Intervention’s measures are inhumane, degrading

Rally against the NT intervention. Sydney, February, 2010. Photo: Peter Boyle

Nicole Watson, a research fellow at the University of Technology Sydney’s Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, gave the address below at the Sydney launch of Walk With Us: Aboriginal Elders Call Out to Australian People to Walk with them in their Quest for Justice at Gleebooks, Sydney, on September 1.

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At the outset I would like to pay my respects to the traditional owners of the land, the Gadigal people.

I thank Aunty Millie [Ingram] for the incredibly moving, powerful welcome. I thank Concerned Australians as well for fighting the good fight for years now.

And I thank all of you as well for coming here tonight to discuss what is arguably the most important human rights issue in Australia today.

But most of all I want to express my admiration and my solidarity with the Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory whose powerful voices are heard in this moving book.

Thursday the 21st of June, 2007 is going to be one of those days that I will remember for the rest of my life.

It had been a very bad week for our people, already. Only two days before, a Townsville jury acquitted the police officer who was charged with the manslaughter of our brother [Mulrunji Doomadgee] on Palm Island.

This disgraceful act denied his family and his community any sense of justice.

Two days later, [PM John] Howard and [Indigenous affairs minister Mal] Brough announced their response to what they described as “the crisis” — actually, Howard even called it Australia’s version of Hurricane Katrina — the crisis of child abuse in Aboriginal communities.

But if you look at the measures, and the 500 pages of legislation that was subsequently rushed through the parliament, it has nothing to do with child protection.

As we all know, the key measures of the intervention were compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal lands, the imposition of the racially discriminatory income management regime and other measures that are less known, such as the incredible powers vested in the Commonwealth to obstruct the affairs of community organisations.

The Australian Crime Commission — a body established to investigate high-scale, organised crime — its jurisdiction was expanded to include allegations of abuse involving Indigenous people. A matter that is such a sensitive issue is not appropriate for a body such as the ACC.

Four years later, Aboriginal people have been subjected to legislation that I would argue doesn’t treat them as human beings, but it treats Aboriginal people and their cultures as problems to be controlled.

At a personal level, the income management regime has denied individuals the power to determine how they spend their own money.

A recent report by Equality Rights Alliance was released only last week. It’s a study where they interviewed 168 women who were participating in the income management regime.

The vast majority of them attested to feeling degraded by having to use the Basics Card.

And as I was reading this report I was reminded of the report of the Senate inquiry that examined Indigenous stolen wages and the report was called Unfinished Business.

The testimonies of the women in the Northern Territory actually had some parallels with the evidence given by witnesses to the Senate inquiry.

The worst degradation that some of our elders suffered under the Protectionist regime was the indignity of having to ask the Protector for permission to spend their own wages.

And we are seeing this repeated again in the Northern Territory.

At a community level, the intervention has enabled the Commonwealth to seize control of Aboriginal lands — not only the most valuable asset of many communities, but the lynchpin of identity and culture.

The imposition of government business managers has usurped community initiative and contributed to a sense of powerlessness.

Research by credible bodies, most notably the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association, has proven the harmful psychological impacts of these measures.

The government’s own statistics have revealed increased rates of child malnutrition, mental illness and even attempted suicide.

It is crucial that we hear the voices of those who live under these measures.

Walk With Us provides an unflinching gaze into life under the intervention.

There is pain in these pages. But there is also courage, resilience and wisdom.

One of the most prescient statements came from Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, who said: “Does there need to be a policy about Aboriginal people? Does it need to come down from government?

“Why not have a dialogue with the Aboriginal people and get some direction from us?”

Now those words are eminently sensible. And yet all of us in this room know that this respectful dialogue is impossible in the current political environment.

It will only become a reality when more Australians express their abhorrence of measures that have deprived Aboriginal people of their self-determination, and for many, even their dignity.

We need to spread the word that these measures are inhumane and they do more harm than good.

We also need to spread the word that each one of us is diminished while these measures are in place.

Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory deserve better. All Australians deserve better than measures that degrade and dehumanise the most marginalised people in our society.

And we must tell our fellow Australians about this. We must send a very strong message to our politicians.

[Walk With Us can be ordered at the Concerned Australians website.]

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