Many Croakey readers may be interested in a new book, The Intervention – An Anthology, which is due to be launched in Sydney this week (July 1) by Professor Gillian Triggs, president of the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Edited by Rosie Scott and Dr Anita Heiss, the book includes fiction, memoir, essays, poetry and communiqués from 20 writers exploring the impacts and meanings of the Northern Territory Emergency Response and the Stronger Futures legislation.
In reviewing the book below, Dr Mark Lock, a Research Fellow in the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Newcastle, explores the writings through the lens of his research interest in governance, and says the voices in this book “will reverberate in your sleep and sing into your dreams the disturbing facts” of these policies.
One of his take-home messages from the book is that “both political parties want to close the gaps in Indigenous disadvantage whilst undertaking practices destabilising the social fabric of Aboriginal nations”.
Mark Lock writes:
I am moved by the image on the front cover as it shows an Aboriginal flag painted over an Intervention Sign (which can be seen on the back cover) and in the middle of the flag, the yellow sun symbol has a rend in the metal.
I thought, what does the cover signify for the contents of the book? The value of an anthology is that different readers have different questions, which could be answered through the thirty-four sections.
The styles range from poetry to speeches to statements to personal reflections to political narrative.
My analysis comes from a governance angle – ‘Governance refers to the way the members of a group or community organise themselves to make decisions that affect themselves and others (from Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage 2014 Report, p.26).
In particular, I am interested to understand how current circumstances are related to the past and although that may seem like a Homer Simpson “d’oh!” statement, what I really mean to understand is how routine everyday practices encode for social inequality.
For example, the Australian Constitution 1901 was written with racially exclusive provisions which affected the daily lives of generations of Aboriginal people, as indicated in the section by Alexis Wright (p.232) where a boy hears of the pain of his parents and grandparents who suffered under past ‘new’ government policies and where he realised that if there was not enough money for his grandparents (due to welfare quarantining) that he would rob someone.
The government policy meant to normalise his behaviour had instead a perverse effect. His grandparents suffered under policies made during a time when it was routine practice to exclude the voices of Aboriginal people in decisions making processes whose outcomes would affect their lives.
Therefore, it seems reasonable to alter the Australian Constitution 1901, or, as Rodney Hall (p.197) would have it, to re-write the whole Constitution in the image of a national identity that includes acknowledgement of past injustices to Indigenous peoples, to build a better self-image, to acknowledge the legacy of dispossession, discrimination, and include knowledge from Aboriginal cultures so that policies are empowering by being built on the foundations of Aboriginal cultures.
Through the process of re-writing, the Australian Constitution would be encoded with the intent of culturally-based values of Indigenous peoples. As Bruce Pascoe (p.144) writes to the enviable values of ‘The determination to tolerate others, to generate harvests from the land without destroying the soil, the vision to include all in the bounty of both the food and the spirit is a rare commodity in world history’ (p.152).
How great would that be! It promotes a positive vision where Anita Heiss could be hopeful for the future, instead of ‘my head was spinning, my heart a mix of confusion – celebrating the past, concerned for the present and barely hopeful for the future’ (p.11).
In disturbing contrast in this anthology are many voices echoing off the cliffs and crags of the legislation that beetles over Aboriginal peoples’ heads (after Man from Snowy River).
Listen to the echoes of these voices: Rosalie Kunoth-Monks states that ‘The Intervention to us was like Australia declaring war on us’ (p.24) and Pat Anderson notes that ‘it was clear that we were to blame, we were now going to be given a good shake, told to sit down, and that they would sort it out’ (p.36) or from John Leemans’ about Stronger Futures (p.160) to ‘keep fighting to get rid of the Stronger Futures laws and to win self-determination for our people’ (p.161) or from Djiniyini Gondarra et al. on Stronger Futures ‘we will not tolerate this bullying and it is no way to treat human beings’ (p.246).
I think the front and back cover of the book signal the binary of imposing legislation on the one side and resistance on the other side.
A process of re-writing the Australian Constitution has to consciously draw-on the stories of our history that organisations such as the Koori Heritage Trust have in culturally safe keeping, and proactively building those stories into a positive national identity.
How can the personal and individual process undertaken by Arnold Zable (p.214) be brought into a National journey, institutionalised into our identity through mass pilgrimages to significant sites?
For Zable’s story of ‘been enough intervening, not enough listening’ is one of taking the time for existential mapping of geography, of spirituality, of seeing humanity through listening to personal stories, of journeys of the heart and of the deep history of resilience of Aboriginal people.
What I take from Zable’s work is that in many ways Australian politicians are not able to navigate the map to ‘here is where we meet’. Navigate is an apt word considering the root of the word governance refers to steering a ship. And what Zable notes is that NTER is ‘the first intervention of the new millennium’ but that it continued a cultural pattern that ‘in its essence it was designed without consultation’ (p.224).
