John van Tiggelen

Paul Toohey says he liked the sound of the intervention initially – he sang to its tune. It was not a land grab. It was not an election stunt. It was going to be a good hard kick up the arse. In these respects, Toohey was less cynical than many. I recall half a dozen friends and colleagues forwarding me an email claiming the intervention was John Howard’s new Tampa. Just as Howard had used fabricated claims of refugees tossing their children overboard to retain office, so he would use the horror of indigenous child abuse. 

The comparison relied on a leap of faith – or of blind anti-faith, really. Its acceptance required you to be so suspicious of Howard’s motives as to be numb to independent, replicated and increasingly shocking evidence not only of endemic child sexual abuse – that was just the sales pitch – but of a crippling collapse of social norms in remote communities. Never mind, Howard haters took it in their stride. The Tampa line worked its way into newspapers around the country, and even wound up in a Northern Territory government speech, as noted by Toohey.

Seeded by a net-savvy media company, the email was authored by an arts mandarin by the name of Jennifer Martiniello, identified as being of “Arrernte, Chinese and Anglo” stock. She wrote: “Our Aboriginal communities are being squeezed further into dysfunction and disenfranchisement by carefully targeted political engineering, the systemic and ruthless roll-out of a planned agenda.” Under this agenda, the intervention was a cover for getting blacks off their land so that it might be mined for uranium as well as exploited for dumping nuclear waste. Martiniello then went on to gild life in the ghetto communities: “Statistics show that only 15 per cent of Aboriginal people drink alcohol, socially or otherwise, compared to around 87 per cent of non-Aboriginal Australians.” 

It was utter tosh. Yet so many people, particularly people far removed from the reality of community life, bought Martiniello’s, ah, call to inaction. From my base in Cairns, I could only thump my head at the craven stupidity of my friends down south. They loathed John Howard – who didn’t? Even I got around in a “John-Hunt-Is-A-Coward” T-shirt at the time. But that’s not to say everything he did was evil. 


Toohey seems non-committal about the intervention now. Surly even. As if it were all a waste of everyone’s time – the government’s, the communities’, his own. 

In what amounts to a post-mortem, he variously blames the intervention’s lack of impact on its hasty concoction, on the energy wasted on beating up on child sexual abuse rather than tackling the core problem of parental neglect, and on Jenny Macklin’s part-restorations of CDEP and the permit system. Ultimately, he diagnoses Mal Brough’s departure as fatal to the intervention. In other words, democracy killed it.

But did it? As monitored by his colleagues at the Australian’s crack Darwin bureau, the intervention is neither dead nor dying. It’s true that some of its effects on the ground, so far, appear to have been short-term at best. The health checks of 10,000 children, for instance, are more snapshot than policy – picking up a middle-ear infection is not going to prevent the next one, let alone deafness. At the same time it’s worth noting that Macklin’s reinstatement of CDEP hardly has the ring of permanence about it. Brough’s decision to move thousands of people from half-arsed work to full-time unemployment was reminiscent of a blunder in another intervention, when America’s Brough in Iraq, proconsul Paul Bremer, dissolved the Iraqi army without pausing to consider what sending half a million soldiers home with no jobs, just guns, would do for the insurgency. Jenny Macklin, it seems to me, is simply exercising a little forethought. CDEP will surely go, but something needs to replace it first.

In any case, I remain to be convinced that Brough’s democratic ousting sapped the intervention of any more vigour than his autocratic style did. Not that Brough can be blamed for going it alone. As Toohey sets out, there was a dearth of credible, intellectual leadership among Territorians, indigenous or otherwise. Without anyone to peer beyond their short-term interests and status quos, there was no right-hand man or woman for Brough to co-opt. Or, more to the point, there was no one to co-opt Brough as his or her right-hand man.

It’s rather different in Far North Queensland, where our one and only public intellectual is black. Noel Pearson made his name in the ’90s securing land rights for the people of Cape York. Now, as the architect of welfare reforms being trialled in four communities, he hopes to restore social norms by changing anti-social behaviour, enforcing school attendance and engineering responsible parenthood. It is a wildly ambitious program – an intervention, no less – that has been many years in the planning. The reforms began in earnest on 1 July without the army, compulsory health checks or the temporary annexation of townships, and are funded for four years.

Pearson’s intervention may not work. He has numerous detractors, most furiously among alcoholics. He’s been subjected to “flash black” whispers, Aboriginal Australia’s crippling version of the tall poppy syndrome, and to ill talk of being a jacky-jacky, of doing the dirty work of whites. But there is no doubting his intellectual authority and commitment. It’s impossible to imagine welfare reform occurring on Cape York without him. 

