Interventions and the State
White Australia Policy (1901-1973)
In the early 20th century, a rise in nationalism in Australia (due primarily to the Gold Rush and labour disputes) led the government of the time to put in place restrictions on non-European immigration to the country. While not officially termed this, the series of changes became known as the White Australia Policy. At the time of and after federation in 1901, the nation of Australia considered itself a white man’s country.
The Stolen Generations (1909-1969)
The forced removal of Indigenous children from their families was an official procedure of the Australian government under the white Australia policy. Under the guise of ‘protection’, the government set out to control the segregation and supervision of Indigenous groups, removing children without court order or parental consent and placing them in state institutions, missions and foster homes. The strategy was to assimilate Indigenous people into the supposed ‘superior’ white culture of the nation, to the point where ultimately there would no longer be any Aboriginal culture in Australia. Despite the notion that assimilation should encourage a European lifestyle for Aboriginal children, the education provided to them was very poor and most were expected to become little more than domestic servants or labourers as adults.
The Bringing Them Home inquiry (1997) investigated the impacts of the policy on the children of the Stolen Generations.
The Apology (2008)
On the 13th February 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a formal apology to the Stolen Generations of Australia on behalf of the federal government. This was an historical event, following the previous government’s refusal to make a formal apology, and gave hope to many. It was an opportunity to make great strides towards reconciliation and to enable a healing process for Indigenous people. Unfortunately, little enough has been done to follow through on the sentiments given in the Prime Minister’s speech. Despite the positive response from Indigenous and community groups immediately following the apology, the gesture has since been considered by many as little more than a token effort by the government.
The consequences of past state policy on Indigenous people and their culture are still evident today. Those who were forcibly removed from their families were given little information about their background and thus lost important relationships to their country and kin. Many Indigenous communities face knock-on effects of this disengagement from culture, manifesting itself in problems with health, social welfare and in the legal system. The removal of children is not a ‘thing of the past’; it is still very much in the fears and the minds of Aboriginal communities today.
Northern Territory intervention (2007-present)
On the 15th of June 2007, the Little Children are Sacred report was publicly released, documenting a Board of Inquiry into cases of sexual abuse and neglect against children in Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. It testified that violence was rampant in these communities, stating that sexual abuse of Aboriginal children was “common, widespread and grossly under-reported”. It followed two ABC Lateline exposés (May 16 and June 21, 2006) which conveyed that ‘paedophile rings’ were rife in the Territory.
Six days after the report was released, then Prime Minister John Howard announced the activation of the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER), more commonly known as the Northern Territory ‘intervention’. The intervention was asserted as an urgent reaction to the report, justifying major institutional upheaval in remote communities under the pretence of “the care and protection of young children” (echoing the sentiments of earlier protectionist policies).
Among many other reforms, it involved compulsory health checks for all children in selected Indigenous communities, compulsory income management by Centrelink, five-year land acquisitions by the Federal Government and the removal of Indigenous land permits.
In order to make these changes in Indigenous communities alone, the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act was suspended, prompting international objections and inquiries from the United Nations.
As the Gillard Labor government moves into the next phase of the intervention (at time of writing, July 2011), calls are being made to change the top-down nature of decision making processes to one of Indigenous community consultation and involvement.