Remembering Wadeye

Joel silver It is worth remembering why the NT Intervention began, writes Joel Silver.

The Northern Territory National Emergency Response (‘Intervention’) has remained a policy plagued by misunderstanding since its announcement by the Howard Government in June 2007. I have on numerous occasions had to explain to friends outside of politics – of which I seem to have quite a few! – the reasons that prompted the Intervention, and moreover, to counter perceptions that it was political wolf in sheep's clothing, a policy whose motive was to needlessly discriminate against Australia's Indigenous peoples, a new White Australia Policy. The worst part is that most have never heard of the Little Children are Sacred ("Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle") report. In fairness, after detailing the chronic social problems the report found afflicted Indigenous communities (eg. alcoholism, substance abuse, unemployment, pornography), and the impact these have had on children, those friends are quick to change their tune.

The content of Little Children are Sacred, however, was not unanticipated, instead being the formal assessment of problems whose existence had been broadcast in May 2006 by the ABC. The series of news items – comprising several items on Lateline and an episode of Four Corners – exposed just how dysfunctional life in remote, Indigenous communities had become, of entire towns living off welfare, without law and order or policing, and with a mass of people simply left idle without anything with which to fill their lives. The most shocking knowledge that arose, however, was the horror story these communities' children were being born into, in which they were denied the innocence that those of us who've grown up in metropolitan or regional centres take for granted as a basic human right.

The reports began on 15 May. Lateline presented a story, filed by Suzanne Smith, which summarised the findings of a confidential police brief prepared by Dr Nanette Rogers, the Crown prosecutor for central Australia.[i] Titled "Child Sexual Assault and Some Cultural Issues in the Northern Territory", the brief contained numerous stories of child abuse, which the report quoted ad verbatim. Amongst these, it described, the anal rape of a six-year old girl in a waterhole, who was subsequently drowned by the male perpetrator. Another involved the tying by a 55-year old man of a 10-year girl (and promised wife) to a tree for several weeks; the girl later gave birth at age 12. The story also noted that, in central Australia, the murder rate was 10 times the national average, Indigenous women being the prime victims. Being interviewed later in the program, Rogers detailed the rapes of a two-year old and seven-months old child. In all these cases, she made clear that the adults, both perpetrators and parents, had been drunk when the crimes were committed.

These atrocities, the brief indicated, resulted from a degradation of communal life. The towns, as Smith stated in her prologue to the item, had been overrun by a great emptiness born out of poverty, boredom, alienation, and discrimination. Add to this great sense of emptiness violence, alcohol, cannabis and inhalants and you have the right ingredients for murder and sexual assault.

These atrocities, according to Rogers, [ii] had remained concealed due to, amongst other reasons, an entrenched culture of violence and fear, failure by many Indigenous people to take responsibility for their actions, and because many potential witnesses faced harassment, intimidation and sometimes violence if they dobbed an offender in.

The sort of culture shown to exist, while certainly meeting the definition of "tribal", was far removed from traditional Indigenous society. It has descended into an incorrigible barbarism, the existence of which goes against everything making Australia a first world country. Most Australians would likely associate the notion of a "failed State" to African nations such as Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. What the ABC's coverage made clear was that, let alone allowing a failed state to exist in its Asia-Pacific backyard, Australia had one on its own soil. The 15 May story had with a football match in Alice Springs' Hidden Valley camp, at which police confiscated from male spectators weapons that included machetes, hunting knives, and a samurai sword. This sort of scene was not something to expect in Australia. While concerned primarily with the manifestations of these problems, the segment made clear – through interviews with a local elder and other residents – that alcohol and drunkenness were a precipitating factor. The reason why no preventative measures were being taken, however, was because, out of 40 Indigenous communities in central Australia (some with a population of over 2,500), only eight had some sort of police presence; in half those communities, the presence was only nearby.

