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The Northern Territory In(ter)vasion

By John Tomlinson - posted Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The Federal Howard Liberal Coalition Government, with Mal Brough as Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, launched the Northern Territory Intervention in Aboriginal communities on June 21, 2007. They claimed to be acting to save the children from alcohol-fueled violence and pedophilia and to be protecting women from violence and being humbugged for money.

The then Federal Government pointed to the failure of the NT Government to respond to The Little Children are Sacred Report as the justification for the intervention. Notably the government needed to suspend the Racial Discrimination Act in order to control welfare payments to Aborigines without affecting white welfare recipients. The army, police, welfare officers and medical staff were rushed in to communities.

It resulted in a tragic farce with Brough threatening to have doctors conduct forced physical examinations of children to see if they had been sexually assaulted. On some communities there were doctors and nurses employed by the intervention examining children who had already seen doctors at the local Indigenous medical clinic just down the street. While other communities, which had no health clinics, were being told they’d have to wait.


Some critics of the intervention saw it as the last throw of the dice of a dying government in the run-up to the 2007 Federal election (Tomlinson, J. (2007) “We are having a ‘save the Aboriginal children’ blitzkrieg”, On Line Opinion). Of the early critical interpretations, the most prescient was Coercive reconciliation, a collection of essays edited by Jon Altman and Melinda Hinkson: their far-sighted predictions warned of the disruption, dislocation and disappointment to which many Aboriginal communities would be subjected (Tomlinson, J. (2008) February 20 “220 Years of saving the children”, On Line Opinion).

Throughout most of the last 200 years of Australian frontier history (once the invasion of Aboriginal land has resulted in near total dispossession of the original owners) five main sub-themes have been played out:

  • stealing women for sexual and/housekeeping services;
  • forcing men into unpaid or poorly remunerated labour;
  • segregating surplus labour on reserves in order to prevent them becoming an obstacle to white “pioneers” accumulating wealth and land;
  • “dispersing” troublemakers by armed police; and finally
  • saving Aboriginal children from the “savagery” of their community.

From the first decade of the 20th century many of the police and mission “protectors” of Aborigines adopted, what Arthur Daly would describe as “a nice little earner”. They began pocketing much of the money paid by employers into the bank accounts of Aboriginal people which the “protectors” held in trust.

The first three sub-themes have fallen from favour in recent times. The fourth is now left largely to police tactical response units responding to riots that occur in the wake of isolated police killings at places like Redfern and Palm Island. This leaves governments having to fall back on the idea of saving Aboriginal children from the “savagery” of their community.

The Labor Opposition in the run-up to the 2007 election was determined not to frighten the horses. Rudd set out to prove he was a born-again fiscal conservative, a steady hand on the tiller, who would ensure that the unions would not get in the way of capitalist accumulation. Aspirational voters were assured they could sleep soundly in their middle class bedrooms. Rudd even promised to maintain the intervention for at least a year.


It was generally assumed by progressive voters that after a year the moral panic stirred up by Howard and Brough would evaporate and Labor would be able to get on with implementing decent child welfare, housing, employment, community development and self-determination policies in Indigenous communities. It was further assumed that the Rudd Labor Government would be less jackbooted in its implementation of the intervention. How wrong we were.

Rudd is a much cleverer political operator in the area of Indigenous affairs than his predecessor. Unlike Howard, he is not rusted on to long lost symbolic views of colonial Australia. On February 13, 2008, he made a national apology to the “stolen generations” in the Federal Parliament. It was an apology which entailed no promise of compensation thereby avoiding angering the rump of white racists who remain in the Labor Party. He followed this, on April 3, 2009, by endorsing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples yet has done little to honour such commitments.

He runs the danger that he will come to be seen as paying lip service to the symbolic issues but only coming-up with empty gestures.

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About the Author

Dr John Tomlison is a visiting scholar at QUT.

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