Kate Hall reviews “The Intervention: An Anthology” edited by Rosie Scott and Anita Heiss
by Rosie Scott and Anita Heiss (eds)
Concerned Australians/New South Books
Reviewed by KATE HALL
In The Intervention: An Anthology (2015), editors Rosie Scott and Anita Heiss add their voices to a diverse and impressive range of writers and speakers, from renowned Northern Territory Elders like Rosalie Kunoth-Monks of Utopia and Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra of Galiwin’ku to literary heavy-weights like Alexis Wright and Bruce Pascoe. This is an important book, and the calibre of its contributors is only part of what makes it essential reading. As Scott explains in her launch speech, and in the acknowledgements, ‘This book has had a unique provenance. Being unable to find a publisher became a positive factor once the tide of support from the community and individuals [. . .] rolled in’ (261). The anthology was published through the combined efforts of social justice advocates Concerned Australians, crowd-funding and individual donations, and so it is a resource made possible by those whose opposition to the injustices of the NT Intervention has translated into concrete support for the anthology. This is heartening news for a country whose successive governments seem to care so little about the rights of its first peoples. As Larissa Behrendt notes in her contribution, ‘the intervention in the Northern Territory is a textbook example of why government policies continue to fail Aboriginal people’ (67), and the contributions The Intervention: An Anthology explain, in various ways, some of the reasons for this failure, while the book itself is a symbol of community support.
The Intervention: An Anthology contains several reports, essays and transcripts of speeches that document the NTER, and these are important forms of historical witnessing, from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers. But this anthology gives equal weight to writing as truth-telling that doesn’t require footnotes, and the anthology also contains a wealth of such responses. Poetry from Sam Wagan Watson and Ali Cobby Eckermann sits alongside short stories from Debra Adelaide and P.M. Newton. There are several first-hand accounts of life lived during the Intervention, by what the fiction and life-writing pieces share with the essays and reports is a unifying tone comprised of outrage, pain, anger and despair, as well as solidarity and a commitment to social justice and the pursuit of human rights. What sets the life-writing contributions apart is the way they function simultaneously as protest statements, trauma narratives and testimonials; and many of the most powerful pieces of life-writing in the anthology come from people who are not well known as writers. Some of the life-writing in the collection is transcribed from recorded speeches and so the act of writing itself morphs into the act of recording; spoken into written testimony. The personal recollections of what it feels like have to pay for groceries with a basics card, or to be terrified when the inexplicable arrival of army and federal police troops evokes the intergenerational trauma of the child removal are powerful, affecting acts of testimony.
There is a call for immediate action evident in all of the statements, stories, personal essays, and works of creative non-fiction in the anthology, and the collection reminds readers that, like other human rights disasters in this country, there’s no belatedness about the intervention. It is not consigned to history, not finished, and not yet dealt with. As Heiss points out, ‘no Australian today can claim “not to know” what is happening in the Northern Territory’ (13). For those who might not know enough, the anthology should serve as a useful primer, as well as a scholarly resource for students and academics. The collection provides a number of factual accounts that offer insights into the intervention from its inception, such as Pat Anderson’s ‘The Intervention: Personal Reflections’, in which Anderson, as the co-author (with Rex Wild) of the Little Children are Sacred report describes the conflicting responses of Aboriginal people to the initial implementation of the intervention’s policies:
The Intervention presented a real dilemma for Aboriginal people, at the local community level as well as at the national level. For some, this was a long overdue recognition of the continuing disadvantage of Aboriginal communities and the need to act decisively to end it. On the other hand, there were those who opposed the Intervention for its attack on rights that had been hard won by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians over many years. (37)
The intervention is the term commonly used to describe both the initial thrust of the 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER), in which a slew of new policies were imposed in a matter of days across seventy three remote communities, and the continuing impact of these policies up until July 2012. The Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act, to use the intervention’s official title, ended in name only at that time, but the paternalistic and racist policies continued under the banner of Labour’s Stronger Futures Act and remain in place today. It’s worth reminding ourselves that the NTER, which John Howard launched in response to Wild and Anderson’s Little Children are Sacred report, did not take up any of the recommendations in that report, and imposed a series of other initiatives not recommended in the report. Crucially, the NTER did not follow the first recommendation in that report, that governments ‘commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities.’ (197)
Instead, as several commentators in the anthology point out, the Howard Government sent in the army and federal police to enforce a series of blatantly racist policies, some of which required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act. These included quarantining of welfare payments, restrictions on alcohol and pornography, compulsory so called heath checks for children to check for signs of sexual abuse, the compulsory acquisition of land through long leases, the removal of permit systems and the exclusion of consideration of customary law in sentencing. Rosalie Kunoth Monks describes the fear and bewilderment when the army arrived in her community:
My recollection of the Intervention in my home community Urapuntja, commonly known as Utopia, was the day the soldiers in uniform, the police and public servants arrived and we were ushered up to the basketball stadium and we were all told that we were now under the Intervention. (15)
Opponents of the intervention do not deny the existence of child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities, though the intervention failed to produce evidence of this during its so-called emergency response. But, as Jeff McMullen points out in his essay, the sexual abuse of children is wide-spread in this country and not limited to Aboriginal communities. The point to be made, of course, is that ‘no one ordered NT-style interventions into the church and state institutions, or into the barbed-wire detention camps where the children of asylum seekers had been locked up for years.’ (121) Jaowyn Elder Rachel Willika also points out the hypocrisy, the racism and the blindness that fueled the focus on Aboriginal people during the NTER: ‘I have been thinking about those words: little children are sacred. Who are the little children? Are they talking about all the children? Black children and white children? That’s what it says to me. We should be protecting all the children. Aren’t white children sacred too?’
In her 2015 speech commending the anthology, Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs acknowledges,
of course Little Children are Sacred and, of course, we must do what we can as a nation to stop their neglect and abuse. But we should do so consistently with human rights. To juxtapose human rights versus child protection is a false binary. Australia can both protect our vulnerable children and respect the fundamental rights of our first nations peoples to dignity and meaningful consultation and consent to laws that affect their lives.
The contributors to the anthology are in agreement about the need for change, but in a manner that is consultative and which respects Aboriginal people and cultures. In her contribution to the anthology, ‘what I heard about the intervention’, Melissa Lucashenko quotes Alexis Wright: ‘Yes. Yes, of course the government should do something about the living conditions and the violence. But not this . . .’ (111)
The Intervention: An Anthology has, since the writing of this review, been acquired by New South Books (forthcoming in July 2016).
Triggs, G (2015) ‘Northern Territory Intervention 2007’, Transcript, Australian Human Rights Commission, viewed 14/4/16 https://www.humanrights.gov.au/news/speeches/northern-territory-intervention-2007
KATE HALL lectures in Literary Studies at Deakin University Geelong. She writes fiction and non-fiction, with recent work appearing in Overland, New Community and Pure Slush (forthcoming in 2016).