Sixth Anniversary of the Northern Territory Intervention

Concerned Australians Striking the Wrong Note - By Michelle Harris

Aboriginal advocate Olga Havnen, in her Lowitja O’Donoghue oration has asked a critical question. She asks what has been the psychological impact of the Intervention on Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory. It is surprising that so little attention has been given to this critical, yet in some ways tenuous, link before now.

Even before the Intervention began in June 2007, government had long planned a new approach to the ‘management’ of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. It was no longer part of government thinking that self-determination and Aboriginal control over land could be allowed to continue. These were the Whitlam notions of 1975 and they were no longer acceptable.

Early inklings of change occurred in 2004 with the management of grants being transferred from communities to Government’s newly established Indigenous Co-ordination Centres. More ominous were the Amendments of 2006 to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act and the memoranda of agreements that followed. Government had made it clear that it wished to re-engage itself more directly in the control of community land through leasing options as well as to open up Aboriginal land for development and mining purposes.

The plan was to empty the homelands, and this has not changed. However, it was recognised that achieving this would be politically fraught – it would need to be accomplished in a manner that would not off-side mainstream Australia. Removing Aboriginal people from their land and taking control over their communities would need to be presented in a way that Australians would believe it to be to Aboriginal advantage, whatever the tactics.

So began the campaign to discredit the people and to publicly stigmatise Aboriginal men of the Northern Territory. It would be the Minister himself who would take centre stage. It seemed that all Aboriginal men were engaged in paedophilia. The Minister readily gave television and radio interviews and declared that he knew there were paedophile rings in every Aboriginal community. Viewers were asked during their evening news broadcasts how they felt about Aboriginal children going to bed at night knowing that they were not safe. This was a government Minister engaging in a sensationalist campaign aimed at demoralising Aboriginal men and was probably the lowest point in any Government behaviour ever seen in Australia’s political history. When challenged by the NT Chief Minister to name the people involved the situation deteriorated further. With the collusion of the ABC, a senior executive service bureaucrat from the Minister’s own office posed as a youth worker from Mutitjulu, a place he had never visited, and collaborated the Minister’s story. There could have been nothing more sordid. And even in 2009 when the CEO of the Australian Crime Commission, John Lawler, reported that his investigation had shown there were no organised paedophile rings operating in the NT, no formal apology was ever made to the Aboriginal men and their families who were brutally shamed by the false claims. Beyond this the Australian system appeared to have no way by which it could confront the former Minister for the incredible harm done by his persistent inflammatory public statements which had given rise to negative stereotyping of an ethnic group. The Minister had done his job. The Australian people had been suitably shocked and the Intervention was seen as a necessary consequence. Furthermore, Labor, that had seemingly feigned horror at the 2006 amendments to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, would now eagerly provide bipartisan support.

What was the psychological impact of publicly shaming Aboriginal men for repulsive and unacceptable behaviours that they hadn’t engaged in? It undermined their feelings of self-worth and marginalised them. It was a direct attack on their identity. The fact that they had no way of defending themselves simply led to a state of despair. One’s sense of safety is bound uncompromisingly with a belief in justice. When that belief collapses fear of the unknown takes over.

In many ways the Intervention in all its forms has been an attack on Aboriginal identity, and continues to be. Just as the focus on paedophile rings collectively impaled all Aboriginal men to gross and disgusting acts with innocent children who needed to be protected, so did the Intervention target all communities with tales of alcohol dependence, gambling, pornography use, inefficient management, money waste, poorly maintained homes, overcrowding and poor health.
Once again, negative stigmatising of the people was as one, promoting aspects of dysfunction without providing background or explanation of situations and ensuring the most sensationalised elements of disadvantage were promoted. Measures imposed were not targeted at areas of need but were simply imposed on all as blanket measures. The oppressive restrictions were imposed on communities irrespective of whether they were perceived to be well managed and achieving their goals or whether they were struggling and in need of help. They were punished without distinction. Their individual worth was of no consequence. The intention of such measures had never been designed to assist in specific circumstances involving particular individuals or communities but as a means of taking back control from all.

