PM John Howard's decision to "take control" of 60 to 70 Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory began to be implemented on June 27 when the first Australian Federal Police (AFP) officers flew into the Aboriginal township of Mutitjulu, near Uluru. The police officers were met by a large community delegation demanding answers.
Howard's announcement on June 20 that the federal government would use police and military personnel to take control of Indigenous communities followed the release the previous week of an NT government report titled Little Children are Sacred. The report documented instances of severe child sexual and physical abuse in the NT and identified Indigenous children as being at particular risk. It made 97 recommendations to the NT and federal governments to deal with the crisis, and identified poverty and dispossession as key causes of abuse.
Howard's response, however, has focused on a punitive "law and order" push within the Indigenous communities. The measures that will be imposed on the communities include: six-month bans on alcohol and x-rated pornography; compulsory health checks of all Indigenous children under 16; the "quarantining" of 50% of welfare payments to ensure the money is spent on food and children are sent to school; a federal government takeover of Indigenous townships, which will be put on a five-year lease, supposedly so that emergency repairs can be made; and the scrapping of the permit system that gives Indigenous people the right to restrict entry into Indigenous lands.
To enforce the measures, the Howard government has called for 10 police officers from each state to back up the AFP officers, and is deploying Australian Defence Force personnel to provide "logistical" support.
The June 27 Sydney Morning Herald reported families in the NT fleeing to the desert in fear that the government was coming to take their children. Indigenous NT minister for natural resources, environment and heritage Marion Scrymgour said: "There's a lot of fear, particularly among elder woman. Not so long ago — 30 to 40 years — children were being taken out of the arms of Aboriginal mothers."
One of the authors of Little Children are Sacred, Rex Wild QC, has strongly criticised the Howard government plan. The report begins by exhorting governments to work with the communities in question, not against them. It documents examples of community programs that have managed to reduce alcohol abuse and, with this, child abuse, by empowering local townships.
According to Wild, the Howard government is doing the opposite. On the June 27 edition of ABC TV's Lateline Business he said, "We didn't arrive with a battleship. We came gently ... Now ... we're just having the gunship sent in."
Wild also criticised the removal of the permit system, which he said was neither part of his report nor a logical way to tackle alcohol or child abuse in Indigenous communities. The permit system was a vital part of some of the successful programs referred to in the NT government report because it allowed Indigenous community leaders to remove people from townships who were smuggling in alcohol or pornography.
Howard's measures also ignore two other aspects of sexual abuse in the NT. First, child sexual abuse is not limited to Indigenous people. The NT report notes that non-Aboriginal people in mining settlements often procure sexual favours from minors in exchange for cigarettes, alcohol or petrol for sniffing. The Minerals Council has been consulted about this, but it denies any knowledge of the problem and there is no suggestion that the lives of non-Indigenous people in the mining towns be regulated in the same way as those of Indigenous people in these communities.
In addition, while sexual abuse of minors is also a serious problem within NT prisons and juvenile detention centres, no new measures for NT prisons have been announced.
The people of Mutitjulu are deeply sceptical about the government's measures. In a June 28 statement, they point out that a lack of medical services and overcrowding have been problems in their community for at least a decade, yet all requests for government assistance have been denied (see the full statement on page 3). The community has asked for street lights to help reduce crime at night and alcohol counsellors to help people trying to end addiction, but they have been given nothing.
Mutitjulu's land council was taken over by the government a year ago amid claims of mismanagement, yet no evidence of mismanagement has been found.
The Mutitjulu statement questions the need for a "military occupation of their small country", and elders meeting with government and AFP officers on June 28 declared that the government's action had more to do with winning the next federal election than helping Indigenous people. "The Commonwealth needs to work with us to put health and social services, housing and education in place rather than treating Mutitjulu as a political football", they said.
The removal of the permit system could force Indigenous people permanently off their land. By law, if Indigenous people leave their land for any reason, they forfeit their right to have a say over mining and development on the land. Mining companies are currently attempting to expand uranium mining on Indigenous land in the NT, and are seeking a site for an international nuclear waste dump. The permit system, which requires companies to get permission to explore potential dump sites on Indigenous land, is a major obstacle for the companies.
Jennifer Martiniello, a member of the advisory board of the Australian Centre for Indigenous History at the Australian National University, argued in a public statement on June 27 that the main motive behind Howard's intervention is to attack native title. She said: "We have a long history of deaths and illness from radiation, from the atomic tests at Woomera in the 1950s to the current high incidences of carcinomas in the community at Kakadu near the Jabiluka site. The main obstacle to the Federal Government's desired expansion of mining operations in the Northern Territory and nuclear waste dumping is, of course, the Aboriginal people who have occupancy of, and rights under the common law to, their traditional lands."