Rethinking the Intervention

Inside Story: current affairs and culture has just posted a new article by anthropologist Francesca Merlan of the Australian National University, author of Caging the Rainbow: places, politics and Aborigines in a North Australian town (University of Hawai’i Press, 1998). Merlan’s article, “More than Rights,” is an arresting and important new take on some of the central debates that have taken place in the twenty months since the launch of the Northern Territory Emergency Response. It is a serious and (I think) not polemical argument that deserves careful reading and consideration. Here is an excerpt from one of the concluding paragraphs.

I think that for Indigenous people and communities, relationships with the state can and should be highly productive. The federal “state,” in general, is the key institution to which all Aboriginal communities can have a common relationship of some sort, while they may also have differentiated relationships of other kinds (with business, regional government and so on). For the state, such relationships are a responsibility, more like the relation of senior to junior in Fred Myers’s account of authority. But these relationships can only be fruitful under conditions in which the first question attended to is: how can greater social capacity be developed from within conditions of vulnerability and dependency? What are the characteristics we need to demand of state involvement and intrusion? Among these must be the following: that it be open to discussion and negotiation, difficult and partial as this often is; that it have a demonstrated capacity-building intent and character; and that it is non-arbitrary, implying accountability to people and communities affected and also to the wider public, and incorporate developed ideas and practices of due process.

Her insights on racism and the racist quality of the Intervention open up new ways of thinking about a subject that has been treated with repetitive thoughtlessness by all sides in the debates. Her discussions of vulnerability and dependence in Aboriginal communities and society bring into focus topics that have rarely been examined in their proper context before. Her concluding discussion of “rights” is complex and challenging. 

If you’ve been feeling a sense of fatigue and frustration in confronting the apparent stalemate, if you can’t decide whether Labor is dismantling or reinforcing the Intervention, if the whole thing has become mentally mired, Merlan’s essay will strike you like a sudden and unexpected change in the weather. However you feel about the policies of the Intervention, you should read this brilliant argument. It will make you think differently. 

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