In June, the Australian government tore up 30 years of social and welfare policy towards Aborigines in the Northern Territory. The reaction exposed big divisions in Australian society—and among Aborigines themselvesby Nicolas Rothwell / December 22, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
On 21st June 2007, the Australian government’s minister for indigenous affairs, Mal Brough, acting on reports of widespread child abuse in remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, declared a “national emergency response” and tore up a generation’s worth of social policies. The new programme unveiled by Brough and the long-serving conservative prime minister, John Howard, adopted a draconian approach to Australia’s most far-flung Aboriginal people and struck hard at a particular idealising vision of the indigenous world, unleashing a tide of moral indignation.
Brough’s programme was sprung as a surprise, without consultation with the affected communities, and without any notice given to the Labour government of the Northern Territory, the large and mostly desert region home to 60,000 of Australia’s Aborigines. If the “intervention” was initially sold to the public as a set of measures undertaken in defence of children at risk of abuse, it soon became clear that Brough and the federal government were stalking much bigger game. They proposed a complete overhaul of the remote communities: investments in infrastructure, a prohibition on alcohol consumption, a ban on pornography, medical checks on all children, compulsory acquisition of township leases and the abolition of the bizarre welfare system that had become entrenched over decades. John Howard, who had struggled throughout his 11 years in office to come to terms with indigenous issues, at last had a cause to fight. And his opponents had a cause to resist—which they did with fervour, Aboriginal affairs being, as throughout the past 200 years of European settlement, a distorting glass in which mainstream society sends out signals to itself.
The heart of the Brough revolution lies in its coercive approach to welfare reform. Not even the most dewy-eyed admirers of indigenous spirituality would argue that life in the average remote community is on the upswing: there are no jobs to speak of, illness, poverty and illiteracy are widespread and domestic violence near pandemic. Why, after so many years of costly social programmes? There are two broad schools of thought. One places the weight on the devastating effects of invasion and colonial disruption, and concludes that Aboriginal political powers need to be strengthened; the other holds that passive welfare, or “sit-down money,” has rotted away the heart of the remote indigenous domain. The former notion was generally dominant in the initial years after 1975, when Northern Territory Aboriginal people received land rights, a measure that eventually gave them control over 41 per cent of the territory. The second paradigm is now in the ascendant: it begins from the observation that the core activities in remote communities are gambling and the consumption of alcohol and marijuana, not to mention the introduced curse of kava, a potent non-alcoholic drink consumed throughout the western Pacific—and that these appetites are financed by welfare payments. Hence the element in the Brough plan to “quarantine” such payments; half the payments will now be made in the form of vouchers, for food and essential goods in local stores. The other key reform involves the phasing out of “community development employment projects”—make-work schemes that were a key aspect of life in the remote communities until one day, a few weeks into the intervention, when Brough canned them, declaring that “real jobs” would be provided instead.