Land rights, mining and the NT intervention

Issue 
Photo: Ella Ryan

In Green Left Weekly #861, Solidarity’s Paddy Gibson addressed a debate that from time to time comes up among activists opposing the NT intervention: whether an assimilationist agenda or mining interests are behind the intervention.

I don’t believe there is a dichotomy here. In fact, Solidarity’s own analysis of the reasons for the neoliberal assault on Aboriginal communities, if combined with an analysis of Australian capitalism, hints at the fact that assimilation would indeed work in favour of big business — including big mining companies. It would seem naive to think mining interests don’t benefit from assimilation.

Gibson wrote: “Draconian intervention measures have attempted to wipe out the material basis of the collective life of Aboriginal people in the NT.”

But he offered no analysis of why the government might want to destroy the “collective life of Aboriginal people”. Who stands to gain from the breakdown of Aboriginal culture, the weakening of Aboriginal people’s connection to their land, the exodus of Aboriginal people from remote communities to “hub towns”?

“But mining companies gain no greater rights through the ‘hub towns’ policy or the intervention”, Gibson wrote. While it’s true we can’t crudely point to disproportionate increases in mining leases/exploration as a result of the intervention, mining companies stand to gain immensely from the assimilation of Aboriginal people into hub towns and the “real economy” (and their disconnection from their land and culture).

Why else the push for mainstreaming and assimilation? Is it just an abstract, irrational dislike of Aboriginal culture? Or does it have its roots in the political forces and economic interests driving Australian capitalism? Whose interests is the government serving when establishing Aboriginal policy?

Gibson said, “We can agree on the question of assimilation”, but, without offering an explanation of the interests behind assimilation, he said: “To portray the intervention as a land grab for mining both disorients the movement against the intervention and underestimates the savagery of what is taking place.”

Among anti-intervention activists, there are differing theories about the motivations behind the intervention, and about its potential long-term benefits for big business (at Aboriginal peoples’ expense) and, fortunately, these differing views have not disoriented or distracted the movement.

To my memory, there have been no major disagreements over the next steps for the movement (building links with the unions, for example), or even demands of the movement: “Land rights not leases” has been a central — and undisputed — demand since the beginning.

To suggest the movement must counterpoise assimilation to land grab and agree that the first is correct and the second incorrect, would, in fact, risk disorienting and narrowing the movement.

Comments

Murphy misses the point of Gibson's critique. Murphy, like other GLW writers, sees the Intervention as a land grab with immediate benefits for mining companies, which it is not. Even an attempt to gradually weaken connections to land would not be the same as a "land grab". Gibson wrote: “Draconian intervention measures have attempted to wipe out the material basis of the collective life of Aboriginal people in the NT.” I do not agree with Gibson, as there has been no attempt to divest Aboriginal people of ownership or control of or access to or use of the half of the NT which they own under the NT Land Rights Act, except for the tiny fraction of it on which the towns are built (probably less than 1% of the total). I believe that there is no evidence that 'the government might want to destroy the “collective life of Aboriginal people”', as feared by Gibson. I believe the Government's agenda may be to weaken some aspects of this collective life, but there is little evidence to convince me that the Government has a clear aim to achieve its destruction. When Murphy asks 'Who stands to gain from the breakdown of Aboriginal culture, the weakening of Aboriginal people’s connection to their land, the exodus of Aboriginal people from remote communities to “hub towns”?', she is assuming firstly that Aboriginal culture was not breaking down before the Intervention; secondly, that Aboriginal connections to land are the same as culture, and can be easily weakened; and thirdly that the hub towns themselves are not remote. In fact, she is wrong on each of these assumptions, and seems to have a very poor understanding of the realities of Aboriginal society, economies and culture in the contemporary NT settings.