This is the second of four extracts from the speech given on 8 October 2014 at the 2014 H.C. “Nugget” Coombs Memorial Lecture at Charles Darwin University, Darwin. You can read the first here.

The Intervention

I am shortly going to fast-forward to 2007, but before I do, I need to add a little catch-up contextual commentary.

Throughout the 1990’s and for almost 6 years after my election as the member for Arafura in  August 2001, a period when I had constant grass roots contact with remote Territory  communities, there remained in the minds of the Aboriginal people I worked with a  residual sense of ownership of and control over their lives. This persisted  despite the government momentum towards mainstreaming which was ultimately manifested in the scrapping of ATSIC.

Undermining both the maintenance of traditional culture and effective engagement with the wider society and economy were the usual inter-related demons of alcohol abuse and domestic violence.

These were serious issues throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s but by the early 2000’s they appeared to be getting worse. I have little tolerance for alcohol abuse, especially when it impacts on families. I have even less tolerance for domestic violence. These were aspects of the lifestyle autonomy given free rein in Aboriginal communities which bothered me. It seemed that freedom to drink alcohol and freedom to behave violently towards a spouse were arguably illegitimate freedoms which needed to be curtailed for the protection of women and children, and the community generally. I had been outspoken on those subjects long before I entered politics.

My first substantial role in Territory politics was as Chairperson of a parliamentary committee inquiring into alcohol and substance abuse. In committee hearings and in tabled reports I made it clear that, subject to the resourcing of appropriate ancillary rehabilitation and aftercare facilities, I favoured the utilisation of mandatory alcohol treatment provisions in the Northern Territory Liquor Act. These provisions had been in place since the early-1990’s but never implemented.

Moving on from my period as Chairperson of the Substance Abuse committee, I later became a Minister. In that capacity I was able to develop and introduce a piece of legislation called the Volatile Substance Abuse Prevention Act. The Act enabled Police and other authorised persons to interrupt petrol sniffers and place them into a form of protective custody for their safety and rehabilitation. My hope, never realised, had in fact been that the VSAP legislation could be expanded to cover alcohol, cannabis and other problem drugs.

I mention these things to underscore the fact that as at mid-2007 I myself was not necessarily averse to the selective use of coercive measures to achieve a carefully identified protective outcome. The extent to which governments should interfere in people’s lives in order to help them to help themselves is a difficult issue. My own ideas about it were and are still evolving, but have never involved outright rejection of what I might call therapeutic salvage operations.

So my opposition to what came to be formally known as the ‘Emergency Response’ was not a knee-jerk rights- based reaction. The point I wanted to make then, and which I make again now, was that the Intervention approach was not therapeutic. It was not selective or fault-based. Instead, it was race-based and calculated to cause collateral damage.

When the Intervention was announced, Labor had been in government in the Northern Territory for almost 6 years. Intractable problems relating to social dysfunction which had been worsening throughout the 1990’s had remained dire, in spite of our best efforts and considerable increases in funding (for child protection in particular). These problems included alcohol and cannabis abuse, family violence, child neglect, and poor educational outcomes. The situation deteriorates to this day, oblivious to which political party is in power, and oblivious to grandiose political rhetoric like ‘closing the gap’.

I have no doubt been guilty of using such phrases myself in the past, but the reality is that the ‘closing the gap’ mindset, one which characterises Aboriginal people and communities throughout the country as qualitatively and quantitatively the same, is part of the problem not part of the solution. I disagree with Pearson on a number of things, but his recent comment on the banality of the ‘closing the gap’ mantra was a good call.

Truth be told, change (for better or worse) happens slowly, usually imperceptibly, at the local community level. Maintenance and enhancement of social capital is key. One of the most important repositories of social capital in remote communities in the Territory has been the community-controlled organisations which have over many decades undertaken a range of service provision and local enterprise functions. Another has been the individuals involved in passing down cultural knowledge from one generation to the next. Governments contribute (positively or negatively) to change, but there are no levers for them to pull that can quickly engineer pleasant outcomes when a target population is subject to fundamental historical and ongoing existential challenge.

That was the situation facing the Northern Territory government in relation to the NT Aboriginal population back in 2007, and it continues to be the situation facing the current NT Government.