The following story on 19 May focused on Wadeye, 250 kilometres southwest of Darwin.[iii] This time, Narda Gilmore reported on a call from Dr Paul Bauert – a paediatrician and President of the Australian Medical Association in the Territory – for military intervention, similar to overseas peacekeeping missions, to restore law and order in the town. Bauert had previously notified community services in the territory that, because of the poisonous culture, all children below 15 in Wadeye were at substantial risk of abuse or neglect. He described families too terrified to take their children to school or the communal health centre, and gang fights through the night which included participants as young as six. Like Rogers, Bauert emphasised there were few police in Wadeye, certainly not enough to restore law and order. On 22 May,[iv] Jane Cowan reported that extra police had been deployed because of escalating violence between rival gangs in Wadeye, with the possibility of a mass evacuation. Many residents had become too scared to leave their homes, if the gangs had not already destroyed them. School attendances were quoted as only 100 of Wadeye's 700 school-age children. The town GP discussed how a boy with gastro was not brought to the health care centre for two days, simply because his mother was too afraid. On 24 May, [v] Cowan reported on a mass exodus of Wadeye residents to Darwin, with the result that, as with the 1,500 East Timorese who fled there in 1999, the city had no infrastructure to accommodate them. More disturbing, however, was that some of these Wadeye refugees included gang members, such as a contingent of 40 men camped outside Darwin airport.

This series of reports concluded on 29 May, with a Four Corners report titled "The Road to Nowhere".[vi] Filed by Liz Jackson, the report profiled the community of Imanpa, three hours drive from Alice Springs, 150 kilometres from a police station, and with a population of around 150. Though not notorious or in the news, unlike Wadeye, the community in Imanpa had its own problems. The Council had gone through five Chief Executive Officers in 18 months, the community was bankrupt, services had collapsed, and petrol sniffing had become endemic; it was, according to Jackson, symbolic of 30 years of failed Indigenous policy, the question being whether such communities had a future. Many of its problems stemmed from its Community Development Employment Program (the formal name for "work for the dole"), the implementation of which was severely flawed, resulting in the town having its only income cut off. This caused problems, for example, in keeping the town's heavily indebted food store stocked, and in running night patrols. The transcript of the segment is required reading for anyone wishing to understand the level of dysfunction in these central Australian communities.

It shall forever be to the ABC's credit that it allowed these problems to be made public. Not simply had the communities themselves broken down, but so had the bureaucracies which were meant to support them, both Commonwealth and Territory. Despite the argument that the Intervention undermined Indigenous self-determination – and in Professor Greg Craven's view, was unconstitutional (no elaboration was provided in the interview) – these problems followed from refusing to limit communal autonomy which, had it been any other group, no government would hesitate to limit. Though empowerment can be a virtue, it certainly was not in central Australia. Had intervention not occurred, things would almost certainly have gotten worse. It is a fact the Intervention was discriminatory. Indigenous communities had problems, so the government introduced specific, remedial measures. That is not in itself negative or racist. It is simply realistic. Indigenous communities have had a unique experience since European settlement. It is ludicrous to suggest that recognising any consequential social problems is wrong.

There remain a great many Australians who believe the Northern Territory Intervention was a disproportionate and discriminatory initiative whose function was to take away the rights of Indigenous Australians. Save for a few, I believe that most people holding this view are simply uninformed. To ensure the problems which prompted the Intervention do not repeat themselves, it is important that Australians who understand the situation share their knowledge, and do not shy away from arguing with those who aren't willing to listen. Empowerment and equality are all well and good, but when you've got a third world environment in a first world nation, where there is no rule of law, principles have to take a back seat. This is why I have written this piece. Though I felt physically ill, at some points, when going through the transcripts of the news stories, I recommend that all readers read them. They are essential to understanding the problems in our backyard.

Joel Silver holds a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) from the University of Melbourne. He is President of the Caulfield Young Liberals and member of the Victorian Young Liberal executive.

[i] 15 May 2006, Paper reveals sexual abuse, violence in NT Indigenous communities,

[ii] 15 May 2006, Crown Prosecutor speaks out about abuse in Central Australia,

[iii] 19 May 2006, Calls for Army help in Wadeye,

[iv] 22 May 2006, Extra police to quell Wadeye unrest,

[v] 24 May 2006, Wadeye violence may spread to Darwin,

[vi] 29 May 2006, The Road to Nowhere,

Why We Need a Constitution For All Australians

There is little merit in the proposal to recognise Aborigines in our constitution, writes Adam Murphy.

Recently, there has been talk of holding a constitutional referendum, the first since 1999. The object of this referendum would be to insert a preamble, which features an explicit recognition of the Aboriginal people, into our Constitution. Already the wheels of bureaucracy are turning, with the Government just yesterday announcing a consultation group to discuss the issue and reach a verdict. But is this a worthwhile ambition? Unsurprisingly, no. In fact, it is a ludicrous idea, for several reasons.

