“Take away from me my language, my responsibilities for the land, my land, and I am nothing”

Arrernte Alyawerre Elder Rosalie Kunoth-Monks

In June 2007 the centre-right Australian government sent 600 troops and police into Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory to take them over. The army moving against its own citizens like in any tinpot dictatorship in Africa, Asia or former communist-throttled East European countries… As the military trucks rolled in, many people fled panicked into the bush, fearing their children would be taken from them again, as they had been by ‘welfare’ authorities up to a generation earlier. The invasion was based on a government lie that Aboriginal children were being sexually molested and otherwise abused. They had medical examinations forced on them against their own and parents’ will. A later police examination found not a single case of sexual abuse, or at least none was prosecuted.

The thuggish minister for Aboriginal affairs who prepared and carried out this crime against humanity, at the behest of arch-conservative prime minister, John Howard, was Mal Brough.

An Australian Army officer and businessman before entering politics, Brough is again a member of federal parliament, though his misdeeds are widely known.

He was aided and abetted in them by one of the most disgusting pieces of journalism in Australian history, a false television report by the public broadcaster, Australian Broadcasting Corporation. An excellent expose of it was done by investigative journalist Chris Graham.


Most Aboriginal people will tell you that the real reason the communities had their self-government and control of their lands ripped from them was to ease access by mining giants to resources under their feet. They say the same motive drives the moves to evict Aborigines living their culture on ancestral lands in Western Australia.

“Even before the Intervention began in June 2007, government had long planned a new approach to the ‘management’ of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory,” wrote Aboriginal advocate, Olga Havnen, in an essay on the 6th anniversary of the Intervention.

“It was no longer part of government thinking that self-determination and Aboriginal control over land could be allowed to continue.”

The piece is published on the website of ‘concerned australians’, a group of prominent people campaigning for justice for Aboriginal people. I strongly recommend the site as a goldmine of information about the Intervention and other issues affecting Aborigines.

Although a few years old by now Olga Havnen’s description of the psychological damage it inflicted remains current.


Early inklings of change occurred in 2004 with the management of grants being transferred from communities to government’s newly established Indigenous Co-ordination Centres. More ominous were the Amendments of 2006 to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act and the memoranda of agreements that followed. Government had made it clear that it wished to re-engage itself more directly in the control of community land through leasing options as well as to open up Aboriginal land for development and mining purposes.


The plan was to empty the homelands, and this has not changed. However, it was recognised that achieving this would be politically fraught – it would need to be accomplished in a manner that would not off-side mainstream Australia. Removing Aboriginal people from their land and taking control over their communities would need to be presented in a way that Australians would believe it to be to Aboriginal advantage, whatever the tactics.


So began the campaign to discredit the people and to publicly stigmatise Aboriginal men of the Northern Territory. It would be the minister himself who would take centre stage. It seemed that all Aboriginal men were engaged in paedophilia. The minister [Brough] readily gave television and radio interviews and declared that he knew there were paedophile rings in every Aboriginal community.


Viewers were asked during their evening news broadcasts how they felt about Aboriginal children going to bed at night knowing that they were not safe. This was a government minister engaging in a sensationalist campaign aimed at demoralising Aboriginal men and was probably the lowest point in any government behaviour ever seen in Australia’s political history. When challenged by the NT Chief Minister to name the people involved the situation deteriorated further. With the collusion of the ABC, a senior executive service bureaucrat from the minister’s own office posed as a youth worker from Mutitjulu, a place he had never visited, and collaborated with the minister’s story.


There could have been nothing more sordid. And even in 2009 when the CEO of the Australian Crime Commission, John Lawler, reported that his investigation had shown there were no organised paedophile rings operating in the NT, no formal apology was ever made to the Aboriginal men and their families who were brutally shamed by the false claims. Beyond this the Australian system appeared to have no way by which it could confront the former minister for the incredible harm done by his persistent inflammatory public statements which had given rise to negative stereotyping of an ethnic group. The minister had done his job.