There are two things which can be said for sure. Firstly, without the efforts of NT government front line employees (whatever the failings over the years of some child protection workers and others), things would be far worse. And secondly, while there are some swings and roundabouts to be argued in respect of particular measures, the net effect of the Commonwealth government’s ill-targeted and incompetently implemented social control campaign has been negative.

I have been fairly outspoken about the Intervention in the past, and there is much of that ground which I don’t want to cover again tonight. I probably can’t avoid touching briefly on the issue of political agenda. By analogy with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it all seemed more about regime change than about the paedophile ring weapons of mass destruction which were the purported Intervention trigger. This far down the track, there doesn’t seem much point in deeply pondering the true motivation.

It is nevertheless worth appreciating once again the incendiary effect of child sex abuse allegations, and the impact they can have on politics, government, and society.

Child sex abuse is any responsible parent’s worst nightmare. I am a parent. Most of my parliamentary colleagues were. The suggestion that any of us were unconcerned about child sex abuse in the Territory generally, or about allegations which had been made in relation to alleged paedophile activity at Mutitjulu in particular, is as offensive now as it was then. The immediate required response to allegations of that kind is a forensic investigation response.

Politicians do not carry out forensic investigations. The Northern Territory Child Abuse Taskforce team was made up of highly specialised and experienced detectives, working together with selected staff from the Northern Territory child protection service, then called FACS. The CAT team undertook a thorough investigation of the Mutitjulu allegations. Then Chief Minister Clare Martin also commissioned a report from Pat Anderson and former DPP Rex Wild QC in relation to child sex abuse in the Territory generally.

The Little Children Are Sacred report made very few recommendations about the conduct of forensic investigations, or the conduct of prosecutions. I personally was surprised at this, because I had thought Rex Wild had been brought in to the Inquiry because of his knowledge and expertise in that area. He did not have any knowledge or expertise in relation to child protection or community development.

The Little Children Are Sacred inquiry undertook no independent research in relation to child sex abuse in the Territory.  It simply took reports by others as the basis for a conclusion that the rate of child sex abuse in the Aboriginal population was unacceptably high. That was not a new insight. Northern Territory governments from the 90’s through to 2007 had been attempting to address this problem (which was a subset of the problem of high crime rates impacting Indigenous victims generally) by detecting, investigating and prosecuting offenders. Labor had also substantially increased the child protection budget.

From a starting point of unacceptably high rates of child sex abuse, the Inquiry addressed the question of what action should be taken. The answer provided in the Little Children Are Sacred report was a massive community development response, focussing in particular on improving health, education, and child protection. There was also a plea to further restrict access to alcohol.

Pat Anderson is a friend, and someone who I had worked with closely in the health sector – in particular in the mid-1990’s when we were both directors of Aboriginal medical services and involved in the establishment of the peak body now known as AMSANT. Through her many years of working with Aboriginal communities Pat was well placed to identify social problems affecting Aboriginal communities, both in the towns and out bush. But as Pat herself readily acknowledged, none of the problems identified or solutions proposed in the Little Children Are Sacred Report were new. Her expectation was that implementation of the recommendations would take time, and would require significant government expenditure, in particular at the Commonwealth government level.

The report was delivered to the NT Government. Any specific information generated by the Inquiry that related to ongoing or recent child sex abuse allegations was already being investigated by Police. So that covered the issue of an immediate forensic investigation response.

But a comprehensive response was obviously required from the NT government to the various community development recommendations and proposals in the report. The decision which was made, by the Cabinet of which I was then a member, was to defer a formal response. That was to enable us to obtain feedback and costings from the various Northern Territory Government agencies which would be responsible for implementing particular recommendations.

Getting that information was going to take weeks. We were going to need the material being sought from the various agencies in order to make our case to the Commonwealth for substantial  additional funding. The additional funding would be required to implement the community development measures contemplated in the Little Children Are Sacred report.

Our expectation was that such a program throughout the Territory would enhance and seek to strengthen existing institutions, organisations, and related social capital in Aboriginal communities. But even before the report was completed, the intentions of the Commonwealth government were already very different. We should have seen the warning signs, but we were in retrospect naively complacent.

