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Fifteen years after their report was cited as the basis for the Northern Territory intervention, the authors of ‘Little Children Are Sacred’ say successive governments have used them to justify an authoritarian regime. By Ben Abbatangelo.

Inside the Northern Territory’s intervention

Police officers in the Aboriginal township of Mutitjulu, near Uluru, in 2007.
Police officers in the Aboriginal township of Mutitjulu, near Uluru, in 2007.
Credit: Jason South / Nine

Last Tuesday marked 15 years since the Australian Army, mobilised by John Howard’s federal government and with bipartisan support from Labor, swarmed the Northern Territory to impose a renewed suite of race-based controls on Aboriginal people and their lands.

Using the same language of “protecting children” that has legitimised extraordinary interventions into the lives of Indigenous people throughout history, Howard was successful in suspending the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act.

He enacted a breathtaking suite of race-based controls, including an increase of police and powers; the appointment of managers to oversee 73 prescribed communities; prohibition of alcohol and pornography; the quarantining of 50 per cent of welfare income through the introduction of the Basics Card; the quashing of the permits for entry system; military health checks of Aboriginal children; the abolition of Community Development Employment Projects and their replacement with Work for the Dole; the compulsory acquisition of townships through renewable five-year leases; and the removal of traditional cultural considerations from judicial-criminal proceedings.

As well as requiring the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, the intervention breached the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In partnership with high-profile think tanks, academics and media outlets, Howard and his Indigenous Affairs ministers, first Amanda Vanstone and then Mal Brough, had spent the preceding decade sowing the seeds for their authoritative takeover.

Howard and Brough defunded Indigenous community-controlled organisations, diluted the promise of native title in favour of mining interests and abolished the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission – the national representative body that provided input on policies and laws affecting Indigenous lives.

“It took them seven years to abolish the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission,” says Jacqui Katona, a Djok woman and PhD student who worked on the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. “It was a statutory authority. They couldn’t do it overnight. They spent many years backgrounding journalists with manufactured evidence that presented a distorted view of the culpability of Aboriginal people.”

After loosening the footing that was enabling Indigenous communities to stand taller, Howard and the media pack, led by the ABC’s Lateline program, launched a vicious assault on the humanity, cultural authority and agency of Aboriginal men.

In May 2006, Lateline aired an interview with Central Australian prosecutor Nanette Rogers, who recounted graphic stories of child sexual assault that, as a legal practitioner, she had witnessed play out in Territory courts for more than a decade. Beyond the sensationalist nature of the reporting, there was nothing new about Rogers’ testimony. Distinguished Aboriginal women had written multiple landmark reports in the years prior, as had national and state-based peak bodies, all of which had been ignored.

Lateline doubled down on its reporting, filing multiple pieces. Almost every radio station, news channel and print publication was revisiting, reinterpreting and rewriting their version of the story.

“The media sensationalism at the time totally destroyed the reputation of Aboriginal men,” Katona says. “It implied that every Aboriginal man in the Northern Territory was a child abuser or sexually exploited children, was an alcoholic, a consumer of pornography and violent towards their family.

“And this type of sensationalism was wall to wall. On every television current affairs program there was an angle that was reported on, again, with no evidence that these crimes were being committed, simply because of rumours that had been amplified by the then minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mal Brough.”

Lateline’s run of stories culminated with a piece that claimed the community of Mutitjulu, a tiny township beside Uluru, was a harbour for sexual predators and that Aboriginal children were being traded between communities as sex slaves. It also alleged senior Aboriginal lore-men were having sex with minors in exchange for petrol to sniff, and that the wider community was enabling this.

The following morning, then Northern Territory chief minister Clare Martin announced that her government would immediately commission an inquiry into the protection of Aboriginal children. Patricia Anderson, a distinguished Alywarre woman and Lowitja Institute chairperson, was appointed to the inquiry alongside prominent QC Rex Wild.

Their report – “Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle: Little Children Are Sacred” – took almost a year to complete. It ran to more than 300 pages and comprised 97 recommendations. Six days after it was presented, Howard announced his intervention.

