The new land grab

Neo-liberalism is a hungry beast and this 21st Century strain of capitalism is shaping the agenda for control of Aboriginal lands.

You only have to listen to Professor Marcia Langton’s Boyer Lectures on ABC Radio or read Noel Pearson’s sermons on acquisition to see how this virulent form of free-market fundamentalism has gathered influential adherents, including policy makers in both political parties.

Australian Government policy is heavily influenced by neo-liberalism through its extraordinary emphasis on managing access for mining companies to resources on Aboriginal lands. This involves controlling what is still perceived as ‘the Aboriginal problem’ and forcing a social transition from traditional values and Cultural practice to ‘mainstream’ modernism of a particular brand. It also involves displacing many Aboriginal people from their traditional lands and concentrating them in ‘growth towns’.

Transforming the poverty of Indigenous people unquestionably rides on the equitable exploitation and sharing of resources found on their lands. This has never occurred since the arrival of Europeans in Australia.

Lena Bulla at her humpy camp at Arlparra in the Utopia region. Photo: Chris Graham -

Lena Bulla at her humpy camp at Arlparra in the Utopia region. Photo: Chris Graham –

Now the struggle for Aboriginal land and rights is entering a new phase because of the aggressive global marketing of the resources most essential for a fast growing human population, including water, food, minerals, energy and the land itself.

To make any sense of the aggression behind most current Indigenous policy in Australia you need to study the impact of neo-liberalism around the globe.

While travelling the world for over 50 years I have seen the emergence of a distinctive pattern of neo-liberal development, a ravenous appetite that has seen the world devour more resources since World War Two than all of our human ancestors combined.

I first witnessed this exploitation in many of the thirty war-zones I reported from, especially African nations such as Mozambique, Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Rwanda.

Rich and powerful nations, responding to the growing market demand for food, water, raw materials and especially energy, have swallowed up as much as one third of some African states.

Sovereign wealth funds and multinational food companies have joined the mining companies in controlling and exploiting the land from underneath the feet of those who own it.

With the global population surging towards eight billion by 2025 it is clear that in the struggle for resources we are at war with one another and with the earth itself. In a world out of balance, the poorest countries and the poorest communities within rich nations are most vulnerable to dispossession.

Make no mistake, neo-liberalism is about dispossession.

One of the world’s leading social scientists, British born David Harvey, writes in his book, A Short History of Neoliberalism, that what I have called a 21st Century strain of capitalism is a very distinctive system of “accumulation by dispossession.”

Harvey tips four easy ways to spot neo-liberalism at work.

  1. “privatization and commodification” of public/community goods,
  2. “financialization” to treat good or bad events as opportunities for economic speculation,
  3. “management and manipulation of crises” to establish the neo-liberal agenda,
  4. “state redistribution” of wealth, not to the poor but to the rich and powerful.

This raises the question of who benefits from neo-liberal style development of Aboriginal lands whether it is through mining or agriculture? It also helps us understand what really is driving policies such as the Northern Territory Intervention and the extraordinary social engineering to control Aboriginal people still living on traditional lands.

Harvey presents a convincing argument that neo-liberalism is not ‘trickle down economics’ that will somehow allow large numbers of people to benefit from this neo-liberal development. On the contrary, he contends that the exploitation is aimed at upward redistribution of wealth, enriching capital managers.

A member of the Irrultja community in the Utopia region. Photo: Chris Graham -

A member of the Irrultja community in the Utopia region. Photo: Chris Graham –

The aggressive neo-liberal land grab is dividing Aboriginal communities and even brothers. As one Traditional Owner in the Northern Territory told me recently, “these mining deals can give one or two families a big pay but generally they don’t improve the community. Money goes on a few new cars and more grog comes in. We never see things get better but someone is getting very rich on our land.”

In the Kimberley and Pilbara in Western Australia, across the Northern Territory, on Cape York and in parts of NSW and South Australia, it is disturbing to see the divide and conquer tactics of mining companies and governments.

Lands Councils and family groups engage in court battles that make lawyers richer, arguing bitterly over whether to take the short-term payoff from mining or try to preserve the land and the natural systems that support all life on Earth.

Some Aboriginal elders question whether these choices will ever be compatible but others believe that Traditional Owners and communities must strike the best possible bargain arguing that Aboriginal communities must unify to reach long term agreements that transform their poverty.

Wayne Bergmann, the lawyer who headed the original drive by some members of the Kimberley Land Council to cut a deal on development of a massive natural gas hub for Woodside Petroleum and its partners at Walmadany (James Price Point) always argued that the threat by West Australian Premier, Colin Barnett to compulsorily acquire this Aboriginal land put Traditional Owners under extraordinary pressure.

Some Jabirr Jabirr elders signed off on the promise of a $1.5 billion dollar benefits package planned to last for decades but others, especially Goolarabooloo people, always opposed the construction on their lands of the largest industrial complex ever envisaged in the southern hemisphere.

