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Australia’s Intervention (Against What, Exactly?)

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Review of Rosie Scott and Anita Heiss (eds.), 2015, The Intervention, ‘concerned Australians’, 272 pp.

“Intervention” derives from the Late Latin interventionem, literally meaning “a coming between” or “interruption”. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the word was a commonplace in international relations and is now frequently used to denote interpersonal intrusion to correct a life heading in the wrong direction. Official Australia perpetuates the coming between meaning of the word by celebrating “Australia Day” on 26 January to mark the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet of British ships at Port Jackson, New South Wales in 1788. The Aboriginal people understand that the planting of the British flag in their soil was indeed an intervention, the one that came between them and their land, a massive intrusion in the name of correcting their culture. They call it “Invasion Day” or “Survival Day” because it was much more than just an invasion. This is an intervention of more than two hundred years of systematic dispossession of just about everything. “So complete was the first intervention that the very names were driven underground,” says Arnold Zable (p. 220). For the First People of Australia, Survival Day commemorates deep loss, of their sovereign rights, of family members, of land, of language and of the right to practise their culture.

The recent policy, called the “Northern Territory Intervention” and costing $587 million is, then, an intervention within an intervention. In legal form and implying the sense of civilised intrusion correcting a life heading in the wrong direction, it became the “Northern Territory Emergency Response Act”. This legislation followed the tabling in June 2007 of the “Little Children Are Sacred” report, which acknowledged that, “… there is a significant problem in Northern Territory communities in relation to sexual abuse of children” and made almost a hundred recommendations for basic social measures to address the problem. But, for its own reasons, the Act doesn’t actually mention children and totally ignores the report’s recommendations and the desire of many members of Aboriginal communities to work with the authorities.

Many abusers of Aboriginal children were, in fact, non-Aboriginal but that was also glossed over (p. 67). Moreover, nation-wide, one in four girls and one in seven boys have been victims of some form of sexual abuse (p. 120). No soldiers ever stormed into churches, suburban homes, state institutions and asylum seeker detention camps to protect children who are prey to priestly or respectable-citizen paedophiles. Only Aboriginal men were singled out as child molesters, wife beaters, and hopeless drunks in a shame job, orchestrated at the highest levels of government, aiming to hurt and humiliate even more.

In a country that imprisons asylum seekers, including children, in remote Pacific island concentration camps where suicides and madness are rife, it didn’t matter that the Intervention was “presumed to be illegitimate” in the words of the Special Rapporteur on human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples, not to mention the fact of its contravening the Racial Discrimination Act. “The Intervention’s provisions were so blatantly discriminatory that the then all white zone of the federal parliament simply by-passed this important law aimed at preventing racism” (p. 122). Since there was no consultation of, or prior consent from the affected communities, the government also breached its international legal obligation to respect the rights of the First People. Instead, it continued the colonial policy of disempowering them and locking them into a system of utterly humiliating institutional dependency. As Djiniyini Gondarra, a Milingimbi lawman, writes (p. 78), “The name ‘Intervention’ and ‘Emergency Response’ must be removed from any future initiative. [… The] prejudice and racial discrimination that is embedded in the Intervention … has created deep emotional pain and shame amongst Aboriginal people.”

When there are so many legal and ethical reasons for condemning the Intervention in a country that is unwilling to recognise the pervasive racism that still allows it to blithely celebrate “Australia [what Australia?] Day”, it’s sad but unsurprising that there were no takers in the publishing world for this inspiring, essential (for anyone who wants to understand Australia) book in which some of Australia’s best writers and thinkers have analysed what the Intervention is really about. The crux of the matter is that this book lays bare the very touchy question of national identity. Ergo, it had to be crowdfunded.

In an article announcing their intention to publish The Intervention, the editors cited the activist Olga Havnen, descendent of the Western Arrernte people, who described the after-effects of soldiers invading Aboriginal communities and dismantling their social and political organisations. “In the contest of societies with dominant and minority cultures, such as Australia, the widespread and persistent suppression of minority cultural practices causes severe disruption, making our communities susceptible to trauma, collective helplessness and endemic maladaptive coping practices.” So, when the Intervention euphemised into the “Stronger Futures” legislation passed by the next Labour government, the results were all too predictable: rising suicide rates, aggravated child health problems and more unemployment. Deni Langman, a traditional owner of Uluru, laments some of the direr consequences: “I am so upset … my heart aches for all those who have never known freedom in their lives and the deaths of children who saw nothing but despair in their future lives and ended it with a rope or other form of suicide …” (p. 212).

The way in which officialdom intervened and the results raise the question of exactly what the government was intervening against. In this book, the response of the First People isn’t about being victims but about their fear of losing a culture they have every reason to be proud of, and from which the rest of the world could learn a great deal. It’s not as if this Indigenous Weltanschauung is difficult to discover. For example, anyone who cares to follow the Twitter account @IndigenousXLtd will find a much more profound, beautiful and vibrant Australia than the mindless consumerist one that most of its white inhabitants live in, or the one that tourists sprint around, from Uluru to the Barrier Reef, without the faintest idea of whose land or what land they are visiting.

