Intervention to destroy

Inte(rve)ntion to Destroy

by Paddy Gibson

This article was first published in a special 2012 edition of Arena magazine marking five years since the announcement of the NT Intervention.

Bio: Paddy Gibson is a senior researcher with the Jumbunna Indigeous House of Learning, UTS. He is also a founding member of the Stop the Intervention Collective Sydney and co-editor of Solidarity magazine. He has lived and worked extensively in Central Australia researching the Intervention.

Just prior to his death in 2009, Peter Howson, Liberal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs from 1971–72, wrote a short essay describing the history of the development of policies implemented through the NT Intervention in 2007. This was recently published as a dedication at the front of Gary John’s book, Aboriginal self-determination: the Whiteman’s Dream.

Howson had been a key figure in the group of conservative ideologues who held annual conferences since 1994, first as the Galatians Group, then as Quadrant and finally as the now defunct Bennelong Society. The key aim of this group was the resurrection of the policies of assimilation that had guided Aboriginal affairs until the election of the Whitlam government in 1972 and what in their eyes was a tragic and failed shift towards frameworks of ‘self-determination’ and development of what the state calls ‘discrete Aboriginal communities’.

The works of this group most clearly articulated the neocolonial vision behind the Intervention. Peter Shergold, head of John Howard’s Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and credited as the intellectual architect of the rapid response ‘national emergency’ Intervention, was a special guest at the Bennelong society’s founding conference. Mal Brough and NTER taskforce Chief Sue Gordon gave keynote speeches at the 2008 conference: both are recipients of the Bennelong Medal.

In his essay, Howson outlines their chief aim, ‘to bring down the edifice that had been created during the 30 years from 1973 to 2000’. He says of the Intervention, ‘it has taken me 47 years to achieve this goal. I believe I can now see the end in sight’.

This essay will examine what it means to “bring down” an entire mode of life that has been built by Aboriginal communities. It will look both at policies tasked with achieving this, and what it means for daily life in the community of Daguragu—one of the most iconic in the struggle for self-determination.

The political component of this ‘bringing down’ is the explicit curtailment of the rights won through the struggles of the 1960s and 70s. This is now reasonably well understood and, after an initial period of disorientation following the ‘child protection’ rhetoric of the Intervention, is opposed with increasing confidence by progressive opinion and institutions across Australia—witness the strident list of submissions to the Senate inquiry into Stronger Futures (Intervention mark 2).

The genesis of Howson’s group is extremely instructive on this point. Howson says:

‘I managed to take a trip to Darwin (in the early 1990s) where I was able to get Harry Giese, who had been the Director of Welfare in the Northern Territory for many years, especially when I was Minister, to collect a team of former patrol officers. We had an all day seminar in Darwin to get some idea of what was wrong in the present situation and what needs to be changed’.

The Intervention has established a twenty-first century Aboriginal welfare board. The ‘patrol officers’ have returned. A network of live-in government managers stretch across bush communities, in cyclone-fenced compounds. Income management serves as the new ration system, controlling Aboriginal spending and movement. Police have also been given special powers of surveillance and control that hark back to the welfare era. Race-based legislation ensures communities are restricted from access to the vices of modern society, ‘for their own good’. Under the NTER and now Stronger Futures, the two groups of people in Australia not allowed to access pornography, violent video games or alcohol are those under the age of 18 and those living in ‘prescribed communities’ in the NT—the legislative embodiment of paternalism.

Less well understood is the economic component of this transformation. There has been a willful and merciless destruction of the asset base and employment programs which had sustained remote Aboriginal life, precariously, from the late 1970s.

Much of this productive capacity was slowly and painfully acquired over the last 30 years through demands on government, sacrifices to save money and Aboriginal enterprise. But in the twelve month period from mid 2007 to mid 2008 it was largely ripped away without compensation, leading to a sharp deterioration in living standards in already impoverished communities and a slow bleed of population towards the Stuart Highway towns of Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Katherine and Darwin.

Bringing it all down

Under the wing of the Intervention, three closely related policies have facilitated this contemporary dispossession of Aboriginal communities since 2007: the closure of Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP), the NT government’s dissolution of Aboriginal community government councils and a new funding regime based around a handful of ‘priority communities’ or ‘growth towns’.

Prior to the Intervention, CDEP was the main employer of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. Official figures put the number of participants in the Northern Territory at 7500. Wages were often very low and few workers were paid superannuation, but a CDEP place was at least a job, along with being a crucial source of labour for under-resourced communities and the foundation of numerous Aboriginal enterprises. The fact that CDEP was run by Aboriginal organisations, often the community council, meant that both the direction of development and employment arrangements were guided by Aboriginal priorities.

The abolition of CDEP was one of the key reforms of the Howard government’s Intervention in 2007. Following their election, Labor put a moratorium on the abolition, but in late 2008 they began a process of reform that has gutted the program. Pay arrangements were altered and many Aboriginal organisations lost their status as CDEP providers to shire councils or private providers.

