The Northern Territory Intervention and ‘Australia’s Strictest Censorship Regime’

In 2007 the federal government announced the Northern Territory Intervention. The Emergency Response measures were put in place as a reaction to the Little Children Are Sacred report, to tackle suspected child abuse in Indigenous communities. One of the most visible effects of the Intervention has been the erection of the ‘big blue signs’. Drive through the Northern Territory and you will see these notices scattered around the entrances to indigenous communities: “Warning: Prescribed Area. No Liquor. No Pornography.”

Amongst other things, the Intervention made it an offence to possess or consume alcohol and pornography on Aboriginal land. The prohibition on pornography came about because there was concern from community elders over materials children were being exposed to– like films and video games – which might be adversely affecting them (although whether they meant pornography and not the kind of things you habitually see on Rage of a Saturday morning is up for debate). These measures weren’t without precedent. Alcohol had long been restricted to indigenous Australians, and early in the 20th century, state-controlled Aboriginal Protection Boards cited the ‘depraved’ lives of Aboriginal parents as justification for taking custody of Aboriginal children if they believed it was in the moral or physical best interests of the child. No need to elaborate on how that panned out.

The signs have been a sore point among Indigenous communities. FaHCSIA’s NTER Emergency Response Evaluation Report 2011 noted that “The signage announcing the exclusion of alcohol and pornography from designated areas was erected with little consultation. Members of some communities felt that, in erecting the signs, the government had unjustly branded all residents. Many Indigenous people described the signs as a government ‘shame job’.”

Last year, Jeff Sparrow, editor of Overland, published a book called Money Shot about censorship in contemporary Australia. One of the biggest contradictions the book exposes is the fact that Australia has a system that outlaws adult material, but tolerates and even embraces the sale of it. Most XXX shops are technically in breach of the law, but authorities turn a blind eye, much like they do to jay-walking. A quick walk down Sydney’s Oxford Street will be evidence enough of that.

In an interview with the Melbourne Review, Sparrow says “To me, censorship is never the answer precisely because it always impacts on the most marginal and the most powerless…The strictest censorship regime anywhere in Australia is inflicted upon Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory, whereas Canberra has the laxest censorship rules anywhere in the country… that was one of the most shocking things that I came across when I was researching the book – that while there was immense outrage about the possibility of an Internet filter, well, almost nobody was talking about the Internet and other kinds of censorship that were being imposed in the Northern Territory.”

It’s a contradictory state of things when the porn-and-fireworks capital of Australia erects signs across the Northern Territory reminding everybody of laws many people transgress on a daily basis.

For more discussion of the Northern Territory intervention, Stan Grant’s Bennelong Memorial Address on March 23 will draw parallels between the conditions experienced by those living in war-torn countries and those living in some Aboriginal communities.