People struggled to understand why they were being targeted, why they were being punished. They were fearful for many reasons but most especially because of the manner in which the Army had been engaged in a display to ‘shock and awe’. How could the so-called ‘Emergency Response’ be explained? We know from stories at the time that many grabbed their children and ran to hide in the bush in the belief that once again their children would be removed from them. Why was this cruel re-traumatising of so many allowed to happen?

Government claimed the ‘emergency’ was required to protect children from sexual abuse. While very serious concerns regarding child sexual abuse had been raised through the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ Report, the statistics showed its rate was far, far lower than in the state of New South Wales. The complex legislation that had been prepared to implement the Northern Territory Emergency Response had commenced long before the release of the report and none of it was directly aimed at the protection of young children.

Re-traumatisation has done plenty of damage. If ever there had been a growing sense of trust between Aboriginal people and the dominant race, it was blown away in 2007. The trust was gone and the fear returned. The very manner in which the Intervention was rolled out ensured greater confusion and disorientation, more like an act of counter-insurgence. Normal channels of engagement and communication were ignored. Elders became invisible; they were neither consulted nor invited to comment. Government Business Managers were installed to take decisions in communities. Responsibilities of Elders were removed from them. Controls set up to keep many communities ‘dry’ were dismantled and responsibility for alcohol control transferred to Government.

Whether a person was in debt or held a weighty savings account, they were forced to receive half their welfare payment through a plastic card which could be used only at certain shops. Capacity to financially manage money was irrelevant. Card-holders were shamed by having to stand in a separate supermarket queue.

With the demise of CDEP, the Community Development Employment Projects, those who had been employed, often for many years, found themselves on unemployment benefits. They watched on as Shire offices sent in contract workers to take over many of the tasks previously managed by the local workforce. Community council offices were closed down and stripped of all equipment. Bank accounts were frozen and responsibilities transferred from local community staff to those in Shire offices often many hundreds of kilometres away. Community programmes, often designed and developed by local people, gradually ground to a halt. Small communities were devastated. The disempowerment was unimaginable and only served to exacerbate the aimless and bewildered movements away from the security of community land towards the urban centres that offered no guarantees of shelter or protection from the social dysfunction of those who were already lost.
And the question asked, what was the psychological impact on Aboriginal people? Though little or no research has been conducted on the current situation, we do know enough from earlier studies to recognise that great psychological harm has resulted from the imposition of such targeted social oppression.

The sudden and brutal upheaval of the Intervention and the manner in which it was perpetrated left people in a state of helplessness. It was the unpredictability of their environment which left them bereft of any natural coping skills. They had lost all ability to predict what might happen next. Anxiety levels were high and distress dominated. The demands were so relentless that any chance of adapting behaviours to deal with new circumstances was overtaken by new waves of oppressive change.

Those elements central to Aboriginal culture were all under attack – language, law and land. Federal and Territory governments joined in their assault. Bilingual learning programmes were banned from schools. The exclusion of any consideration of Aboriginal customary law by judges and magistrates when deliberating on bail and sentencing, was clearly discriminatory. It degraded and devalued Aboriginal culture, and again there seemed to be a determined disrespect for the culture itself. A fear of dispossession was reinforced by the 2006 amendments to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act whereby control over community township lands were transferred from Aboriginal Land Councils to a Government statutory body. Without discussion, it opened up the possibility for sub-leases on community owned land. Further reinforced was the declared intention of emptying the homeland areas through a Memorandum of Agreement between Federal and Territory governments that no new housing would appear on homelands or outstations (September 2007). The changes added to the sense of overwhelming fear and uncertainty. As Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, Elder from Utopia, said, “take away from me my language, take away from me my responsibilities for the land, take away from me my land, and I am nothing”. This then was the impact of the Intervention.

During a visit to Melbourne last year, Rosalie spoke about the trauma her people live with. She talked about their loss of security. It is inevitable that a large percentage of Aboriginal people who have lived through the extraordinary turmoil of the last six years in the Territory have been traumatised by their experiences. That loss of security results from long periods of being overwhelmed by a sense of fear, a sense of being constantly in danger and always on the alert. This denies a person any real sense of relaxation. Being constantly agitated impacts on relationships and ability to trust. Stress levels are high. Others suffer by the constant intrusions of feelings of panic and anxiety over which they have no control. A general loss of self-esteem easily deteriorates into depression and despair.

