The Northern Territory Emergency Response: Why Australia Will Not Recover from The Intervention

By | 1 February 2015

Image courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

It was always an exciting time for me, during my time in the role of Art Centre Manager at Titjikala, to escort Aboriginal artists from central Australia to their art exhibitions and forums in Adelaide. On one occasion were two senior Pitjantjatjara / Luritja artists from Titjikala, and they were accompanied by their granddaughters. My granddaughter had joined the group in Port Augusta. And so we were in Adelaide when the news was announced.

The next day, after the exhibition, and on the front page of the Weekend Australian, a large photo showed army soldiers playing football with children in the community we had just left. One of the elder artists lay down on the floor. I lay beside her and asked what was wrong. She said she was ‘waiting for a heart attack,’ as she did not believe that the other children she had left behind would still be in the community upon our return. She was sure the Army would steal them. Why else would they have invaded her home? I held her in my arms and reassured her that everything would be alright. I kept my voice strong. But my mind was addled with confusion and doubt. What was the Army doing in the remote Simpson Desert of central Australia?

In August 2007, The Australian Federal Government, under the leadership of Prime Minister John Howard and the Minister for Indigenous Affairs Mal Brough, rolled out a policy titled the Northern Territory Emergency Response, which has become more infamously known as The Intervention. Howard based his argument on the findings of the Little Children Are Sacred Report that claimed paedophilia rings and child sexual abuse cases were rampant in Aboriginal communities with the Northern Territory. This report also pleaded for locally based action, education and resources.

A total of seventy-three Aboriginal communities and town camps were targeted. Operation Outreach involved about six hundred soldiers from the Australian Defence Forces, led by Major-General David Chalmers. Many Aboriginal soldiers from NorForce were deployed to ‘protect’ the bureaucrats to deliver the new policies. It was a strange and mixed message.

I was living with my kinship family at Titjikala, on the edge of the Simpson Desert. I witnessed firsthand intimidation methods to implement the following strictures, justification for the extreme wages paid to ‘interventionists’: alcohol restrictions (these have been in place for many years, and ineffectively monitored due to lack of police); mandatory ‘sex checks’ on all children residing in the communities, overriding the regular health checks in the local community clinic (doctors from interstate were paid $5000 per week including benefits, due to their perilous task); Welfare quarantining of money, for all families and Aboriginal residents, including high standing community leaders and long-term employed; Changes to land tenures, what became five-year leases evolved to 40 to 90-year lease holds by the federal government in return for essential services; Suspension of the Land Councils permit system controlling access to Aboriginal communities; and the abolition of the Community Development Employment Project (CDEP), often the only employment strategy in these remote communities. I was there the day all the staff got sacked!

The loss of the international tourist venture at Titjikala was a result from the CDEP’s elinimation. Here was a community that had worked in partnership with Macquarie Bank and the Indigenous Land Council, to build an authentic cultural enterprise and showcase their community and history. Many overseas visitors arrived to stay for short residencies at Gunya Titjikala, a series of deluxe safari tents boasting polished floor boards, private en suites with claw baths and eco-toilets, and exceptional views of the Simpson desert and the night skies. Guests were treated to bush tucker catered by locals. Entertainment provided and reciprocated at night was a true example of the friendships I had imagined might exist in a mature Australia.

It was terrifying to watch the effect of the loss of livelihood upon the men of Titjikala. The confusion and constant changes to their lives made them nervous to speak out. Respectfully, I wrote the poem ‘Intervention Pay Back’ in support of the men, who I knew as kind, hard-working, fun-loving and strong husbands, fathers and sons. These men are my family and also my friends.

