Print this page

Land rights, self-determination and the NT intervention

World at a Crossroads Conference April 11, 2009

Indigenous workshop:

Land rights, self-determination and the NT intervention

Emma Murphy, Green Left Weekly editor


This talk will look at the current attack on Indigenous land rights and self-determination in the Northern Territory: the NT Emergency Response Legislation, or the "intervention", as it's broadly known.

Want to put it in context of the culmination of 12 years of attacks on Indigenous people under the previous Coalition government of John Howard. Also stress, though, that the end of the Howard regime has not in any way seen the end of these attacks. So I will end by looking at what has happened since Rudd came to power, and challenges facing the movement to end the intervention and defend and extend land rights and Indigenous rights more broadly.

Important to understand that central to most Indigenous struggles, from invasion to today, have been the questions of self-determination- Indigenous control of Indigenous affairs- and land rights. Centrality of land to Indigenous identity, wellbeing, culture, strength etc. Also can be transposed to capitalist, resource-rich Australia, where ownership/control over land- if in fact it was granted to Indigenous people, could give them some economic and political power viz. access to the means of production, ability to negotiate with/veto mining ventures etc.

Remote communities

Given the extent to which the interventions has focused national attention on remote Aboriginal communities - despite the fact such a small percentage of the Aboriginal population lives there- I just want to give people a bit of a feel for what these communities are like, and where they came from.

The communities in central Australia and the NT were mainly established in the 1970's and ‘80s. As Indigenous people became eligible for welfare payments - as late as 1975 for unemployed adults - and as, slowly, limited rights to native title were won, Indigenous people enjoyed more freedom of movement, and many began to demand the right to return to their traditional lands. This was also in the wake of the equal pay decision in 1966, which saw many Aboriginal stockworkers and their families leave the stations they had been living and working on.

As part of a new era of "self-determination", federal and state governments committed to providing infrastructure and essential services to these communities and homelands, and in some cases missions and reserves were handed back to be self-managed by the Indigenous people.

The homeland movement was an important part of the struggle for land rights. In many cases it gave Indigenous groups access to productive forces for the first time, and communities were able to experiment with being part of the capitalist economy through, for example, farming or arts and crafts enterprises, while still maintaining a connection to their land and a commitment to their culture.

However, diminishing government support and under-funding of Indigenous organisations meant that, fairly soon after being established, many of these communities were fraught with social, economic, and political problems. Basic infrastructure such as drinking water and housing was at substandard levels, and the social fabric of many these communities was fraying. Reports of 100% unemployment, substance abuse and violence, became commonplace. By the late nineties, the Howard government, through it's unofficial mouth-piece the Australian newspaper, was drawing the conclusion that self-management had failed, that Aboriginal communities were unviable, and that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (the peak representative organisation established under the Labor government in 1990) was failing its constituents.

While these arguments failed to acknowledge that many of the social indicators actually fell under the jurisdiction of the state and federal governments, not ATSIC, Indigenous communities, and especially ATSIC itself, faced an increasingly hostile media. In April 2004, the federal government dismantled ATSIC, saying that services for Indigenous people would be "mainstreamed". The Australian newspaper claimed "Australia's 14-year experiment with Indigenous self-government is over" The Australian, April 16, 2004).

Three years after ATSIC was shut-down, in June 2007, an inquiry into the protection of Aboriginal children from sexual abuse was released: the Little Children are Sacred report. It's worth talking about this report a little, given it was used by the Howard government to declare a national "emergency" which would lead the the NTER legislation.

Was it an emergency? In the 10 months that the report's authors spent travelling through communities and hearing people tell their stories, they definitely collected some harrowing and at times graphic data. But there was nothing new in what they found. Anyone who'd been reading the Australian knew about the dysfunctionality and breakdown in these communities.The authors themselves point out: "There is nothing new or extraordinary in the allegations of sexual abuse of Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory. What is new, perhaps, is the publicity given to them and the raising of awareness of the wider community of the issue."

The authors were also at pains to point out that there is nothing about Aboriginal culture that leads to an increase in child abuse. It is a problem throughout all of society. They did however draw attention to particular situations that may increase the risk of child neglect/abuse: poverty and unemployment, overcrowding, substance abuse, family breakdown etc.

