Liberalism, settler colonialism, and the Northern Territory intervention




Lovell, Melissa Ellen

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In June 2007 the Australian government assumed greater authority over the government of remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. The Northern Territory Intervention (NTI), also known as the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER), was framed as a response to the Little Children Are Sacred report which documented high levels of child abuse and neglect in Aboriginal communities, and which called on the Northern Territory and Australian governments to make the protection of children a priority. The Northern Territory Intervention was controversial because many of the rights, liberties, and processes typically understood as essential elements of liberal government were waived in favour of coercive, disciplinary, and authoritarian strategies of government. In this dissertation I analyse the content of parliamentary debates, political speeches and government reports to develop an understanding of the discursive and rhetorical context in which these interventionist and authoritarian strategies came to be seen as essential to the protection of Aboriginal children's safety and wellbeing. I draw on two analytical perspectives - settler colonialism and liberal governmentality - to argue that both colonial and neoliberal politics contributed to a view of Aboriginal people as dysfunctional and incapable of self-discipline and self-government. I argue that this perception of Aboriginal people played an important role in the justification of authoritarian and coercive policies in remote Aboriginal communities. Whereas conventional perspectives on liberal politics focus on the liberal commitment to securing liberty and human dignity, my analysis of the NTI illustrates the intimate relationship between liberal and authoritarian politics. Previous scholarship on the NTI describes the policy as a return to a colonial form of politics and understand the normalising and authoritarian aspects of the Intervention as the product of an ideological shift toward neoliberal forms of government. From this perspective, colonial and neoliberal forms of politics compromise the ability of a liberal democratic society to secure the liberty, rights and wellbeing of its Aboriginal citizens. Using my analysis of the NTI, I proffer an alternative argument about the significance of the NTI for our understanding of liberal and colonial politics. First, I argue that the NTI demonstrates the tendency of liberal government to use authoritarian and coercive strategies to govern those who are deemed incapable of self-government and the exercise of liberal economic freedoms. This concept of authoritarian liberal government is found in the scholarship on liberal governmentality and contradicts the purely emancipatory view of liberal politics. Second, I argue that the NTI case study enables an examination of the process by which this liberal tendency to authoritarian government can be reinforced in the settler colonial context. An understanding of this process is important because it demonstrates some of the challenges facing attempts to decolonise settler colonial societies.






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