The lack of consultation is a strong theme in The Intervention-An Anthology.
The Yolngu Nations Assembly and the Alywaar Nation stated that ‘There must be respect and genuine partnership, not the top—down approach which undermines and devalues us as people’ (p.194).
However, the practice of de-valuing Indigenous people is a cultural norm in Australia, as Bruce Pascoe asks ‘Why were we asked to colour in shields, spears and boomerangs and never flour mills and harvesting knives?’ (p.147). He refers to how such routine and ordinary practices such as children’s colouring activities reflect deeply embedded social values in education curricula, promoting the ideology that Aboriginal innovation is inferior to the enlightened European.
And we see that ideology in the people who secretly crafted the legislation as Pat Anderson noted that ‘I don’t’ think we’ll ever fully understand the process by which the Federal Government decided on the Intervention: the key decisions were taken behind closed doors’ (p.37).
It will be revealing to read the confidential cabinet documents in years to come.
In that future, when Australian citizens are allowed access to confidential cabinet documents, when John Howard, Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard are living comfortably in rich environments on the coast of this beautiful nation, will they read to their grandchildren the story by Ali Cobby Eckermann (p. 154), of the effects of their decisions on his family life that drive him to consider violence for the first time in his life?
Or will they read to their grandchildren of the feelings of Rosalie Kunoth-Monks (p.14) that the Intervention is ‘absolutely evil’ and she felt that their governments had ‘put a bullet between our eyes’? Or will they teach their grandchildren to apply Samuel Wagan Watson’s ‘Intervention Rouge (p.191)’, the sweet and sour of enlivenment and bad taste?
Deni Langman, a traditional owner of Uluru pleads to current politicians ‘will you tell your grandchildren what you did to the First Nations people this day and how you destroyed the lives of so many First Nations people and caused their death prematurely? (p. 213).
These are strong statements from hurt hearts and sad voices.
Perhaps in the future we will have a wide range of Aboriginal people as law-makers, involved in the debates and discussions of cabinet, injecting their cultural values into the process.
The laws would have some sense to them rather than what is expressed in Natalie Harkin’s Intervention: A poem (p. 75), where current laws produce a mash-up of emotions, activities, laws, practices and feelings that end in a call to arms to secure the souls of our children.
Or perhaps laws would embrace different philosophies of being, rather than exterminating them as Lionel Fogarty wrote in Philosophies Exterminated (p.112). This cryptic poem actually mirrors the confounding language of legislation, where special degrees and years of training are required to write and interpret their high form. I read it backwards as it made the same meaning!
Abuse of human rights
Encoded in all pieces of legislation should be the provisions to protect basic human rights. Rosie Scott introduces this volume of essays, fiction, poetry and memoir by various writers in order to give a new perspective, power and clarity to ‘The Intervention’. Part of the aim is to ‘make Australian readers think about the plight of other largely voiceless Australians’ (p.3).
The introduction is bare bones, no holding back opinion that ‘the abuse of human rights by the Northern Territory Intervention has no place in this country’. Rosalie Kunoth Monks states that ‘we need to live on our own terms and with strength in our own customary practices’ (p. 23); Rachel Willika (p.42), a person living in a remote community writes of the feelings of fright at the news of the Intervention, wants the rights to ‘live and work on our own land.’
And Djiniyini Gondarra (p.114), spokesperson for the Yolngu Nations Assembly provides a declaration of their independence and traditional rule of law as being the equal of any other system of law. However, framed by the Australian Constitution 1901, all legislation traces back to those historical roots because even the Racial Discrimination Act can be ‘suspended’ within the remit of the old Framework. This should be a concern for Australian citizens.
Instead, as noted by many writers in The Intervention – An Anthology, mainstream media attention is largely unconcerned with human rights violations going on in Australia.
For Melissa Lucashenko (What I Heard about the Intervention, p.106), from the point of view of someone not immersed in the Intervention politics, she hears only ‘snippets’ about the Intervention and Aboriginal people which means that there isn’t a coordinated media strategy around communicating the value of Aboriginal culture, compared with say, the long-term multiple-media build-up of the Gallipoli legend.
Instead, we have contrast of the laments of Anita Heiss, Bruce Pascoe, and Brenda L. Croft (Signs of the Times, p.162) regarding the national insignificance of the Gurindji Freedom Day.
Instead, on the hallowed ground of Daguragu there are the intervention signs (Warning Prescribed Area. No Liquor. No Pornography) signalling that there ‘are no longer any safe havens for the custodians, cultural managers and educators of Indigenous knowledges’ (p.169).
It feels like the only way to guarantee that safe haven is to build Debra Adelaide’s ‘Welcome to Country’ (p.79). Here, a part of Australia is constructed akin to a massive immigration detention centre – high razor wire fences, minimal support from the Australian State, forbidden communications with people in Country – nevertheless it is a sovereign nation called ‘Country’ where Aboriginal people have the right to self-government.
