A decade on from the NT intervention, the 'torment of powerlessness' lives on

Stan Grant

www.abc.net.au | 21 June 2017

Ten years ago, the military rolled into an Australian town.

Mutitjulu, a small Indigenous community in the shadow of our nation's spiritual heart, Uluru, was now ground zero in what would become known as "the intervention".

A decade later, the nation's Indigenous leadership stood on that same ground to ask for a new relationship with Australia.

Those two events bookend a tale of what the great Australian anthropologist William Edward Hanley Stanner once dubbed the "torment of powerlessness".

Here is the story of the first peoples of this land, living with the weight of history, the burden of colonisation, the misery of poverty.

This is the depressingly familiar narrative played out time and again in our media — communities tormented by the wailing of funeral ceremonies and the cries of children and mothers.

Those cries are lost in a political process that does not hear the ambitions and aspirations of Indigenous people.

The failure to listen and refusal to talk was a hallmark of the intervention.

This was former prime minister John Howard's declared emergency.

It was a time of fear and suspicion, of claims of "pedophile rings", rampant abuse and communities awash in drugs and alcohol.

What started at Mutitjulu spread to scores of other communities.

There were reports of Aboriginal families fleeing as the troops came in — the mayor of Mt Isa in Queensland asked for help to deal with an influx of Aboriginal people coming from the Northern Territory.

A 'complete violation of human rights'

Today marks the anniversary of what many Indigenous people remember as a dark time.

Indigenous leader and health expert Pat Turner laments the intervention as a "complete violation of the human rights of Aboriginal people".

It was officially termed the Northern Territory Emergency Response — a half-a-billion-dollar package to impose new controls on black communities.

More police were deployed and curfews were imposed; there were bans on alcohol and restrictions on welfare payments.

Indigenous lease arrangements were overhauled and the government suspended the permit system controlling access to communities.

The soldiers were on hand to assist in logistics and implementation but their presence was a symbolic reminder of colonisation and the often fractious relationship between Aboriginal people and the state.

When Australians voted in overwhelming numbers in 1967 to give Indigenous people a "fair go" in this country, I doubt they had this in mind — but the intervention is the by-product of those good intentions.

The 1967 referendum altered section 51 (XXVI) of the Constitution — for the first time giving power to the federal government to make laws for Aboriginal people.

In 2007 the Howard administration overrode the Northern Territory and set aside sections of the Racial Discrimination Act to intervene directly into the lives of Indigenous people.

Uluru Statement 'speaks to powerlessness'

This issue of control sits at the heart of the push for a new referendum to recognise Indigenous people in the constitution — it is about completing 1967.

Just last month, Indigenous leaders issued a cry from the heart — the Uluru Statement of the Heart speaks to powerlessness.

It was a call for an "ancient sovereignty" that would shine as a "fuller expression of Australia's nationhood".

The statement said: "We are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people."

It spoke of children aliened from their families but not "because we have love for them ... they should be our hope for the future".

The dimensions of the crisis, the statement said, speak to a structural problem.

Constitutional reform is needed to empower people to take a "rightful place in our own country".

The Indigenous leaders called for a new voice in the constitution — a representative body — that would speak for the powerless.

The words of the Uluru Statement spoke for those silent voices of the 2007 intervention.

One of the leading voices, Noel Pearson, has called the proposed representative body a "shield" that would defend against the sword of potentially harmful legislation.

In his 2014 Quarterly essay, A Rightful Place, Mr Pearson asked Australia to consider whether its "system of democracy enables an extreme minority to participate in a fair way".

"The scale and moral urgency of the Indigenous predicament far exceeds the power of Indigenous participation in the country's democratic process," he wrote.

There is nothing radical in Mr Pearson's argument — he was enunciating a fundamental liberal view of constitutional democracy.

Canadian political philosopher, Will Kymlicka, argues: "Citizens who do not see themselves reflected in the legislature may become alienated from the political process and question its legitimacy."

Lack of consultation a common criticism

Legitimacy, or its lack thereof, has shrouded the relationship of the First Peoples of this land and the state since the coming of Captain Cook.

Cook was instructed to take possession of this land in the name of the Crown, with the consent of the "natives" — but consent was neither sought nor given.

Australia has forever struggled with the notion of the rights and place of Indigenous people.

The anniversary of the 2007 intervention is another moment to reflect on generations of failed policy.

Whatever the moral arguments at the time — some Indigenous people supported the Howard initiative — the results have been predictably poor.

Yet the policy has been maintained — with variations and a name change — by successive governments, both Labor and Coalition.

A common criticism was the lack of consultation — Indigenous communities were not involved in the planning or implementation of decisions that would upend their lives.

A University of Technology Sydney report, Listening but not Hearing, concluded that "the government's consultation process has fallen short of Australia's obligation to consult with Indigenous peoples in relation to initiatives that affect them".

Many problems still face Indigenous Australians

These are obligations enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which enshrines the "right of self determination".

In 2008, former prime minister Kevin Rudd declared support for the declaration that also allows Indigenous peoples the right "to determine their political status".

These are issues still unresolved.

Indigenous Australia faces many problems, including the right of those most vulnerable to live safely in their own communities.

Rates of family violence are by some estimates 30 times higher than in the non-Indigenous community.

The Uluru Statement does not deny those problems — it calls for a right to be heard in their solution.

I was overseas living and reporting in China at the time of the intervention.

I returned some years later and visited Mutitjulu, that little community in the cross hairs of history.

Years after the troops and bureaucrats had left, I wandered streets of overcrowded houses and upturned cars — what money was spent had clearly not changed the facts on the ground.

I looked inside one wreck, littered with broken glass and empty grog cans, and looking up at me was the carcass of a snarling dog, its open mouth fixed in what looked like a perverted grin.

I could only think the dead dog was having the last laugh, laughing at the "torment of our powerlessness".