By Emma Purdy
The spin doctors did an impressive job distracting from the hypocrisy of former prime minister Kevin Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generations in February 2008.
Hundreds of thousands watched the live broadcast as Rudd apologised "for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians ... for the breaking up of families and communities ... and for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture..."
Many hoped the long-overdue expression of contrition, promptly delivered by the new parliament on its second day, represented a turnaround in Australia's treatment of its Indigenous population. Most were unaware that the previous day, on which it was originally planned to hold the apology, almost 2000 people had gathered in the rain and marched to Parliament House to protest their government's racially discriminatory policies.
Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians had rallied together against the Northern Territory Emergency Response, introduced in June 2007 by then prime minister, John Howard, after his declaration of a national emergency, which he dubbed "our Katrina". This followed publication of the emotively entitled Little Children are Sacred report, which Howard claimed indicated "unthinkable numbers" of child sexual abuse cases in Aboriginal communities.
The Racial Discrimination Act was immediately suspended and the Intervention, as it is now better known, imposed within 24 hours on 73 remote Indigenous communities across the Northern Territory. In that instant, over 45,000 Indigenous people were deprived of the human rights for which they had fought for decades.
Without any warning or consultation, various nefarious measures were abruptly enforced, including the compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal lands in five-year leases, the quarantining of 50 per cent of welfare payments and the removal of hard-earned power to protect sacred sites. The government also ceased funding to remote communities in favour of 20 growth town centres known as "hub towns", with communities told they will not receive urgently required housing unless they sign leases over their land.
While the controversial legislation expires in August 2012, despite comprehensive opposition the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill was passed through the Senate, effectively continuing the Intervention for another 10 years.
The new laws expand many of the current measures, such as the alcohol ban, by introducing six-month jail terms for possession in certain areas and 18-month sentences for carrying in excess of 1.35 litres. They also broaden powers to impose compulsory income management, whereby parents can lose three months of welfare payments if their children do not attend school, and aim to change five-year lease arrangements signed in return for remote housing to 40-year leases.
The increasingly punitive measures are extremely alarming. With carrying just one bottle of beer through a prescribed area warranting half a year's jail, many worry that higher rates of incarceration in already over-policed communities will break up families and separate children from their parents.
Similarly, with many children going out bush with their parents during the dry season, it's feared the penalties for missing school will prevent them from learning their culture. The continuing dearth of bilingual education has also been repeatedly cited as a deterrent to schoolchildren, for many of whom English is their second or third language.
Most worryingly, there has been a deluge of concerns from those living in remote communities that imposed conditions of hardship are forcing people off their homelands, after the government deemed them "unviable" and starved them of funds. Income management is similarly criticised as driving people off traditional lands, with the BasicsCard only permitted for use in approved government retailers in hub towns, often meaning long car journeys people can't afford.
While mining companies' efforts to access multimillion-dollar natural resources in the Territory have put mounting pressure on native title holders to provide heritage clearances in return for limited royalties, these have been being met with increasing opposition from traditional landowners, with most legally opting to preserve sacrosanct lands rather than enter into leases.
As early as 2004, a leaked government paper written by a senior public servant in the Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination outlined a proposal by then prime minister, John Howard, to amend state and Territory legislation so as to force Aboriginal landowners to grant lease applications.
Presented at the National Indigenous Council's January 2005 meeting, the eight-page options paper warned that a radical overhaul of Aboriginal land rights could run into constitutional difficulties by requiring native title holders to assign their rights to other parties, leading to massive compensation payouts.
It noted this "could amount to the compulsory acquisition of private property and thus invoke the 'just terms' compensation provisions of the constitution. The Australian government would then need to provide financial compensation to the native title holders who were required to surrender (for the term of the lease) part of their land to another party."
In April 2005, at a meeting in the Aboriginal community of Wadeye, 250km southwest of Darwin, where at the time 206 houses were needed to address extreme overcrowding, Howard again suggested a review of Aboriginal land rights would allow more people to own their houses. However, Labor senator Kim Carr argued the proposal would amount to compulsory acquisition, saying it "would be racially discriminatory and open the door to Indigenous Australians losing control of their land and never getting it back [and] to mining and resources companies bypassing Aboriginal communities."
Little over two years later, within two months of the Intervention's introduction, the first long-term lease on Aboriginal land came into effect when a community on the Tiwi Islands handed over control of their lands. Since then, many communities have been forced to lease back their land in exchange for basic entitlements such as housing and education.
