What assumptions did the architects of Australia’s Northern Territory Intervention make about the capabilities of Aboriginal people?
Policy-makers often assume that Aboriginal people lack the capabilities to drive their own economic and social development. This way of thinking about Aboriginal people assumes—rather patronizingly—that Aboriginal people lack the skills, knowledge, experience and motivation to make decisions about their own lives. When this happens, ‘problems’ in Aboriginal Affairs policy are framed as issues for politicians and bureaucrats to solve. Indigenous people and organisations who question policies are then either ignored or seen as part of the problem.
This is the second in my series of posts on the resilience of colonial politics in liberal societies. In my first post I argued that present-day colonial politics depends, in part, on structural conditions which restrict Indigenous people’s opportunities to hold governments to account. But there is also, as I pointed out, an ideological dimension to all of this. I argued that liberals often find themselves caught between a desire to protect the liberty of individuals, and a concern that some people lack the capabilities to use those liberties in a constructive, life-enhancing way.
Below I use a brief case study of Australia’s Northern Territory Intervention to outline the way that this tension in liberal thought plays out. Defining Indigenous people according to a supposed deficiency in basic capabilities can reinforce colonial forms of politics in settler societies.
We are all affected by judgements about our capabilities…but some of us more than others
No one who lives in a modern, liberal democratic society is free to go completely their own way in their pursuit of the “good life”. Our social and political institutions are complex, and we go through life subject to frequent judgements about our preparedness for our multiple social roles as employee, parent, partner, citizen, and so on. There are a whole range of social institutions designed to help us build these capabilities, and only some of these are government agencies.
Sometimes whole groups of people are seen as lacking the capabilities required for full participation in society. Children, for instance, have special protections and obligations based on their lesser experience and their inability to fend for themselves.
However, these special obligations don’t only apply to children. In the first half of the twentieth century, for instance, the legal status of Indigenous people was similar to that of children. An Indigenous person needed to apply for permission for almost every decision that they made. They usually could not start a new job, spend their own money, get married or move to a new town without the explicit permission of government-appointed Protectors.
Laws made today are still based on sweeping judgements about the capabilities of Indigenous people. The intrusiveness of government policy is typically related to perceptions about people’s capability to manage their own lives. In the case of the Northern Territory Intervention a whole suite of measures was considered necessary to transform the capabilities of residents in remote Aboriginal communities.
Some of these measure focused on the behaviour of individuals. Among these were regulation of people’s finances through the Income Management Regime (at least for those in receipt of any form of social security payment), restrictions on place of residence (income management followed people who moved and BasicsCards, used to access regulated income, weren’t accepted everywhere), and restrictions on alcohol and pornography.
Other aspects of the policy focused on reorganising the way that decisions were made in communities. The permit system, which allowed Aboriginal land owners to have a say in decisions about land use in Aboriginal towns and to deny general visitors access to Aboriginal towns, was wound back. The federal government also gained new powers for the delivery of services and the spending decisions of non-government agencies in Aboriginal communities.
This level of policy intrusiveness was, as I have just mentioned, not unprecedented. However, it was certainly more intrusive than the norm for Aboriginal Affairs policy in recent decades. In the context of the NTI, there were two ways of thinking about the problem in remote NT communities. These can be described as two narratives about ‘failure’ in Aboriginal communities. Both of these narratives contributed to the perception that people in those communities were incapable of driving their own social and economic development.
The failure of Aboriginal culture
Negative depictions of Indigenous cultures have been a pervasive feature of Australian cultural life (as they are in all settler societies). We are probably most familiar with historical depictions of Aboriginal people as savage, violent, uncivilised and usually drunk. These days, ideas about the dysfunctional character of Aboriginal culture have mostly replaced earlier arguments about Aboriginal people as a doomed race (that is, as a people who are biologically unsuited to civilised life).
