Mining and the NT intervention

Saturday, November 13, 2010
Anti-intervention rally, Alice Springs, July 9.

Your article “What's behind the NT intervention” (GLW #843) outlines the government's goal of forced assimilation of Aboriginal communities.

Under the intervention, millions of dollars worth of assets and housing has been seized from Aboriginal community councils and thousands of Aboriginal jobs have been lost as Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) close down.

Then prime minister John Howard declared in 2007 that: "Aboriginal people have no future outside the Australian mainstream.”

The intervention goes hand-in-hand with Howard’s “white blindfold” view of history that suggests the colonisation of Australia is a progressive phenomenon.

Draconian intervention measures have attempted to wipe out the material basis of the collective life of Aboriginal people in the NT.

But while we can agree on the question of assimilation, unfortunately, there was a real confusion in your article about the relationship between land rights, mining and the intervention.

First, there is an important difference between native title and the land rights held by many in NT communities under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act NT 1976 (ALRA).

Native title is the most inferior form of land title under British law. Native title holders cannot stop mining operations on their land. But ALRA land is essentially freehold title.

The vast majority of ALRA land has not been acquired by the government. Only small parcels of land over townships have been acquired, none of it for mining.

Your comments about “hub towns” are contradictory. On the one hand, you insinuate that Aboriginal people are being driven off their land to make way for mining; on the other you say they are being forced into “hub towns” that are near major mines.

A large number of “hub towns” are indeed communities that have some royalty income from major resource operations.

This is part of neoliberal, assimilationist ideology that says the only communities that are “viable” are those that can establish links with the “real economy”.

But mining companies gain no greater rights through the “hub towns” policy or the intervention.

Disputes over mining have played a major role in the history of Aboriginal land rights movement and no doubt will continue to do so, as we currently see with the dispute over the Kimberley Gas Plant.

But the intervention is about blaming Aboriginal people themselves for the years of government neglect and driving Aboriginal people into the mainstream.

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.

Paddy Gibson
Solidarity

From GLW issue 861

Comments

I don’t believe there is a

I don’t believe there is a dichotomy between an assimilationist agenda and weakening land rights to the gain of mining companies. 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, 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 activist, 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.