Rather, the media seems more concerned about leadership battles of politicians. Eva Cox (p.195) writes that in the seven years since passing of the NTER legislation has seen three separate federal governments, two different political parties, four Prime Ministers and four Ministers of Indigenous issues (p.195).
This is a good illustration of what it means when I think of the ‘Australian State’ – that the practices of series of politicians of different political parties over a prolonged period of time amount to a State identity which is still rooted to the old notions of a ‘fair’ Australia.
For example, Eva Cox writes ‘The Commonwealth damaged potential good outcomes from the start by ignoring the above recommendation for a well-planned collaborative strategy which built on local strengths and cultural values’ (p.197).
The State took that approach of what Nicole Watson (p.88) points to as a binary of ‘invisibility and control’ where, for Aboriginal women it was ‘rendering their rights invisible while subjecting them to excessive regulation’ (p.89).
The strength of the State identity is evidenced in Larissa Behrendt’s work (The Dialogue of the Intervention, p.64) where the Labor and Liberal party bipartisanship ‘hasn’t been helpful because it stopped the usual scrutiny that government legislation, policies and expenditure are subject to’ (p.72).
And yet both political parties want to close the gaps in Indigenous disadvantage whilst undertaking practices destabilising the social fabric of Aboriginal nations.
This reminds me of The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck, 1939) where the constant oppression of the working man by mega-farming companies and enabling government laws, resulted in seething resentment and anger on the part of the ordinary citizen. That is an over-whelming feeling that I get from The Intervention – An Anthology.
Read about the amazing legacy of work by Jeff McMullen (Rolling Thunder: Voices Against Oppression, p.115) where he noted the long-term underlying neo-liberal agenda at play, in the removal of Indigenous peoples’ rights to land in order for further mineral exploitation for the benefit of corporate profits. In his discussions he ‘heard a rolling thunder saying NO to the land grab’ (p.115).
McMullen also raised the counter-point occurring in mainstream Australia where the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse did not result in ‘NT-style Interventions into the church and state institutions’. Do any Churches have Intervention Signs (No Child Pornography)? And are Catholic School students subject to mass ‘health checks’ in military style operations?
These contrasts in social engineering point to critical fault lines in the Australian State’s identity.
In my lifetime I would like to see the institutionalisation of practices that, over time and tide, result in an answer for Eva Cox ‘How we can create more civil societies where Indigenous policy and agendas are driven by principles and rights, not prejudice? (p.211).
That Eva’s question is asked in 2015 points to Jeff McMullen’s statement that ‘it demonstrates the hollowness of the Australian Constitution, its historic stain of racism and exclusion of any genuine protection of human rights’ (p.122).
There is a clear principle that should be part of any governance document (such as a constitution) and that is of genuine consultation. So many poignant voices in The Intervention – An Anthology, support such a principle, founded on the Little Children are Sacred reports’ first recommendation that ‘It is critical that both governments commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities’ (p.197).
These include, the Yolgnu Statement (p.188) ‘If we are citizens together in this country, lifting up the one flag, each calling Australia our home, then we must work with respect. Respect for ourselves, our land, our law and our language’ (p.190); Djiniyini Gondarra’s (p.77) list of negotiation points for the Australian State to enter into ‘respectful dialogue and working together’ with the Aboriginal nations of the Northern Territory; and Yalmay Yunupingu (Human rights and social justice award, p.228) calling for ‘for genuine partnerships between governments and communities to be established, the correct process must be followed including authentic and transparent dialogue’ (p.231)
As you can see from my analysis above, The Intervention – An Anthology provides a tapestry of voices that will resonate with readers’ different points of view.
My view is that of governance, and so various comments and quotes stood out from the writing in that regard. I touched on how legislation and laws ramify into our daily lives; of how physical ‘signs’ demonstrate underlying social values; of how selective views of history project a troubled State identity; and of how fundamental problems evident now in the construction of our Federation should be a concern to all Australians.
I wanted to convey my idea that governance is much more than politicians and the media, that it is how routine activities can reflect deeply embedded norms, encoded time and again in legislation whose very formulation excludes fundamental cultural precepts; of how listening to people involves a pilgrimage to different existential maps not possible within three year political cycles, and that the understanding gained from such journeys help us to see through the superficial media focus on big politics and big egos.
The voices in The Intervention-An Anthology will shout out from any bookshelf upon which it is placed, they will reverberate in your sleep and sing into your dreams the disturbing facts of the Northern Territory Emergency Response and the Stronger Futures legislation so that you awaken to a new dawn where the sun’s rays do not hold the same lucky promise for every Australian, by design.
• Follow on Twitter at @MarkJLock)
• See a brief review in the Sydney Morning Herald.