Firstly, one thing many people do not realise is that the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900, an Act of the British Parliament in which our Constitution is contained, already has a preamble. Its first sentence reads as follows:

"Whereas the people of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, and Tasmania, humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God, have agreed to unite in one dissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and under the Constitution hereby established…"

Notice that this preamble contains no reference to Aborigines, Europeans, Asians or any other ethnic or social group. Instead, it recognises “the people” of Australia, regardless of their background. So therefore, it is clear that the Aboriginal people are already recognised in the ‘real’ preamble to our Constitution, and furthermore, they are recognised on the same level as all other Australians, that is, as members of the Australian people. So in that case, why should Aboriginal people be the only ones recognised in a ‘second preamble’? Why ought they to be separated from ‘the people’ of Australia? Why discriminate against every other Australian, who has contributed in his or her own separate way to the rich tapestry that comprises our history? None of these questions has a decent answer.

Please bear in mind that I believe in the special and valuable place of Aborigines in Australian history. I don’t seek to belittle them or the struggles they have endured since 1788. But what I do believe is that if we are going to recognise Australians in our Constitution, we must recognise all Australians, equally. Of course, this is already the case in the preamble to the Constitution Act, which does not need to be altered or marginalised in any way by the insertion of yet another preamble within the Constitution itself.

Secondly, the referendum, if held, will almost certainly be compared to the historic 1967 referendum. Unfortunately, any such comparisons will be erroneous. The 1967 referendum was a watershed moment because it was focused on practical change: it amended specific sections of the Constitution, s 51(xxvi) and s 127, to allow the Commonwealth more power to make laws relating to Aboriginal people and to recognise them as Australians. The insertion of a preamble, however, does not alter the Constitution in the same way. A preamble would have no effect on the wording, and hence judicial construction, of the particular Sections of the Constitution (such as s 51(xxvi)), which relate to Aborigines. It would not create any new legislative powers to assist Aborigines. In fact, it would have no affect on Indigenous affairs whatsoever! So instead of the 1967 referendum, a better comparison would be to the 2008 national apology, which was nothing but a tokenistic, symbolic load of hot air. If the Government is truly serious about improving the wellbeing of the Aboriginal people, why doesn’t it amend or repeal s 51(xxvi) of the Constitution, the ‘race power’? Better yet, why not repeal the ludicrous Wild Rivers legislation in Queensland which is, as we speak, prohibiting Aboriginal people from making use of their land as they so choose. The Government's lack of interest in these options reveals it as one which is only interested in the appearance of improvement.

So given that the explicit recognition of Aboriginals in a second preamble to the Constitution would ostracise them from the remainder of the Australian people, and would not have any meaningful impact upon Aboriginal communities, why on Earth should we be spending money on it? Referendums are inevitably a drain on the public hip pocket: as well as the cost of printing ballots, hiring staff, organising campaigns and so on, the Government is required by law to distribute a pamphlet containing 2,000-word arguments ‘for’ and ‘against’ the proposed amendment to every voter. None of this is worth the cost to the taxpayer in order to introduce a discriminatory and pointless preamble into our Constitution!

If I ever have to vote in this referendum, I will undoubtedly vote an empathic ‘NO’, and I would encourage every other Australian to do the same.

Adam Murphy is an Arts/Law student at the University of Newcastle.

Welcome to humbug country

Terry-BarnesHypocrisy is rife in the debate about parliamentary reforms, writes Terry Barnes.

In the current brouhaha about the content and interpretation of the Oakeshott Settlement, also known as the parliamentary reform agreement that we had to have, the focus has been on the speakership of the House of Representatives, pairs, deliberative votes and what constitutes an independent chair.

But as Federal Parliament is about to gather for its ceremonial opening there is one aspect that escaped notice, or perhaps has been deemed too politically sensitive to criticise or reject.  That aspect is Rob Oakeshott’s insistence that “At the beginning of each sitting day, prior to prayers, the Speaker will make an acknowledgement of country.”

This is the rite of obeisance to the local Aboriginal tribe – in this case the Ngunnawal – who are paid homage as the traditional owners or “custodians” of the land on which the building or event is located.  It, and other Indigenous ceremonial appearances, increasingly are a feature of our public life.  I was at a conference recently where an overweight Aboriginal man sat down on stage to play a digeridoo for half a minute for no discernible reason but to Australianise the international event and to make the mostly middle-class Anglo-Celtic professional audience feel good about themselves.  His performance certainly had no other obvious connection to the content of the conference itself, and it wasn’t particularly good either.  Now this sort of practice is being introduced into our national parliament on a daily basis.