The Australian people had been suitably shocked and the Intervention was seen as a necessary consequence. Furthermore, Labor, that had seemingly feigned horror at the 2006 amendments to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, would now eagerly provide bipartisan support.


What was the psychological impact of publicly shaming Aboriginal men for repulsive and unacceptable behaviours that they hadn’t engaged in? It undermined their feelings of self-worth and marginalised them. It was a direct attack on their identity. The fact that they had no way of defending themselves simply led to a state of despair. One’s sense of safety is bound uncompromisingly with a belief in justice. When that belief collapses fear of the unknown takes over.


In many ways the Intervention in all its forms has been an attack on Aboriginal identity, and continues to be. Just as the focus on paedophile rings collectively impaled all Aboriginal men to gross and disgusting acts with innocent children who needed to be protected, so did the Intervention target all communities with tales of alcohol dependence, gambling, pornography use, inefficient management, money waste, poorly maintained homes, overcrowding and poor health.


Once again, negative stigmatising of the people was as one, promoting aspects of dysfunction without providing background or explanation of situations and ensuring the most sensationalised elements of disadvantage were promoted. Measures imposed were not targeted at areas of need but were simply imposed on all as blanket measures.


The oppressive restrictions were imposed on communities irrespective of whether they were perceived to be well managed and achieving their goals or whether they were struggling and in need of help. They were punished without distinction.


Their individual worth was of no consequence. The intention of such measures had never been designed to assist in specific circumstances involving particular individuals or communities but as a means of taking back control from all.


People struggled to understand why they were being targeted, why they were being punished. They were fearful for many reasons but most especially because of the manner in which the Army had been engaged in a display to ‘shock and awe’. How could the so-called ‘Emergency Response’ be explained? We know from stories at the time that many grabbed their children and ran to hide in the bush in the belief that once again their children would be removed from them. Why was this cruel re-traumatising of so many allowed to happen?


Government claimed the ‘emergency’ was required to protect children from sexual abuse. While very serious concerns regarding child sexual abuse had been raised through the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ Report, the statistics showed its rate was far, far lower than in the state of New South Wales.


The complex legislation that had been prepared to implement the Northern Territory Emergency Response had commenced long before the release of the report and none of it was directly aimed at the protection of young children.


Re-traumatisation has done plenty of damage. If ever there had been a growing sense of trust between Aboriginal people and the dominant race, it was blown away in 2007. The trust was gone and the fear returned. The very manner in which the Intervention was rolled out ensured greater confusion and disorientation, more like an act of counter-insurgence. Normal channels of engagement and communication were ignored. Elders became invisible; they were neither consulted nor invited to comment. Government Business Managers were installed to take decisions in communities. Responsibilities of Elders were removed from them. Controls set up to keep many communities ‘dry’ were dismantled and responsibility for alcohol control transferred to government.


Whether a person was in debt or held a weighty savings account, they were forced to receive half their welfare payment through a plastic card which could be used only at certain shops. Capacity to financially manage money was irrelevant. Card-holders were shamed by having to stand in a separate supermarket queue.


With the demise of CDEP, the Community Development Employment Projects, those who had been employed, often for many years, found themselves on unemployment benefits. They watched on as Shire offices sent in contract workers to take over many of the tasks previously managed by the local workforce. Community council offices were closed down and stripped of all equipment. Bank accounts were frozen and responsibilities transferred from local community staff to those in Shire offices often many hundreds of kilometres away. Community programmes, often designed and developed by local people, gradually ground to a halt. Small communities were devastated. The disempowerment was unimaginable and only served to exacerbate the aimless and bewildered movements away from the security of community land towards the urban centres that offered no guarantees of shelter or protection from the social dysfunction of those who were already lost.


And the question asked, what was the psychological impact on Aboriginal people? Though little or no research has been conducted on the current situation, we do know enough from earlier studies to recognise that great psychological harm has resulted from the imposition of such targeted social oppression.


