The Intervention


Over the past 10 months or so, I’ve made it clear that housing, in my opinion, is one of the most important factors of indigenous affairs right now. The state of the vast majority of dwellings in most aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory and probably elsewhere is quite honestly despicable.

Despite this raw fact, and despite all relevant research pointing to poverty and poor housing as key risk factors for the neglect and abuse of children as well as a direct cause of most juvenile medical problems in indigenous children, the Howard/Brough intervention plan failed to address housing, and seemingly didn’t even consider it as an important issue. There was talk during the earlier days of the intervention that the military presence, under the banner of ‘Norforce’, would quickly build 500 or so dwellings in a blitz to address the problem of chronic overcrowding, which, by the way, sees up to 10 people sharing a single room in the worst cases, but this never seemed to eventuate.

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Last weekend, a group of 16 Warlpiri women, including one three-month-old infant, travelled the 300 kilometres from Yuendumu to Alice Springs, to receive training in swimming skills and first aid, as they are about to become Yuendumu’s first life guards, ready for when the community’s new pool arrives in July.

However, the manager of the establishment that they had booked, the Haven Backpackers’ Resort, asked them to leave. The reason she gave, when challenged, was that since they were aboriginal, other guests had complained of being frightened by them.

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In less than a week, the federal Australian Government will catch up to the eight states and territories, and only a decade behind them.

The Bringing Them Home report was tabled in Parliament on May 26, 1997. Within two days, Western Australia and South Australia, both Coalition-governed states at the time, had issued unreserved apologies¹. By the end of the year, only Queensland and the Northern Territory had yet to apologise. Queensland issued their apology in 1999, a little under a year after Peter Beattie was elected, and the NT issued theirs only six weeks after Clare Martin was elected in 2001.

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In blogging, if you haven’t posted for a week, there’s a slim chance someone might consider you defunct. If you were a word, the OED might feel inclined to put an innocent looking (Arch.) next to you, or worse, (Obs.).

I feel then, that I should post something to keep the bloggospheric undertaker at bay and, quite fortuitously, there’s lots going on to discuss.

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We’ve had a few weeks of a Rudd government since the election now, and I reckon it’s been so far so good.

He’s made a few political errors of course, like gagging Peter Garrett (but let’s face it, Garret was Latham’s recruit as an environmental campaigner, not an environmental parliamentarian) and looking as though he’d obfuscate negotiations in Bali while awaiting an economic impact study (which should make the Libs very happy indeed, one would have thought) but with respect to handling the shambles that was the half-baked, knee-jerk Northern Territory intervention, he appears to be on the right track.

First of all, he pledged to keep all that $1.3 billion that Howard and Brough had earmarked for squanderin’, and spend it on the better aspects of the intervention while rolling back some of the more controversial and downright ludicrous aspects. Rudd says he’ll halt the changes to CDEP and gradually reverse them, and the permit system looks as though it’d be reinstated.

On Saturday, Rudd flew back from Dili where he stopped over on his way back from the Bali conference, and landed in Darwin to commence talks with aboriginal community leaders about what to do with the intervention. The Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the Northern Territory, headed by Olga Havnen, have presented both the federal and Northern Territory governments with a 14-point plan to reverse the changes to CDEP, which apparently, has been welcomed.

Contrast this with the standover tactics that Brough used while in talks with community leaders; all reports depicted him as basically telling them how it would be, and not listening to their concerns at all. Rudd has therefore passed the first test of leadership on indigenous affairs; he’s engaged aboriginal people – that is, not just Noel Pearson – and included their concerns in his policy planning.

So from the outset, things look pretty good. All except for the fact that the government doesn’t plan on stopping the quarantining of welfare payments, although the scheme will be subject to annual review, which, you may recall, was one of Labor’s recommendations when the bills went (briefly) before the senate back in September, and subsequently rejected by the Howard government.

I have to say, I’m rather optimistic about this. Well, optimistic that things will pretty much go back to where they were a year ago. Clearly, there’s an awful lot left to do and, to their credit, the government did a good thing in identifying the appallingly high rates of preventable disease in children. Hopefully some of that $1.3 billion pie will go towards fixing some of these shameful health problems, something for which this current generation of Australians should formally apologise.

