Ten years on from the Northern Territory Intervention

Former Prime Minister John Howard.
Former Prime Minister John Howard.

This week our community has come together for NAIDOC Week to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

While it is great to celebrate the wins, it is also a time to reflect on the policy which flopped. 

Ten years ago the Howard government launched the Intervention in the NT. 

Indigenous Affairs minister at the time Mal Brough claimed there were paedophile rings in Aboriginal communities.

These claims were confirmed by a ‘youth worker’ who lived in Mutitjulu, and told the ABC that men in the community were trading petrol for sex with young girls.

It was later revealed the ‘youth worker’ was not a youth worker and had never lived in the community; they worked for Brough.

It was this interview which spurred the Intervention and gave The Australian Crime Commission extraordinary powers to investigate the alleged paedophile rings.

Prime Minister Howard suspended the Racial Discrimination Act so his government could seize control of Aboriginal lands.

The government invaded the communities of those who had barely 20 or 30 years earlier won back their land.

After 18 months and $587 million the ACC said there was “not organised paedophilia in Indigenous communities”.

So what did the half a billion dollar policy achieve? Child protection notifications, assessment of children in need of protection and out-of-home placements have all more than doubled since 2007.

The intervention was meant to be about child abuse but quickly became about mainstreaming or normalizing remote living Indigenous Australians.

Howard told residents of Hermannsburg that ‘whilst respecting the special place of Indigenous people in the history and life of this country, their future can only be as part of the mainstream of the Australian community”.

Our country has a long history of paternalistic policies which do more harm than good in Aboriginal communities and treats the First Nations people like children who need protection. 

Ultimately we face deeply-rooted, difficult, and arguably intractable Indigenous development problems, in the NT and beyond. 

While we celebrate NAIDOC Week let us remember that we have a long way to go to reconcile our past.