NT Intervention opened way to Aboriginal community closures

Paddy Gibson spoke at a Stop the Intervention Collective public meeting in April on the Northern Territory Intervention and Western Australian community closures. Gibson has lived in Alice Springs, researching the impact of the Intervention. He is a senior researcher with the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, University of Technology Sydney and co-editor of Solidarity magazine. This is an edited version of his speech.

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The roots of the plan to close remote Aboriginal communities lie in the Intervention. The NT Intervention Stronger Futures legislation is John Howard’s Intervention rebadged by the ALP in 2011.

It is also a formal system of apartheid. In the NT apartheid is written into law — you are treated as a lesser person by virtue of your Aboriginality. It is palpable at street level.

In all town camps and on Aboriginal land alcohol is prohibited. There are big signs saying this. There are proscribed areas where alcohol is not allowed. They use this as an excuse to harass people. If police have a reasonable suspicion that alcohol is in a house, they can enter without a warrant and turn people's houses upside down.

One of the main ways you see Stronger Futures played out is raids. There are huge police incursions into communities. One example happened at activist Barbara Shaw's camp — Mount Nancy Town camp. Shaw’s brother came out against the alcohol ban and the police responded with 12 police cars and cops going through every house. This is terrifying for people in the houses, including children.

Since the election of Adam Giles's government it has become worse. Police are stationed outside every liquor store and alcohol venue. There are now up to four cops outside every supermarket that sells alcohol. It is such an overt police presence in town.

If you are Black they question you and you have to show your license. I could buy 12 cases of beer — no worries. But if you are Barbara Shaw, you are not allowed. My local IGA has alcohol available inside the store. That means the cops follow Aboriginal people into IGA to make sure they are not buying alcohol. It is so extreme. There is nothing like it elsewhere in Australia.

The NT government has now given police the power to arrest and detain people for four hours — just on suspicion that they were going to do something. So now cops are combing the town, sweeping people off the streets. What an extraordinary power to have over the Aboriginal community.

There is another part of the system that is mandatory. If you are taken to the watch house three times, you are triggered to automatically go into an alcohol remand centre. This also acts to incarcerate Aboriginal people. Instead of jobs, justice, land, doctors, they lock people up.

The NT Intervention has doubled Aboriginal incarceration. The level of incarceration of Aboriginal people is off the scale; the highest rates in Australia's history. The number of women in prison has also skyrocketed.

The other part of the NT Intervention is the income management system. In the NT 90% of people on income management are Aboriginal — about 20,000 people. It is a thoroughly racist system of control but as it has been around for so long, it is now part of the furniture. There are whole generations of kids who have grown up under this racist control.

The other aspect of the Intervention is the child protection system. Before 2007 the Child Protection system in the NT was not very extensive, certainly not on the same scale as in other states. But now there are special racially targeted child protection squads that only go to remote Aboriginal communities.

The system is like the old mission system — they ration the community, set up a racialised regime of alcohol control and a racialised child protection system. The child protection system in NT doesn’t really look at white kids. It is steeped in cultural bias and racism.

There are new permanent guardian laws being introduced into the territory. That means your child is no longer your child after he or she has been taken by child welfare. These laws will sever links between family members. Under the laws the Department only needs to send a letter to the "last known address" of the parents to let them know that the issue is going to court. It doesn't matter if the letter is received or not, or if people can't understand it. The court rules in favour of the government and the child is gone.

The NT Intervention closed the Community Development Employment Project (CDEP) programs. There used to be 7000 people on it. It provided a job and an income on top of the dole. All the productive assets that went with the CDEP program — the earth moving equipment, the road graders, community buses — were lost with the jobs.

Taking those assets away means there is no self-determination in communities. They are forcing people out of communities by starving them out. The conditions deteriorate and the people are forced away. This is what has hit the Territory. The WA community also lost many jobs and assets when CDEP closed down.

Former Labor federal Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin never pulled the pin on water and power. She got rid of jobs, encouraged what the Council of Australian Governments funding agreement called “voluntary mobility to areas where more employment opportunities exist”. That was how the ALP moved people out of remote communities.

Now federal Indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion has said that’s it, there is no more money. But really, this money to keep the power and water on, is chicken feed. The government just granted $54 million to build police stations in seven remote communities under the federal budget. In contrast, keeping water and power going in remote SA communities will cost them just $15 million.

The national Aboriginal rights movement continues to demand increased Commonwealth funding for Aboriginal communities. That is what is needed in terms of returning some actual life into the communities. All employment programs offered by the government now are about getting people out of communities.

The motivations of the NT Intervention have always run far deeper than just mining companies wanting land. It is an existential attack on Aboriginality.

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