The Intervention was, at least nominally, a response to the Little Children Are Sacred report which outlined the risks of abuse and neglect for Aboriginal children in the NT. Politicians understood Aboriginal culture as contributing to the neglect and abuse of Aboriginal children, and routinely described Aboriginal communities in terms of their dysfunctional character. The second reading speech for the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) bills argued that the purpose of the NTI was to “break the back of the violence and dysfunction in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory”(Parliament of Australia Hansard 7 August 2007,” p22). With rhetoric similar to that which is usually used to justify intervention in failed states, Minister for Indigenous Affairs Mal Brough likened the situation in Aboriginal communities to that of a “failed society” where “normal community standards and parenting behaviour [had] broken down” (Hansard 7 August 2007, pp2&10). Policy-makers therefore linked Aboriginal culture with what they described as extreme levels of social break-down and dysfunction in Aboriginal communities.
Dysfunctional communities pose a considerable problem for policy-makers. Given that cultural identity was seen as part of the problem, policy-makers expected little assistance from Aboriginal people in addressing these problems. The idea that Aboriginal communities had failed was used to justify the interventionist character of the NTI, as well as the exclusion of Aboriginal people from the policy process. Prime Minister Howard, for example, argued that “the level of extreme social breakdown in some communities demands a highly prescriptive approach”(see “Address to the Sydney Institute.”).
The failure of Aboriginal rights and the ‘welfare state’
Critics of the NT Intervention have argued that the Intervention signifies a major transformation in the paradigm—the basic ideas and objectives—of Australian Aboriginal Affairs policy. The earlier paradigm acknowledged the importance of Indigenous self-determination and the recognition of Indigenous people’s rights to incorporate their ancestral laws, culture, land, and resources in their present-day way of life. The new paradigm, in contrast, is based on a narrow conception of development which has less scope for incorporating Indigenous people’s notion of what makes a “good life”.
Those who supported the Intervention obviously disagree with this description, but they too think that a major transformation is taking place (one of their own making!). Current policy sees the former policy approach as damaging Aboriginal individual’s opportunities to get ahead in life. Barry Haase, a liberal party backbencher, shows this kind of concern during the 2007 parliamentary debate. “I accept and respect the fact that Indigenous law is a very demanding process,” he acknowledged, “but it is overdone…If one destroys the future of one’s race in the name of promotion of the culture, isn’t that an enigma? …You might be denying an opportunity for your children, for your future generations’ (Hansard 7 August 2007,” p83).
Picking up on the neoliberal condemnation of big government and the welfare state, recent discussions of Indigenous Affairs policy show a clear concern for the risks of welfare dependency. Parliamentary supporters of the NT Intervention saw Aboriginal land rights, one of the major planks of the self-determination approach to policy, as an obstacle to Aboriginal development. Liberal MP David Tollner, for example argued that land rights were misguided because they were about the “preservation of culture” rather than “good land management, land administration or planning for the future exploitation and productivity of the land”. He linked Aboriginal people’s collective control of land use through the permit system to Aboriginal people’s “welfare dependency status” (Hansard 7 August 2007,” pp96-97). Liberals find dependency problematic because it means that people never develop the skills and capabilities required to be independent, and to live their own lives free from government support.
Thinking about Aboriginal people’s capabilities
The most astonishing feature of recent Aboriginal Affairs policy is that governments have come to think of Aboriginal people, and the recognition of their rights, as an obstacle to Aboriginal wellbeing. The two narratives about the failure of Aboriginal culture and the welfare state suggest that inhabitants of remote NT communities lack the basic capabilities required for everyday budgeting or looking after children properly, and have had no chance to develop the skills and attitudes required for successful job-hunting and employment.
I argued earlier that there is an ongoing tension between liberal intervention—for the sake of building capabilities—and the liberal commitment to liberty. When descriptions of Aboriginal people as a group focuses solely on their deficiencies, then the imperative for governments to intervene in people’s lives becomes the stronger of these two motivations. The incorporation of colonial ideas into liberal government makes it very difficult for governments to see Aboriginal people as capable citizens.