Australian government asked to leave aboriginal community

Just over five years ago, on 21 June 2007, Australia’s then prime min­ister John Howard an­nounced that rates of child sex abuse in the country’s Northern Territory ab­ori­ginal com­munities were so high that they con­sti­tuted a na­tional emer­gency. Drawing on the fed­eral government’s con­sti­tu­tional power to over­ride Territory le­gis­la­tion, and sus­pending Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act 1975, Howard led the fed­eral gov­ern­ment in rushing through the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007. Pushed through par­lia­ment in less than four weeks, there was an al­most total lack of con­sulta­tion with the ab­ori­ginal com­munities that were to be affected.

The Act and its as­so­ci­ated amending le­gis­la­tion, which quickly be­came known as ‘the in­ter­ven­tion’, in­tro­duced a range of ra­cist and highly pa­ter­nal­istic meas­ures to ‘pre­scribed areas’ of the Northern Territory, all of which were ab­ori­ginal com­munities. Those meas­ures in­cluded a total ban on the pos­ses­sion and con­sump­tion of al­cohol,[1] com­pulsory in­come man­age­ment for all wel­fare re­cip­i­ents (ra­tion cards),[2] com­pulsory in­stall­a­tion of anti-​pornography fil­ters on all public com­puters as well as ob­lig­atory record-​keeping of all com­puter users,[3] the cut­ting back of the permit system for entry onto ab­ori­ginal land,[4] the fed­eral gov­ern­ment takeover of local ser­vices and com­munity stores as well as a min­is­terial power to sus­pend all elected coun­cil­lors,[5] the ban on Northern Territory courts from taking cus­tomary law into ac­count when dealing with bail ap­plic­a­tions and sen­ten­cing,[6] and com­pulsory rent-​free five year leases of ab­ori­ginal land to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.[7] As an emer­gency piece of le­gis­la­tion the Act had a sunset clause of five years.

The in­ter­ven­tion was heavily cri­ti­cised by a wide range of NGOs, act­ivist groups, and by UN Special Rapporteour on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People James Anaya.[8] Despite the in­creased po­lice powers of sur­veil­lance and ar­rest, the gov­ern­ment failed to un­cover any evid­ence that rates of child sex abuse in the Northern Territory were in fact very dif­ferent from rates of child sex abuse in other Australian jur­is­dic­tions.[9] Yet even with the government’s own stat­istics showing that there was no ‘na­tional emer­gency’ con­cerning child sex abuse in the pre­scribed com­munities, the emer­gency Act re­mained in force until it reached its five-​year sunset clause last month. The Act has es­sen­tially been re­placed by the ten-​year Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Act 2012, which came into force on 16 July (the day the 2007 Act ceased) and en­sures the con­tinu­ation of most of the meas­ures begun under the 2007 Act.

The com­pulsory leases of ab­ori­ginal land to the gov­ern­ment met with sig­ni­ficant ab­ori­ginal cri­tique and res­ist­ance, and were the only in­ter­ven­tion pro­vi­sions to be chal­lenged in Australia’s High and Federal Courts (in Shaw v Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs [2009] FCA 1397 and Reggie Wurridjal, Joy Garlbin and the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation v The Commonwealth of Australia and The Arnhem Land Aboriginal Trust [2009] HCA 2). The gov­ern­ment took out 64 com­pulsory five-​year leases around the Territory in 2007. Its reasons for wanting the leases were al­ways am­biguous, gen­er­ally coming back to a need for ‘se­curity of tenure’ while the gov­ern­ment brought phys­ical im­prove­ments and provided ser­vices to these areas.

Whether the gov­ern­ment really needed such se­curity in order to provide es­sen­tial ser­vices is du­bious con­sid­ering that the gov­ern­ment does not de­mand leases of non-​aboriginal res­id­en­tial areas in order to provide them with run­ning water, health clinics and other ser­vices, but at any rate – as the video below shows – stand­ards of living, housing con­di­tions and so­cial ser­vices have not sig­ni­fic­antly im­proved in the Territory’s pre­scribed areas over the past five years, and has in some places be­come worse. Most of the government’s com­pulsory five-​year leases ex­pired on August 17, and al­though 34 of the 64 af­fected com­munities have already ‘vol­un­tarily’ agreed to grant the gov­ern­ment new 40-​year leases, the com­munity of Amoonguna is re­fusing to sign any fur­ther leases, and has written to the gov­ern­ment asking it to re­move all its workers by the end of this month or face charges of tres­pass. The gov­ern­ment is yet to respond.


[1] Northern Territory Emergency Response Act 2007 (Cth), s12.

[2] As above, s126.

[3] As above, Part 3.

[4] Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Northern Territory Emergency Response and Other Measures) Act 2007 (Cth), Schedule 4.

[5] Northern Territory Emergency Response Act 2007 (Cth), Part 5, Division 4; Part 7.

[6] As above, ss90, 91.

[7] As above, Part 4, Division 1.

[8] James Anaya, ‘Observations on the Northern Territory Emergency Response in Australia’ United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situ­ation of human rights and fun­da­mental freedoms of in­di­genous people (2010).

[9] Barbara A. West and Frances T. Murphy, A Brief History of Australia (Infobase Publishing, New York 2010) 232; Housing Australian Government Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, ‘Closing the Gap: Monitoring Report July — December 2010′ Australian Government Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (2010). Section 6.7.

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