“Who are the Aborigines?”– The Western Image of Indigenous Australians

Stefanie Affeldt (Lüneburg)

This question has always been answered by the Aborigines themselves; today their voice can hardly be ignored. Nonetheless, with the NTER, Aboriginal autonomy and self-determination was compromised, the Indigenous people were again disenfranchised and declared passive subalterns. The thereby created image of the Aborigines as “nomads” and “wards” continues to perpetuate older concepts which emerged in the course of European presence on the continent. From “extinctionism” in the settler society via “protectionism” in the colonial society and “assimilationism” in the Australian Commonwealth to the era of “reconciliation”, the European notion of Aborigines underwent decisive changes. As “Australian negroes”, they were located at the bottom of the “scale of humanity” and declared a “dying race”. As “poor natives” the purportedly were dependent on European help and “civilizational” provisions. As “Black Caucasians”, they became the precursors of the Europeans and were supposed to be “elevated” into the “white” society. Finally, as “Australian Aborigines”, they organized themselves politically and gained international approval. But simultaneously, former discriminating pictures are only seemingly displaced. They still determine the various answers to the question “who are the Aborigines” and can be drawn upon at any time in order to legitimate government intervention and politics.


Stories of the NT "Intervention": The Narrative Power of the Law

Katrin Althans (Köln)

One of the main points of criticism of the Northern Territory Emergency Response – the NT "Intervention" – is the lack of consultation with Aboriginal communities. Instead, political and public debate as well as ensuing legislation took as reference the 2007 NT Government’s Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse report Little Children are Sacred. What followed were a number of measures to address the situation and which were translated into law through the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007. Even though the Stronger Futures policy of 2011, which became the Stronger Futures in the NT Act 2012, set out to remedy this original shortcoming by consulting with Aboriginal community members, it retained much of the original 2007 legislation. This, now, leads to the central questions of my talk: How have official documents shaped the narrative of the NT "Intervention" and continue to do so? How, in fact, have they come to constitute the only narrative valid in official discourse? And how would other narratives challenge that story? I will approach this question from a law-as-narrative angle and will first outline the narrative power of legal and semi-legal documents before I will go on to apply those general assumptions to the documents used in the debates about the NT "Intervention". Especially questions of voice and voicelessness before the law and the interpretation of human rights are key issues of my paper. Apart from official documents, I will also briefly refer to Alexis Wright’s novel The Swan Book as an alternative to the officially established narrative.


“An Australian Government Initiative: Criminal”* – The “Intervention” in Australian Art

Elisabeth Bähr (Speyer)

Following the media storm accompanying the start of the "Intervention", and again after its remake under the Labour government, the draconian sanctions and especially their impact on the lives of approximately 45,000 Indigenous inhabitants of the Northern Territory - including artists - met with widespread public indifference. However art is recognized by many Indigenous artists - especially those that are active in the larger cities - as an act of political commentary, or even as a means to influence the public perception of political issues, so it is only logical that artists responded to the "Intervention" with polemic artworks. This article begins with an attempt to answer the question whether politically engaged art can actually trigger in the viewer a change of mind concerning the theme of the artwork, or if the impact remains limited to the focusing of attention. Two exhibitions are then presented as examples - "iNTervention Intervention" (2011) and "Ghost Citizens: Witnessing the Intervention" (2012-2013). Works by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists were exhibited. The provocative statements represented by the artworks in the two exhibitions are not different in principle from others made before the Intervention in 2007, concerning the themes of colonialism and racism against Indigenous Australians. Therefore, it is consistent from the curatorial viewpoint, and emphasizes the Intervention as a continuation of previous government repression, to include several such earlier artworks in the exhibitions. Taken together, the ensemble referenced the historical context of the Intervention.

* Text on an artwork by Jason Wing, An Australian Government Initiative, 2010, digital photograph on metallic paper fuji flex, 150 × 100cm


Negotiating the “Intervention”: First Australian Stories of Reconciliation

Hanne Birk (Bonn)

First Australian reactions to the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act (2007) have been as strong as they have been multifaceted and varied. A major collection of fictional and non-fictional answers by Indigenous authors, for example by Lionel Fogarty, Melissa Lukashenko, Bruce Pascoe, and Alexis Wright, is due to be published in July 2015. As a preliminary step, this paper will identify and analyse the main points in the criticism of (and support for) the "Intervention" that First Australian authors voice in The Intervention: An Anthology (eds. Rosie Scott and Anita Heiss). However, a discussion of First Australian perspectives on the "Intervention", as represented and mediated in literature, should not be restricted to an analysis of the content or story level. Therefore, in a second step, aspects of form (the discourse level of selected texts) will be brought to the fore. This paper attempts to answer the question of how far culture-specific narrative strategies, which are employed for the representation of certain dimensions of First Australian cultures that are repeatedly referred to while debating the "Intervention", can potentially contribute to the negotiation of cultural identities or transcultural reconciliation processes. In order to be able to highlight continuities as well as fault lines, the analysis will focus not only on selected texts taken from the anthology mentioned above but also on a "pre-Intervention" text by Bruce Pascoe, Earth (2001), as well as on several of his "post-Intervention" texts, such as The Chainsaw File (2010) and his novel Fog a Dox (2012), which won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Young Adult Fiction in 2013.