It is known that the emotional development of children who have been exposed to constant stress and trauma is often affected. Adolescents may have difficulty expressing their emotion and have difficulty relating to others. For the reasons already discussed, it can affect their concentration, their retention of information and their ability to learn. Children are ever aware of the impact of trauma on those closest to them that threaten the fragile framework of care upon which they rely.

The deterioration of the psychological health of Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory has been screaming from the pages of every Closing the Gap report since their inception in 2009. The reports have consistently shown rising rates of self-harm, domestic violence and incarceration. The recorded incidence of attempted self-harm since the introduction of the Intervention has more than tripled. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission the actual rate of youth suicide in the NT has increased by 160%. Incidents of recorded domestic violence have doubled and Aboriginal incarceration under the Intervention has also virtually doubled, from 688 people in March 2007 to 1311 in 2013.

As Rosalie Kunoth-Monks pointed out in 2009, “Health is about being emotionally sound, mentally sound, knowing who you are as well as being physically fit”. The notion of total despair was well described during the 2012 Senate Inquiry by Dr Djiniyini Gondarra who stated, “When our lives are being threatened and taken away, we just sit and do nothing. I have already emphasised that people are dying, not just dying spiritually and emotionally but dying physically. They cannot live for the day because their lives are controlled by somebody else. They have given up hope: what is the use?”

Punitive measures designed in Canberra, ignore the cultural realities upon the ground. As far as is possible, they simply ignore culture altogether and hope that by appealing to youth, the attractions of Western culture will overcome the call of repressed and ageing Elders. Aboriginal culture is simply a hindrance. It is dispensable.

So where is the reality? Closing the Gap is based on the belief that if Aboriginal people live longer they will be better off? Surely, the question has to be asked, if they live longer will they be happier? And conversely can they live longer if they are not happy? As we have seen from the above, there is little evidence of improvements to happiness. In fact, the evidence shows the reverse. We are, in fact, drowning in a constant collection of data in the hope of measuring increased well-being, but we are seemingly oblivious to the operational framework on the ground that increasingly removes control and reduces the chance of the very improvements we seek.
Over many years there have been numerous reports and enquiries that have focused on Aboriginal health improvements and recommendations have all but mirrored each other. For instance, we know that for health to improve, people must have increased control over their life. Why then has the Intervention been designed specifically to remove control from the people? We know that stress causes incredible harm to a person’s physical and psychological health. Why then has the Intervention been introduced without community consultation and in a manner which has been aimed at confusing, disorienting and undermining Aboriginal self-worth? Why have Aboriginal lives been targeted by cruel and vicious innuendo? Why has culture been all but ignored since it represents the meaning and value of Aboriginal existence? By disempowerment and the very creation of trauma incredible harm has been done.

Yes, it should be clear to everyone that the Intervention was never designed with even the slightest consideration of improvement to Aboriginal health. Nor was it designed around any aspect of Aboriginal advancement. The stark reality is that its focus was to regain ultimate control over Northern Territory land and development. What we have been watching since June 2007, with the support of both major parties, has been the imposition of coercive tactics aimed at removing peoples from their homelands and that is still the case. Aboriginal people have lost their rights to consent and control over the very factors which directly affect their lives. Their rights have been whittled away by changes to legislation and dishonest notions of consultation. The right to self-determination has been high-jacked. Forced assimilation is currently seen by Government as the only way forward.

While many good people struggle to address the broad and negative impacts of the Northern Territory legislation by focusing on the need to improve the basic social determinants that surround the Intervention measures, there remains a certain reluctance to address the central issue of the right to Indigenous integrity. This is the right of Indigenous peoples to determine a future for themselves, the right to their culture and the right to live on their land. Integrity has to be the beginning point because without it there is nothing sustainable upon which to build. Gough Whitlam knew this, and we do too. It is important that we are not drawn into the illusion that there are intended links between the oppressive intentions of the Intervention and the genuine concerns for the future of Aboriginal peoples.