All of these problems had existed in most remote Aboriginal communities for a number of years. The Howard government could not plead ignorance, as it had used such stories as part of its ideological attack on the concept of self-determination in general and ATSIC in particular.

Communities also were obviously well aware of these issues: for years, Aboriginal women's pleas for funded domestic violence shelters and night patrols had fallen on deaf government ears, leaving many communities to establish grassroots, largely volunteer programs to provide such essential services.

All that aside, however, days after the Little Children are Sacred report was released, Howard and his Indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough appeared so moved by the report that they declared a national emergency, and - in the name of protecting children - announced the NTER.

The background to their announcement, in June 2007, was the federal election. Coalition pollsters were looking at a probable election loss, and had been advising that the government needed something to wedge the Labor Party if it was going to win the election. It needed another Children Overboard affair, and when Little Children was released, it had it. 72 hours after the release of the report, Brough's department had patched together the intervention legislation.

What was this legislation going to do?

Taken in its entirety, the legislation was a severe attack not only on the principle of self-determination, but also on the level of control that Indigenous people in the NT could exercise over their land and their affairs. Amongst the provisions in the legislation were the right of the government to acquire townships on Indigenous land and convert them to five-year leases, the removal of Indigenous peoples' right to control who enters their land (a right which had been protected through a widely supported permit system), and welfare quarantining, where 50% of Indigenous people's welfare would be withheld and granted in the form of store vouchers. There were also widespread bans on alcohol and pornography.

In the hundreds of pages of legislation, the words "child protection" did not appear once. Given that children's wellbeing is so inherently tied up with the wellbeing and empowerment of their families and communities, it is hard to see how such punitive and paternalistic measures were going to help. The authors of the Little Children report have condemned the intervention, which implements not one of their recommendations.


The legislation required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, seeing as how it only targeted Aboriginal people.

The legislation was enforcable in "proscribed areas". SO, suddenly communities, town camps, and even individual houses in suburban Alice Springs had big signs out the front declaring them "proscribed areas"- outlining that it was offence to have alcohol or pornography etc. In practise what this means is that, for example, Indigenous friends of my uncle can go to his house for a beer after work, but if he goes to their place, he's breaking the law by taking alcohol into a "prescribed area".

This intervention is a serious attack on the right and ability of these communities to solve their own problems and control their own affairs.

For example, there are Town Camps in Alice Springs that had been applying to the liquor licensing agency for years to become "dry zones", as they recognised the negative effects of alcohol abuse and wanted to be able to call on police back up when there were problems. For years they'd been denied that right, and then the intervention started, and that decision making was taken away from them: suddenly they are dry-zones, but because of paternalistic government intervention, not through any empowerment of their own.

Similarly, there were domestic violence services being run entirely on CDEP, because the government had refused to provide funding. However, as CDEP money was classified as "wages", and wages couldn't be quarantined, all CDEP programs were shut down, its workers put on the dole.

The Little Children report noted severe over-housing as a contributing factor to abuse and neglect, and yet not one new house has been built as a result of the intervention.

Rudd: a new era?

So these are just some of the problems - there are many more. But we need to look at what if anything has changed under Labor.

The Howard government underestimated the racism of Labor if it thought the intervention would be a wedge issue.

The legislation was passed with bipartisan support, and the intervention has continued under Labor.

In February 2008, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people travelled to Canberra from around Australia - particularly from proscribed areas in the NT - to protest the intervention and demand it be repealed. That protest was over-shadowed by the historical apology to the Stolen Generations. Just as he'd promised, Rudd did what Howard never had the guts to do and said "sorry", on the opening day of parliament. It was a beautifully crafted speech, and it promised a new era in race relations in this country. I think it raised the hopes of quite a few people.

"Sorry" very quickly sounded very hollow, though, to the prescribed area people, who continued to live under the racist policies of the intervention. While the rhetoric of the Rudd government is different to that of Howard - there are no explicit attacks on "self-determination", and Rudd has obviously grasped the significance of symbolic attacks such as saying sorry and ratifying the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People - the substance of Aboriginal policy has not changed.

If anything, Rudd has managed to take some of Howard's attacks further than Howard himself had time to.