Firstly we didn’t pick up on the attitude of casual disregard on the part of the Commonwealth towards the very concept of Territory self-government. This should have been evident to us from the overturning of the Northern Territory’s euthanasia legislation some years previously. Although that result had been initiated by a private member’s bill, the position of the government of the day seemed pretty clear.  Much more recently, there had been the overriding of Territory legislation aimed at preventing the establishment on our land of a nuclear waste dump. No private member’s bill there, it was done directly by the Howard government. As far as the Coalition leadership group was concerned, the constitutional power for them to treat the Northern Territory as their own fiefdom was there to be exercised. It didn’t matter about the views or sensitivities of Territorians.

Secondly, when it came to Indigenous affairs, the militant mainstreaming demonstrated in the axing of ATSIC was a philosophical imperative which was demanding expression and implementation. There was an appetite for some overtly dramatic ‘practical reconciliation’ finale. A Federal election was fast approaching, and the government might not be returned. Remaining legacy opportunities were limited and needed to be seized.

As it turned out, our decision to defer the NT government response, while it was justified from an operational point of view, was a fatal error of political judgement. It left us unable to protect our Aboriginal citizens from years of wholesale social engineering.

On the 21st of June 2007, then Prime Minister John Howard and then Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough staged their famous media conference, castigating the Territory government for its inaction. It was pretty much suggested that while the Territory Government procrastinated, Aboriginal kids were being preyed on at that very moment. In the absence of decisive and timely action by the Territory government, it was left to the Feds to come in and save the day. This pitch to the tabloids was grotesquely at odds with both the facts on the ground, and with the fairly leisurely pace of the bureaucratically top-heavy Intervention rollout which followed. But it was simple. And simplistic enough to be very effective.

Saving the day did not have anything to do with implementing the Little Children Are Sacred report recommendations. Despite their excoriation of the Territory government for its delayed response to the report, Howard and Brough treated the recommendations with scarcely concealed derision.

Completely ignoring the recommendations and any expectation of Commonwealth/NT cooperation, they instead announced a virtual Commonwealth takeover of Aboriginal communities in the Territory. The stated focus was on current child sex abuse offending, with Mr Brough referring to paedophile rings.  As the news spread like wildfire throughout the Territory, it achieved its first, almost immediate, negative impact. That was on the CAT team’s capacity to detect and investigate active or potentially active paedophiles. They all just went to ground, for obvious reasons.

I have sometimes wondered why, if the principal objective at the time of announcing the Intervention was protecting children from paedophiles, the Commonwealth strategy wasn’t one of utilising all the specialised law enforcement resources the Commonwealth had at its disposal in a targeted and strategic way? There could have been a carefully planned joint AFP/Northern Territory Police covert operation conducted over weeks or months. It could have culminated in a big coordinated swoop with a series of well publicised arrests. Howard and Brough could have done their press conference then, and sucked up the praise.

The reality is that while child sex abuse in the Territory was, and continues to be a serious problem, it occurs at levels which are comparable to those in some other Australian jurisdictions. It requires effective and specialised policing, and constant vigilance by child protection workers and community members.

Despite the use in the Territory since the Intervention of the coercive intelligence gathering powers of the Australian Crime Commission, there has been little evidence so far of ‘paedophile rings’.

As regards more conventional opportunistic child sex abuse offending, the alarm bells continue to be the ones which we have known about for years: STD infections, Implanon procedures for very underage girls, and so on. Circumstances and the degree of predatory exploitation of vulnerability vary from case to case, but Police and prosecuting authorities continue to do their jobs, as in other jurisdictions. The Intervention didn’t change anything and it was never going to.

What happened in the Northern Territory in 2007 needs to be contrasted with what didn’t happen just across the border in the Kimberley. Well before Mr Brough joined his Prime Minister to make their 21st of June Intervention statement, he was well aware of paedophile ring allegations relating to the community of Kalumburu. These allegations were not mere rumours. 15 men had been charged with child sex offences back in April.

As the Intervention force lumbered into action around the Territory after the passage of legislation in August, new Kalumburu allegations were made public in September. And what was Mr Brough’s response to the Kalumburu situation? An ABC report from the 27th of September 2007 said this:

The Minister used a visit to Kalumburu yesterday to announce the Commonwealth will spend $7 million on a family violence service centre to offer counselling to men, women and children and support the victims of violent abuse.

There were similar allegations raised in relation to child sex abuse at Oombulgurri, with arrests being made in October. But there was no Commonwealth intervention in the Kimberley.