Intervention Pay Back

I love my wife   she right skin for me   pretty one my wife   young one   found her in
the next community over   across the hills   little bit long way   not far

And from there she give me good kids   funny kids mine   we always laughing all
together  and that wife she real good mother   make our wali real nice   flowers and
grass patch and chickens  I like staying home with my kids

And from there I build cubby house   yard for the horse   see I make them things from
the left overs   from the dump   all the left overs from fixing the houses  and all the
left overs I make cubby house and chicken house

And in the house we teach the kids  don’t make mess   go to school   learn good so you
can work round here later   good job   good life   and the government will leave you alone

And from there tjamu and nana bin tell us the story   when the government was worse
rations   government make up all the rules   but don’t know culture   cant sit in the sand
oh tjamu and nana they got the best story   we always laughing us mob

And from there night time when we all aslepp   all together on the grass patch   dog and
cat and kids  my wife and me   them kids they ask really good questions about them olden
days   about today   them real ninti them kids   they gunna be right

And from there come intervention   John Howard he make up new rules   he never even
come to see us   how good we was doing already   Mal Brough he come with the army
we got real frightened true   thought he was gunna take the kids away   just like tjamu
and nana bin tell us

I run my kids in the sand hills   took my rifle up there and sat   but they was all just lying
changing their words all the time   wanting meeting today and meeting tomorrow   we
was getting sick of looking at them   so everyone put their eyes down   and some even shut
their ears

And from there I didn’t care too much   just kept working fixing the housing   being
happy working hard   kids go to school   wife working hard too   didn’t care too much
we was right we always laughing us mob all together

But then my wife she come home crying   says her money in quarantine but I didn’t know
why they do that   we was happy not drinking and fighting   why they do that we ask
the council to stop the drinking and protect the children   hey you know me ya bloody
mongrel I don’t drink and I look after my kids   I bloody well fight ya you say that
again   hey settle down we not saying that   Mal Brough he saying that don’t you watch
the television   he making the rules for all the mobs   every place Northern Territory
he real cheeky whitefella but he’s the boss   we gotta do it

And from there I tell my wife she gets paid half   half in hand half in the store   her
money in the store now   half and half   me too   all us building mob   but I cant buy
tobacco or work boots   you only get the meat and bread just like the mission days
just like tjamu and nana bin tell us

And from there I went to the store to get meat for our supper   but the store run out
only tin food left   so I asked for some bullets   I’ll go shoot my own meat   but sorry
they said you gotta buy food   that night I slept by hungry   and I slept by myself
thinking about it

And from there the government told us our job was finish   the government bin give us the
sack we couldn’t believe it   we bin working CDEP for years   slow way park the truck at
the shed   just waiting for something   for someone with tobacco

The other mens reckon fuck this   drive to town for the grog   but I stayed with my kids
started watching the television   trying to laugh   not to worry   just to be like yesterday

And from there the politician man says I’ll give you real job   tells me to work again
but different only half time   sixteen hours  but I couldn’t understand   it was the same
job as before   but more little   less pay   and my kids can’t understand when they come
home from school why I can’t buy the lolly for them like I used to before   I don’t want to
tell them   I get less money for us now

And from there they say my wife gets too much money   I gunna miss out again   I’m getting
sick of it   don’t worry she says I’ll look after you   but I know that’s not right way
I’m getting shame   my brother he gets shame too   he goes to town for drinking   leaves his
wife behind   leaves his kids

And from there I drive round to see tjamu   he says his money in the store too   poor bloke
he can’t even walk that far   and I don’t smile   I look at the old man   he lost his smile
too   but nana she cooking the damper and the roo tail   she trying to smile   she always
like that

And from there when I get home   my wife gone to town with the sister in law   she gone look
for my brother   he might be stupid on the grog   he not used to it   she gotta find him
might find him with another woman   make him bleed drag him home

And from there my wife come back   she real quiet true   tells me she went to casino   them
other kungkas took her   taught her the machines   she lost all her money   she lost her

And from there all the kids bin watching us   quiet way not laughing round   so we all go
swimming down the creek   all the families there together   we happy again   them boys we
take them shooting chasing the malu in the car   we real careful with the gun not gunna
hurt my kids   no way

And from there my wife   she sorry   she back working hard   save the money   kids gunna get
new clothes   I gunna get my tobacco and them bullets   but she gone change again getting her
pay forgetting her family   forget yesterday   only thinking for town with the sister in law

And my wife she got real smart now   drive for miles all dressed up   going to the casino with
them other kungkas   for the Wednesday night draw

I ready told you I love my kids   I only got five   two pass away already   and I not
complaining bout looking after my kids no way   but when my wife gets home   if she spent all
her money   not gunna share with me and the kids   I might hit her first time
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