Land rights, for example. I mentioned that the intervention meant the federal government government could acquire Aboriginal land and convert it into leases. How this has played out is that the government has used a form of blackmail, pressuring NT communities to sign their land over to the government as 40 or 99 year leases in return for basic infrastructure funding such as public housing. So basically communities are being held to ransom, and while some communities have succumbed, others are standing strong and refusing to sign their land over.

What we've learnt is that the federal Labor government plans to extend this bullying tactic, this land grab, across Australia. In March, Macklin wrote to state housing ministers saying that no more public funds were to be released to Aboriginal communities until those communities signed their land over onto 40-year leases.

The federal government has also talked about extending the welfare quarantining into other parts of Australia, and I think it has already been rolled out into parts of northern WA and QLD.

The Rudd government commissioned an inquiry into the intervention, which was released late last year. It got many moving submissions from Indigenous people talking about how they felt they'd been taken back to the rations days, how the men had been branded pedophiles and child abusers. The report recommended a wide raft of changes which effectively would have gutted the most punitive sections of the intervention: ie it said welfare quarantining should be either voluntary or enforced only in proven cases of child abuse.

The Rudd government ignored the inquiry. It has said that the intervention has now "stabilised" and will continue until at least 2012.

It has also supported the NT government's attacks on bilingual education. In communities where English may be a child's 2nd, 3rd or 4th language, schools have used a multi-lingual, ESL approach to educating, drawing on Aboriginal Education Workers to ensure quality content in the students' first languages. This has now been largely abolished, with Aboriginal languages only allowed to be taught for the final few hours of each day. There have been recent studies showing a decline in school attendance as this policy is enforced.

There have also been ongoing questions raised by the government about the "economic viability" of remote communities and homelands. This ties in to an ideological trend started under Howard and pushed by the likes of Noel Pearson that argues that Indigenous communities need to "enter the real economy", and Aboriginal people should enjoy the same "rights" of private home ownership as the rest of Australia. So this spectre of "economic viability" and the question of whether or not the government should continue to fund "unviable communities" hovers out there in the national dialogue like a threat. No communities as yet have been "closed down", but we need to draw all these different threads together and come to our own conclusions.

Let's look at the threads:

  • the increasing difficulty to live in remote communities when welfare quarantining may mean you need to travel 400 kilometres to do your shopping
  • the attack on the legitimacy of traditional culture and language through closing down the bilingual education system
  • the attack on the ability of Aboriginal communities to stop mining on their land by transferring freehold title into leases back to the government

The government hasn't mentioned "mining" in any of its discussions about the intervention - remember, it's all about protecting the children, nothing to do with the incredibly valuable resources under the ground in the Northern Territory. But we can see for ourselves the benefit to Australian capital - especially mining interests - if these communities were to not exist, if life out there got so hard, because of various state and federal laws, that eventually the Indigenous people were forced to move into town.

And we can see, looking at the policies and practises of past and present governments, the increasing difficulties of remaining on the land, in the remote areas, maintaining language and culture

But Aboriginal people aren't leaving their land and culture, and they're not taking this latest attack lying down.

For every attack on the land and rights of Aboriginal people, there's been a fightback by Aboriginal people and their supporters.

The Intervention has been an issue that's spurred the rising up of a new generation of fighters, as well as reinvigorated an older generation. It has seen the emergence of Aboriginal Rights Coalitions around the country, seen national gatherings such as the one in Canberra which coincided with the Apology last year, and another one in February of this year, and has perhaps seen the development and cohering of a national leadership the likes of which we've not seen for a few decades.

Many communities are refusing to sign their land over to the government. The Proscribed Area People's Alliance has formally taken the government to the UN on the grounds that the intervention breaks numerous conventions, and Amnesty International is pursuing similar avenues.

There's an awareness among many Indigenous people - as well as many socialist groups - that the extent to which the campaign to end the intervention will succeed depends upon the movement broadening out to include the trade union movement, for example.

To this end, the Socialist Alliance has a perspective of trying to get issues of Stolen Wages, as well as demands around repealing the intervention, included on May Day platforms around the country.

There's a rich history of socialists and trade unionists collaborating with Indigenous people to fight for, and win, struggles for their rights, as Indigenous people and as workers. We must see the struggle against the intervention as a continuation of that history, and always be mindful of the two principles of land rights and self-determination as we seek to build these broad alliances and wage the current phase of the struggle against colonialism and racism in this country.

Reproduced with the kind permission of Emma Murphy