For Australia, the Intervention has simply been one more step backwards into the mire of dispossession and dishonesty. So captivated have our leaders become by the lure of development and gain that delusion has convinced them that the benefits to Aboriginal people of such plunder will far outweigh the loss of control over their lives. This perhaps is one of the fault lines to which Olga Havnen made reference in her oration as being in need of attention. What would it take for a new government to find the courage to re-align itself with Aboriginal integrity, justice and equality? Nelson Mandela advised of the need for a collective voice – that would include you and me.


Michelle Harris' essay (above) is an excellent critique on the pure bastardry that is known as 'the intervention' but also known as the 'stronger futures' assault on the aboriginal people of the nt.

critics, as well as supporters, all know that the process is an abject failure and has been since its nefarious introduction. there is very little that i can or would add to the article by ms. michelle harris, i believe it cannot be faulted. i dips me lid to this great work.

one thing i would add by way of support was a news article some time after john howard lost the 2007 election. prior to his announcement of the 'nt emergency response' he had set up the australian crimes commission early in 2007 to infiltrate the nt aboriginal communities and find 'evidence' of paedophilia rings, child prostitution, pornography and other salacious tit-bits so he could launch his government take over of all those unused could-be mining sites. the 2007 election brought on his desperate need to call the evil act on before any evidence could have been manufactured.

the rest, as they say, is history. a history of sell-outs, racism and pure bastardry.


to add, perhaps, a bit more weight to the above article we need to read an opinion piece written by noel pearson. readers of these isja posts will know full well that i am in no way a fan or supporter of noel in his latest role but with this article, pasted below, i can easily agree with him on this occasion.

noel points out in his inimitable style that aborigines, not only in the nt but throughout australia, cannot be blamed for the current, and i would add previous, funding arrangements, and the implementation or lack of it, into government initiated programmes.

i have argued for many years that the major problem is not us, it is them!

the politicians want political outcomes, the public service involvement must be done by their everexpanding rule book that gives more weight to white consultants than aboriginal people in the communities. the re-introduction of 'mission managers' into the nter clearly shows this. political and bureaucratic organisations, like coag, become absolutely useless in managing anything.

how many times do governments at all levels need to be told to talk with (not to) the community elders and other signifant individuals? it seems their collective ears are blocked from the crap of assimilation and the chat of miners.

Recent indigenous policy failures can't be pinned on Aborigines

by: Noel Pearson
From: The Australian
June 15, 2013 12:00AM

FORMER mandarin Peter Shergold's reflections last weekend on 20 years of "personal and
systemic" failure in indigenous policy at the highest levels of government is a seminal admission.

Not entirely unseriously, a colleague suggested that on the basis of his admission Shergold
should answer for these failures before an appropriate tribunal.

Shergold was the first chief executive of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. As
secretary of the departments of employment and then education and the prime minister and
cabinet under John Howard, he "had significant responsibility for the design and oversight of
indigenous programs".

He was an empathetic and diligent senior bureaucrat who took indigenous affairs seriously and
gave it more attention than most. But his admission of failure is correct. I agree this failure was
not a result of hostile public sentiment or lack of political will. The public has long wanted better
for indigenous Australians. I also agree there has been political will, though it waxes and wanes,
and certainly what has been willed has mostly been wrong.

Shergold identifies three lessons learned in a "demanding and wickedly complex" field.

First, "far too many government initiatives, generally well meant and adequately implemented,
simply end up compounding the problem of passive welfare and learned helplessness".

Second, "programs are often designed and regulated to the most exacting of ethical standards,
meet every guideline, tick every box and acquit every expenditure but still end up disconnected
from the outcomes they were meant to deliver".

Third, "there is far too little willingness to tailor services to local need or to devolve responsibility
and decision-making to the community level".

This is as accurate a diagnosis as we are likely to read. Yet

It is 13 years since we started railing against this, but the standard politician and indigenous
affairs bureaucrat would not know what could possibly be wrong with this kind of service delivery.
Passive income is well understood but passive services are not.

