The first in a series of short pieces cobbled from notes written very fast as part of preliminary efforts to work out what I think is currently happening with the Northern Territory ‘intervention’; the notes before the notes that lead to drafts
The legislation enabling the NT intervention exempts itself from the Racial Discrimination Act
As HREOC noted, exemptions to the RDA are generally intended to prevent, for example, non-Indigenous people from legally contesting measures taken to benefit Indigenous people. In other words, such exemptions, like the “special measures” of ‘positive discrimination’ which the RDA in any case permits, are usually justified as measures taken to benefit those affected - rather than to discriminate against people in order to maintain a racial hierarchy, for example. The assumption of good faith, or its absence, in the use of such exemptions (and such measures) thus takes on a particular significance. Though the federal government is making full use of its moral stance against child abuse to assert a self-evident necessity for its actions, this intervention is undoubtedly the most controversial instance of the use of such exemptions in the history of this Act, and the murkiest assertion of good faith.
Nonetheless, it is the benefit of Indigenous people which the federal government is claiming as its motive and intent - Indigenous children in particular, of course, which is lucky because no-one can be reasonably expected to give much weight to the political opinions of children, should they have views about the wholesale governmental takeover of every aspect of the existence of their families, economies, societies and lives.
In this case, obviously, the potential legal action which is being pre-empted by RDA exemption would have been more likely to come from those directly targeted, rather than, for example, from some bitter white person pissed off at being denied the ability to access the kind of ‘benefits’ being so generously supplied to these Indigenous people. However, there are limits on the ability of critics of this intervention to present this fact as clear evidence of bad faith in the justification of this exemption - as evidence that the claimed intent to “benefit” Indigenous people is false; limitations present in the existing logic of the Act and of the notions of “community” and of “benefit” at play.
Recognition that there may be competing rights and interests amongst Indigenous people, and that these may intersect with those interests and rights affected by this federal intervention, means that the mere fact of an individual or group of individuals persuasively demonstrating disadvantage cannot constitute sufficient proof of a failure to meet the assumed criterion of “benefitting” Indigenous people, most significantly because the benefit is supposed to be for Indigenous people in the “affected areas” as a whole. It is recognised that measures taken may sometimes negatively affect particular individuals in the interests of a general benefit.
By contrast, any person or body claiming to represent those affected collectively can be easily discredited as actually representing particular interests, such as their own, or as products of, complicit in or defending what Brough has described as “a failed society” - so sick at heart that people are even resisting these measures to protect children from the abuses committed by these very communities. This is actually how government ministers are responding to criticism, a strategy which could not be better designed to dismiss any objection to any aspect of government policy taken under the sign of child protection, more-or-less implying that those objecting are at best proving that they have priorities other than the welfare of children. Answer that one if you can.
And the more such representations manage to defeat any attempt to discredit them as embodying particular interests rather than those affected as whole - say, a public meeting of an entire community with near-universal attendance and very high levels of participation in discussions - the more persuasively those objecting can be made to appear to articulate the collective views of the entire communities, the more they can equally be discredited as being those communities ie. failed societies defined by pathologies which precisely require that they be acted upon in these ways, communities represented as places where child abuse is rampant and adults are irresponsible and lack basic, civilised norms. Pathologising entire populations represented in an explicitly racialising discourse could be a difficult move, but the social and geographic marginality of those concerned and the aggressively asserted frame of child protection makes the projection of every racist fantasy virtually a moral imperative: hesitation to endorse this presentation is virtually an act of abuse in itself.
Finally, the representation of all those affected remains the representation of those people as individuals, which can always be distinguished from representation of that which the federal intervention is intended to benefit - future generations, for example, who in their imaginary existence already vastly outnumber the selfish individuals complaining of this necessary social change. No individual or collection of individuals can ultimately touch the fantasy of these communities which need to be saved from themselves.
Of course, these dynamics don’t play out according to a governmental script or some internal logic of multicultural nationalism, but as part of wider social and political processes and struggles of which those are moments and mediations, visible in the supposedly ‘public’ sphere or not. As merely one example of what this means, there is no iron law which says that anyone has to accept the moral blackmail being deployed to legitimate the authoritarian capitalist project of this intervention. But I think it would be good if some people, including me, made more effort to be clear as to what is being done, and, in so far as it can be understood, why.