The sudden and brutal upheaval of the Intervention and the manner in which it was perpetrated left people in a state of helplessness. It was the unpredictability of their environment which left them bereft of any natural coping skills. They had lost all ability to predict what might happen next. Anxiety levels were high and distress dominated. The demands were so relentless that any chance of adapting behaviours to deal with new circumstances was overtaken by new waves of oppressive change.


Those elements central to Aboriginal culture were all under attack – language, law and land. Federal and Territory governments joined in their assault. Bilingual learning programmes were banned from schools. The exclusion of any consideration of Aboriginal customary law by judges and magistrates when deliberating on bail and sentencing, was clearly discriminatory. It degraded and devalued Aboriginal culture, and again there seemed to be a determined disrespect for the culture itself. A fear of dispossession was reinforced by the 2006 amendments to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act whereby control over community township lands were transferred from Aboriginal Land Councils to a government statutory body.


Without discussion, it opened up the possibility for sub-leases on community owned land. Further reinforced was the declared intention of emptying the homeland areas through a Memorandum of Agreement between Federal and Territory governments that no new housing would appear on homelands or outstations (September 2007). The changes added to the sense of overwhelming fear and uncertainty. As Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, Elder from Utopia, said, “take away from me my language, take away from me my responsibilities for the land, take away from me my land, and I am nothing”. This then was the impact of the Intervention.


For the rest of this essay click here. 

Sydney protests 8th year of NT Intervention

On Sunday June 21, protesters in Sydney will mark the eighth anniversary of the Northern Territory Intervention, ironically renamed Stronger Futures, with a rally at Town Hall and march to the Block in Redfern.


The protest will be addressed by Ken Canning, Albert Hartnett, Eva Cox, Gerry Georgatos and Kyol Blakeney. "John Howard’s announcement of the NT Intervention was one of the most shameful days in the history of our brutal treatment of First Nations People", said Alex Johnson, spokesperson for the Stop the Intervention Collective Sydney (STICS).


"It has set the struggle for First Nations People’s rights back many decades."

Under the Intervention, the military was sent into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, the Racial Discrimination Act was suspended and compulsory Income Management was introduced for Aboriginal people. The Intervention also removed the Community Development Employment Projects which provided employment and maintained basic infrastructure in communities.


Most of the Intervention’s measures were extended for 10 years by the federal Labor government’s Stronger Futures legislation in 2012. "$1 billion has been spent on the punitive, racist measures of the Intervention, which have only had a detrimental effect", said Cathy Gill. "government statistics show that since 2007, incarceration in the NT has doubled, reported rates of attempted suicide and self-harm are up almost 500%, child removal rates have increased more than three-fold, and there is more alcohol related domestic violence."

Upcoming anniversary march & rally


Hear a speech by activist and scholar Paddy Gibson on the continuing impacts of the Intervention, on Aboriginal living conditions, incarceration and child removal rates. Paddy also discussed how the policy architecture of the Intervention is expanding across the country and why the demand for a repeal of Intervention laws remains as important as ever.


For more than three decades, Professor Jon Altman has been one of the leading scholars on Indigenous research with a particular focus on Indigenous economies. Through the period since the Northern Territory intervention in 2007 until the present day, his work has taken on increasing significance.


In a period in which government policy continues to be shaped by ideological rather than by evidence and research, Jon Altman, like many other researchers in the field, found his expertise and work increasingly sidelined. 

“The unprecedented and controversial nature of the Intervention has seen extraordinary levels of monitoring, review and evaluation, but the absence of an overarching evaluation strategy has resulted in a
fragmented and confused approach.”

See also


The Intervention: an Anthology

Books and publications drawing out Aboriginal voices from the NT


Intervention background

Aboriginal Sovereignty Movement

Treaties with Aboriginal Sovereign Nations

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How can a mini-series about British settlement show no Aboriginal people?