In contrast, Brough’s intervention remains a whitefella intervention. It was also, for Howard, an intervention for the sake of intervening; after ten years of doing nothing the government had to do something, so it did: it jumped up and down and made a huge moral hoopla – “We’re going in!” – with a showy budget, a plan in progress and a vague hope of fluking some actual long-term change by drawing on Pearson’s ideas later, should it miraculously survive the election. Indeed, its overt paternalism might not have been sold to the Australian public so readily had Pearson not sanctioned it with his now famous words: “Ask the children if they mind a bit of paternalism when they are cowering under the table.”

Brough’s problem, though, was he never really got Pearson. Conservatives like to cheer Pearson for saying the words they long to say about his race, but they tend to be deaf to the rest. (Who remembers Pearson calling the Liberals “racist scum” in 1996?) Pearson, who is trialling his reform program in volunteer communities (or whose councils at the very least have been cajoled into volunteering), respects and believes in them, in at least so far as he once respected and loved the community of his childhood. He wants them to revive and thrive, culturally, linguistically and economically. Brough has shown no such impulse. That said, the Howard government’s indifference to communities and communal land ownership was too readily perceived as ideologically motivated. It was not necessarily so. It might well have been pragmatic. Of the twenty Cape York communities, it is possible to envisage an economic future for almost all of them, be it in mining, in tourism or in conservation. The same cannot be said for the Territory’s myriad desert outposts.


Even if Toohey is right, and the intervention is moribund, that in no way renders it pointless. The intervention has shifted the debate. Before the intervention, people still got away with describing Aboriginal living conditions as Third World, as if the “Aboriginal problem” were a matter of aid – of addressing underfunding of schools, clinics, police, housing, women’s shelters. Another hip line was that the problem with black Australia was white Australia. In fact, people got away with saying all sorts of things. As the army moved in to central Australia, sections of the media reported Aboriginal mothers were fleeing into the desert scrub with their children, in apparent fear of the Commonwealth orchestrating another Stolen Generation. As Toohey affirms, this never happened. Of course it didn’t – Aboriginal people aren’t stupid. The dissemination of such rumours (including by Crikey, which continues to spread them) suggested an underlying lack of respect. Particularly telling was how readily the public, the educated, sorry-minded, right-on, metropolitan public, was willing to accept them. Did they really believe blackfellas would run off like dogs at a thunderclap?

Apparently, yes. But let’s leave that sorry lot behind – the debate already has. So there’s squalor in remote and inner urban communities, but whose fault is it, really? True Third World denizens value their health, their homes, their education – they don’t spurn and squander opportunities. Today the public debate is no longer simply about more houses, more schools, more clinics, more sports centres. It’s about the benefits of 40-year versus 99-year home-ownership leases, of regional boarding schools versus community “ghetto” schools, of quarantining income for food, of real economic opportunities versus romanticised “caring for country” ranger programs. We’ve finally learnt to distinguish between the rights of Aboriginal parents and the welfare of their children, rather than lumping the lot together as victims. To paraphrase Gary Johns, the former Keating government minister, the struggle to save Aboriginal people is no longer about the struggle to save our blurry whitefella conception of Aboriginal people. The nation’s focus has sharpened.

Part of the credit for that must go to Kevin Rudd, of course, for finally, mercifully giving the old dog of reconciliation politics a decent burial. Howard had left it lying around much too long. But the intervention, for all its flaws, deficits, misspent energies and flagging momentum – and perhaps because of all these things – has done more to home in on what needs to be done than anything that has gone before it. 

My feeling is that Brough’s departure, far from being fatal, has left the intervention more resilient. Cooked up on the hop, spiked with Howard’s sense of political urgency and cloyed by a Hinch-like obsession with non-existent paedophile rings, the intervention under Brough was never going to be more than a purgative. And cathartic it has been. The combination of the intervention and the Coalition’s defeat is the best thing to have happened in indigenous affairs since Mabo. Brough’s move on Territory communities left horribly exposed the bloated ranks of the Left. Not only did they appear to favour inaction over action, they placed cultural concerns ahead of the wellbeing of children. Five months later, the Right was sidelined just as deftly when Labor, under a supposedly leftist minister and albeit in a modified form, accepted Brough’s brief as its own. 

Let’s face it, if Brough and Howard were still hogging the stage, so would the Dodson brothers, Lois O’Donoghue, Tom Calma and all those other indigenous leaders of non-indigenous people, lugging the baggage of victimhood from one southern capital to another, hawking old dogmas about rights and justice, propping up separatism, sniping at new thinking, gratifying white guilt, and all to an Archie Roach soundtrack. And there, too, peering down their rubescent noses, would be Keith Windschuttle, Christopher Pearson, Andrew Bolt, Ron Brunton and all the other fat-necked puppets of the reactionary Right, coupling like a set of Russian dolls in their assimilationist frenzy. Has anyone else noticed how much sweeter-tempered the Australian’s opinion page is these days? It’s good to clear the decks. 


John van Tiggelen is a staff writer for Good Weekend magazine. He is the author of Mango Country and is presently working on a book about life at Aurukun, in Cape York.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 30, Last Drinks. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 31, Now or Never.


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