There are currently two ‘streams’ of CDEP participants. The first stream, called ‘Continuing Participants’, is made up of workers who have maintained an unbroken relationship with their CDEP provider since July 2009. They are still paid a form of wages through their provider. As of April 2012, however, only 1667 Continuing Participants were still in the system in the Northern Territory.

For the second stream, called New Participants, payment now takes place through Centrelink and is only $20 per fortnight higher than the regular allowance. For most workers, half of this payment is quarantined on a ‘BasicsCard’. This system is intensely exploitative for the workers involved and, due to widespread resentment, is completely unreliable as a source of labour.

2241 new positions were created as part of an NT Jobs Package—supposedly to replace lost CDEP positions with ‘real jobs’. However, figures gained through Senate estimates in 2011 show 61 per cent of these positions are only part-time and many are on the lowest level of public sector pay—an effective pay cut for workers previously on CDEP wages. Additionally, as will be highlighted below, there are no guarantees that these positions are actually filled by local Aboriginal people. The net result of this reform process has been a loss of between 3500 and 4000 waged jobs in some of Australia’s most impoverished communities, and with the continued bleed of ‘Continuing Participants’ still working for wages, this is a figure which will keep rising.

The NT government’s moves to abolish Aboriginal community government councils began prior to the Intervention. Plans had already been drawn up to replace fifty-eight community councils with eight shire councils in 2008.The degree of coordination between this NT reform and the Commonwealth Intervention has been the subject of considerable debate, but the ‘mainstreaming’ policy trajectory was the same. It was the Intervention’s compulsory five-year lease over Aboriginal township land and the newly empowered Commonwealth officials which ensured the smooth multi-million dollar transfer of buildings, assets and authority from community councils to the new shires in circumstances which may have otherwise been challengeable under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act.

Along with decision-making power, assets were removed from local sites, to regional centres in Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Katherine and Darwin. Much of what has been lost is vital for the provision of essential and other municipal services—road grading equipment, backhoes, buses, tractors and even fire trucks. Equipment which hasn’t been taken is often now off limits for community use—so no bus rides into town for shopping, firewood collection for the elderly or latrine-digging at ceremony camps.

Finally, compounding the robbery of jobs and assets, a National Indigenous Reform Agreement (NIRA) concluded in late 2008 by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) locks in a funding regime that excludes the vast majority of communities from any significant investment into the future.

The investment principles in NIRA bind all tiers of government. They establish the category of ‘priority communities’, that is ‘larger and more economically sustainable communities where secure land tenure exists’.

NIRA names only sixteen ‘priority communities’ in the Northern Territory, the only places who will receive any new housing under the Intervention’s notorious Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP), and then only if they sign a long-term lease.

For the vast majority of Aboriginal communities, NIRA urges governments to ‘avoid expectations of major investment in service provision’ and encourages ‘facilitating voluntary mobility by individuals and families to areas where better education and job opportunities exist’.

This approach has significantly informed the NT government’s Working Futures policy on economic development and service delivery, which tacks five extra communities onto the Commonwealth’s focus and badges all twenty-one areas ‘Territory Growth Towns’. One example of Working Futures in action is a recent NT Government commitment to guarantee employment in the NT public service for any high-school student who finished year twelve. This is restricted to the Growth Towns.

The Destruction of Daguragu

The community of Daguragu was born out of the now iconic Gurindji walk-off. The image of Gough Whitlam pouring sand into the hands of walk-off leader Vincent Lingiari at a hand back ceremony for Daguragu is one of the most widely recognised images from Aboriginal history. This struggle was a vital catalyst for the wave that swept away Welfare Boards’ rights across Australia, saw the legislation of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act NT (1976) and saw some resources begin to flow for the development of communities on Aboriginal land.

Perhaps nowhere has the effort to ‘bring down’ these gains been more vicious than at Daguragu. The symbolic sand was snatched from Lingiari’s children by Howard in 2007 when his government took a compulsory five-year lease over Daguragu. Since then, the community has literally lost everything and is struggling for its very survival.

The construction of a Government Business Manager compound at Daguragu seems deliberately provocative—a stake in the physical heart of the Land Rights movement. The compound could have easily been built at Kalkaringi 8kms up the road. Kalkaringi is a designated NT ‘Growth Town’ which acts as the administrative centre for the shire and all other government services. Despite this status, locals complain nothing is ‘growing’ in Kalkaringi except accommodation quarters for non-Indigenous shire staff.

The main strip at Daguragu was once a vital community meeting place and hummed with activity. It’s now a row of empty buildings. Since the attacks on CDEP and the coming of the shire the ‘Vincent Bakery’, the CDEP office, arts centre, brickworks, family centre, health centre and canteen have all closed down. The feeling of loss and despair is palpable.

