The Northern Territory Intervention

In keeping with my theme of colonization and the invisibilisation of indigenous Australians (and as it was Invasion Day recently), I am posting an extract from a piece I wrote about an article written by Clemence Due and Damien Riggs  “The Terms on which Child Abuse is Made to Matter” in 2012. The piece provides an analysis of the mainstream media coverage of the rape of a 10 year old Aboriginal girl by nine Aboriginal men in the Indigenous community of Aurukun in the Australian Northern Territory. They argue that Indigenous Australians, particularly children, are represented in the news as passive and voiceless and requiring the help of white institutions. They contend that through these discourses colonial power relations are ignored and white voices are re-centered, by ignoring the agentic responses of Indigenous peoples to violence in their own communities and the utilization of Barbara Baird’s (2008) theory of “child fundamentalism”. I used their work to do a similar analysis of the media coverage of a high profile child rape case in New Zealand, perpetrated by a young Maori man against a white child whose family were visiting New Zealand for a holiday. I will write a more reader friendly version of what I wrote some time in the weekend when I have more time.

For now, it is important to provide some background of the political climate in which the Due and Riggs article was written. ‘The Terms on which Child Abuse is Made to Matter” was within the Howard government’s Northern Territory intervention. In June 2007, two months before the hearing of the ‘Aurukun case’, the Australian Prime Minister John Howard and the Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough called a press conference to a declare a state of emergency in Aboriginal communities. Their announcement came after the release of the ‘Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle-Little Children are Sacred Report’. This report was an inquiry into the allegations of the sexual abuse of children in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory (Barid, 2008, 21; Due & Riggs, 2012, 3). The Howard government announced a program of 11 key intervention measures into these Indigenous communities; some of these measures include pornography bans, alcohol restrictions and welfare quarantining (Baird, 2008, 21; Due & Riggs, 2012, 4). Due and Riggs note that media coverage of the intervention often referred to the Aurukun case in order to justify the intervention, and particularly, that a paternalistic approach to the intervention was appropriate (2012, 4). Due and Riggs argue that the discourses and debates about child sexual abuse in relation to the intervention and the Aurukun case, mirrored the “everybody’s business” discourse that was evoked by Diane Bell in her 1989 piece “Speaking About Rape is Everybody’s Business”. Bell, a white anthropologist, co-authored this piece with an Aboriginal woman-Topsy Napurulla Nelson. The article is about intra-racial rape in Aboriginal communities and contends that rape within Aboriginal communities has been overlooked and needs to be brought to light. A letter of protest was written in response to the article by 12 Aboriginal, women headed by Jackie Huggins. The letter argued against the main premise of Bell’s argument that speaking about rape was everybody’s business asserting “you may well see rape as everybody’s business from a privileged white perspective but when you are black and powerless it is a different story” (Huggins et al, 1991, 506).

Further to this, Due and Riggs argue that within the mainstream media accounts of the Aurukun case, child sexual abuse in Indigenous communities was made to be “our business”, that is non-Indigenous peoples business, through the utilisation of Barbara Baird’s (2008) concept of “child fundamentalism”. Baird argues that child fundamentalism is a way of characterising how ‘the child’ is positioned as a category “with which one cannot disagree” (291). This discursive figure of the child is not always specified in detail but brings meaning over and above reference to real historical children and instead mobilizes the child as a fixed and absolute category. Within this discourse the child often becomes iconised and fetishised. She argues that child fundamentalism is often utilised in the service of a particular (in this case, conservative) worldview (2008, 293).

What the analysis of Due and Riggs’ reveals is that the media coverage of the Aurukun case is not neutral or objective, but tied up in particular constructions of whiteness and indigenity. They found that Indigenous communities were frequently represented as “violent, out of control and dangerous” and Indigenous children as passive, helpless and in need of white authority to rescue and protect them. They note that none of the articles included a discussion of the case within a context of colonisation, dispossession or child theft but instead located violence as the failure of the white justice system. In this way, Indigenous violence is cast as personal and cultural rather than as a result of existing structural inequalities that have come about through the process of colonisation and white voices are cast as “neutral arbiters of right and wrong and Indigenous voices as partial or damaging” (2012, 8).

Following Storr (2009) they contend that what was most at stake were issues of the political and legal responses to the case rather than the case itself (Storr (2009), cited in Due & Riggs, 2012). The mainstream media discourses argued for custodial sentences for the accused but did not acknowledge the context of current and historical power relations that allow a white justice system to deliberate over incidents involving Indigenous Australians, “indeed white law may well have let the girl down by not punishing the perpetrators of this crime, but it may have equally let down the nine males if they are sentenced to jail”. It is helpful to consider Rebecca Stringer’s (2012) position here, that “the violence that jails a disproportionate number of minority men is part of the injustice of rape” (29). Overall Due and Riggs contend that the messages provided by the mainstream media in relation to the Aurukun case were “too simple and too easy to understand” (2012, 6). By erasing the violence of colonisation and inequality the media simplifies a very complex situation into one which requires white people to be more active in providing justice and protection, mainly to Indigenous children.

2 thoughts on “The Northern Territory Intervention

  1. Pingback: Great blog post discussing our work :) | Dr. Damien W. Riggs

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