Paul Toohey: Mixed messaged and malign motivations

June 21, 2008

'Last Drinks: the impact of the Northern Territory intervention', by Paul Toohey

Quarterly Essay, Issue 30, June 2008

Black Inc., $15.95

"Last Drinks: the impact of the Northern Territory intervention", by Australian journalist Paul Toohey, attempts to provide a critique of the federal government's intervention in remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory, 12 months after it was begun.

Introduced by then-PM John Howard and Indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough, the swathe of new laws constituting the intervention cut straight to the heart of the lives of all Indigenous people in the Northern Territory, in the name of protecting children from a "national emergency" of child sexual abuse.

The measures included blanket bans on alcohol and pornography, "quarantining" of 50% of welfare payments and the acquisition of Aboriginal land, to be leased-back to the former owners — five years at a time. The permit system, whereby Aboriginal communities had at least some say as to who could enter their land, was also suspended.

Throughout his essay, Toohey draws on personal experience in Indigenous communities and conversations he's had with Indigenous friends and contacts to establish his credentials: here is someone who is familiar with the Territory, who is invited into homes and communities, confided in ... he has some understanding of life "out there", of the cultural and social complexities in a place where there are two laws and two cultures, at least one of which is breaking down.

Yes. Maybe. And it's all very interesting to be able to recount conversations you've had with respected elders and cultural ceremonies you've accidentally driven into in your four-wheel drive. But — at times painfully stereotypically — Toohey draws on these experiences to take free kicks at Indigenous culture, both "traditional" and contemporary.

For example, a charming little section on the strength and warmth of strong extended family — which he recognises as lost to many non-Indigenous Australians but alive and central to Indigenous people and, for example, Greek-Australians — ends with: "It was all very charming ... if you were roasting forequarter goat sections on the spit as Mikis Theodorakis tunes jangled in the background. In Alice Springs, you were more likely to be working your way through four litres of Fruity on a hot day and coming to the conclusion that your wife was a slut who needed a sharp tree-branch in the head. And where were the kids?"

Commentary such as this occurs all too often in the essay — as in the mainstream media for whom Toohey works — and becomes hard to stomach. Toohey, perhaps, does have a sensitive and insightful understanding of racism, colonialism and the various social problems they will often lead to.

Unfortunately this understanding does not come through in the essay, leaving comments such as "These people had become accustomed to doing nothing for themselves" utterly without any historical context (generations of dispossession and institutionalisation, perhaps?) and downright racist. It's also a lie, clearly.

On the question of the NT intervention, its appropriateness (or otherwise) and its outcomes, it becomes harder to form such a clear reaction to Toohey's opinion. He seems to be against it, but perhaps not for the right reasons. He also, paradoxically, laments the fact that — since Labor has taken office — the intervention is all but over: "Brough's departure had been fatal". He appears oblivious to the fact that most parts of the intervention have been continued, and some even extended, under Labor.

Toohey argues that the real emergency is not child sexual abuse but broader issues of their neglect. He is critical of the Little Children are Sacred report — used by Howard and Brough to justify the "national emergency" that led to the intervention — for not assigning enough blame/responsibility to the parents of Indigenous children. He doesn't mention the recent report that found that the medical checks, being undertaken as part of the intervention, are uncovering a general pattern of poverty, not abuse.

He rightly criticises much of the rhetoric around pedophilia and the sexual violence of Indigenous men as offensive, but doesn't hold back when it comes to what he sees as the real crisis: the neglect of children borne out of a culture of laziness and lack of responsibility: "Thanks to land rights ... [many] family groups had outstation houses — powered by beautiful government-gifted solar systems — along with houses in town. They didn't have to buy these residences or pay for repairs when they were trashed."

Toohey argues that the content of the intervention is overall a good thing, but that the process was rushed and not thought through. "Let Howard and Brough do their work", he writes. "Most of what they propose is right. But they have to take the people with them."

In this final point he is in sync with the Little Children are Sacred report, which recognised that community consultation and support is vital for the success of any new programs introduced.

The consensus probably ends there though: both authors of the report have spoken out strongly against the intervention, and certainly their report made no recommendations for welfare quarantining or the suspension of the permit system.

The issue of the permit system gets Toohey rather worked up. "Supporting the permit system was the essential marker of a white person's position on Aboriginal politics; for Aborigines, it meant the world need never ask some questions of them", he argues. Brough is praised for the strong leadership he displayed by scrapping it. Toohey claims the permit system did more harm than good, protecting corrupt non-Indigenous administrators and shielding communities from public scrutiny.

Toohey is correct to highlight the fact that, in some cases, "slimy whites [have] taken control of ... Aboriginal town councils". But would removing permit systems really affect the ability of non-Indigenous "gatekeepers" to exploit their positions of authority if they are that way inclined? I can't see how: granting a journalist physical access to a town couldn't possibly give them automatic access to council minutes and bank accounts.

Meanwhile, Toohey makes no mention of the corrupt and exploitative characters the permit system help keep out: those dodgy art dealers and drug runners who don't reside in the communities but could make a quick buck there if only they didn't have to leave a trace of their presence.

Indigenous communities have not been hidden from scrutiny, permit system notwithstanding. In the lead-up to the Howard government's dismantling of ATSIC, were we not given — in daily, graphic detail by the mainstream media — horror stories of life in remote Indigenous Australia, which were used to argue that "self-determination" had failed? Which other section of the Australian population has even its personal hygiene habits up for national discussion?

Finally, Toohey condemns Labor for re-introducing the permit scheme, renewing "this damaging contract with Aboriginal Australia and [ensuring] there would be no outside engagement, no free-flowing interaction, no human reconciliation".

Despite his damning assessment of the permit system, however, Toohey fails to provide — or even attempt to provide — proof of how much the "degradation and chaos" has been alleviated as a direct result of the permit system having been lifted.

On the problem of over-crowding in houses (when you have a couple of families in one house, things do tend to get chaotic and degraded quickly): how many new houses have been built for Indigenous people since the intervention started? None. On the problem of violence against women: how many new shelters have been built? None. Toohey doesn't mention these facts. But never mind, perhaps he just ran out of time.

[Emma Murphy spent three years living and working in Indigenous communities in remote Central Australia, and has ongoing professional and personal links with the Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people.]

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