~

By the way, two intervention soldiers have been slapped on the wrist after getting drunk and supplying grog to local aborigines. However, the matter is now being investigated by the defence force, which is kind of like the Mafia investigating its own activities.

Remember the allegations of sexual assault in the defence force that were revealed on Four Corners earlier this year? What about the systematic bullying in the defence force that likely caused the suicide of a soldier? Both these matters were investigated by the defence force itself, and nothing untoward was found.

~

Comments?

It’s been less than a week since Howard conceded defeat to the Labor party on election night, but already things are beginning to change in indigenous policy. In fact there’s so much going on in Canberra, Darwin and elsewhere, that I barely know where to begin. I apologise (taking responsibility, that is) for what may therefore be a structural mess of a post.

Picking a starting point completely at random; The new Liberal leader, Brendan Nelson, has pledged to not support the government’s position of drafting and issuing an official apology to indigenous people. This is what he said:

Look Kerry, we are very proud of what our forebears did at Gallipoli and other campaigns. That doesn’t mean that we own them. Similarly, we feel a sense of shame in some ways of what was done in the past, where with good intentions, but not always with good outcomes, Aboriginal people were removed from what were often appalling conditions. We, in my view, we have no responsibility to apologise or take ownership for what was done by earlier generations.

This in my view is going to be a rather difficult point for the Liberal party, and will probably keep them at odds with the majority view until the apology is made and the issue is diffused. Nelson cannot now support an apology of course; it was the main reason he was elected above Malcolm Turnbull. Or more accurately, Turnbull lost votes in the party room because he said he would support an apology.

Northern Territory Chief Minister Clare Martin resigned during the week, citing the pressure she has been under during the last six months due to the Howard government’s intervention. She resigned not long after saying she would fly straight to Canberra to begin talks with Rudd about how some key aspects of the intervention could be immediately reversed.

Martin’s resignation saw Paul Henderson ascend to the Chief Ministership, and saw prominent aboriginal woman, Marion Scrymgour become deputy – the highest office ever held by an aboriginal Australian. During the year, Scrymgour publicly attacked the intervention, calling it the “black kids’ Tampa“, and she also diverged from the party line with respect to the McArthur River mine issue, which I wrote about here and here. Apparently such was her disappointment with the Labor party back then that she considered resigning. Scrymgour’s appointment as deputy – and possibly her taking on the role of Indigenous Affairs Minister -  is an excellent move for the Northern Territory government.

Federal Labor went into the election last week with the promise to reinstate the (albeit imperfect) permit system and reverse the changes to the (occasionally misappropriated) Community Development and Employment Program (CDEP). Based on the election results in the bush, they certainly have a mandate to do so. The swing to Labor in remote communities was enormous. The remote polling booths (which I mentioned back here) returned primary vote numbers consistently in the high 80s. In Wadeye, where vanquished former Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough did a lot of photo-opping, Labor MP Warren Snowdon polled an amazing 90.27% percent of the primary vote, and enjoyed a swing of almost 16%.

But Brough refuses to accept this indictment of his intervention, and has called for Prime Minister Rudd to continue on with the intervention.

I took the chance during this campaign to go back out to places like Hermannsburg and Mutujulu (sic), and I saw in the eyes of the women out there their desperate need for this to continue.

So I have a plea to Mr Rudd – I know you don’t agree with much of what I’ve done out there but not for me, not for some ideology, but for the children of the next generation, please, give them a chance, give this a chance to work.

For all intents and purposes though, the intervention will continue; much-needed houses will be built, health checks and follow-up treatments will go on and, irritatingly, welfare payments will still be contingent on certain conditions. The only difference is that aboriginal people will still have control over who comes into their land, and they will be able to earn a livable wage doing community work.

I don’t personally know how things are going out in communities at the moment, as I haven’t been out there in a few months, and news reports from the ground are really drying up in the mainstream media. For what it’s worth, I’m looking into the possibility of doing more Wagiman work in about a year’s time. It’s probably going to be rather a nightmarish task of submitting a grant application to get funding to do so, but here’s hoping.

~

Elsewhere, and this isn’t really related to the intervention or the election, the Anangu people are considering a blanket ban on climbing Uluru, as they’re seeing more respect and consideration from tourists of their wishes for them not to do so and it therefore seems an appropriate time to ban climbing it altogether, something they’ve wanted to do since Bob Hawke (conditionally) handed it back to them in 1985. Interestingly, Europeans are statistically least likely to climb Uluru, whereas Australian and Japanese tourists are most likely.

