In June 2007, “remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory were invaded and martial law imposed”. So Diane Fieldes put it in the Australian journal Socialist Alternative, and she wasn't wrong.
Six hundred troops were deployed. Aboriginals faced compulsory acquisition of townships; the “quarantining” of a proportion of their welfare benefits; new restrictions on alcohol; and the closure of government programmes which gave some of them part-time employment.
In its initial form, pushed through by John Howard's conservative government in the run-up to the 2007 federal election, this “intervention” included a clause exempting the government from Australia's own Racial Discrimination Act. That was (eventually, in 2010) changed by the Labor government which followed, but the basics of the “intervention” remain in force.
The measures were justified by panic claims about child abuse in Aboriginal communities. Since then, not a single specific prosecution for child abuse has resulted from the measures.
Again, Aboriginal Australians, overall, drink less alcohol than non-Aboriginals. Twice as big a proportion of Aboriginal Australians as of non-Aboriginals don't drink alcohol at all. More Aboriginals have their health dramatically damaged by binge-drinking. That is because of the social conditions they live in, and to be remedied by changing those conditions, not by troops and police.
The intervention is the centrepiece of John Pilger's new film, Utopia. Around it he adds coverage of other issues: the massacres of Aboriginals by early white settlers; the Stolen Generation of lighter-skinned Aboriginal children taken from their parents to be brought up in white families; the campaigns against Aboriginal deaths in police custody. (Indigenous people are a quarter of the prison population of Australia, though only 3% of the general population).
The film is given an odd tone by being narrated throughout by Pilger himself. Since he has, somehow, lost his Australian accent and got an oddly drawling, posh English one, and is now 74, the story comes across somewhat as an elderly gentleman travelling round Australia, and being naively shocked at conditions in Aboriginal communities and by racist attitudes or bureaucratic stonewalling from white Australians.
Pilger gives Arthur Murray, a one-time Aboriginal union organiser and then a campaigner on deaths in custody, a chance to speak on film, but most of the Aboriginals in the film come on screen as helpless paupers in remote communities or as members of the small minority of Aboriginals who have got jobs in the media or the art world or official structures.
Actually about 60% of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population lives in big cities or in relatively densely populated parts of the country. Only about 20% live in remote areas.
The Northern Territory Aboriginal population targeted by the intervention was about 45,000 out of Australia's total of 670,000 Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders; and those 45,000 scattered over a large number of small and remote communities.
That is one reason why the protests against the intervention were relatively small, mostly just the activist left and a small number of Aboriginal activists.
Another reason was that many of the highest-profile Aboriginal political figures — Noel Pearson, Marcia Langton, Bess Price, Warren Mundine — supported the intervention. So far as I can understand it, they could see no other answer to the social problems of remote Aboriginal communities which have been completely cut off from their traditional modes of life, and forcibly semi-integrated into Australian settler society, but as paupers.
Yet Vince Forrester, a central Australian Aboriginal leader who features in the film, came to Sydney in 2008 for a protest against the intervention, and, despite everything, said: “I feel a change in Australian society. The general population wants to change the situation that Indigenous people are in”.
Many young white Australians are consciously anti-racist. Lacking is a labour movement assertive and strong enough not just to mouth good sentiments but to rally those young Australians and help Aboriginals come forward as leaders and organisers.