Command in action: the NT intervention case

I will use one case to illustrate the argument: the Howard government’s intervention into Indigenous communities in mid-2007. It exemplified a pattern of policy making said to be driven by the dimensions of the crisis it sought to address, but which is indicative of a broader tendency in the domestic policy arena — the command culture. I do not gainsay the extent of the problem: none could doubt the social dysfunction in some of the Indigenous communities targeted, or the failure of prevailing policy regimes. Nor do I question the intentions of the advocates of the intervention policy, or concentrate upon its alleged ideological subtexts. Instead, I explore those things the policy community seems to accept as ‘givens’ in such an approach.

The catalyst for intervention was Little Children are Sacred, a report by Rex Wild and Pat Anderson on the sexual abuse of children in Indigenous communities (Wild and Anderson 2007), and the failure of the Northern Territory government to act decisively when it was released. In fact, a series of reports, stretching back at least 18 years to Judy Atkinson’s report on the Northern Territory in a national inquiry on violence, had come to similar conclusions without eliciting such a response. It was significant, however, that Wild and Anderson again dealt with the Northern Territory — the sole jurisdiction in which the Commonwealth government had the power to act more or less unilaterally. To summarise, the government plan encompassed:

The Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, was a former army officer and was widely interpreted as believing that, to quote Tim Rowse, ‘if people are behaving in a problematic way, you create a more rigorous framework of rules and enforce that … [N]o doubt it works in a military setting’ (Grattan and Chandler 2007). A perceptive newspaper profile described Brough as pursuing ‘a frantic quest for swift results in the quagmire of Indigenous affairs’:

… everything about him screams haste … [H]e has been a whirlwind of activity — racing into and out of remote communities, reorganising the bureaucracy and demanding answers and solutions from everyone in his path. The former army officer appears to have internalised the military doctrine that momentum is everything, and this week seized the opportunity of another devastating report to launch a ‘shock and awe’ blitz … at speed and with scant consultation with Indigenous leaders — hallmarks of the evolving style of the man (Schubert and Murdoch 2007a).

Some in those remote communities concluded, ‘he talks, but he doesn’t listen’.

Undoubtedly Brough’s frantic activity during the year prior to this initiative fed into the policy outcome and cabinet was deeply troubled by the Wild and Anderson report, endorsing the idea that this was an emergency to which the government must respond. An inner group, Howard, Brough, Peter Shergold (the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, or PM&C) and Jeff Harmer (secretary of the then Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, or FaCSIA) then decided that a blueprint for wide-scale intervention was needed. A small team from PM&C and FaCSIA was told to draw up a plan, (the usual interdepartmental policy process was abandoned), ‘and within 72 hours of the … cabinet meeting the Government unveiled the boldest Aboriginal policy in 40 years’ (Karvelas 2007a).

The shadow framework was that provided by Cape York indigenous leader (and public intellectual) Noel Pearson in his long-running campaign against ‘passive welfare’ (Karvelas 2007a; Rothwell 2007). Pearson has illuminated the destructive effects of entitlement without responsibility. The ‘entitlement’ to welfare support, he argued, excluded Indigenous people from the real economy and the lack of any expectation of reciprocity defined its recipients as ‘hapless and helpless’ (Pearson 2000). Helplessness, disillusion and, above all, ‘rivers of grog’ were seen by Pearson as integral to community dysfunction and child abuse. Thus, he was to endorse the government’s intervention: these were, he said, ‘cut-through’ measures (Schubert and Murdoch 2007b), needed because ‘we must stop the suffering straight away’ (Pearson 2007). Howard mirrored this view, saying: ‘It is interventionist. It does push aside the role of the territory … But what matters more: the constitutional niceties, or the care and protection of young children?’ (The Age, 22 June 2007: 5). Howard was to advance a similar proposition in a number of other cases, for instance, in justifying the take-over of Tasmania’s Mersey Hospital. The point to note is that ‘constitutional niceties’ are what sustain the lattice of leadership.

Nonetheless, while giving the government credence in its response to this emergency, Pearson had argued for seven years about the necessity for government to engage with the community — progress could only be achieved through state-community partnerships. The harsh welfare crackdown, he said, should apply only in the case of ‘responsibility failure’ (Schubert and Murdoch 2007b). In relation to the NT intervention, he also argued from its inception that ‘as well as policing, there must be a strategy for building Indigenous social and cultural ownership’ (Pearson 2007).

No such strategy was evident at any point in the policy process. The consistent defence when this was articulated was (as expressed by Sue Gordon, Chair of the NT Emergency Response Taskforce): ‘this was an emergency, and if you have an emergency … you don’t have time to consult people in the initial phases. Every day that there’s a delay, that means there’s another child at risk’ (Karvelas 2007b). Yet the authors of Little Children are Sacred themselves were to condemn the intervention for its failure to engage with target communities. Rex Wild said:

We need long-term strategic work with people, building up trust. We were able to do that in a very short time by, we think, sitting down with people under the trees in the gymnasiums or equivalents and talking with them. That doesn't seem to happen when the bureaucrats arrive (Wild 2007)

The acclaimed reform in Cape York, said Pat Anderson, had been achieved in consultation with Indigenous people: ‘There needs to be a radical change in the way government and non-government organisations consult, engage with and support Aboriginal people’ (Chaney 2007).

