Vigilant Citizens: Statecraft and Exclusion in Dubbo City

How to Cite

Muir, C. (2006). Vigilant Citizens: Statecraft and Exclusion in Dubbo City. M/C Journal, 9(3).
Vol. 9 No. 3 (2006): 'street'
Published 2006-07-01

The following petition was circulated in Dubbo in May 2003:

Mr Carr,
We the undersigned are concerned citizens, tired of Government inaction in dealing with young children who are causing distress around our cities. Children 8, 9 & 10 year olds are roaming the streets day & night and Harassment of the elderly & Intimidation, Truancy, Enter & Steal, Vandalism and Shoplifting are causing major concern in our area. Young children, too young to deal with now, grow up bigger & stronger as they move into the adult world of crime. At present they seem to be untouchable with many people with good intentions making excuses. We need laws in place to help them toward a better future and a safer environment for us all.
You have achieved much in relation to crime & punishment with Goals & we need to save this coming generation from a life of crime.
Parents should be made responsible for their children’s actions.
If parents can’t or won’t, the children should be placed in suitable accommodation where Self Esteem, Education, Health & Responsibilities are taught.
Mr Carr, NSW has an opportunity to lead the country in what is a national problem.

Anyone shopping in Dubbo’s main street in at that time would have found copies of this petition presented in neat stacks on sales counters and reception desks in the majority of retail stores and other small businesses. One month later, 11 000 people from a population of 36 000 had signed the petition. In examining why such a severe proposal arose, and why it garnered so much support, I am positioning the events in the lead up to and following the petition as part of continuing processes of domination and exclusion within race relations. The theoretical framework for this relies on Roxanne Lynn Doty’s notion of ‘statecraft’, which she draws from the work of Deleuze and Guattari.

The main street in Dubbo is a place for consumption and public display. People are welcome as long as they observe the rules ‘concerned citizens’ deem appropriate for that space. The main street is the image of the town, invested with symbolic capital. Those who threaten the construction of a particular image are literally out of place.

The petition is a matter of ‘race relations’, or more accurately, domination and resistance, despite no specific indications in the document’s wording. In official and pseudo-official situations in Dubbo, in local newspapers and radio, ‘uncontrollable’ had become a substitute for Aboriginal. Warren Mundine, at the time Deputy Mayor and Dubbo’s only Indigenous Councillor, said, ‘people might say “we haven’t mentioned Aboriginal kids” but everyone knows what they are talking about’ (O’Malley 3). To understand why there were calls for widespread and systematic forcible removal of Aboriginal children – a proposed measure that resonated with the darkest periods of pre-1970s style of removal – we need to contextualise it with discussion of key events in the lead up to the petition’s appearance.

A local radio announcer, Leo de Kroo, whose morning talk-back show emulated the programs of metropolitan ‘shock-jocks’ instigated the petition after some months of on-air attacks on young people in Dubbo. Like some metropolitan stations, 2DU aligned itself with conservative political parties. On his show, de Kroo directly and indirectly supported Coalition policies and initiatives such as lobbying for the Parental Responsibility Act to operate in Dubbo as it does in Orange, and to lower the age at which children could be charged with crimes. De Kroo’s individual motivations is partially explained by his political opportunism, but the wider processes his actions are a part of, and the large degree of support for petition from people in Dubbo, are more interesting.

De Kroo’s claim that Dubbo was a town ‘out of control’ and in a ‘bad spot with youth on the streets’ (Roberts, “Voice of Youth” 2) came at a time when crime rates were falling. In February 2003 Local Area Commander Supt Ian Lovell said that crime had dropped to ‘unheard of [levels]. Dubbo hasn’t experienced such low levels of crime in years’ (Jacobson, “Viking Cuts” 11). In March the Orana Crime Management Unit declared assaults, car accidents, malicious damage, stealing and traffic offences were down from the previous month (Jacobson, “Burglaries Falling” 4). Again in May Supt Lovell declared a similar range of crimes were down from the previous month (Jacobson, “Crime Cools” 4). Typically, stories about crime statistics were published in the middle sections of the local paper, while complaints about crime were almost invariably on the front page, but this was still a time when one might expect the community to be feeling safer in their everyday lives. However, despite consecutive months of falling crime rates, some inhabitants clearly felt insecure. This is evidenced by the support for the petition one month later, and interviews by the local newspaper, such as one with main street retailers who said they believed crime was spiralling out of control, that children were ‘terrorising staff’, that it was no longer safe to go to work, and that it was a matter of time before a shop assistant would be ‘stuck’ with a drug user’s needle (Jacobson, “We’re Sick of It” 1). To examine this situation I am turning to Doty’s concept of ‘statecraft’, desire and exclusion, which she bases on the work of Deleuze and Guattari.

Doty draws on Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of desire to suggest ‘the state’ is always an unattainable desire for order. Desire for Deleuze and Guattari is ‘not a lack or fantasy or pleasure’ (Doty 1) but instead is a free flowing energy, a creative flow of production, that is coded and channelled by forces within the social body (Deleuze and Guattari). Social practices that channel and code desire create systems of meanings, values, hierarchies, inclusions and exclusions (Doty). So desire possesses the simultaneous potential for liberating, breaking down and deterritorialising, as well as for repression, segmentation and reterritorialisation. Deleuze and Guattari see this tension as existing in two poles of desire: ‘the schizophrenic pole deterritorialises and threatens to destroy the codes that inscribe meaning to social forms. The paranoiac pole presses for order and contains an inherent tendency toward despotism, repression, fascism’ (Doty 10).

