Intervention review expected to back land grab

By Hamish Chitts

On September 29, the Rudd government announced that it would give a 2-week extension to the review board and panel of experts handpicked to look at the federal government’s intervention into remote Northern Territory Aboriginal communities. A cursory glance at the participants in this review reveals why they were selected and how all of them are likely to make personal gains if the NT’s Aboriginal lands are opened up to capitalist exploitation.

On June 7 the pro-intervention, Murdoch-owned Australian summed up the review’s anticipated outcome: “The intervention in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities will be strengthened after the Rudd Government yesterday unveiled a 14-member group dominated by pro-intervention thinkers to review its successes and failures.” This 14-member group consists of a three member “Review Board” supported by an 11-member “independent expert group”. The three are Peter Yu, the long-time director of the Kimberley Land Council, Marcia Ella-Duncan, the former chairperson of the NSW Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce, and Bill Gray, a former long-serving Indigenous affairs department bureaucrat.

In May 2006 (after an ABC TV Lateline story on abuse of children in remote Central Australian communities), Yu called for the Australian military to intervene, insisting that Canberra had to do “just like we have done in the Solomon Islands, just like we have done in East Timor, just like we are doing in Afghanistan and Iraq”. Despite feigned moral outrage by media and politicians no emergency response occurred in 2006, but Yu’s comments and mining-friendly attitude through the Kimberly Land Council put him in good favour when politicians decided to use the 2007 report on child abuse in remote NT communities to make large areas of Aboriginal land available to big business.

Yu helped whip up hysteria soon after the intervention by telling ABC radio on July 11, 2007, about the government’s offer to send troops into Western Australian Aboriginal communities: “If there was some designated program in relation to building roads or helping building houses or developing the infrastructure, working in relation to training in particular sorts of skills, in governing skills or management administration skills, I’d take the army, take the navy, take the air force as well.”

Gray and Ella-Duncan have both made careers under various governments tinkering at the edges of Aboriginal disadvantage while not upsetting the politicians or the system that keeps this disadvantage in place. Not long after her appointment to the Review Board, Ella-Duncan told the June 16 Australian: “You could probably look back at earlier comments of mine and realise that while I didn’t necessarily support all of the measures introduced into the Northern Territory by the Howard government, I certainly welcomed the strong political leadership, and it’s something we’ve been advocating for in NSW from the state government and the Aboriginal community as well.” She also stated that intervention should take 15 years to be effective.

The 11-member “expert group” is comprised of more bureaucrats and industry experts who also profit from this tinkering at the edges of Aboriginal disadvantage. It includes John Taylor from the ANU Centre For Aboriginal Economic Policy Research. The centre receives funds from the Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaCSIA), and the Australia Research Council, as well as from industry partners including mining giant Rio Tinto. The centre advocates “Privatisation of Central Australian communities” as the solution to Aboriginal poverty, meaning that big business should throw these communities a few crumbs while it exploits their labour and their land for huge profits.

Another member is Neil Westbury, once the highest-ranking NT public servant, who is part of the Remote Focus Group that released a “prospectus” last month arguing that in remote areas there is a looming crisis of an exploding Aboriginal population that shows few signs of migrating to metropolitan cities. It claims this not only has the potential to impact negatively on the profits of mining companies, but that these communities are like Pacific island “failed states” and could pose a threat to national security requiring armed intervention.

As of July 1, the NT government reorganised all local councils in rural and remote areas into eight “super” shire councils. Three members of the “independent expert group” have benefited from the creation of larger councils — Michael Berto is now CEO of Roper Gulf Shire Council, Ronald Lami Lami is chairperson of the West Arnhem Shire Transition Committee and Mavis Malbunka is vice president of the Ntaria Council. All these councils (as any around the country) seek to encourage business investment into their shires.

As the intervention clears the way for more mining, these shire councils will gain revenue not just from the mines but also from rates on miners’ housing and the smaller businesses that spring up around the mines. These heads of these councils therefore have a direct interest in the continuation of the intervention. It’s no wonder that on February 2 Malbunka said: “Income management is a great help for Aboriginal people; in Hermannsburg I hear no complaint about income management.”

David Ross is the director of the Central Land Council and is also member of the advisory group. Ross, like Yu, has the same interest in increased mining and the personal wealth it can bring as the new shire councils do. Ross stated on November 12, 2003, in response to a Minerals Council suggestion that land councils are a barrier to mining company profits: “I contend that the kilograms of gold currently being shipped out of Tennant Creek would not be happening without the involvement of a well-resourced and experienced representative body such as the Central Land Council.”

Group members Donna Ah Chee, deputy director of the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress (health care service), and Vicki Gillick, coordinator of the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council, have gained their places through their conservative views on tackling the social and health problems that are a result of poverty. Speaking about alcohol abuse, Ah Chee told ABC News Online: “We can’t treat it as a symptom; we do have to treat it as a cause and we have to deal with it.” This is despite the volumes of research that show that rates of alcoholism, substance abuse and associated problems in any community around the world increase as its standard of living drops.

Gillick told ABC radio’s November 27 Law Report: “Certainly my personal view is that I don’t believe any parent has the right to blow their brains on drugs, or grog, and neglect their children, and I think that welfare reform aimed at dealing with that should apply across the board.” The views expressed by Ah Chee and Gillick suit the federal government’s portrayal of the intervention as “tough love”, hiding its true intent — the continuation of over 220 years of theft of Aboriginal lands — and the obscuring of the fact that the low standard of living in remote Aboriginal communities is a direct result of deliberate government policy and neglect.

The only group member to have made some public criticism of the intervention is Mark Wenitong, the senior medical officer at Apunipima Cape York Health Council and past president and founding member of the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association. When the intervention began in 2007, Wenitong raised concerns about the lack of consultation with Aborigines and the possible negative effects of intrusive compulsory health checks. However, in an interview with Triple J Radio’s Hack program, Wenitong said he thought the intervention, if done right, was a chance to “fund healthcare, education and infrastructure on an ongoing basis”. Wenitong’s belief that the intervention was actually about government concern for Aboriginal children shows considerable naivete.

The review’s expected endorsement of the intervention should come as no surprise: PM Kevin Rudd and Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin handpicked a group that would give them the review outcome they wanted.