A family violence counselling centre! Well blow me down, would we have welcomed Commonwealth funding for one of those anywhere in the Territory back in 2007? Especially, if it was going be offered as an alternative to the Intervention?

The full significance of this wasn’t apparent to me back then, but it is clear to me now. The people living in the 73 or so ‘prescribed communities’ subjected to the full force of the various Intervention measures were targeted not just because they were Aboriginal, but because they were Aboriginal Territorians.

The Commonwealth didn’t rely on the so-called ‘race power’ in section 51 (xxvi) of the Constitution, but on the ‘Territories power’ in section 122. If there is an opportunity at the moment to look at Constitutional reform, then from the point of view of Aboriginal Territorians, it is section 122 which we should be looking at.

But back to the social problems in the Territory as at 2007. Child sex abuse is only one aspect of child protection. General child neglect and associated social dysfunction was the underlying problem which could have, and should have been focussed on by Mr Howard and Mr Brough. By using paedophilia as the emotive hook for their PR campaign, they indiscriminately and irresponsibly labelled the male population in remote Territory communities as predators of the worst kind. That was the second, again almost immediate, negative impact of the Intervention declaration.

The 21st of June media show involved the outlining of a number of measures to be undertaken. These measures were over the following weeks packaged up into a series of massive bills introduced and passed through Federal Parliament in August. The legislation was extraordinarily lengthy, detailed, complex, and impenetrable. It dealt with all manner of things. But except for a small number of sections laying the foundation for the Australian Crime Commission to investigate “child abuse”, no references to child sex abuse or child protection.

The legislation was mainly about different kinds of social control, and tinkering with aspects of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act (‘ALRA’) to the detriment of traditional owners. In an extraordinary feat of doublespeak, these and many other Intervention provisions were pre-emptively designated as ‘special measures’ for the purposes of the Racial Discrimination Act.

One of the bills became the Act which many people became aware of, the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act (‘NTNER’).  This was the law which set out a range of 5 year measures, including compulsory acquisition of township leases, and purportedly tougher restrictions on alcohol. It is worth pausing for a moment and reflecting on the blatant hyperbole inherent in the use of the word “national”.

There was a second bill which had such an appallingly lengthy and verbose title that after its passage people simple referred to it as the ‘FaCSIA Act’. The Act’s full title was the:

Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Northern Territory National Emergency Response and Other Measures) Act 2007 

The FaCSIA Act was the mechanism for making permanent changes, unaffected by the 5 year sunset clauses in the NTNER. For example the removal of the ability for traditional owners to prevent access to communities and access roads on their country (including access by paedophiles), and the removal of customary law and cultural practice considerations from bail applications and sentencing proceedings.

I’ve already mentioned the wish list of funding and programs that was outlined in the Little Children Are Sacred Report. Negotiations between the NT government and the Commonwealth were in fact already well underway in relation to a raft of programs in respect of which additional Commonwealth funding was being sought. Over the Intervention and subsequent ‘Stronger Futures’ years, a lot of Commonwealth money has flowed into the Territory. Apologists for the Intervention frequently point to this funding and to associated programs as a demonstration of its benefits.

That is a flawed and misleading argument. Commonwealth money was going to come to the Territory regardless of the Intervention, and in particularly in relation to the areas such as housing and infrastructure which had already been the subject of detailed negotiations. The truth is that the word “intervention” has a meaning which has absolutely nothing to do with spending money on programs which affected governments and populations desperately want. An intervention into the life of an individual is when other people forcibly interrupt his habits and lifestyle, physically constrain his physical existence, and control his finances so as force changes in behaviour.

The NT Intervention consisted of those measures which impacted in that way on a whole population. The  term does not apply to the good stuff which everyone wanted to happen.

Dr Scrymgour was born in Darwin to a Tiwi mother and a father who had been removed from Central Australia as a child and later sent to the Croker Island Mission off the coast of Arnhem Land.

She became a member of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly in 2001 and was appointed a Minister in 2003, holding various portfolios including Education, Family and Community Services, and Environment Heritage and the Arts. From November 2007 to February 2009 she was Deputy Chief Minister. She retired from politics in 2012.

Dr Scrymgour is currently the CEO of the Wurli Wurlinjang Health Service. She is also the Chair of the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance NT. She was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Sydney Faculty of Health Sciences in 2013.

 Photograph by ABC NT.