Australia: Northern Territory Intervention – 3 years of hell for Indigenous people

The horrific living conditions faced by many Indigenous people are a blight on Australian capitalism.

This article shows that the Northern Territory intervention has not changed this reality. It argues that only a united anti-capitalist struggle of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people can achieve the radical reforms necessary to improve basic living standards.

In the 19th century, the founder of socialism, Karl Marx, explained that: “It is in the direct and absolute interest of the English working class to get rid of their present connexion with Ireland. The English working class will never accomplish anything until it has got rid of Ireland…. The English reaction in England had its roots in the subjugation of Ireland.”

Similarly today the Socialist Party argues that the non-Aboriginal working class will be greatly strengthened by working with Indigenous people to end their oppression. Australian capitalism has its roots in the subjection of Indigenous people and the stolen land on which this nation was built.

It has now been 3 years since the Northern Territory Intervention was first implemented. Its effects on Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory have been devastating. A recent government assessment report of the NT intervention noted that: “health, child health care referrals are down… child malnutrition is up… On education, total enrolments and school attendance rates are marginally down”

“On law and order, alcohol, drug and substance abuse incidents are all up (p.32–33); domestic violence related incidents are up (p.33); and breaches of domestic violence orders are up (p.33) despite a far greater police presence… all categories are up except for sexual assault reports that are slightly down.”

The truth is that the Northern Territory Intervention was never intended to raise the living standards of Indigenous Australians. The policy first came into place in 2007 in the dying days of the Howard government. It had the full backing of the Labor Party. Emergency measures were implemented which banned alcohol and pornography in Indigenous communities, the police were armed with increased powers to arrest and detain individuals, welfare benefits were quarantined and in many places entire communities were forcefully evicted by the Government.

At one stage the military were mobilised to “police” these communities. As the policy singled out individuals according to their birth it also required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act.

The agenda of the Intervention has been simple. Mining, agribusiness and tourist corporations have long demanded unrestricted access to mineral-rich Aboriginal land. The Intervention facilitates this. On top of this the cuts to welfare and shutting down of small isolated communities will mean a steady supply of cheap labour for Australian big business.

To implement the policy Howard, with the backing of the Australian press, pushed a myth that paedophilia and child prostitution rings were rampant in Aboriginal communities. The fact of the matter is though that no evidence has been found of these claimed prostitution rings. There is nothing proving that paedophilia rates in poverty stricken Aboriginal communities are any higher than in poor white communities.

Conditions worsen

However there is evidence that child malnutrition rates have gotten worse in many Aboriginal communities because of the Intervention and primarily because of the welfare quarantining measures that have been introduced. School attendance for Aboriginal youth is down, sitting at 62%. Self harm is on the rise and child attendance at medical centres is dropping.

One key element of the intervention has been the introduction of the “basics card” for Indigenous welfare recipients. If you are Indigenous and on welfare you will most likely see 50% of your welfare payments quarantined. What this means is that you can only spend that 50% on basic goods such as food, clothing and medicine.

Furthermore, the basics cards can only be used at designated shops, such as Coles or Woolworths. Not only does this policy blame the poor for their own misfortune, but because the cards cannot be used in many small general stores, people have had to travel great distances to find a store that accepts the cards.

There are numerous horror stories that have spawned from this, people having to fork out excessive taxi fares just to buy groceries, others having to sleep overnight next to these stores in wait for a bus home. It has even been reported that 30% of the 3.8 million attempted transactions on the card have been unsuccessful.

Another significant cause for concern has been the acquisition of Indigenous land through the Intervention. From the outset the Howard Government said it would hold Aboriginal land for five years and then promote 99-year leases in an attempt to push “economic development” and private home ownership.


While the Intervention has been devastating for Indigenous people there have been several examples of resistance. Apart from various protests being held in major cities, there has been a significant response to the Intervention from within Indigenous communities across the Northern Territory.

Possibly one of the most important to note has come from the Ampilatwatja community. There has been no new houses built in this area for the past 4-5 years, and before the Ampilatwatja community took action there was an average of 12-17 people living in each house.

The Ampilatwatja community was compulsorily “acquired” under the Government’s 5 year lease scheme. With local infrastructure in tatters, the Ampilatwatja people had hoped to at least get their share of funding for new infrastructure in return. One of the community’s 25 year old sewerage pipes had cracked and it was posing a serious risk to health. Community leaders continually called on the government to provide funding to fix the leak. Disappointingly no funding came through.

In response the Ampilatwatja people staged a walk off, setting up a new community outside of the area leased to the government. This new community now functions as a permanent protest camp against the policies of the Intervention. Elders from the community have conducted speaking tours around the country visiting universities and trade unions in most states.