Shergold's belated critique of the uselessness of too much government program effort angers me
because former US senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was clear about these problems - way back
in the early 1960s. He recognised these programs were premised on the idea of feeding the
sparrows by feeding the horses.

Service delivery gives rise to a very large industry that ends up being self-serving. Remember
back when ATSIC was on the ropes and the problem was said to be the ubiquitous Aboriginal
industry? We don't hear much about the Aboriginal industry today.

There were three players back then: indigenous organisations and leaders; the bureaucracy; and
consulting and service industries involved in indigenous affairs. Of these three horses feeding on
the indigenous affairs budget, only indigenous organisations and leaders were identified with the
pejorative label Aboriginal industry. ATSIC was assumed to be exclusively a failure of indigenous
organisations and leaders. No one accused the other two horses of contributing in the ATSIC
story - the bureaucracy and the consultants and service providers - but no one identified them as
having contributed to the shortcomings.

Since ATSIC's demise, across the nation indigenous organisations have been de-funded and
closed down. The bureaucracy's share has grown considerably and the share of the consultants
and service providers has grown exponentially. Today the nominal budgetary outlays for
indigenous affairs are way more than in ATSIC's heyday, and indigenous affairs is indeed a true

Two players have grown enormously. First, large non-government welfare organisations have
moved into the vacuum following the dismantling of ATSIC. Mission Australia, the Smith Family
and an array of mainstream bodies have pushed indigenous organisations to extinction. Their
vast scale and capacity to win large government tenders mean local and regional indigenous
organisations cannot compete.

Second, numerous private, for-profit organisations have moved into the indigenous service scene.

Government policies favouring outsourcing and competitive tendering favour these large NGOs
and private providers.

That is why indigenous organisations have disappeared. If there has been failure during the past
decade, this has been a period when the mainstream bureaucracy, NGOs and outsourced service
delivery providers have been the principal actors. There is no ATSIC to blame any more, and if
you know anything about the declining role of indigenous organisations and leaders in the
administration of indigenous affairs in this era, you will know they too cannot be blamed for the
poor progress. Shergold presided over this shift.

Although there is a role for mainstream NGOs and private providers, Shergold and the
governments he served failed to understand that while you can outsource government services,
you cannot outsource leadership.

No amount of services to indigenous people will change things without leadership. This leadership
must come from the people whose lives and futures are at stake. Mission Australia or some
private provider that has won some temporary government tender to provide employment
services to a community cannot provide the necessary leadership.

The only thing remaining to outsource in indigenous policy today is one's status as a member of
the community supposedly targeted by the policy. Then we will have an indigenous policy scene
devoid of indigenous people.

I took Shergold and indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough to Arnhem Land following the Howard
government's announcement of the Northern Territory intervention in 2007. In the wake of the
ructions surrounding the move, I urged Shergold and Brough to meet Galarrwuy Yunupingu. I
argued the government needed to put the responsibility back on indigenous people and their

They never listened. Instead we got the Intervention Express, special flights to ferry the hordes of
public servants to Darwin and back, and the convoys of service deliverers driving daily in and out
of communities.

As Nicolas Rothwell reported in this paper, Yunupingu ended up making his own way with his
community. If the intervention's vast resources had been available to the Gumatj and other clans
in Arnhem Land to achieve the desired policy objectives, I wonder how much further advanced
things would be.

If Tony Abbott aspires to be a prime minister for indigenous affairs, he will need to come to grips
with the stark truth of Shergold's conclusion. He will need to understand that governments that do
not understand how they can be a junior partner with indigenous people in tackling the future are
governments that are destined to repeat this failure.