These poles, in Deleuze and Guattari’s writing, are tied to economic systems. Doty, paraphrasing Karl Polaryi – a philosopher whose work critiques liberal economic systems – says that ‘the self-adjusting market of capitalism could not exist for any length of time without annihilating society’ (qtd. in Doty 7). The destabilising flows of liberal economies are always countered by some form of governmentality which reinforces society through welfare, regulation and other protections and interventions. Capitalism ‘liberates flows of desire, but under the social conditions that define its limits and its own dissolution’ (Deleuze and Guattari 139). Capitalism belongs to the fluid pole of desire, the schizophrenic pole, and the fixing, regulating forces of ‘the state’ belong to the paranoiac pole. The state, then, is a desire for order, a movement towards fixedness, rigidness. Doty calls the set of practices that enable these movements ‘statecraft’.

It is Doty’s conception of ‘the state’ and statecraft that I have tried to apply to the events that took place in Dubbo. ‘We can speak of “the state” only in a very provisional sense. It is not unitary. It is not an actor. It is not even a concrete “thing”… There is no such thing as “the state”, only a powerful desire that pervades the social realm’ (Doty 12). For Doty, the state is nothing but practices of statecraft that can originate in government bureaucracies, churches, corporations, theatres, newspapers, in our backyards, in our living rooms and bedrooms. They can come from the Federal or State Government, the local Council, the editor of the local newspaper, a journalist, a documentary maker, teenagers exchanging SMSes, the gossip mongers in the street and couples drinking tea in their kitchens.

There were a number of key events in the lead up to the release of the petition in Dubbo that exacerbated the paranoiac pole of desire, the desire for order. At the start of 2003 the Federal Government was running an anti-terrorism campaign through television ads and later through a kit delivered to households across Australia. This was to generate fear to try to garner support for its involvement in the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Also, election campaigns for the March State elections were run on Law and Order platforms. The NSW Government organised an Operation Viking which took place in Dubbo and was the largest police operation ever undertaken outside of Sydney (Jacobson, “Viking Cuts” 11). Hundreds of police officers were bussed in from Sydney and other cities and the ‘high visibility’ policing action included the use of a helicopter which shone a spotlight into people’s backyards. One local Councillor said the operation gave the impression there was ‘some national emergency’ (Jacobson, “Police” 1). Indicative of the tendency for these actions generate more fear are the comments of Supt Lovell, ‘I feel upset when people have to be briefed and calmed down after an operation that was designed to do just that’ (Roberts, “Operation” 1). Then in April there was an arson attack on Dubbo’s Council buildings. The offices were razed and this event is significant because the high public profile and uncommon nature of the incident, and because the accused perpetrators were the same ‘uncontrollable’ children said to be roaming the streets.

These events contributed to an elevated sense of fear an anxiety around the same time the petition was circulated despite the fact that crime figures were falling. Indeed, the bulk of the complaints against ‘uncontrollable children’ were not that they were committing any particular crimes. The main street retailers quoted earlier felt intimidated by their presence. The complaints were of ‘antisocial behaviour’ and of minor annoyances incommensurable to the drastic and violent measures called for to deal with perceived problems. Their alleged swearing, spitting and talking in groups – in essence, their mere presence on the street – made people feel unsafe.

This is due to a facet of statecraft – the exclusion of certain groups who are deemed antithetical to the social order. Doty notes the poor are often those rendered a threat to social order because of their lack of fixedness, their perceived lack of morals, the public display of behaviour the inside group consider private, and the different priorities relative to the inside group. Any threats to the social order are dealt with violently, as practices of statecraft inherently tend towards violence (Doty). In this case, the call for Government to forcibly remove children is violent, but it can also manifest in vigilante action, over zealous arrests, or casual assaults on the streets of Dubbo. Aboriginal people become an ‘excluded other that is itself constituted by the social order from which it is excluded’ (Doty 14). Practices of statecraft create excluded groups (Indigenous people’s claim to land is certainly antithetical to the social order of colonisers) and these outside groups in turn become feared by the inside group.

The petition was never submitted to the Premier, nor tabled in parliament in its own right. Instead it was simply used by NSW National Party leader Andrew Stoner to strengthen his arguments for lowering the age at which children could be charged for crimes. The fact that it was not submitted to the Premier suggests the aim of the petition was to create a sense that all Aboriginal adults are criminals, and that Aboriginal culture is an inherently criminal one. ‘Young children, too young to deal with now, grow up bigger & stronger as they move into the adult world of crime’ (Petition). A local Aboriginal leader, after convening a meeting in response to the petition, said, ‘thinly-veiled comments made on radio and circulating within the community made it clear a lot of Dubbo residents believed Aboriginal people were to blame for all the city’s ills’ (Hodder, “Meeting” 2).

The purpose of the petition is to justify exclusion of anyone deemed a threat to the stability of the social order. The Carr government dismissed calls for children to be removed from their parents, but responded to the petition by declaring there would be more Operation Vikings for Dubbo (Stone 1). The desire for order, an order always unattainable, intensified by generation of fear, has enabled vigilante action on the streets of Dubbo. The action targets those the petition constructed as ‘uncontrollable’. Retailers in the CBD have set up networks amongst themselves, with the help of cameras, mobile phones and sirens to assail anyone they suspect of being threatening, or of shoplifting or making a mess of their stores (Hodder, “Retailers” 10). Recently ‘I [heart] Dubbo’ T-shirts were manufactured in a campaign to counter the negative media coverage generated by the petition and subsequent racial tensions. It was a defiant display of localism that seemed specifically designed to shun criticisms of Dubbo-style race relations and separate those who say they want success for the town from those who are said to want to destroy it. After identifying practices of statecraft in this series of events, what is needed is an examination of methods and practices for evading or deterritorialising movements towards order.

Author Biography

Cameron Muir