Next week Foxtel will air a seven episode BBC mini-series about first settlement in Australia that has not one Aboriginal person in it. No, not one. And nor did any Aboriginal people work on the production. It's called Banished, which is meant to refer to the English convicts, but more accurately describes the fate of Australia's original inhabitants in this cinematic incarnation of terra nullius.

The show is historically inaccurate, politically retrograde and, quite simply, racist.  It is complicit in a myth that has long been the basis for the denial of Aboriginal rights to land, dignity and justice.

It's odd, because Jimmy McGovern, the creator of Banished, was also involved in the production of Redfern Now. And he came up with the idea for the series at an Aboriginal Writers Workshop in America. He told Cassie McCullagh on Radio National's The List the idea was to bring in Aboriginal people in Series Two and to have these stories written by Indigenous writers. But "those plans are seemingly permanently put on hold" because "there wasn't the time or opportunity to bring in Indigenous writers".

McCullagh, very politely, asked if it would not have been possible to at least show the Aboriginal people described in the settlers' journals at the time. For instance, Watkin Tench's description of their "frequent visits" to the camp?


No, said McGovern, "A shot like that would cost a fortune and would perforce take all the drama away from the penal colony." McGovern said he needed to be "quite robust" in defending the decision to have an exclusive parade of pale-faces: "It's a series written by a British man for the British Broadcasting Corporation for British people." Ergo, all British people are white and white people will only be interested in other white people.

It's a ridiculous argument because there is no history that is purely 'British'. When the British decided to exchange their beads, trinkets and syphilis for other people's land and resources, they became colonisers and, in so doing, their history became intertwined with those they oppressed. The very idea of what it means to be British has been built around ideas of racial difference: we are civilised because they are savage; I am white because he is black; she is a coolie and they are Aborigines.

The colonies created British identity and they made Britain's wealth. From the Indian tea they sipped, to the Jamaican sugar they ate, to the Egyptian cotton and Australian wool they wore, to the colonial subject who came to call Britain home, Britain was and remains a product of its imperial history. Britain's history does not exist in splendid isolation from its colonies. Anglo-Brits need to take responsibility for the hurt of those who suffered, and continue to suffer, because of their forebears.

And, at the very least, this means being historically accurate. Of course, artistic representations of the past don't have to be beholden to truth, except when they say they are true. And, in this case, McGovern has used the real names of real characters and real events to create a historical drama.  As such, he must have chosen to ignore the abundant evidence of Aboriginal-European interactions in the journals he used to construct his narrative.

Take Lieutenant William Bradley's description of an inter-cultural dance on the harbour: "These people mixed with ours and all hands danced together". Or one of Philip Gidley King's men's frolicsome nude outing with a group of Aboriginal people. Or Governor Arthur Phillip's kidnapping of Banelon and Colebee. Europeans also worried about Aboriginal people because they were aware of their own precarious claims to the land.

Look at the hints Captain Cook carried with him when he set out for the Pacific: "They (indigenous peoples) are the natural, and in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit. No European Nation has a right to occupy any part of their country, or settle among them without their voluntary consent."

McGovern said his dramatic inspiration for the series lay in the idea that "on one side lies the ocean and on the other side lies the bush" which created "the most amazing prison". This is nothing less than a fantasy of terra nullius. He is imagining an exclusively British settlement surrounded by wild nature depopulated of the Indigenous inhabitants. These ideas are echoed in McGovern's defense that it's "a story about British people in the British penal colony in New South Wales". 

In fact, that British penal colony was on Bidjigal and Cadigal country. In imagining places of settlement as exclusively white, McGovern is perpetuating a collective amnesia around Aboriginal dispossession that has, and continues to have, political effects (as seen in the difficulty Aboriginal people have when making urban land rights claims).