It was a point increasingly strongly argued by those with lengthy experience in these domains. Pearson himself argued: ‘The difference between disaster and success will depend on whether Brough and Howard will engage with … the traditional leaders of the NT on a way forward’ (Chaney 2007). Fiona Stanley suggested that ‘measures that exclude the views and involvement of Aborigines will serve only to further diminish their capacity, exacerbate marginalisation and add to the damage in these vulnerable communities’ (Chaney 2007). Howard was quoted as rejecting criticism that the power structures in Aboriginal communities should be respected, saying they were ‘part of the problem’. Implicitly, then, all Indigenous communities (and community leaders) were identified as suffering ‘responsibility failure’.

Not only was an approach that would build community capacity (and state community-partnership) fudged, but there was also considerable doubt about the capacity of Commonwealth authorities. ‘There is a huge implementation challenge’, said Pearson, ‘I am not confident they are up to it’ (Pearson 2007). The legislation, said Fred Chaney, ‘authorises an absurd and unobtainable level of micro-management of Aboriginal lives far beyond the capacity of the federal bureaucracy that would permit the notorious protector, Mr Neville, to ride again’ (Chaney 2007). A medical anthropologist argued that there is no evidence that micro-management — enforcing compliance with rules and regulations — induces long-term behavioural change. Instead, it demands on-going policing and surveillance. ‘Has government got the stomach for this in the long-term?’ Chaney later asked (Grattan and Chandler 2007).

In many respects, the way policy was developed in the case of the Northern Territory intervention seems, perversely, as if modelled on the case studies of what produces ‘policy fiasco’ (Janis 1982; Preston and ‘t Hart 1999). Decisions were made in haste by a small inner circle, on the advice of a minister who ‘talks, but does not listen’. Routine practices of inter-departmental policy consultation were abandoned in the interests of speed. There was no provision for robust debate about alternatives — nor is it clear that expert advice (from economists, medical anthropologists, health professionals, social workers) was sought. Such practices are commonly thought to encourage ‘groupthink’. Once legislation was developed, it was pushed through Parliament at speed, making nonsense of the notion of appropriate legislative scrutiny. The explicit concerns of the authors of the report taken as the catalyst for intervention were overlooked. Breaking the cycle seemed to be seen as an end in itself, so there was no apparent thought about the post-intervention phase. Community leaders were defined as ‘part of the problem’ and so there was no effective community engagement. Yet, without such engagement, there was no prospect of building community capacity or responsibility.

The chance factor — that Brough had an army background and appeared to favour a military approach to policy intervention — alerted commentators to the ‘command culture’ aspect of the Northern Territory intervention (for example, Schubert and Murdoch 2007a). Several evoked an Iraq parallel by referring to the ‘shock and awe’ blitz at the core of the government’s approach (for example, Grattan and Chandler 2007). Pat Dodson made the connection explicit: ‘This is an Iraq style of intervention with no exit strategy or plans for long-term economic and social development’ (Dodson 2007). Indeed, just as the invasion of Iraq was premised on the fallacious notion that overthrowing a dictator would unleash the forces of ‘freedom’ and democracy would follow, the Northern Territory intervention seemed to hinge on equally unfounded assumptions that rules and regulations alone (without attention to the dynamics of dysfunction) would change behaviour and that breaking down the impediments (customary law, collective ownership, etc.) between remote communities and the ‘mainstream’ would encourage Indigenous people to integrate into the national economy. Given the Howard government’s defeat, we can only speculate about how management of the Northern Territory intervention would have progressed, but it is probable that the failure of community engagement would have subverted the capacity-building that could be the only foundation for a long-term plan and a viable economy. This missing element — community engagement — appears now to be the principal task of the Rudd Labor government.

As suggested earlier, the Northern Territory intervention is far from the only instance where a command culture appeared to operate. I have written elsewhere about ‘groupthink’ and the Iraq commitment (Walter 2006). With Strangio (Walter and Strangio 2007), I have drawn attention to other instances, such as Howard’s unilateral 2002 decision to circumvent defence procurement processes by committing Australia to the hugely expensive US Joint Strike Fighter program, the bypassing of cabinet the same year when announcing Australia would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and the 2007 Murray Darling Plan that was originally concocted without reference to cabinet or relevant departments. What we also now know is that Howard brushed aside concerns some ministers raised about WorkChoices, as well as having marginalised alternative viewpoints within government circles on global warming, and blocking proposals for investigating carbon trading schemes in the late 1990s and 2003. As Strangio and I have argued, the trend towards leadership centrality predates Howard, but his practices were integral to the evolution of a command culture in domestic policy making and the increasing resort to crisis techniques indicated it was becoming routinised rather than emerging only in exceptional cases.