Woodside’s decision not to go ahead with the $40 billion dollar gas complex on the coast was largely a response to market issues and technological risks with an on shore facility, highlighted constantly by a fierce Aboriginal resistance to the trampling of their land rights. In this case, clearly the mining companies and the State Government circumvented most of the usual Native Title processes. This is the distressing pattern of neo-liberal development.

While the giant machines scrape the red dirt country like scenes from the movie Avatar and the foreign ships line up around our shores for iron ore, bauxite, coal and uranium, so far there is little evidence that mining has eased the disadvantage of Australia’s half a million Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Here and there employment has improved when enlightened miners like the South African born, Brian Hammond, introduced affirmative quotas to guarantee jobs to Aboriginal people at the Argyle Diamond Mine in north-western Australia. But the usual pattern in most remote communities is that local housing and food prices go up for Aboriginal families and only the fly-in and fly-out workforce can afford the steeper cost of living.

Indigenous people are forever denied the genuine control and full value of most of their lands.

To understand the current assault on Aboriginal Land Rights we should remember what the British social scientist described as the first tenet of neo-liberalism, the drive for ‘privatisation’ of Aboriginal lands.

Privatisation of land is the neo-liberal spearhead hurled deep into the heart of the traditional Aboriginal way of life.

Remember that for more than a decade the Howard Government waged war on Aboriginal Self-Determination and Land Rights with a vigorous effort to extinguish Native Title, the humiliating dismantling of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and a foray against the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (1976).

Even in the Labor Party, some like Dr Gary Johns and Aboriginal businessman, Warren Mundine, then National Vice President of the ALP, jeered at what they saw as the old ‘Nugget Coombs’ model of communal Aboriginal society and they cheered for private land ownership, arguing that “communal land holding was retarding Aboriginal people.”

While neo-liberalism was beginning to shape the views of some prominent Aboriginal operators like Warren Mundine, Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton, the biggest influence on John Howard’s inner circle of advisers and parts of the bureaucracy in Canberra came from the poison pen of Professor Helen Hughes, a Senior Fellow at the right-wing Centre for Independent Studies,

Hughes painted what I consider a grossly distorted picture of the Aboriginal policy of self-determination by attacking the vision of the former Reserve Bank head, Nugget Coombs. She derided Coombs for his remote community “experiment that was to give Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders a socialist utopia, leading to the establishment of a separate nation.”

Nugget Coombs had and still has many bitter and twisted ideological opponents, but the truth is he was an establishment economist with a good grasp of animist attachment to land. He advocated autonomy for remote Aboriginal homelands based on traditional Cultural divisions, the kind of Indigenous control that I have seen bring rapid improvement to the well-being of many First Nations societies in the United States and on the Saami lands of Norway, Finland and Sweden.

But Helen Hughes and other neo-liberals do not seem to be influenced by history or evidence.

Three decades of research by Steven Cornell and Joe Kalt of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development tells us that genuine sovereign control is the key to progress on Indigenous lands.

Land Rights leaders, including the Black Power Movement in the 1970s, were on the right track in seeking a model of self-determination that could ensure genuine Aboriginal control over Aboriginal affairs.

As Dr Gary Foley, the Black Power activist and historian, has argued in a fierce pursuit of the truth, “As an Aboriginal controlled movement its demands were for Land Rights that would provide Aboriginal communities with an economic base for future economic development that would create local employment and spawn community resources under the control of Aboriginal community people themselves.”

The striking difference between this vision of self-determination and the neo-liberal approach to developing Aboriginal lands is that neo-liberalism involves dispossessing people of communal lands through dubious promises of payoffs if they sign long leases and chase the great Aussie Dream of a mortgage and “private home ownership”.

Like most of the neo-liberal academics in Australia, Hughes ignored the global evidence on the essential importance of sovereign control of Indigenous lands by Indigenous people. Instead she identified as the first and urgent priority the introduction of an Aboriginal land ownership framework with individual property rights. Hughes became a fierce advocate for 99-year leases of remote communities to allow government to facilitate a switch to private home ownership.

Helen Hughes, in essence, was constructing David Harvey’s first pillar of neo-liberalism, private ownership. She was also helping create for the Howard Government the intellectual antecedents to ‘justify’ the shock and awe of the federal government’s dramatic and unprecedented Intervention into 73 remote communities in the Northern Territory.

If you look back through the writing of these neo-liberal fundamentalists you will see how they have swayed the policy establishment to take up an increasingly aggressive and punitive approach to the remote communities. The argument is so often couched in terms of saving or protecting Aboriginal children, an approach always guaranteed to be readily marketed by mass media accustomed to stereotyping Aboriginal men and women.

Professor Hughes once wrote ,”As children grow into adults (and sometimes even earlier) substance abuse – petrol sniffing, drinking, and smoking tobacco and cannabis – becomes prevalent, following the anomie of lives without schooling that engages children’s interest, without interaction with the wider world and without an outlook for employment and income. Child abuse is evident in the high incidence of sexually transmitted diseases.”

We should never forget David Harvey’s other rule on neo-liberalism that the “management or manipulation of crises” allows neo-liberals to establish their real agendas.

