On Saturday, May 27, the popular Melbourne cartoonist, Mark Knight, had published in his customary Herald-Sun social commentary animation his view on the plight facing many Aboriginal outback communities.
Surrounded by broken bottles, a dishevelled Aboriginal child stood with arms raised as he acclaims the pending arrival of what appears to be a Royal Australian Air Force Hercules. “We’re saved! Here comes the army to restore law and order,” the child shouts. Alas, the aircraft does not land and continues on into the distance as the child looks on with dismay. As usual, Knight’s message is insightful and scathing. We can send our troops to foreign lands to solve conflicts but our government will not use them to save our own people.
Knight’s cartoon was no lone voice and his sentiments reflected views expressed in Letters to the Editor sections of all major dailies and by radio talkback callers. There have also been some politicians quoted as asking why our armed forces cannot be sent into outback communities to restore law and order. After all, they ask, our troops are highly trained and where’s the sense in sending them overseas when we have our own domestic problems to solve?
There is no doubting that some outback Aboriginal communities have many serious problems that need a solution sooner rather than later. In Wadeye we are told there has been an ongoing gang warfare that has made the town a no-go zone. Contributing to the violence, and something reflected in other communities, are problems of addiction to alcohol and petrol sniffing. Crimes of abuse, sexual and physical, against women and children are commonplace. There is no real presence of the law (police) and those few that are at the coalface are overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the problems they encounter each day.
Rather than identify and address the root of the problems, the call goes out to send in our troops. The common perception is that they will be able to restore law and order and rebuild (or build from scratch) the infrastructure so desperately needed. However, pleas for the army to be conscripted into intervening in the crisis being experienced by some outback Aboriginal communities are not only misguided, they show an alarming misconception of not only why we have a defence force but what it is allowed to do.
It would appear some believe our army has a battalion of police, builders, engineers and labourers ready to go, when summoned, to construct and run villages and towns. That is a ridiculous perception.
Of course the army, indeed the defence forces as a whole, have personnel with a wide range of skills and equipment that gives them the ability to construct temporary camps, bridges and airfields. However, they do not possess the capability to act as a pseudo police force or to rebuild dysfunctional communities.
Solutions for communities that become dysfunctional through substance abuse and violence are the responsibility of state and federal governments and civil police forces. The defence forces have no place intervening in internal politics or social problems. They are trained to deal with armed conflict, not social dysfunction, and sending in heavily armed troops to outback communities would be a complete disaster.
Such a move could easily be interpreted as a return to the early days of colonial rule. The message would be, “You’re not behaving like white people so we’ll send in armed troops to sort you out. Now behave or we’ll use force.”
To involve the armed forces in situations of civil unrest would also set a dangerous precedent. It would open the way for government-initiated military intervention in unsanctioned strikes, protests and demonstrations. All of those are functions of a democratic society and any opening of the door to military intervention in civil matters is not a road a free and democratic country wants to go down.
Some will, correctly, point out the defence forces have often assisted in times of domestic disasters. After the evacuation of Darwin in the wake of Cyclone Tracey the only ones allowed in were the military.
From time over time, in situations of floods and bushfires, our defence personnel have rendered invaluable assistance. Such situations are, however, a galaxy way from being sent to intervene in communities where alcohol problems and other addictions, along with child and wife abuse are rife.
Communities with social problems need carefully considered solutions.
The people desperately require the rest of Australia to care about them.
What outback Aboriginal communities do not need is their own country turning on them by sending in heavily armed troops. And our troops do not need to be used as pawns in national social policy. Australia’s defence force personnel are highly trained and need to be ready to respond to threats here and abroad.
They cannot, and should never, be deployed as an attempt to solve domestic policy disasters.