Moreover, while the government has been busy securing land transfers and clearing ground for nuclear waste, it was February 2010 before Wadeye became the first Aboriginal community to receive two of the houses promised under the housing crisis plan to address dangerously overcrowded conditions.
The Intervention's initial Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program pledged to construct over 750 houses and refurbish another 2,500. This was incorporated into the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing in 2008, to provide 4,200 new houses and 4,800 refurbishments over 10 years.
However, by November 2011, only 350 houses had been completed and 275 were under construction, with the average occupancy target over nine people per house. More disturbingly, while 45 homes were constructed under the government's Home Ownership on Indigenous Land Program between 2006 and 2010, not a single one of those houses was sold to the Aboriginal community.
Aboriginal activist, Marlene Hodder, of the Intervention Rollback Action Group (IRAG) in Alice Springs said of the Intervention: "It's a land grab. The Northern Territory is rich with minerals, especially uranium and gold. There's a push to get people off that land and into hub towns. All the Alice Springs town camps have now gone to 40-year leases. They didn't need to do that to follow the [Little Children are Sacred report's] recommendations. The minister isn't telling the truth and the media are perpetuating those lies."
Despite billions spent by the government on purported improvements, many living in prescribed communities say they are worse off. "We don't know where the money's gone," continued Hodder, "The refurbishments are very minimal and the overcrowding situation hasn't abated. The government claims to have all the answers but they aren't listening to Aboriginal people's concerns."
Objections to the Intervention have been widespread. In July 2008, 300 Alyawarr residents of Ampilatwatja, 300km northeast of Alice Springs, walked off their prescribed area over government failure to address atrocious housing conditions, demanding an end to the Intervention and for community control to be restored. They established a protest camp 3km from the township, where in February 2010 Northern Territory unions built a house in less than two weeks to highlight government inaction over the housing crisis.
In May 2009, Tangentyere Council issued a statement opposing the government's proposal to compulsorily acquire its Alice Springs town camps and asserting residents' right to self-determination. Although proposing an alternative community housing model run by the Central Australian Affordable Housing Company so residents could participate in housing management, this was rejected by the government in favour of compulsory acquisition.
236 Yuendumu residents similarly signed a statement opposing the Intervention in October 2009, which was presented to Indigenous Affairs Minister, Jenny Macklin. However, their land was later compulsorily acquired in a 40-year lease, with reported influxes of drugs and alcohol due to visitors not requiring permits devastating the community.
Tennant Creek residents also reported deteriorating living conditions and overcrowding resulting from income management, with people from surrounding communities being forced into town to use the BasicsCard and then often unable to get back out bush, with up to three families in each house. Further north at Muckaty, traditional owners are currently protesting a proposal for a nuclear waste dump on their land, arguing they were inadequately consulted after the Northern Land Council refused to publicise the government contract citing commercial-in-confidence.
The Lajamanu community in the northwest appealed to IRAG for help in resisting a 40-year lease, as did Hermannsburg, 130km from Alice Springs, however both eventually signed leases last June in return for desperately needed housing. Despite Lajamanu's population of over 1,000 suffering chronic overcrowding, the community was reportedly offered a housing package of $10.9m for just 17 houses. Hermannsburg, which only signed a lease after a divisive community campaign, was similarly offered just $9.6m.
While repeated concerns and opposition from those directly affected are ignored, the government instead continues to rely on Indigenous pro-Intervention "spokespeople", none of whom live in prescribed communities.
Prominent critics have also been disregarded, such as high court judge, Michael Kirby, who resigned from his position presiding over the Intervention's land transfers in February 2009, accusing his fellow judges of being racially biased in imposing non-consensual leases on Aboriginal communities. "If any other Australians, selected by reference to their race, suffered the imposition on their pre-existing property interests of non-consensual five-year statutory leases," he argued, "...it is difficult to believe that a challenge to such a law would fail."
Just four months later, Marion Scrymgour, then the highest-ranked Aboriginal politician followed suit and quit the Labor Party, calling the Intervention "insulting" to thousands of Indigenous residents whose homelands were denied funding in favour of regional hub towns. "I feel strongly because we have lied to Aboriginal people," said Scrymgour, "We have said we would go back and talk to them before we made that policy."
From the beginning, inadequate consultation with prescribed communities has been cited as a prime concern. An independent report launched in November 2009 by former prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, and co-authored by former chief justice of the family court, Professor Alastair Nicholson, examined video footage of government consultations with the communities of Utopia, Bagot and Ampilatwatja.
