may wish to sell.

Under a straight 40-year lease there would, in 2029, only be 20 years’ life left on the lease. That would not inspire governments or investors (Toohey, “A new lease of life.”)

Many factors complicate the search for solutions: the townships are occupied by many non-traditional owners who have gathered from surrounding country to take advantage of social services. Thus the percentage of the residents of a community who are in fact the traditional owners may be very small, yet they are the ones empowered to strike the deal. At the other end of the spectrum, effective leasing of land requires significant investment in what senior Labor advisor Michael Dillon calls “the infrastructure required for effective property rights frameworks (surveys, records of transactions, enforcement and dispute resolution)” (Dillon and Westbury, Beyond Humbug: transforming government engagement with Indigenous Australia, Seaview Press, 2007, pp. 132-133).

Dillon, as Toohey notes, was one of the architects of Territory Labor’s concept paper that began developing the notion of 99-year leases five years ago. The Northern Land Council worried that the Coalition “might exercise its national-interest rights under the Land Rights Act and compulsorily, and permanently, acquire all Aboriginal communities” (Toohey). But contra the scenario of benign economic promise and social inclusiveness that Toohey paints in his stories of nascent private home ownership in Nguiu on the Tiwi Islands, Dillon has this to say.

[T]he Australian Government has clearly been farsighted in identifying the importance of secure title over townships as a key element in addressing Indigenous disadvantage. However, its focus on home ownership rather than the development of housing pathways involving choice for local residents regarding housing tenure and its expedient and arguably premature resort to compulsory acquisition of five year leases over townships as part of the national emergency response will merely serve to undermine the effectiveness of the Australian Government policy in this area (Dillon and Westbury, p. 149).

The key difference I see between Dillon’s position and Toohey’s centers on the question of choice. Toohey’s vision of “motels, resorts, fuel stations and tours” as the engines of economic development that will somehow enable Aboriginal people to secure the income they require to own houses and fulfill a new Australian dream in the Outback, depends on a vast influx of outsiders. And of course, it means scrapping the permit system, at least in the towns. 

Indeed, Toohey claims that it is the permit system that has been a major obstacle to such economic development: “the towns have been effectively closed off, with entry by permit only. This has not made it attractive for outsiders or Aborigines to run business which service only a tiny captive audience, with few passing customers.”

History offers ample proof that Indigenous people should be rightfully suspicious of incomers who propose to exploit the land for economic development, and in the process bring the benefits of civilization (or Christianity) to the underdeveloped. (In a similar vein, Toohey bemoans the restrictions on access to Kakadu in the January 17 edition of The Australian“Tarnished Treasure: Kakadu becomes Kakadon’t”: what reason is there to preserve the country if four-wheel drives and tour buses can’t trundle through it with ease?) But more to the point, would the lifting of permit restrictions, and the securing of title under 99-year leases actually bring such benefits to remote communities? How much passing trade will Wadeye ever receive? 

Implicit in this argument for the opening of towns to commercial activity is the other, far more insidious agenda: the demolition of outstations. Perhaps “implicit” is the wrong word, though, for Gary Johns, writing in The Australian a few days later (“Aborigines must move with the times,” January 16, 2009) once again argues that “[t]he persistence with outstations has been an expensive and damaging experiment’ and the “no permanent accommodation should be funded unless a case for economic viability is proven.”

Johns takes up the call for action on housing for the poorest of Australian citizens in a manner that ultimately, once more, puts the blame for that poverty on the people themselves. The cruelty and indifference of Johns’s study arguing for the abolition of outstations—where the traditional owners and the residents are actually the same people, unlike the situation in the towns—is staggering. You need read no farther than its title to understand that fact: No Jobs, No House: an economically strategic approach to remote Aboriginal housing (Menzies Research Centre, 2009). Johns urges the government to consider four locations when thinking about accommodation for people from remote communities: two of them invoke refugee camps. I wonder if Conrad’s Mistah Kurtz thought that “exterminate all the brutes” was an economically strategic approach as well.

And then there is the terrible irony to Johns’s logic exposed in the second paragraph of his article in The Australian, where he draws a parallel to the United States. “Private housing awaits the market, and the market usually says if you have a job you can borrow for a house. The sub-prime disaster in the US is a reminder than only an income stream begets a house.” The truth that Americans have come to face is that an income stream may well be insufficient to “beget a house,” despite President Bush’s exhortations to that effect several years ago. If this is the logic behind Johns’s economic strategy, Indigenous Australians, whose income is unlikely to extend to mortgage payments at 4.5 per cent, would do well to question the bona fides of the new colonizers of their communities.

