NT intervention ‘would have worked by now’


Stop the Intervention Collective (STICS) held a forum last month to update participants on the NT Intervention.

Dr Shelley Bielefeld, lecturer in law at UWS, visiting scholar at Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at UTS and the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at ANU, spoke at the forum. Afterwards she spoke to Green Left Weekly.

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How does the government justify the Intervention?

The NT Intervention was justified through the government constructing ideas about Aboriginal peoples' dysfunction, particularly those living in remote communities, together with the idea that came from the Little Children are Sacred report, that Aboriginal children needed to be protected from their families.

But if there are problems of family violence in some remote Aboriginal communities, they were never going to be solved by imposing structures across a range of policy fields, such as constricting rights to land, prohibiting alcohol, tying up payments in income management.

Has the Intervention succeeded in it aims?

No, this intervention has not been a success. The Intervention constructed a system similar to the one seen many years ago at the height of assimilation policy.

I have examined this area for more than a decade and if policies of this nature were ever going to be a success they would have succeeded by now.

If legislating for alcohol prohibition was ever going to be successful it should have been successful by now, because they did this decades ago to Aboriginal people. If tying up Aboriginal people’s money in income management was going to be a success, then that should have worked by now because that was previously tried for decades as well.

What are the real reasons behind the Intervention?

The Hansard parliamentary record of the debate on the NT Intervention legislation shows that the main theme is that Aboriginal parents and communities are failing as citizens and parents, because they are not socialising their children to take part in Australia’s capitalist economy.

The remote land given back to Aboriginal people under the Land Rights Act of 1976 was only granted because the colonisers had not yet found it commercially useful. Now Aboriginal people in those communities are being blamed for not fitting into the neoliberal paradigm as responsible and economically productive citizens on these lands.

This resonates with the ideological justification for the Western Australian community closures. We are seeing metrics being used to measure communities’ “viability” that are laden with assimilation and reek of cultural racism, and that inevitably conclude that these communities are not economically viable and so have to be closed down.

There are a lot of other small, rural communities that get access to essential services, which are not subject to this same idea of economic viability. But those communities are predominantly populated by non-Aboriginal people.

The goals of neoliberalism have a benchmark and every community has to be economically viable according to this metric. This is so brutal.

Aboriginal communities have been around for tens of thousands of years. All the ecological land management work that remote-living Aboriginal people do, such as fire management, is not recognised. There is a Eurocentric binary division between work and non-work.

What are the other neoliberal aspects of the Intervention?

Another concerning aspect of recent interventionist Indigenous policy is increasing workfare – work for the dole – which can function as a means of driving actual wages down at the lower end of the employment market.

Aboriginal people who were once in the Community Development Employment Project (CDEP), which was voluntary and paid slightly more than the dole, are now being transferred to Remote Jobs and Communities Program (RJCP) payments, which are obligatory.

CDEP had its weaknesses and its strengths, but the RJCP is just the dole, and the program reforms the federal government has proposed have rigorous work requirements attached: 5 hours a day, 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year for welfare recipients to receive their income support payments.

Then half of that will be income managed. Or if the Forrest Review’s Healthy Welfare Card idea gets rolled out it will be 100% income management. Now that really is working for rations.

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