Giving Back the Space: Freedom, Meaning and the Northern Territory Intervention

Jonathan Crowe

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The Northern Territory is a vast place – roughly 1,346,200 square kilometres – but home to only 220,000 people, including around 66,000 Indigenous Australians (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2009). You would think there was plenty of space for everyone. However, more than one type of space is necessary for human flourishing: not just geographical expanses but space to work, play, socialise and engage in the other activities that make life meaningful.

There is geographical space, and then there is social space. The construction of social space is due to many diverse factors, one of which is law. The importance of social space in enabling individuals to live meaningful lives, and the capacity of law to construct this space in positive and negative ways, is drawn out by the work of theorists such as Ghassan Hage (2003), Charles Taylor (1985a; 1985b) and Giorgio Agamben (1998; 2005), whom I discuss later in this article.

The focus of this article is on one set of laws in particular: the Commonwealth laws that make up the package widely known as the Intervention. These laws famously introduced a range of measures impacting on Indigenous communities in the NT, including new restrictions on alcohol and pornography; compulsory acquisition of leases and increased government control over communal Indigenous land; increased policing; and quarantining of welfare benefits.

The various components of the Intervention are a response to real and pressing social problems in remote Indigenous communities. The details of the law and policy governing the Intervention and its effectiveness in dealing with these problems are discussed in depth in the other contributions to this issue. The present article, in contrast, can be partly understood as a plea for attention to the wider picture. The challenges facing Indigenous policy cannot be grasped simply by looking at the detail; there is a significant danger here of failing to see the forest for the trees.

I begin this article by explaining the notion of social space, drawing particularly on the work of Hage. I then look at the role of social space in enabling humans to live meaningful lives, focusing on the connection between meaning and freedom drawn out by Taylor. Next, I apply my analysis of social space to the Intervention, using the work of Agamben to illustrate the dangers of eroding the separation of life and law. I conclude by exploring some lessons this analysis holds for the framing of debates over Indigenous policy-making.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)135-149
Number of pages15
JournalLaw in Context
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2009
Externally publishedYes


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