But behind all of this writing is the unquestioned assumption that not only is private property the inescapable solution, the sine qua non of progress, it is the only right solution. Once again, Indigenous principles must be cast aside. Collective ownership, like other aspects of customary law, does not work in the modern world. And it can not be allowed to work. But what if, to paraphrase Stanner, Aboriginal people do not want to be like us in every aspect? What if they do not wish to know how to stop being themselves?

And so the Intervention continues its march across the country. The same day that it published Johns’s article promoting No Jobs, No HouseThe Australian ran two articles about new alcohol bans in the northwest (“Goodbye despair, now Fitzroy Crossing can play” by Paige Taylor and “Grog bans aims to tackle Kimberley misery” by Debbie Guest and Nicholas Perpitch). Elsewhere TheWest.com reported on new “income management” of up to 70 per cent of Centrelink payments across the Kimberley (“Welfare curbs to widen in north,” by Angela Pownall, January 10, 2009).

Even the Wall Street Journal has chimed in on the chorus of condemnation and demonization.

YUENDUMU, Australia — Two dead cows putrefy at the entrance to this Aboriginal town deep in the Australian outback. Mangy dogs scrape among naked children, as trash swirls around rusted vehicle hulks and cinderblock homes. Prominent on the local store’s notice board: the bus schedule to the nearest prison. (Yaroslav Trofimov, “’Tough love’ in the Outback,” January 17, 2009)

Noting that Yuendumu wasn’t “supposed to turn out this way,” Trofimov continues to outline social dysfunction in the Outback, noting only that it has occurred partly as a result of reforms of the 1960s and failing to explain what he means by that complicated story of economics and racism. (Perhaps he should take a couple of hours to watch Peter Carstairs’ film September.)

He ascribes opposition to the Intervention in Yuendumu to a group of elder men, dispossessed now of their stranglehold on local politics. In contrast, he offers the example of Nguru Walalja, the new community store run by women in the town. He implies that theIntervention has given the women, responsible grandmothers all, the opportunity to emerge from under the thumb of the dissolute men, and that therefore the Intervention enjoys widespread support among the women.

In support of this proposition, he trots out the controversy that surrounded Minister Macklin’s visit to Yuendumu to open the swimming pool, along with reports that Peggy Napaljarri Brown spoke at the opening in support of the government action, and by extenson, income management. He notes that Brown’s own welfare payments are now income-managed and manages to imply that she’s just fine with that. But as Bob Gosford has detailed in The Northern Myth (“Peggy Napaljarri Brown’s fury,” October 28, 2008), neither assertion about Brown’s opinions is true. (See Gosford’s follow-up post (“Yuendumu: the pool, the pres, protocols and permits…and the Code of Conduct for Ministerial Staff,” October 30, 2008) for more information on how the spin was attached to the story in the first place.)

No more correct is the notion that the women of Yuendumu assumed leadership as a direct result of the Intervention. Trofimov once again manages to impute positive change to the agency of white government while glossing over the negative changes that such imposition of government policy has brought about.

These are subjects that have been explored in great depth by Francoise Dussart in her book The Politics of Ritual in an Aboriginal Settlement: kinship, gender, and the currency of knowledge (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000). Among the many themes developed by Dussart is the rise of women’s control of public ritual and all that such a radical change in social organization implies as a result of men’s disengagement in the public sphere. That disengagement, Dussart argues, has been brought about largely by the enforced sedentarization of the Warlpiri in communities like Yuendumu. So Trofimov may in fact be doubly wrong: men do not have such a strong control over the life of the community as he claims, and the rise of women’s power and assertiveness has nothing with “Macklin’s Intervention.” Rather, these changes in social order have been brewing for fifty years now, and represent aspects of the continuing attempts of the Warlpiri, like other Indigenous groups, to adapt to intrusion and restriction.

What unites all these analyses is the persistent inability to imagine the Indigenous perspective. Such failures may have their roots in pragmatism, indifference, or ignorance but the end result is always the same: the marginalization of Aboriginal desires. How can an ethic a self-respect and responsibility take root in the face of such callous opposition? And there is another dismal irony at work in this debate, one that I was reminded of while watching First Australians over the holidays. In the 221 years since the English fleet dropped anchor off the coast of Eora country, it has been overwhelmingly the work of Indigenous people that has allowed any commerce between the races. It is the First Australians who have learned to communicate in a foreign language, who have adapted their economy to that of the settlers, who have acquired a knowledge of and respect for an alien religious system, and who live lives shaped by two cultures rather than languishing in the unquestioned assumptions of a single worldview. Where is the idleness in that?


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