ADF support to the federal government's emergency intervention in NT Aboriginal communities

Governments of all political persuasions need to take great care not to risk the acknowledged and respected apolitical status of our defence force in Australian society. This underlies the historic reluctance to use the ADF in controversial activities such as domestic law enforcement and strikebreaking. The federal government’s extraordinary intervention in several Northern Territory Aboriginal communities has bipartisan support among the mainstream political parties but has attracted wider political and social controversy. The use of defence force elements in the intervention has involved the ADF in this disputation.

It is not unusual, of course, for federal or state governments to call on ADF assistance in national emergencies.

The two most common criteria governing the provision of ADF assistance are that the resources of the civil community are exhausted and require supplementation (as with natural disasters such as bushfires, floods and earthquakes), or that capabilities peculiar to the ADF are required (as with open-ocean search and rescue). 

The military assistance rendered to civil authorities falls, constitutionally and professionally, into two definite categories: force and non-force situations.

ADF use of force to aid civil authorities enforce law and order is extremely rare and has only occurred three or four times (all cases of riot) since federation. 

Non-force assistance covers everything else including:

  • bomb disposal;
  • firefighting;
  • search and rescue;
  • logistic, communications or ceremonial support to events from the Olympic Games down to local fetes;
  • infrastructure construction in remote communities; and
  • the continuance of essential services during natural disasters or (very rarely) prolonged industrial action.

Defence force involvement in the Northern Territory intervention is wholly a non-force situation. 

This history, and the well-established bodies of law and professional procedure applying, have not been reflected in much of the media coverage and other commentary on the intervention.

Most of this appears accidental ignorance but some seems deliberate polemics. 

Some initial media reporting and public commentary referred to the intervention as an invasion and highlighted ADF involvement to emphasise this partisan and alarmist viewpoint.

In some cases this degenerated into outright scaremongering. This tragically caused some members of the communities concerned to believe, wrongly, that the Army was somehow coming to remove their children by force of arms. 

Unfortunately, much of the commentary appears to have come from journalists and polemicists with little knowledge of our defence force, the Northern Territory, Aboriginal communities or the law.

It missed the essential point that the ADF is providing only logistic and administrative support to what is a whole-of-government social services effort. 

Furthermore, most of the commentary has ignored that the ADF, particularly the Army, has been working in outback Aboriginal communities since before World War II.

Army surveyors mapped most of outback Australia from the 1920s to the 1980s and visited Aboriginal communities regularly. Often for long periods.

The Navy’s coastwatcher networks have utilised Aboriginal volunteers for nine decades.

Various Army Reserve medical units based in our major cities have conducted their annual camps helping outback Aboriginal communities since the early 1950s.

The Army’s various regional force surveillance and regional intelligence units located across northern Australia have similarly had many Aboriginal diggers since the late 1970s.

 Army engineers have been building houses and environmental health infrastructure in Aboriginal communities, and running associated trade training schemes, for nearly a decade.

Since the early 1990s many members of the ADF have consequently studied Aboriginal culture in detail while qualifying on Defence-sponsored cross-cultural awareness courses at Nungalinya College in Darwin. 

Many critics of the intervention, and the ADF's supporting role, have also forgotten that, in May 2006, the then head of the Northern Territory branch of the Australian Medical Association oddly called for an "ADF peacekeeping force" to be deployed in especially violent and dysfunctional Aboriginal communities such as Wadeye (Port Keats).

His opinion was that the breakdown in civil society was such that ordinary law enforcement could no longer cope and that especially forceful measures were needed.

The ADA noted at the time that those calling for such measures should go away and read the Commonwealth Constitution to learn why such calls were not just improper but actually illegal. 

Within Australia responsibility for domestic law enforcement is always a civil responsibility, even in situations such as riots or certain counter-terrorist incidents where the police may call for armed ADF assistance.

An irony about the current intervention is that many of those condemning it, and scaremongering about the ADF’s involvement, volubly backed the AMA’s call for a "military peacekeeping force" in mid 2006. 

While the ADF assistance to the intervention in the Northern Territory is in a non-force role, the overall whole-of-government intervention necessarily includes a civil policing function.

The difficulty here is that much of the whole operation is also currently headed by a serving senior Army officer, Major General David Chalmers, seconded to the Department of Social Security. 

A precedent cited for a senior Army officer heading an emergency task force is Major General Alan Stretton’s appointment following Darwin’s devastation by Cyclone Tracy in 1974.

But this was a conventional natural disaster, Stretton was already the head of the National Disasters Organisation (NDO), he was only appointed to run Darwin for a period of weeks while the emergency was at its height, and he handed over to the civil authorities as soon as he could.

It is worth noting that the NDO evolved into Emergency Management Australia in 1993, was taken out of the Department of Defence in 2001, and has long been headed by a public servant rather than a military engineer. 

Because of the attendant and potential controversy about the federal intervention in Aboriginal communities, and because it encompasses civil law enforcement, it would be better if this long-term operation, emergency or not, was now headed by a civilian official (say a senior physician) rather than a military officer.

This government has often relied on the professional ‘can do’ approach of the ADF to overcome bureaucratic and other obstacles. But leaving Major General Chalmers in the position much longer is inappropriate on a range of constitutional, professional and national-unity grounds.

He should be released to return to his core professional business as a senior defence force officer.

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