The Howard Government and the Labor Opposition rushed with obscene haste to pass the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act (2007) because of a manufactured crisis over child sexual abuse. The radicalism of the Intervention was concealed by the government’s media manipulation of the scandalising, shaming issue of sexual abuse.

No matter how much Mick Gooda, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, may protest on national television programs that the Australian Crimes Commission found no paedophile rings in these remote communities, the extraordinary collective smearing of Aboriginal parents everywhere disguised the neo-liberal assault aimed at controlling Aboriginal lands.

Canada’s best-selling author, Naomi Klein, wrote in her book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, how neo-liberal governments exploit shock therapy in a brazen campaign “of erasing and remaking the world”.

The Intervention exploited a national shock over the state of Aboriginal children to introduce harsh social management of families and a clamp on Aboriginal organisations that further undermined their control over their destiny.

The global research by Naomi Klein and David Harvey shows how neo-liberalism springs into action after natural disasters such as America’s Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Other shock interventions like the War in Iraq were based (like the NT Intervention) on a Government ‘Big Lie’. Weapons of mass destruction or paedophile rings, what does it matter if they aren’t really there when Government and its manipulative neo-liberal backers have created a sense of crisis that ultimately is a new pathway for profit …not for community people but for the capital managers.

You see Australia’s neo-liberals are hardly original. Most of their ideas are not home grown and it is why these policies have a strangely alien feel in so many Aboriginal communities when this development or ‘modernisation’ policy is applied. So many Aboriginal people are constantly puzzled why some are intent on changing them and herding them along to one of those dreamy “growth towns” where miraculously jobs and private home ownership are meant to arrive.

While the academic Helen Hughes has been aptly described by Noel Pearson as “that most relentless of field-marshals”, unquestionably the neo-liberal’s little general is the Napoleonic figure of Pearson himself.

While drawing reasonable distinctions between the NT Intervention and his own Cape York attempts at social engineering, Pearson’s concept of dramatic political action by an ultra-Conservative Howard Government to change the status quo has all the hallmarks of neo-liberalism.

Neo-liberals like Noel apparently believe that impoverished Aboriginal people will acquire all of the means for wealth, private home ownership and other material gains from shock interventions. Yet in his own recent column in The Weekend Australian he admitted that private home ownership had been the most disappointing failure of his Cape York agenda.

A skilful polemicist, political power-broker and businessman, Noel Pearson has captured more media attention than any other contemporary Indigenous Australian during the decade long ascendancy of neo-liberalism in Government Aboriginal policy.

Noel’s grandly ambitious vision of his own leadership strengths, as well as his frustrations with a lack of progress, drove him towards his own version of Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine’. In 2007 he wrote a lengthy letter to John Howard making the case that the Prime Minister could win the election that year by a radical conservative move, a bold and uncharacteristic offer to give Constitutional recognition to Aboriginal people in a new preamble to the Constitution.

What many Indigenous people resented was Pearson’s explicit (though qualified) support that year for the Northern Territory Intervention. His clever promotion of his neo-liberal ideas through ABC programs such as Australian Story and Lateline with Tony Jones, and especially the relentless marketing of the Cape York Institute agenda by The Australian and other News Limited newspapers, gave Pearson great sway over social conservatives and contributed to moral confusion among white Australians about the Government’s motives. Pearson’s voice added enormous authority and momentum to the government’s seizure of 73 remote communities far from his traditional sphere of influence.

Soon after the launch of the NT Intervention, The Monthly magazine carried a cover story with the headline, IS PEARSON RIGHT?

Australia’s own well-versed analyst of neo-liberalism, Professor Robert Manne, offered this cogent summary of Pearson’s radical political plan to ‘remake the world’ of Indigenous people:

“Pearson’s plan is not merely an audacious (and very expensive) neo-liberal blueprint for the revival of Aboriginal community and the adaption of Aboriginal identity to conditions of modernity. It is based on the paradoxical belief that the sticks and carrots of transformative interventionist policy of social- engineering can create the character of the responsible, acquisitive individual on which the philosophy of neo-liberalism is premised. This is Pearson’s gamble.”

The Intervention’s extraordinary damage to the Aboriginal sense of control and well-being makes it the gravest policy disaster in Australia since the removal of Aboriginal children in the Stolen Generations.

Five years after the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act (2007), despite compelling evidence from over 400 Senate submissions that the Intervention had failed, the Stronger Futures legislation (2012) extended the major controlling provisions of the Intervention for another ten years. This is neo-liberalism at its worst.

As Aboriginal advocate, Pat Turner, warned from the outset the Intervention was and is “the Trojan Horse” to control Aboriginal lands, a process that ultimately facilitates the exploitation of minerals and the transfer of Aboriginal ‘wealth’ to the capital managers.

Clearly the NT Intervention fulfils David Harvey’s other key tenets of neo-liberalism. The Australian Government is facilitating this exploitation of mineral wealth as well as directing the major development contracts not to Aboriginal communities but to those tycoons heading mining companies and construction alliances.

Neo-liberalism has given us the new land grab.

This blog first appeared on Tracker magazine, a publication of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.

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  1. Pingback: How Australian Aboriginal policy has always worked in the interests of mining companies « Antinuclear

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