NT intervention continues racist land-grab

By Hamish Chitts

The first anniversary of the federal government’s racist “emergency” intervention into 73 remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory was marked by protests in Australia’s major cities by Aboriginal people and their supporters. The protests called attention to the real intent of the intervention, which is to continue stealing Aboriginal land.

Governments have practised and fostered racism against Aboriginal people since the beginning of European settlement. When Pemulwuy led the first organised Aboriginal armed resistance against the invaders of Sydney Cove, from December 9, 1790, until his murder in 1802, senior officers of the New South Wales Corps persuaded Governor Arthur Phillip not to report this resistance for what it was. The governor’s reports to London played down or omitted battles against Pemulwuy’s warriors and characterised the resistance as minor criminal incidents by troublesome natives influenced by escaped convicts.

British military officers saw the potential for becoming rich and powerful landholders, and did not want this jeopardised by any treaty that the British government might seek to make with Aboriginal tribes if they knew there was strong resistance to the colony. As these officers and other fortune seekers established their power and became part of the tiny ruling class of Australia, they set the stage for the distortions of history and racist characterisations of Aboriginal people that persist to this very day. Only through racism can the capitalist ruling class continue to take what it wants from Aboriginal land.

Brough’s forerunners

In June last year, the then-minister for Indigenous affairs, Mal Brough, justified the “emergency” intervention like this: “What I’ve actually done is legislated to say to people, if you want to unlock the value in your land, if you want to again have the chance to be able to aspire to something — home ownership, jobs, cultural awareness, bringing up a child in a healthy environment — then you can do so.”

Brough’s feigned concern for Aboriginal people and their culture is similar (though updated for a 21st century audience) to that expressed by John Bleakley, Queensland’s chief protector and director of native affairs from 1914 to 1942, who in 1919 said of Aborigines, “It is only by complete separation of the two races that we can save him from hopeless contamination and eventual extinction, as well as safeguard the purity of our own blood”. This was Bleakley’s justification for removing Aborigines from their land and confining them to reserves and to church-run missions. While Bleakley was a fervent advocate of racial segregation and Brough advocates racial integration, both policies involve the taking of land from Aboriginal people under the guise of their “best interests”.

Despite claims by Brough and the ALP, which supported the NT intervention, that it is a necessary emergency response to child abuse in remote Aboriginal communities, the measures that have been implemented are more about acquiring land than the safety of children. These included:

• Deployment of additional police to Aboriginal communities, leading to greater repression and incarceration for minor offences.

• Bans on alcohol, which, rather than treating alcoholism or its causes, force those who are dependent on alcohol into bigger towns, where they can maintain their addiction.

• Compulsory acquisition of townships, currently held under the federal Native Title Act 1993, through five-year leases, which removes community ownership of the land.

• Removal of customary law and cultural practice considerations from bail applications and sentencing in criminal proceedings.

• Suspension of the permit system that required permission from Aboriginal communities to enter their land.

• Quarantining of a proportion of welfare benefits to all recipients in the designated communities and issuing them with electronic debit cards that can be used only at Coles or Woolworth stores in larger regional centres.

• The abolition of Community Development Employment Projects.

These measures, not surprisingly, have resulted in an exodus from the affected communities, with people moving into larger regional centres like Darwin, Katherine and Alice Springs. This is putting extra pressure on already inadequate housing in these towns. Small community-run stores in the targeted Aboriginal townships no longer receive income because their former customers must travel — hundreds of kilometres in some cases — to a Coles or Woolworths store where they can use their debit cards.

Clearing out remote communities

Now the federal government is considering a report from the heads of the intervention taskforce that recommends assessing which communities are “viable” in the longer term and planning future investment based on those assessments. Asked by reporters on June 21 if this meant moving people from smaller communities to larger centres, Jenny Macklin, the federal Labor minister now responsible for the intervention, replied, “It certainly recommends that this is an issue that needs to be examined”.

Macklin added: “I think it’s critical to look at this from the point of view of making sure that children go to school and that parents can get work. We are concentrating the new homes in the larger communities, they are growing rapidly, there is very significant population growth. There will be upgrades in some of the other communities, but we are concentrating the largest effort in some of the larger communities.”

Under the present laws, this removal of Aboriginal people from their traditional lands could have permanent ramifications. A key part of the process of gaining native title over crown land is proving to a court that those making the claim have maintained a connection with the land. If the intervention continues for 10 years, traditional owners of land may legally lose their native title claim. This would also have a devastating effect on the cultural heritage that Brough and Macklin claim to be protecting. As particular places and the ceremonies and stories connected with them are central to Aboriginal cultures, any disconnection from their land amounts to an erosion of their culture.

Taking the children away

The federal, state and territory governments, which are now all in Labor’s hands, are also establishing government-funded boarding schools for Aboriginal children, but run by private Christian organisations like the new boarding college on Melville Island. In March, Macklin said the federal government was committed to building three extras hostels in the NT as well as the one in the north Queensland town of Weipa.

The Labor governments seek to encourage Aboriginal parents from remote communities to send their children to boarding schools by threatening to quarantine all of the parents’ social security payments, or through the promise of “good education” in comparison to under-funded and neglected local government schools. Macklin asserts that children are better off at boarding school because, as she claimed on April 2, “What’s happened in these communities has been an insidious creeping decline. It’s been generations in the making, producing dysfunctional, despairing communities paralysed by violence, abuse, neglect and despair.”

A similar justification was made the Queensland parliament in 1965 during debate on a bill to allow the forcible removal of Aboriginal children from their parents: “No group of children is more neglected than those who are living with their coloured parents in the fringe-dwelling areas of many of our country towns. I want that unfortunate group of people to be included in the children and youth of the state whose well-being it is proposed to promote, safeguard and protect by the introduction of this bill.”

A better example

As mining companies and pastoralists in Australia look forward to getting more Aboriginal land, something very different is happening in Venezuela. There, the government of President Hugo Chavez, which is leading the effort to build “21st century socialism”, is working with indigenous communities to eliminate the injustices they face.

In 2002 the Chavez government changed the name of Columbus Day to Day of Indigenous Resistance. Can anyone image Australian PM Kevin Rudd even suggesting replacing “Australia Day” (the officially sanctioned annual commemoration on January 26 of the beginning of European colonisation) and making December 9 an officially sanctioned Day of Indigenous Resistance?

The Venezuelan government has set up Mission Guaicaipuro, a government-funded program that seeks to restore communal land titles to indigenous communities and to protect their cultural rights. Named after an indigenous chief, Guaicaipuro (1530-1568), who led native resistance against the Spanish colonisation of Venezuela, the mission is run by the indigenous communities themselves, in partnership with the government.

On February 25 the Chavez government announced that it would confiscate at least 3000 hectares of the British meat-packing tycoon Lord Vestey’s 13,600-hectare Charcote cattle ranch so that indigenous people can move about freely. The Vestey Group had fenced in 200 Yaruro people, who could not leave the property without the company’s permission.

In the 60s and 70s the racist policies of segregation and forced assimilation, including the kidnapping of the Stolen Generations, were presented by governments as in the best interests of Aboriginal people. Far too many non-Aboriginal people took those governments at their word. Today there is no excuse for doing so. Regardless of how the policy is justified, the real intent has been and remains the theft of Aboriginal land for exploitation by the same class of wealthy people who enrich themselves through exploiting the labour of all working people.