I fail to understand how the two cultures could ever be prised apart in a first (white) series and a second (black) series, although two series would certainly have been better than having no Aboriginal people. That said, having discovered there wasn't the funding or interest for Series Two (neither of which are valid reasons) the responsibility fell to McGovern to redress the whiteness of the first series. His suggestion that he couldn't incorporate Aboriginal perspectives because he couldn't get any Aboriginal writers is absurd.

There are countless historical dramas by white people, most notably Kate Grenville's TheSecret River, that, through careful research and respectful consultation, do a fantastic job at a two-sided history. As stolen generation claimant Lorna Cubillo once said: "The writing and telling of history has to be a combined effort…We need to get all sides together, to be fair all round so everyone can speak and be heard and recognised." Anything less is not just retrograde, but astonishingly so. Banished should be banished from our screens.

Alecia Simmonds is an academic and the author of the forthcoming book Wild Man.

Youth suicide at crisis levels among Indigenous population, experts warn


Updated 14 Jun 2015, 6:21am 


Teenager Jordan Chapman can name half a dozen young people in his circle of friends who have taken their own lives.

"On Facebook one night she (a friend) just inboxed me, seeing how was I going but I didn't have enough time to reply and I just logged out because I was going to sleep," he said.

"I found out the next morning she committed suicide."

Asked how someone of his age deals with that kind of loss, 17-year-old Jordan responded quietly: "I don't know. Just play football, go to school, keep my mind off it, don't really think about it."

The issue of youth suicide has always been a problem, but in 2008 it passed a critical threshold.

That year, suicide overtook road crashes as the number one cause of death for Queenslanders aged between 15 and 24 years old.

But it is among Indigenous children that the rate truly rings alarm bells.

Queensland coroner Terry Ryan, who cited the ABS in his recent inquest into two young suicide victims, said Indigenous children accounted for almost half of the suicides of children aged between 10 and 17 in Queensland between 2004 and 2012.

Across Australia, young Indigenous Australians up to 24 years old are 5.2 times more likely to die due to intentional self-harm than other young people in the same age range.

Rowe Butterworth knows the struggle all too well. His parents split when he was young and as a young teen he grappled to come to terms with his bisexuality.


But he had his older sister Melissa to help.

"She was everything to me," he said.

"My parents were busy so my sister was the only one who was there. She was like my mother. She used to dress me and take me to school and make sure I was ready on time."

But she was killed in a house fire that also claimed the life of her boyfriend.

"I lost myself. I felt as if I had nobody to lean on, or depend on, and nobody to talk to," Rowe said.

Rowe descended into drug abuse and self-harm.

"One time I wanted to hang myself in the school toilets. I used to cut my wrists a lot," he said.

Indigenous suicide issue a humanitarian crisis: researcher

Counsellors often refer to a contagion effect with suicide, with one death sparking another.

In his findings last week, Coroner Ryan declared that "in 2013-14 contagion was identified as a potential factor for seven of the 23 children who suicided in Queensland".

Rosie Bell has been offering support to Rowe in her role as a case worker at YFS, a community organisation that supports young people in the Logan area, south of Brisbane.

"It's a topic that we're all struggling with, and our elders are struggling with suicide, and it's happening in our community too many times," she said.


One in 20 of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders will die from suicide.

Gerry Georgatos, researcher


"They're asking the question: 'Why? What's happening?' So it's just devastating."

Journalist and researcher Gerry Georgatos, who has specialised on the issue of Indigenous suicide, described the problem as a "humanitarian crisis".

"One in 20 of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders will die from suicide," he said.

"That's a horrific rate. From a radicalised lens that's the highest in the world."

He said the worst suicide rates were in far north Queensland and the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

"The real solution is in an equivalency of service in these communities, not degrading them further," he said.

"Even relocating people to the larger towns only adds to the social ills that they will be exposed to in those communities."

Mr Georgatos is also a member of the federally funded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project.

It was established last year to evaluate the effectiveness of existing prevention programs.

It has held several roundtable meetings across the country to help devise ways to improve services, with a report due later this year.