Bruce Pascoe, a Yuin man, points out (p. 148), “It is within our intellectual and moral power to acquire better knowledge, not in slavish worship of the noble savage, but through inquisitive review of the early European records.” And what do they show? Well, to start with, things that white Australian children are never told at school. Aborigines were making bread about 30,000 years ago, 13,000 years before they did in the Middle East (p. 144). The early (white) explorers found houses, towns, ovens, food preservation and storage silos for more than a ton of grain, clothes, cakes and marvellous art. At Brewarrina, New South Wales, they came upon intricate fish traps, which scientists think may be the oldest human construction on earth and so big they can be seen from space. At Hutt River in Western Australia, they reported that the Indigenous people had cultivated irrigated yam gardens so extensively that they couldn’t see from one side to the other. Pascoe concludes, “The Intervention was implemented from the assumption that the clients were feeble mendicants and that assumption prevails because Australia does not know the history of the country.” The “Australia” he refers to is a political entity with a very short history.

It’s not only engineering feats but also “spiritual governance” that “Australia” has chosen to ignore. In 2015, one of the contributors to this book, Melissa Lucashenko, of European and Murri heritage, wrote an article arguing that democracy didn’t begin with the Greek polis but in the land now called Australia. She makes no bones about it. “People in Australia had many millennia to finesse systems of political power-sharing before Cleisthenes came on the scene. It’s time, reader, for a very deep breath: Aborigines invented democracy.” In ancient Australian societies there were male elders and also matriarchal systems of authority. They were “a lot more democratic (especially for Aboriginal purposes) than any Australian government operating today.” What early anthropologists described as a stable polity was founded on ethics, homeostasis, autonomy, balance, compassion, stewardship and land-related identity. Land? Now there’s the rub.

Many contributors in this book consider that the social engineering of the Intervention masks a crude land grab. The first step was to instil fear. “We were told to gather … and all of a sudden we became aware around us of public servants, the police … and also the army. Some of these people were armed [or] they had batons … The shock – you could almost taste it … and we didn’t quite know whether we were going to be shot or put into paddy wagons or whatever. And then the directives came like shots from these rifles anyway and we were told there was a new way that Aboriginal Affairs is going to be handled” (p. 19). Then shame was piled onto fear. There were accusations of paedophilia and something called pornography, which “is not a practice that they had heard about amongst Aboriginal communities within the vicinity of Utopia” (p. 20). The Alywarre Indigenous health advocate Pat Anderson, one of the two authors of the “Little Children Are Sacred” report (2007) says, “We believe this Government is using child sexual abuse as the Trojan horse to resume total control of our land.” And the lawyer, Larissa Behrendt, a Eualeyai/Kamillaroi woman, cogently asks (p. 66), “Why were issues related to Indigenous control of their land being tied to the issue of child sexual abuse?” The Utopia elder Rosalie Kunoth-Monks answers, “They want to use this scare over our children to break us as human beings, to starve us off our homelands, to herd us into the towns … the Government refuses our own attempts to be sustainable. It’s our land that they want to control. But they don’t understand that it is the land that holds us” (p. 116).

The Intervention is just part of a long history of racism, poverty, neglect, injustice, human rights abuse and systematic undermining of human dignity in the Northern Territory and Australia in general. This is the necessary context for explaining why some Aboriginal children are neglected and abused. Other statistics are shocking and unquestionably related. For instance, when Aborigines represent only 2.3% of the total population, they make up a quarter of the prison population and, in the Northern Territory, 85%. And between 1980 and 2007 Indigenous people accounted for almost 18% of deaths in “custody” (viz.: deaths resulting from police violence).

There’s so much to be said about the Intervention and the Australia’s officially sanctioned racism. In their arrogant ignorance, governments (Liberal and Labour) probably thought they could get away with a frightening military-style attack on remote communities, deliberately evoking the terrible times not so long ago when the Stolen Generations of children were forcibly removed from their families. But they don’t understand the first thing about the strength of Indigenous identity. Or about real values, for that matter. As Patrick Dodson, a Yawuru man, reminded the former soldier Mal Brough, Minister for Indigenous Affairs and mastermind of the brutality of the intervention, “Minister, it is not fundamentally about policy. It is about how you value Aboriginal people as human beings” (p. 117).

In December 1938, shortly after Kristallnacht, a Yorta Yorta elder, William Cooper, led a group of people to the German Consulate in Melbourne to condemn the persecution of Jewish people, the only such protest anywhere in the world. A man who was denied citizenship in his own land raised his voice for distant human beings because he believed in the common good. This is why, in a world that’s being destroyed by the private “good”, it was decreed that Australia’s First People need intervening against. Because the common good is, and always has been, the basic principle of their culture. And it is why this book by Rosie Scott, Anita Heiss and more than thirty other eloquent contributors, all of them imbued with a William Cooper spirit, couldn’t find a mainstream publisher.

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