Always was, always will be Aboriginal land

NT Intervention

Michael Brull Online Opinion 21st April 2011

I have before me a report by the Australian Indigenous Doctors' Association and the Centre for Health Equity Training, Research and Evaluation. It is called Health Impact Assessment of the Northern Territory Emergency Response. Its executive summary notes that:

The ways in which the NTER [the Intervention] was introduced and is being implemented are likely to contribute to the high burden of trauma and disease already carried by Aboriginal people across generations. The HIA predicts that any improvements in physical health may be outweighed by negative impacts on the psychological health, spirituality, and cultural integrity of almost all the Aboriginal population in prescribed communities (and, arguably, in the NT). The loss of trust in government will limit the ability of governments and communities to work together effectively in the future. The NTER does not recognise the need for all Australians to be able to value and work across Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures, and has overlooked the centrality of human dignity to health (Durie, 2008).

The HIA [Health Impact Assessment] predicts that the intended health outcomes of the NTER (improved health and wellbeing, and ultimately, life expectancy) are unlikely to be fully achieved through the NTER measures. It is predicted that it will leave a negative legacy on the psychological and social wellbeing, on the spirituality and cultural integrity of the prescribed communities. However, it may be possible to minimise or mitigate these negative impacts if the Australian and NT governments commit to and invest in taking the steps necessary to work in respectful partnership with the Aboriginal leaders and organisations responsible for the governance of the prescribed communities in the NT.

The principal recommendations arising from the HIA are based on the evidence (from communities, stakeholders and experts) that it is essential to find ways to work together as equals.

These are the views of the experts on Indigenous health, stressing that this is based on the evidence. Gary Johns would have you believe that what all of the evidence points to is ideological nonsense, whereas his strident - and completely unsupported - assertions epitomise "rational analysis". Indeed, it is telling: in my article on the Murdoch press attacks on Larissa Behrendt, I wrote:

The mountain of evidence of the failures of the NT Intervention defies summary here. Suffice to say, there is literally no evidence, even in government reports, that it has helped improve the socio-economic conditions Intervention supporters claim to be concerned about. Its supporters are simply backing racist policies because they believe racism is the best way to deal with Indigenous communities.

Johns does not offer a particle of evidence to contradict that claim. In response to this argument, one can find little more than unsubstantiated name-calling. The closest he comes to responding is claiming that Behrendt and others who oppose the Intervention want to "impose legal non-solutions to real problems in Aboriginal affairs". In fact, I pointed to just a small sample of the mountain of evidence showing that the Intervention has not solved any of the issues Intervention supporters claim to care about. It seems that Johns and his ideological comrades are either indifferent to the facts, or that they are seeking to solve a different problem altogether (more on this later).

But let us suppose that at least some of those who take Johns seriously actually care about these issues. They would presumably take the Little Children are Sacred Report seriously, as it triggered the Intervention. You can read it here. The first thing to note - for people like Johns who talk about "the black man... behaving badly" is that (p 12) "The Inquiry has always accepted the assertion that sexual assault of children is not acceptable in Aboriginal culture, any more than it is in European or mainstream society".

The next - and more significant point - is on page 21. It goes on and on about the importance of consultations:

In the first recommendation, we have specifically referred to the critical importance of governments committing to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities, whether these be in remote, regional or urban settings.

We have been conscious throughout our enquiries of the need for that consultation and for Aboriginal people to be involved...

The thrust of our recommendations, which are designed to advise the Northern Territory Government on how it can help support communities to effectively prevent and tackle child sexual abuse, is for there to be consultation with, and ownership by the communities, of those solutions.

Predictably, when the Intervention was launched, the authors of the Little Children are Sacred Report were furious. Pat Anderson said: "There is no relationship between the Federal response and our recommendations. We feel betrayed and disappointed and hurt and angry and pretty pissed off at the same time." In October 2009, a government study found that 12 of the report's 97 recommendations had been implemented.

So if we adopt rational analysis, which Johns purports to be in favour of, we would note that Behrendt and everyone else opposed to the Intervention is on the side of all of the relevant expert evidence about what works for Indigenous communities in addressing their socio-economic problems. By contrast, Behrendt's opponents who support the Intervention have no empirical evidence, and are indifferent to stagnating and worsening conditions in the communities they claim to be concerned about. It seems like it is not the Left which is engaged in fanatical pursuit of empirically unsupported ideological flights of fancy.

If that is Johns's overarching point, let us not forget the minor ones. He claims that Behrendt and those who share her "agenda" have "been unable to point to an instance where Aborigines lack rights". Except, as he knows perfectly well, the Intervention stripped Indigenous communities of their rights.

Which brings us to those with a mystifying, "obsession with the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and its suspension during the NT Intervention[.] What possible harm has its suspension done, except to dent egos and inflate false pride, or make people perform for their welfare, and subject crooks to scrutiny?" As noted above, the relevant medical experts have argued that it will contribute to already severe "trauma and disease".

This does not even begin to address the horrors of stigmatising entire populations. Johns does not try to empathise with those who face racial discrimination - his startling cruelty in dismissing this as denting egos is simply shocking. The introduction of compulsory income management has seen the creation of segregated queues at Centrelink and supermarkets. Aboriginal people, with their Basics Card stand in one line - everyone else with normal money in another line. Perhaps Johns doesn't seem any harm in the stigmatisation and humiliation of racial segregation. All I can say is, I wish I were eloquent enough to express my shame that such things happen in Australia, imposed by governments purporting to act in my name.

