The NT Intervention: a case study in dog whistle politics

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I wrote earlier in the week that dog whistle politics is about saying one thing that is interpreted differently by a specific, targeted section of the community to the rest of the community.

In 2007, the Howard Government was hemorrhaging support to Labor from its traditional “base” in the mortgate beltways. The Rights At Work campaign run by the ACTU had successfully made the “battlers” question whether Howard was really on their side.

Howard needed a circuit breaker – something he could use to cut through to these people while not alienating the more affluent blue-ribbon Liberal supporters in the inner city.

The Northern Territory Intervention was exactly that. It was a political dog whistle dressed up as a compassionate response to poverty and child abuse in indigenous communities. The NT Intervention was never about better outcomes for indigenous people, but was all about tapping into a feeling stirred up by Pauline Hanson and One Nation a decade earlier of anti-Aboriginal sentiment. It was targeted at the same people who see nothing wrong with Rugby and Football figures calling Indigenous players “black c-nts” or “boongs”.

Many Indigenous policy experts, including the authors of the Little Children Are Sacred report, noted at the time that the Intervention actually ignored most of the recommendations of the Report and of many other inquiries into disadvantage in indigenous communities.

Instead, the Intervention focused on the One Nation-esque policies: quarantining of welfare, suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, compulsory acquisition of townships, removal of customary law and cultural practice considerations from bail applications and sentencing within criminal proceedings, and so on.

The Pauline Hanson attacks on Indigenous Australians focused on the perception that Aboriginal people get more government support than white Australians. If you look at the things the Intervention does, it targets specifically the areas that Hansonites focus on when attacking Aborigines.

The dog whistle is evident, because mixed in with the policies of controlling Aboriginal welfare payments, taking their land off them and removing racial discrimination protection was Mal Brough’s rhetoric about “improving the wellbeing of children”, stopping abuse, and fixing up the “squalor” of the Aboriginal communities. So, for the audiences in leafy suburbs, it sounds like the Intervention is a compassionate action; for its intended audience however, it is underscorring the punitive policies and saying that Aborigines will no longer get so-called preferrential treatment or special privileges denied to white people.

Clearly the Intervention dog whistle was unsuccessful for Howard in retaining government.

However, it was a spectacular dog whistle of the first order, and has been so successful that it continues to wedge progressive Indigenous policy activists to this day – with some supporting it, and others opposing it. For Labor, there is no joy in my view. The voters at the Intervention sought to capture can be persuaded to vote Labor on other issues, like job security, education or health. Instead, it just marks Labor as continuing a failed, conservative policy of discrimination.

As the Intervention has largely been (from what I’ve seen and read about it) unsuccessful in achieving its stated aims, I believe that Labor should junk it and approach Indigenous policy from a fresh angle; one that isn’t stained with veiled racism and conservative dog whistle politics.

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