On a trip to the community in March 2012, I was driving with walk-off veteran Jimmy Wave Hill when we passed a crew of non-Aboriginal contract workers slashing the grass on the side of the road 5 kms from Kalkaringi. Jimmy explained bitterly that the shire had confiscated all the road-grading and grass-slashing equipment purchased over years by the Daguragu Community Government Council and sent it to Katherine. Prior to this, the Gurindji had been operating road maintenance and associated small enterprises with contracts operating right to the West Australian border.

Estimates of the number of jobs lost as CDEP closes range between 150 and 250 over the two communities of Kalkaringi and Daguragu. The impact of these cuts on community life can’t be underestimated. Regina Teddy, who used to work as a child nutritionist at the Daguragu family centre, is one of those now unemployed. During an interview in August 2011 she said that the community was facing a new Stolen Generation:

It’s hard for the young mothers now. There are no support services for them and if their babies don’t put on weight, they’ll be taken away by welfare. We had five children taken from one family last year. They just flew in on a plane and took those children to Darwin, leaving their parents suffering.

Regina’s husband Phillip Chubb had been a head baker at the Vincent Bakery. He complained of the racism of the shire management which sees locals consistently overlooked for the precious few positions that do exist, even in programs like ‘night patrol’ which are supposed to be community based:

Hardly anyone from the community can get a job—but they are always hiring new white people we’ve never seen before. This manager even put his relation on as a ‘night patrol’ officer. He has no idea how to deal with our community. He just drives the ‘night patrol’ vehicle around in circles and calls the police as soon as there’s any trouble.

Rubbing salt in these wounds is the ‘new’ CDEP, which forces people to work for their ‘income managed’ Centrelink payments. One of the catalysts for the Gurindji strike in 1966 was the demand for equal wages. Now they find themselves working for rations again.

I met Peter Inverway (PI) on a trip to Gurindji country in April 2010. He was a proud worker who had numerous certificates and had traveled extensively gaining work and experience on major mining and construction projects across the Northern Territory. Now back in the community, with no proper work on offer from the shire, he was caught up in a ‘new’ CDEP project, doing construction and renovations on an old power station at Kalkaringi to turn it into an Arts Centre.

PI was doing twenty-four hours a week on the project to receive his Centrelink payments. This worked out to approximately $4.50 cash per hour, plus $85 a week in his BasicsCard. As compensation for working more than the legally required hours (16 per week for CDEP participants), PI was provided with some vouchers for the local store.

Returning in March 2012, I was devastated to hear that PI was locked up in the Berimah prison. While in prison, PI said he had worked unpaid, very similar hours to CDEP, on a gang that cleaned up the streets of Darwin and even did yard maintenance in private houses.

Since the NTER there has been a 40 per cent increase in Indigenous incarceration, this in a jurisdiction with one of the highest incarceration rates in the entire world. A 2011 report by Thalia Anthony, Governing Crime in the Intervention found that the bulk of increased contact with the ‘justice’ system since 2007 had been related to motor vehicles. Indeed police investigation of driving offences in ‘prescribed areas’ had increased 250 per cent.

Fighting for survival

A key thesis of Howson’s is that self-determination is an idea that was imposed on Aboriginal communities. The tenacity of the Gurindji struggle from 1966 to the coming of Land Rights should be enough to dispel this, and the same spirit has been on display in Gurindji efforts to fight for their very survival in the face of the attempt to ‘bring down’ these gains.

A one-day strike at Kalkaringi in 2010 brought the plight of BasicsCard workers and the employment crisis to national attention, albeit briefly. Peter Inverway and other Gurindji workers have followed in the footsteps of Lingiari and toured southern cities and union workplaces to appeal for support. Leaders Jimmy Wave Hill, Maurie Ryan and John Leemans have led protests in Darwin. And on the 45th anniversary of the ‘walk-off’ in August 2011, visiting officials were greeted with protest banners and appeals from Gurindji elders for a second walk-off to challenge the Intervention.

Gus George described the intense feelings of loss and the need for resistance:

This Freedom Day we are talking up strongly and fighting the government. We got no rights to have a say in the community. Government took the community away. We had Aboriginal owned enterprise and all, but they took all the funding away. All missing. That’s true for every community in the Territory.

The full council of the Central Land Council also issued a statement: ‘We demand an apology from our governments for the terrible recent policies that encourage assimilation and ‘normalisation’—this amounts to cultural genocide’.

This deliberate attempt to destroy Aboriginal communities proceeds apace under the coming Stronger Futures legislation and funding regime which continues the moratorium on any waged employment program or significant investment for the vast majority of communities.

The Gurindji were only able to begin building a life at Daguragu through a dedicated campaign, involving mass mobilisations across the country. A movement on this scale is needed again to ensure its very survival—and put Vincent Lingiari’s vision of a thriving community on Aboriginal land back on the agenda.


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