The Protector of Aborigines: Origins of the “Intervention” in pre-convict Western Australia

Alexander Bräuer (Rostock)

The "Intervention" was part of a long stretch of efforts to influence the Aboriginal way of life in Australia. Strategies and institutions involved in the process had their origin in the history of the different Australian States. Stressing these origins in Western Australia between 1830 and 1850, I would like to show how the “Intervention” could rely on established discourses of intervening dating back to colonial history. My paper deals with the implementation of the Protector of Natives in the Swan River Colony. Responding to a lobbying effort by the Aborigines Protection Society in England, Protectors of Aborigines were introduced in the British Empire in 1838 to manage the relationship between white settlers and Aborigines by “protecting” them from violence, alcohol, sexual degradations, or fire weapons. Intervention, however, is never a one-sided process. Therefore, agents like Aboriginal people, white settlers, soldiers, and missionaries shaped the implementation dramatically. These first struggles could not only rely on established discourses in other colonial contexts, but helped to shape a distinct Australian version of intervening with some features well known from the “Intervention” nearly 200 years later.


The “Intervention”: The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Facts, dates, and references

Lindsay Frost (Speyer)

On 21st June 2007, the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER, aka the "Intervention") was announced to the media by Prime Minister John Howard outside the doors of Parliament House in Canberra. In the first seconds of his statement, he declared it a “national emergency in relation to the abuse of children in indigenous communities in the Northern Territory“. The acknowledged trigger for the response was the public release on 15th June of the report Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle, Little Children are Sacred: Report of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse, which had been instigated after a public outcry generated by horrific example court cases which Nanette Rogers, Crown Prosecutor for twelve years in Alice Springs, described on the ABC’s Lateline on 15th May a year earlier. In the years that followed, and across the various changes of governments (Federal and State), huge investments were made in infrastructure, manpower, financial transfers, police, and medical services and monitoring/analysis ... and of course in political platforms, strategies, careers, public relations, and speeches. This presentation will provide a timeline of the events, some information about key individuals, some important statements and statistics from government reports and academic scholarship, plus some cross-comparison. This may provide a common basis of reality for the many discussions during the workshop concerning morality, ethics, politics, motivations, natural horror, media semantics, neo-colonialism, racism, international relations, etc.


A brief transnational history of northern Australia, 1421-1976

Regina Ganter (Brisbane)

It is not merely by chance that the most important steps in Australian Indigenous politics came from the north: the Bark Petition (1963), objections against mining (Millirpum vs Nabalco, 1971), the first land rights legislation leading to the establishment of land councils (1976), and finally Mabo (1992) and the subsequent legal recognition of native title. The north has the shortest history of white settlement and the longest history of transnational contact – not resulting from a Chinese visit in 1421 as supposed by Gavin Menzies but from the traditional contacts into New Guinea through Torres Strait, and from the northern coast to Indonesia. The Macassan visits were outlawed in 1906, the same year that the Alsatian (Bishop) F. X. Gsell re-established the Catholic Church in the Northern Territory and Christian colonization suffocated the Muslim influences.


Aboriginal Australians and the state of exception: camps, refugees, biopolitics and the Northern Territory Emergency Response

Victoria Grieves (Sydney)

Too often the situation for Aboriginal Australians is analysed from within Australian society, widely understood to be a champion of multiculturalism, social justice and the rights of Indigenous people internationally. Within Australia Aboriginal people are overwhelmingly “administrable subjects” of a settler colonial regime and the issues that plague them are glossed as inexplicable given the benign governing context of their lives. This paper seeks to critically analyse the disadvantage of Aboriginal Australians by utilising concepts developed by international theorists, particularly Giorgio Agamben and Achille Mbembe. It argues that the Australian situation should no longer be treated as an “exception” but be cast into the light of global events and global critical analysis in order to more fully understand the complexity of the context in which Aboriginal people seek to have justice and rights. In fact, the evidence exists for the Aboriginal people to be seen as existing in a “state of exception” to the modern Australian settler colonial democracy. This paper sets out the case for this by presenting the evidence from the conception of the NTER and the ways in which it has played out over time.