Through union and community funding they raised over $20,000 for a water bore to be dug at their new camp. This will provide clean water to the community for the next 2 years. Furthermore, a delegation of trade unionists helped build a house for the community. The house was built in protest to the fact that not one new house has been built by the Government during the Intervention.

Labor steps up the attacks

Although Labor gave full support to the Intervention while in opposition, many people had hoped the election of the Rudd Labor Government in 2007 would see some of the measures scaled back or at least reassessed. Unfortunately what the past few years have shown is that Labor has actually stepped up Intervention.

For example the buy off and often compulsory seizure of Indigenous land has been extended under Labor. Within a year of coming to office 17 out of 18 Alice Springs Aboriginal camps had been handed over to the Government. Labor changed the terms of the leases so that they run for 40 years instead of 5 years as under Howard.

There were two major ways that the government gained access to the land. Firstly they withheld funds to these communities, saying that if the leases were not signed the communities would miss out on their share in $100 million worth of infrastructure funding. Worse still, if the communities refused to sign the leases the government threatened to compulsorily acquire the land. This happened to the Alice Springs town camp Ilpeye Ilpeye.

This land grab directly serves the interests of big business as under state ownership these communities are free for mining, tourism and big business interests to stake their claim. Under the legislation, while freehold title remains with traditional owners the Minister has the right of exclusive possession of the area. On top of this the government can lease and sublease the land without any monetary compensation being paid. Having taken possession, the Government can exclude anyone from the land, because the terms of leases are at the Minister’s discretion.

Welfare quarantining

Labor has also stepped up welfare quarantining. They have made it clear that they see the Northern Territory as a testing ground and at some stage they hope to extend the measures across the country.

When the Intervention was first introduced a key part of it was the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA). Labor had pledged to reinstate the RDA but in doing this they did not scale back the Intervention. Instead they made welfare quarantining applicable to all people across the Northern Territory regardless of their race. The RDA has been now been reinstated but in Labor’s eyes this means that the poor of Australia are to be discriminated against equally – at least in terms of welfare anyway.

As welfare quarantining is extended across the NT, more and more people will be pushed onto the basics card. Welfare recipients classed as either long-term unemployed, disengaged youth or vulnerable will be restricted to spending half of their welfare payments on items such as food, medicine and clothes. This includes pensioners and single parents in “financial hardship”. There is even the ability for the Minister to extend welfare quarantining in any area across the country.

Big business interests

Around 75% of Australia’s uranium deposits are found in the NT. The mining giants along with tourism and agribusiness bosses have vested interests in more access to land.

Aboriginal communities who live on the land are obviously a barrier to access and increased profits. Therefore their aim is to move an estimated 10,000 people into settlements and townships. Driving people off the land not only allows for better access but it also means that pools of cheap labour are created in the settlements and townships.

As the ALP has openly stated, any new housing and infrastructure that is provided as part of the Intervention will be concentrated in “hub towns”. The intention is to close down 73 smaller communities and push Indigenous people into more industrial areas.

Recently a rally was staged by Gurrindji people who are complaining that they are already being pushed into work for the dole schemes with pay that is much less than the minimum wage. Some people are being forced to work 30 hours a week in the construction industry for wages as low as $4 per hour. Comparatively unskilled construction workers in Melbourne, Sydney or Perth earn upwards of $25 per hour.

This is just one example of government and employer attempts to use Indigenous people as a cheap supply of labour. This should be of concern to unions and to workers right across the country. If employers can get away with paying less to one section of the class they will be trying it on other sections very soon.

If we want to fight against this race to the bottom we need to build solidarity and links between Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers. There are many proud examples in Australian history of trade unions supporting Indigenous struggles. The labour movement needs to build on this tradition and campaign for an end to the Northern Territory Intervention. Undermining Australian capitalism and its treatment of Indigenous people strengthens the position for all workers.

Self-determination impossible under capitalism

On almost all fronts conditions are getting worse for Indigenous people in Australia. Aboriginal communities desperately need more funding and more control over their lives. Indigenous people, like all people should have the right to determine their own fate.

Unfortunately self-determination for Indigenous people is unachievable as long as the profit driven capitalist system continues. Capitalism sees Indigenous people as a barrier to accessing economically rich land. Once they are driven from their land they are seen as little more than a source of cheap labour.

That is why we need to link the fight against the Northern Territory Intervention to the fight to change society. We need a system that provides Indigenous people with both collective ownership and democratic control of their land. If this was the case a plan could be implemented to distribute wealth and resources to those most in need.

Socialists campaign for Indigenous rights, workers rights and for the protection of the environment. We fight for a socialist society where the main pillars of the economy are in public ownership and under democratic control. Only a socialist Australia would be capable of putting an end to abject poverty in Indigenous communities and fostering self determination for all.

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October 2010