Michele Harris (Ed.): This is What We Said. Social Policy Connections, 2010. Order online
In 2009, the Federal Government embarked on consultations with Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory about the Northern Territory Emergency Response, commonly referred to as the Intervention.
Such consultations could enable aspects of the Intervention to be characterised as 'special measures' under the Racial Discrimination Act 1975; such measures can be permissible if they are supported by those affected. If support exists, the RDA could be reinstated in the Territory without initiatives — such as five year leases and compulsory acquisition of land, income management, alcohol restrictions and bans on pornography — being wound back.
A group known as 'concerned Australians' recorded and transcribed the consultations in three of the relevant communities — Utopia, Bagot and Ampilatwatja. A report including these transcripts was prepared by the Hon. Alastair Nicholson, Larissa Behrendt, Alison Vivian, Nicole Watson and Michele Harris of the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, and was launched on 24 November 2009.
The report — 'Will they be heard? A response to the NTER consultations June–August 2009' — was lengthy, well-researched and persuasively argued. Unfortunately, in the soundbite-heavy discourse that characterises the Australian political scene, it seems to have been largely ignored.
Currently, bills are before the Federal Parliament that reinstate the RDA but leave in the controversial 'special measures' noted above, on the grounds that consultation has taken place. This justification is difficult to uphold on the strength of the comments recorded in 'Will They Be Heard?' Particularly striking is the statement from the Laynhapuy Homeland Mala Leaders at Yirrkala, which reads in part:
'The problems our people face can be addressed through programs and funding targeted on a needs basis alone, under the Closing the Gap policy ... Our responses to your questions in this consultation must not be used by the Australian Government to argue for the continuation of the NTER, Intervention or justify what has been done to date.'
'Concerned Australians' have now released This Is What We Said, a shorter and more accessible collection of the comments made by residents of Utopia, Bagot, Yirrkala and Ampilatwatja. The book includes photographs taken during the consultations, together with statements made by community members. Aboriginal people are often spoken and written about; those in remote communities have been the focus of relentless commentary in the past few years. This Is What We Said provides an opportunity to do some of the talking.
The anger and hurt expressed by those consulted is palpable: 'We're not naughty children'; 'We are not second-class citizens!'; 'why are we being punished?' The residents of these prescribed communities express shame and distress at being implicitly judged and found wanting by the Federal Government. A man from Bagot states: 'I am a qualified teacher and you are telling me how to run my life, how to look after my wife, how to look after my children, that is what the ... intervention means to me'.
The stigmatisation is overt — many comments refer to the 'blue signs' at the entrance to the communities which forbid alcohol and pornography. A resident in Ampilatwatja said 'You pointing the finger at us! Whitefella they see that sign and they think "they must be really bad with that pornography" ... Yet you can still go into a newsagent in Tennant Creek, adult bookshops and so on and buy all the materials there, but not here.'
Others commented that they thought 'you [could] go to Canberra and you can buy even worse books [pornography]' and asked, with respect to mainstream Australia, 'do they have blue signs there as well?'
Community members express their scepticism as to any progress made since 2007 on the initial rationale of the Intervention — the prevention of child sexual abuse. One Bagot community resident noted 'nobody has come back and told us or gave us any results or anything like that'. Another asked 'where are the arrests and evidence of abuse?' A resident of Ampilatwatja is quoted as asking: 'You give us proof, some evidence on how many people have been locked up since the Intervention started'.
This Is What We Said reveals a desire for local solutions, rather than those imposed from afar; one Bagot community resident suggested: 'Surely it would make more sense for somebody to be available here in the community, and to go out to each house and say, look you know, you've gone to bits and you might need help, you know'. Another said that the government 'should have come and sat down [with us] and set up a program, set up a big plan of what the problem is ... sit down with us and then we can work it out together'.
The Intervention has generated a great deal of heat; there has been much debate about who can speak with authority on it. Hopefully the voices of the people quoted in This Is What We Said are not lost in the din.
Sarah Burnside is a solicitor with an interest in history, politics, native title and nationalism. She works at the Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation (YMAC), which represents native title claim groups in the Murchison, Gascoyne and Pilbara regions of Western Australia. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of YMAC.