Noel Pearson is chairman of

the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership.


whilst this third article, pasted below, has little to do with the previous two, it does however have a strong link to the inhumanity and crassness of federal governments, both past and present.

isja has been very firm and very vocal in our support of asylum seekers who have sought refuge from death and/or discrimination from their home countries. under the un covenant on refugees they have every right to seek sustenance and sanctuary from what they are fleeing. they are not criminals, they are not, as disparagingly described, 'boat people', they are people caught up in the many wars (mostly american backed) and discriminatory practices of their homelands.

sickened as i and others of sound and moral mind are by the racist and xenophobic fears of our federal government who still fondly recall the white australia policy, it seems that not a day can go by without some fresh example of the depravity that can be sunk to by the federal government and opposition.

lately, without comment, we have been informed that africans are off the list of becoming processed as refugees. and why? merely because of the colour of their skin! by what social and human right can this be done in my name, or your name? none at all. australia continues to bleat to the world of its championing of human rights. all lies. this is a racist country that is led by racist governments.

why do we have the racial discrimination act? we have it because it is recognised that we must have it to curb the excesses of racial discrimination and abuse against the traditional owners of the land known as australia. we must have it to protect the human rights of all australians and those who come seeking refuge. disgracefully the asylum seekers have been excised out of the human rights due to them whilst both liberal and labor sob of drownings at sea. a pox on both their houses.

why do our governments fear a bill of rights? because it would restrict their criminal acts.

another news item told of the immigration department limiting access to australia from the overflowing indonesian camps to 800 per year. whilst this demeans us as a country it will not stop the boats from coming and will not stop deaths at sea. your false tears are salt to my humanist wounds. malcolm fraser stopped the boats back in the 70's from Vietnam by taking some 50,000 odd from the refugee camps and that is what the federal government must do. at 800 per year it will take over 60 years to do what fraser did in a few. shame!

when i first read the article below i thought it must have been a wind-up, a planted piece to raise the ire of some against such an act. but it proved to be factual.

the first law of the sea is to as quickly as possible answer distress from ships at sea. a la the tampa incident. that is now history but for any vessel to be directed not to go to the aid of a vessel in distress is an international crime of the highest order and the perpetrators of such orders must be sent to the world court for trial and punishment. it is my understanding that australia is a signatory to this court. the usa is not.

since when is it the role of australian customs personnel to wipe out a centuries old law that is there to save lives at sea? obviously they would have received such instructions from the federal parliament. we have already had one known and proven criminal act, the siev x, that cost innocent lives at sea, how many more must there be by parliamentary decree? abbott has already stated that he will have the boats turned around.

but not in my name! asylum seekers are welcome to aboriginal land!

The Northern Territory News
Fishos told to leave asylum boat alone

DAVID WOOD | June 14th, 2013

Fishos off the NT coast have been warned by Australian Customs to stay away from an asylum
seeker vessel
PHOTO: Mark O'Dwyer

A FISHERMAN said he thought children would drown after government authorities told them to
abandon a stranded asylum seeker boat far out to sea in rough swells.

"I could see little kids' hands waving through the open window," deck hand Mark O'Dwyer said in
Darwin today.

"There is going to be more than kids overboard, if it had of been there at night... we could have
crashed right through them... they were f**ked mate."

Mr O'Dwyer was out on a trap boat when the crew spotted the overloaded asylum vessel about
130-160 nautical miles off the NT coast, in an area called the Timor Box, on June 3.

About a dozen men were sitting on the roof of the boat.

Mr O'Dwyer said he knew there were children on board because he could see their hands
gripping the edge of the cabin windows.

"I have no idea how many people there were but there were too many," he said, adding he feared
without fuel the boat would flip in the large swell.

"You need to have diesel so you can power on into the swell - or with it - to stop the roll of the

"If the boat hits waves sideways it will capsize."

Mr O'Dwyer said as the fishing crew was trying to get diesel, food and water to the boat,
authorities told them not to help and leave the area.

But the closest Navy or Customs vessel was still more than a day away.

The office of Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare issued a statement two days later advising that a
vessel carrying 79 people was intercepted north-west of Darwin on June 4.

It is not known if this was the same vessel.

The NT News is waiting for a response from Mr Clare.

Mr O'Dwyer said he did not know what happened to the asylum vessel.

"I was just so tired mate, I didn't have time to analyse it until I got back to land," he said, adding
he did not think it was right that authorities told the fishos not to render aid.

"They are human beings in our water."


ray jackson
indigenous social justice association
(m) 0450 651 063
(p) 02 9318 0947
address 1303/200 pitt street waterloo 2017

we live and work on the stolen lands of the gadigal people.

sovereignty treaty social justice