I should like at this point to quote from Paddy Gibson's study of Indigenous communities living under the Intervention laws.

On increasing racism:

- its getting worse now. People shout from the car at me. Our old people have had glass bottles thrown at them, just while they are sitting there. It's not on.

- This Basics Card is really bringing out the racism in Alice Springs. The way we are being treated in shops, being spoken to like dogs - 'Go and line up over there!' 'No, you stand back and wait!'

On income management:

- More domestic violence because people can't access money through their Basics Card and this causes fights. More drinking, everyone is always coming in from the bush.

- "I can't sleep until four in the morning. Before this I used to go to bed at nine at night. Now its 100 times worse. People supporting this - have they ever lived in a town camp!"... She was very angry, and starting to cry. "Is the government taking into account what they are doing to our elders? This is killing them. Back in the old days they fought really hard for black people to get their rights. Now they have to see their grandkids going through this."

On the Intervention

- We are shocked. And confused.

- The Intervention first, and then the shire came in and now they are talking about the bi-lingual education. And the homelands, it's just continuing. On and on. What next? What are they going to take away from the people now? Are they going to start taking kids who don't come to school?

But then, we who oppose the Intervention just have some bizarre, inexplicable commitment to preventing the denting of egos.

Johns's rational analysis then proceeds to greater heights of distinction: human rights never stopped "the rape of a child". The "laws and customs to remedy these wrongs" have been around "for longer than the human rights professionals have been around". As an elementary point of logic, if the failure of human rights professionals to remedy rape proves that human rights professionals are worthless, then the existence of laws for even longer shows that laws are worthless. Either Johns cannot comprehend the most elementary logic, or he is simply blinded by the glare of his own ideological fanaticism.

Johns then dismisses the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Hal Wootten has written that the Royal Commission "exonerated police of deliberate killing, or even of brutality causing unintended death. However many of the deaths were due to unsatisfactory care of prisoners, including conduct which was negligent or in breach of instructions". However, this only begins to skim the surface of what the Royal Commission found. If, for example, Johns read the preface, he would know "a major reason for Aboriginal deaths in custody remains: the grossly disproportionate rates at which Aboriginal people are taken into custody, of the order of more than twenty times the rate for non-Aboriginals". Does Johns think this is indicative of institutionalised racism? Or is it perhaps the faulty culture, or perhaps genes of Aboriginal people which are at fault?

Which brings me to what I found the most astonishing part of Johns's article. Johns complains again that "white society was publicly vilified for years during the inquiry". Perhaps his white pride will never recover from the stigma of police officers and governments being criticised. That racism is being directed at entire Aboriginal societies, on the other hand, does not disturb him. And the nature of his attitudes towards Aboriginal communities is revealed in what he writes.

Put aside his comment about "the black man... behaving badly". At the end of his article, Johns writes: "We, on the other hand, will carry on until Aborigines, just like Bess Price, have taken their place in Australian society." That is to say, there is an Australian society, to which Aboriginal people do not belong. Pray tell: to which society do they belong? I think Johns reveals this further when he speaks contemptuously of those who "stay on their 'country', fight for the spoils of land rights, hold onto 'language' and not learn to read and write English, live a remnant culture, behave badly".

A remnant culture? Johns knows perfectly well that Aboriginal societies were devastated by colonisation. His contemptuous remark implies that it is a shame Aboriginal cultures were not annihilated completely - but hopefully, the "remnant culture" (note how they're supposedly all the same) will die out. Speaking as a Jewish person, I am amazed someone could publicly express such sentiments. Imagine if after the Holocaust someone had spoken with derision of the "remnant culture" of Jewish communities that survived, with the hope that one day they would all die out and assimilate completely to the countries they lived in (or, in Johns's phrase, "take their place"). I find these sentiments obscene, offensive and indecent.

Professor Johns, I think you should learn that rather than Aboriginal people learning to take their place in your society, you should gain the humility to acknowledge that we have built our society on the destruction of theirs. It is not me, but you who needs an honest look in the mirror. You need to look closely at the cruel and appalling history and legacy of colonisation. When you are willing to acknowledge the evils of the White Man, maybe we'll then have a reason to care when you purport to show concern about problems in Indigenous communities.

Until then, you will epitomise someone who "beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye".

Michael BrullMichael Brull is a Sydney writer. Follow him on twitter @mikeb476.

Brull has a featured blog at Independent Australian Jewish Voices, and is involved in Stop The Intervention Collective Sydney (STICS). He has written for Overland, the National Times,, Mutiny, and ZNet.

More Articles from Michael Brull on ABC's Online Opinion


australia is obsolete

australia is obsolete

Finally, a journalist with the guts to tell the truth

One of the best articles written on the Intervention in years. Whatever else, at least Larissa, Bess and the horse have got the Intervention being talked about again, and its the first time it's been mentioned in the mainstream press since Kevin Rudd said Sorry, as if a word fixed everything up! The Government's policy is one of assimilation, i.e. genocide and I wish more people could see that as it is so obvious.

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