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Indigenous voices examine the Intervention

  • 19 February 2010

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