The crisis in Aboriginal society is a public spectacle, played out in a vast
reality show through the media, parliaments, civil service and Aboriginal world.
This obscene and pornographic spectacle deploys a special mode of dehumanising
abuse and parody, and ultimately shifts our attention away from the everyday
crises that Aboriginal people endure, or don't endure, dying as they do at
This spectacle is not a new phenomenon in Australian public life but the
debate about indigenous affairs has reached a new crescendo, fuelled by the
uncensored exposť of the extent of Aboriginal child abuse.
More than a century of policy experimentation with Aboriginal people climaxed
with the Commonwealth Government sending the army and a specialist taskforce
into the Northern Territory, the only jurisdiction where it has such broad
It legislated more than 500 pages of emergency intervention measures that
subvert self-government powers of the Northern Territory in the most
extraordinary federal takeover in Australia's history. In some critical
respects, the outcome is what many have recommended for decades: interventions
to prevent the abuse, rape and assault of Aboriginal women and children and
decisive action against the perpetrators.
The federal legislation and the emergency taskforce constituted a slap in the
face for the Northern Territory Government led by the then chief minister, Clare
Martin - a bracing vote of no confidence in her government's capacity to deal
with the Aboriginal crisis.
Even though the Commonwealth provides funds to the Northern Territory
Government on the basis of the disadvantages of the population, it was the
Commonwealth, rather than the Territory Government, that became the villain of
the piece in the public debate about the intervention.
Last Sunday Labor's Trish Crossin and Warren Snowdon reportedly demanded that
the intervention be halted, with a list of demands: the reinstatement of the
Aboriginal work-for-the-dole scheme; the removal of measures to limit alcohol
sales; and the reinstatement of permit restrictions for Aboriginal communities
that had been not just isolated from the outside world but effectively
quarantined from the larger society and economy. It remains to be seen whether
the Prime Minister-elect, Kevin Rudd, will honour his commitment to the
Now Martin and her deputy, Sid Stirling, have resigned.
There has also been a spill in the chairman's position at the powerful
Northern Land Council. Wali Wunungmurra, one of Galarrwuy Yunupingu's cousins,
was elected to the position. Just before the federal election, Yunupingu
supported the principal intention of the intervention in a public lecture at the
University of Melbourne.
The political earth is moving after so much pretentious, vain, and ultimately
anti-humanist dancing with symbols while the practical responses to the crisis
There's a cynical view afoot that the emergency intervention was a political
ploy - a Trojan Horse - to sneak through land grabs and some gratuitous black
head-kicking disguised as concern for children. These conspiracy theories
abound, and they are mostly ridiculous.
Those who did not see the intervention in the Northern Territory coming were
deluding themselves. It was the inevitable outcome of the many failures of
policy and of the strange federal-state division of responsibilities for
Aboriginal Australians. Added to this were the general incompetence of the civil
service and the non-governmental sector, including some Aboriginal
organisations, lack of political will and the dead hand of the Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander Commission.
The combined effect of the media campaign for action and the emergency
intervention has been a metaphorical dagger sunk into the heart of the powerful,
wrong-headed Aboriginal male ideology that had prevailed in indigenous affairs,
policies and practices.
It's time for the voices of women and children to be heard. It's time for
both the federal and the Territory government to stop playing politics with the
lives of the vulnerable and shut down the alcohol take-away outlets, establish
children's commissions and shelters in each community - as Noel Pearson has
suggested - and treat grog runners and drug dealers as the criminals that they
are. Otherwise, they will all have the blood of the victims on their hands.
Professor Marcia Langton is the Inaugural Chairwoman of Australian
Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne.