Author(s): Desmond Manderson
2007 was a tumultuous year in Australian politics, culminating on November 24 with Federal elections in which the highly conservative Liberal Party government led by Mr. John Howard was, after eleven years in government, decisively defeated at the polls. Of particular note in that result was the defeat of the Prime Minister in his own electorate, and the dramatic and unexpected defeat of the Minister for Families and Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, in his. Both have now left politics for good. But their legacy lives on, and it is my contention that the most significant aspect of that legacy is legislation which, enacted with unseemly haste and in the dying days of the Parliament, profoundly alters the legal treatment of Australian Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, a self-governing but sparsely populated region the size of France, Italy, and Spain combined. One-third of the Territory’s population is Aboriginal, far and away the most proportionally significant Indigenous population in the country. Yet very little serious analysis of the sweeping and complex laws proclaimed in August 2007 has been attempted. Such an analysis remains crucial not just because of the relationship between Indigenous and other people which it reflects but because the Labor Party, albeit reluctantly, voted in favor of the legislation when it was enacted. Now in government it has shown a marked reluctance to re-open the issue. Indeed at times Jenny Macklin, the new Minister for Indigenous Affairs, has talked about extending the laws to other Australian jurisdictions. Furthermore, to the extent that the new government has mooted changes to aspects of the legislation, the Labor Party does not have a majority in the Senate and will consequently face considerable difficulty in getting its amendments through the Parliament. Given the wave of emotion on which the legislative package was carried, and with which criticisms to its provisions are still fiercely met, they may feel disinclined to try very hard. Unless a serious critique is mounted which demonstrates as clearly as possible the ways in which these laws undermine basic principles of the Australian legal system, the opportunity to amend them will soon be lost and the fate of many Aboriginal communities as soon sealed. In bringing readers’ attention to the implications of the laws pertaining to the ‘intervention in the Northern Territory’, and which ought to concern all who have an interest in upholding the traditions of common law legality, I propose in this essay to set the contemporary issues against a broader theoretical debate, and with the assistance of two distinct perspectives.
Research theme: Legal Theory