Another common public event is the “traditional” smoking ceremony, where a group of Aboriginal performers wave smouldering branches to drive away evil  spirits from whatever the event happens to be.   On taking office Kevin Rudd ensured that both a welcome to country and a smoking ceremony were incorporated into the State Opening of Parliament.  This means that next week we again will see worthy Ngunnawals performing earnestly (and admittedly impressively) in the Members’ Hall of Parliament House.

A mini-industry has grown up around marketing, booking and staging these events.  A Google search shows that even Tourism Australia, the body that is helping to bring Oprah and her frumpy Chicago housewives to Australia at taxpayer expense, actively promotes the trade in welcome to country services.  There certainly does seem to be a circuit of performers going from one event or conference to another, and if they can make a quid out of other people’s guilty consciences, good luck to them.

Every society is entitled to its mythology, even if it is manufactured or re-imagined.  Even in Anglo-Celtic culture it happens – in 1911 David Lloyd George concocted an elaborate investiture ceremony for the Prince of Wales which had no historical basis whatever but supposedly made the ancestors of Julia Gillard and their fellow countrymen feel better about their economically depressed principality (and was revived by Lord Snowdon in 1969 for Prince Charles as a spiffing spectacle for telly and for The Australian Women’s Weekly which covered it lavishly at the time). 

If these gestures of acknowledgement and related “traditional” ceremonies genuinely have meaning for Aboriginal Australians, that is something other Australians should respect.  But it is another thing altogether for non-Aboriginal Australians to expropriate these events for no other purpose than to salve the Rousseau and Manning Clark-fed social consciences of inner-city latte sippers, many of whom would cross the street to avoid meeting an Aboriginal down on his luck if they ever saw one.  Little better than the concrete Aborigines that stood guard in countless front gardens in the 1950s and 60s, these gestures are tokenistic practices that are inappropriate, patronising and perhaps even offensive and humiliating to many of those who they are supposed to honour.

Unsurprisingly, this cant and humbug now is entrenched in our rainbow government.  Rudd-Gillard ministers routinely insert an acknowledgement of country into their speeches, presumably on instructions from central command.  Perhaps many of them believe sincerely that they are doing the right thing, but to their audience it usually looks smug, self-serving and perfunctory.  It’s hard to believe that it is an expression of genuine sentiment, and such shallow practices promote wider cynicism and dismissiveness about Aborigines and Aboriginal inequality, and of course do nothing to redress past wrongs or present indignities.  Real action and leadership, like the Howard government’s intervention in the Northern Territory, or Noel Pearson’s outstanding work in Cape York, is what does that.

To have our Parliament pay quasi-feudal lip service in the way that Oakeshott insists won’t improve the quality of life for Aboriginals, except those few whose livelihoods depend on the guilt-driven welcome to country industry.  It won’t improve the quality of our parliamentary deliberations on social inequality and injustice – that can only come from a warm heart and open mind, and fortunately most of our elected representatives havethese.  What’s more, this hooey is shown up by the simple fact that we now have our first Aboriginal member of the House of Representatives, who can use the forum of Parliament to bring together his fellow Australians in a way that not even a million acknowledgements of country and smoking ceremonies will ever achieve.  Maybe, instead of adopting the hollow Oakeshott ritual, our elected representatives each follow the example of a handful of their colleagues and do a stint of work experience in a remote Aboriginal community.  Then they could see things for themselves and use that experience to make a real difference in their deliberations – and perhaps even do some good. 

Our federal political leaders currently are determined to show goodwill to all men, and to one garrulous but temporarily powerful man in particular.  But this particular bit of lip service is one symbolic part of the new paradigm that should be nipped firmly in the bud.

Terry Barnes is principal of Cormorant Policy Advice and a contributing editor of Menzies House:

Australia appears before UN over human rights

The UN apparently doesn't like the NT intervention…

Australia has appeared before a United Nations panel in Geneva, accused of human rights violations against Aboriginal people and asylum seekers.

The UN panel is investigating whether the Australian Government has singled out Aborigines and asylum seekers with racist policies.


Can I ask, what would the United Nations know about Australian domestic social policy? They sent their representative Dr James Anaya over for a couple of weeks last year to have a look around and he figured the intervention was racist. The UN has not properly examined and understood the complex issues surrounding indigenous affairs in Australia – particularly when they decide to brand policies designed to help indigenous Australians racist in front of the international community.

Maybe the UN should consider the alternative to the intervention: an unbreakable cycle of rampant child abuse, substance abuse and poverty. How humane.