Reassessing Aboriginal self‐determination in Rolf de Heer’s Charlie’s Country (2014)

Victoria Herche (Köln)

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s most recent proclamation to no longer subsidise Aboriginal Australian “lifestyle choices” to live in remote communities, has again raised questions on Aboriginal self‐determination and autonomy. Abbott’s remark not only discredits the connectedness between land, language, and culture but also denies recent governmental interventions that have drastically challenged and minimized the right of Aboriginal people to participate in the democratic process of governance and to influence one’s future – politically, socially, and culturally. The right of self‐determination of peoples is a fundamental principle in international law. It is embodied in the Charter of the United Nations and has thus been defined by the International Court of Justice. Fictional and non‐fictional filmic representations on the effects of the Northern Territory “Intervention” often address the difficulties in refusing the encroaching measures taken by the Australian government. Rolf de Heer’s recent film Charlie’s Country explores the relationship between Indigenous and non‐Indigenous Australians in remote communities. In its circular structure the film challenges both, the negative consequences of the “Intervention” but also the failure to return to a traditional way of life and thereby addresses the universal human right of self‐autonomy in all its ambivalence and complexity.


The "Intervention" in Indigenous Literature – Alexis Wright's The Swan Book

Dorothee Klein (Freiburg)

The "Intervention" and its consequences have not only been discussed by sociologists, lawyers and anthropologists. It is also a topic that has been taken up in literary representations of the socio-economic situation in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, both by Indigenous and non-Indigenous authors. One aspect which is prevalent in these representations but that so far has barely attracted any attention is the connection between discourses of normalcy and the question of Aboriginal sovereignty. In Alexis Wright's novel The Swan Book (2013), the "Intervention" and underlying non-Indigenous ideas about Indigenous ways of life are presented in a satirical way, thereby questioning dominant discourses of normalcy and the pathologisation of individuals as well as entire communities. Using the example of the mute protagonist Oblivia, this paper aims to demonstrate how such a deconstruction undermines non-Indigenous perspectives and their implied universal validity. I argue that The Swan Book illustrates that voicelessness of the Indigenous population and their presumed lack of sovereignty constitute the biggest obstacles to successfully improving the living conditions in remote communities. In this sense, literary representations can make an important contribution to the ongoing discussion about the legitimacy of the "Intervention" by providing the non-Indigenous reader with an Indigenous perspective.


The Northern Territory “emergency response”: education becomes a punitive action

Jakelin Troy (Sydney)

In this paper I explore the consequences of the implementation of the “Intervention” for parents with school age children not only in the Northern Territory but across Australia. The fallout for Aboriginal people across Australia in the wake of the Northern Territory ”emergency response” has had lasting consequences. Although the ”Intervention” as it is now colloquially referred to was badged as a Northern Territory exercise the issues it raised became of national interest to governments and public systems including the education system. The Social Justice Commissioner’s Report 2007 commenting on the recommendations of the Little Children are Sacred report that underpinned the development of the “emergency response” noted in particular, that ”the recommendations emphasise that education is the key to helping children and communities foster safe, well adjusted families. It emphasised that school is the way to keep future generations of Aboriginal children safe, and getting children to school every day is essential.” However, the plan under the “Intervention” for responding to engagement with education was loaded with punitive measures against parents who were perceived not to be cooperating with the education system. For example, parents whose children miss or are late for school can have their government payments suspended. Across Australia parents of children identified as Aboriginal are required to complete lengthy forms “Indigenous Learning Plans” that are “negotiated” with schools in uncomfortable and often openly hostile meetings where the expectation is that a parent is going to be uncooperative and not considerate of their child’s education needs. The emphasis is not on assisting parents to work with the school in developing sympathetic and appropriate educational plans rather it is on ensuring parents understand that they are in deficit simply by being Aboriginal and that they need to sign a document in which they agree to address the deficit or risk losing any government benefits to which they may be entitled. The “Intervention” has put schools in an invidious position where they become adversaries rather than partners in Indigenous education initiatives.


Sexualities in Aboriginal Australian Cultures and the Ban on Pornography

Sabrina Vetter (Frankfurt)

The ban on pornography and the introduction of internet pornography filters as part of the “Northern Territory National Emergency Response” reveal themselves to be an acknowledgment that an appropriate handling of Aboriginal Australian sexualities still needs improvement in the Australian government as well as in society. Furthermore, the amount of child abuse pointed out in the Little Children are Sacred report, which preceded the “Intervention“ in 2007, echoes past colonial structures and how these first introduced to Aboriginal Australian communities the connection between violence and sexuality. These measures taken as part of the “Intervention“ therefore parallel the invasion of Aboriginal Australian cultures regarding sexuality, violence, and land abuse upon First Contact. This paper will look at how the statements of the Little Children are Sacred report figure in the relation of non-Indigenous/Indigenous sexual relations, and how the results of the “Northern Territory National Emergency Response” present child abuse as a continuation of the sexuality/violence/power dynamic introduced to Aboriginal Australian cultures by colonizers. Two novels will serve as basis for how non-familiarities between the two sides are presented in literature: Richard Flanagan’s Wanting (2008) is focused on child abuse, while Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (2006) examines abuse in the form of land disputes.