“This country has a lot to answer for,” Pat Anderson says now. “The whole report was written based on the assumption that the NT government really wanted to deal with these really pressing social issues that we had, but it wasn’t.”

Anderson says the report was cherry-picked to justify the intervention. To this day, no politician has contacted her or anyone else from the board of inquiry to discuss the report’s findings, recommendations or costings. “I don’t think I joined the dots between what was happening nationally and what was happening locally, because I had every faith that we in the Northern Territory were different and we were going to actually tackle these issues. I can’t believe I thought that, but I did.”

Stewart O’Connell, who was the senior policy officer for the board of inquiry, also feels the report was misused: “We told these people that we spoke to, who were so brave in talking about their experiences and giving us their ideas, that this time, there’s going to be some change, because that’s what we believed. I feel so angry to be a tool in all of these people’s betrayal. And that is the primary reason why I felt like I had to leave the Northern Territory. How could I tell these people that it’s okay to talk to us? That this is a safe space and that nothing bad is going to come of this, just good, only for them to get the decimation of the intervention?”

O’Connell says the inquiry was sparked by allegations of paedophile rings operating in communities. “Well, we travelled to more than 50 communities and we never found any evidence of any paedophile rings.”

An 18-month investigation by the Australian Crime Commission found evidence of child abuse but no evidence of organised paedophilia. O’Connell said the board of inquiry found evidence of white men abusing children and introducing pornography into communities. “We did find some examples of men going into these communities, all of whom were non-Indigenous, getting themselves into positions of power and using that as a base to satisfy their sexual predilections.”

While the final report recognised the urgency for action, it noted “that the number of perpetrators is small and there are some communities, it must be thought, where there are no problems at all”. O’Connell reiterates that “child abuse was historically non-existent amongst Aboriginal families. The abuse we are seeing today is, among many things, symptomatic of sustained deprivation, trauma and the loss of cultural strength induced by colonisation”.

Looking back on how the report was drafted, O’Connell regrets the framing of the issues. The board of inquiry was aware of how many reports had been written and ignored and wanted to avoid this.

“I remember sitting down with Rex [Wild] and Pat [Anderson], and the discussion was, how do we avoid our report becoming another report that sits on the shelf gathering dust?” O’Connell says. “We thought we were being clever at the time by saying how ‘urgent’ this is, how much of an ‘emergency’ this is.

“We did this because we thought that was the only way that we could get the government to act. Now we know that they were just looking for a political opportunity to do what they wanted to do. And we unwittingly gave it to them, by saying that this was an emergency.”

Fifteen years later, Anderson says she feels “really used” by the whole process: “How much did the NT government know? Was this all predetermined by John Howard and the evil forces of the right to get at Blackfullas yet again? They completely used us. Once again, we were bluffed and betrayed.

“But nevertheless, the federal government called in the army to our communities, and it just passed. The Australian public, nobody said anything. Nobody blinked. The same as the 10-year-old kids in spit hoods – locked up almost 24 hours a day in Don Dale – no one cares. You know why? Because they’re only Black kids anyhow for starters – and secondly, they deserve it.”

O’Connell was on holiday when he bought a newspaper and saw the intervention had begun. “From the very beginning of colonisation, there’s been this thought, or this mindset amongst the colonisers, that we’re dealing with inferior people here, savages, and there’s only one way to deal with them, and that is to impose our will upon them. The intervention, you know, is just a further example of that mindset. It’s not just that we can do bad things to Aboriginal people, but we should do bad things to Aboriginal people.”

Over 15 years, every interim report concluded that the intervention was not just ineffective but heinously destructive. The act that underpins that intervention will finally sunset on July 17.

Neither Prime Minister Anthony Albanese nor the minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, would comment on whether they would extend the intervention or if they would commit to repairing the damage it has caused. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 25, 2022 as "End of the intervention".

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Ben Abbatangelo is a Gunaikurnai and Wotjobaluk writer.

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