The Northern Territory Intervention: The Symbolic Value of ‘Authentic’ Indigeneity and Impoverishment, and the Interests of the (Progressive) Liberal Left

Mitchell Rolls

Abstract


In August 2007 the federal Howard government announced The Northern Territory National Emergency Response, known more prosaically as ‘The Intervention’. This initiative was hurriedly implemented to address a broad range of issues highlighted in ‘The Report of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse’. The report bore a title expressing a traditional Yolngu belief (north east Arnhem Land) that for some unexplained reason had been translated into a language from the central desert. This was paraphrased in the emotive and cloying English subtitle ‘Little Children are Sacred,’ and it is the latter by which the report is widely known. This paper does not canvass the ‘Intervention’ itself, but a specific albeit long standing issue it brought to the fore. Implicitly if not explicitly, many critics find in the ostensibly classical Aboriginal cultures of remote and impoverished communities an authentic indigeneity. For a range of interests arising most often external to the communities concerned, there is a reluctance to countenance any prospective change that could stem the replenishing of these supposed wellsprings of originary authenticity. In this respect both settler and Aboriginal critics have found common ground in arguing that they represent the interests of the communities on whose behalf they supposedly speak. In elaborating these issues the following paper discusses the divisions between opponents and supporters of the ‘emergency response’, the tension between those with investments in the issues of rights, racism, and identity, and the interests of those experiencing the impoverished conditions of so many remote and regional communities. Central to these debates is the fraught issue of who can speak for whom, with an Aboriginal elite finding their authority as spokespeople challenged by those whose interests they presume to represent. These issues help explain why so many of the Aboriginal elite and the liberal left in general emphasise racism and discrimination over class, and why a politics of difference is privileged over culture.

Keywords


Aborigines; Culture; Identity; Tradition; Race; Symbolism; Class

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1344/co201413136-155

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