It found that while the consultations were ostensibly an attempt to get support from communities, many flaws indentified including a lack of interpreting facilities when talking about complex legal concepts meant it was not "a genuine consultation process leading to informed consent, but suggests [it] was initiated in order to avoid legal challenge to the government's actions."
The pernicious effects of the coercive imposition of the Intervention's invidious policies are evident. Older Indigenous people, who believed the days of being controlled were over, have been traumatised by the loss of their rights. For Aboriginal children, despite the Intervention's purported aim of child protection, statistics on removals for neglect indicate that they are now being taken from their parents in even greater numbers than the Stolen Generations, with child removals by social services rising by 38 percentage points since the Intervention's introduction.
Already soaring Indigenous incarceration rates increased by 41 percentage points, while cases of self harm and suicide have reportedly doubled and are occurring at a younger age than ever before, with children as young as eight taking their own lives. The alarmingly rising suicide rate amongst young Aboriginal males, one of the highest in the world, is indicative of the level of despair in communities plagued by constant surveillance, poverty and oppression.
Not only have their most basic human rights been renounced, but Aboriginal fathers, brothers, uncles and grandfathers were mendaciously labelled as paedophiles as justification, an opprobrium even more taboo in Aboriginal society. Only after almost a year of Intervention did the full iniquity of this denigration become more salient, with the conclusion of a year-long federal Department of Health examination of 7433 Indigenous children in the Territory. The results released in June 2008, which revealed just four possible cases of sexual abuse, were scarcely publicised, earning just one report in the Courier Mail.
Now, five years into the Intervention imposed under this false pretext, Indigenous people look set to continue to pay the price for white Australia's advancement with the passing of the Stronger Futures bill. Despite repeated calls for the legislation to be examined for human rights breaches, with the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights requesting a statement of compatibility against Australia's international obligations on 15 June, the government has refused to comply.
A petition to stop the legislation signed by 43,000 Australians and presented to the government by a coalition of Aboriginal community leaders on 18 June also failed, as did opposition attempts to cut the decade-long sunset clause to five years.
Rather, the government continues to advocate the paternalistic policies under the guise they will benefit the Aboriginal community, despite fierce criticism from international human rights groups. It has similarly ignored several condemnations by the UN, whose representatives have called the Intervention a "breach of international law" and noted its "measures overtly discriminate against Aboriginal peoples, infringe their right of self-determination and stigmatise already stigmatised communities," even comparing Australia to apartheid South Africa.
Many argue that the discriminatory policies, in largely applying exclusively to Aboriginal people, will only exacerbate the appalling gap in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. However, on delivering this year's Closing the Gap report card on 15 February, prime minister Julia Gillard referred to the Intervention all but once.
The story she told was one of success, describing a meeting with Yolngu traditional owners on northeast Arnhem Land's Gove Peninsula, who despite saying that "the way the emergency response started in 2007 caused shame and hurt" signed an agreement with a mining giant last year. Gillard said that "on the Peninsula, among Australians who treasure progress and respect, I have seen and felt the presence of the reconciled nation we can become."
This was an anomaly. Little over two months later, on 24 April 2012, the Yolngu Nations Assembly (YNA) representing the traditional owners of eight nations in the western, central and east Arnhem Land and home to 8,000 people, sent a petition to the government rejecting the Stronger Futures legislation and calling for "dignity, respect and freedom for all Australians".
They clearly state that they "do not support the legislation" and that "the traditional owners of prescribed community lands have been placed under extreme pressure from the Australian federal government to grant them head leases over these communities."
YNA spokesperson, Dr Djiniyini Gondarra, together with central Australian Indigenous leader Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, issued a further statement last Wednesday warning the legislation would cause "great suffering" and prompt a day of mourning for all Aboriginal people.
Gondarra told AAP, "For those of us living in the Northern Territory, the anguish of the past five years of Intervention has been almost unbearable ... We have been burying people who can no longer live with the pain and despair." Kunoth-Monks added, "We will never accept this racist legislation that separates us from other Australians and creates its own apartheid in our country."
With the Stronger Futures bill now passed into law for another 10 years, the blatant contradictions in Rudd's world-renowned apology, in particular his declaration that "the injustices of the past must never, never happen again," are nothing less than ironic.
Perhaps the most lamentable aspect of both his and Gillard's prevarication of the unpalatable truth is that, notwithstanding altruistic claims, their actions have failed to deliver. On the contrary, in continuing the Intervention, Labor is now responsible for what will no doubt be the subject matter of a future prime minister's apology, to the tens of thousands of Indigenous Australians being violently aggrieved as we speak.