We did not climb it because we were told that your original Aboriginals would not like us to do that, so we respect their religion and we didn’t do it.

(Dutch backpacker)

The entire report is available as an mp3 from here, and if you’re unaware of some of the more irritating quirks of Australian accents, watch out for the cracking example of high-rising intonation as demonstrated by AAT Kings spokesperson, Dianne Easson.

I know I quite hyperbolically said I’d be gone for quite some time following the defeat of the Coalition by Labor under Kevin Rudd, but in our ecstasy, we forgot that pubs tend to, you know, close and stuff. So celebrations didn’t continue for as long as I’d imagined, meaning I’m now mentally competent enough to write a post.

By the end of last night, it was pretty clear that Labor had won about 86 seats out of a house of 150, giving them about a 22 seat majority, though there may still be some fiddling around when counting resumes tomorrow. There were a few high-profile losses for the Coalition, which notably included the seat of Longman, Mal Brough’s seat. Brough is, of course, the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, and was largely responsible for the mess that is the NT intervention. I won’t mourn him.

Another big loss for the Coalition was the Nationals-held seat of Dawson, which suffered a 3.7 percent swing against the incumbent De-Anne Kelly, and saw a mammoth 16.9 percent swing towards Labor, which levelled out to an overall swing of about 13.6 percent after preferences.

And possibly most surprising of all, the former Prime Minister John Howard may end up losing his blue-ribbon lower North Shore seat of Bennelong, to the former ABC journalist Maxine McKew. There was again, a mammoth swing towards Labor, at 16.1 percent, though it was largely due to Labor’s deflated primary vote of the last election in Bennelong (the number by which the swing is measured) when high-profile former ONA public servant turned Iraq whistleblower, Andrew Wilkie, ran for the Greens, and polled a surprising 16 percent of the primary vote. Wilkie also ran this election as the second Greens candidate in the senate in Tasmania, but failed to pick up a seat.

However, it hasn’t all been good news this time around, in fact it’s been quite devastating for some. Malcolm Turnbull was safely returned in the salubrious Eastern Sydney seat of Wentworth a seat he’s never really had to earn, as it was largely handed to him as a celebrity candidate back in 2004, much to the detriment of the then-sitting member Peter King, who suffered loss of pre-selection thanks to Turnbull’s tactics of branch-stacking.

I should point out though, that the Liberals don’t have a monopoly on this. Greg Combet, another celebrity fly-in, was basically handed the seat of Charlton this election when the Labor Party revoked pre-selection from Kelly Hoare, who had represented Charlton since 1998. The difference here is that Combet is great. Not only was Turnbull born with a diamond-encrusted silver spoon in his mouth, he’s barely done a skerrick of socially responsible work in his life. And to make matters worse, he gave the go-ahead for the Tamar Valley pulp mill, which should have hurt him in Wentworth more than it did.

Depressingly, it’s looking very likely that Kerry Nettle has lost her seat as the only NSW Greens senator. Nettle has been a very active and vocal senator over the past two terms, and often directly challenged the theocrat Tony Abbott, my local member, whenever he made some religious gaffe. A memorable moment for me was when Nettle wore a t-shirt to parliament to protest against Health Minister Abbott’s vetoing the use of the abortion drug RU486, claiming that Australia had developed an ‘abortion culture’. Her t-shirt bore the slogan Mr Abbott, keep your rosaries off my ovaries. Her presence in the senate will be sorely missed and I do hope she’ll stand again in the next election.

However, the Greens did manage to pick up senate seats in Western Australia and South Australia, and have retained Bob Brown’s seat in Tasmania, to bring the total number of Greens in the upper house to 5, which would mean that they will share the balance of power with both Family First’s Stephen Fielding, and the Independent Nick Xenophon.

Lastly, Andrew Bartlett, despite being one of the most active senators this last term in office, will lose his Queensland senate seat to one or other of the major parties, having polled only 2 percent of the primary vote, half as much as even the Terminatrix Pauline “She’ll be back” Hanson, whose preferences appeared to have delivered Labor the last seat ahead of the Greens. Bartlett’s loss, in conjunction with Lyn Allison’s defeat and the retirement of both Natasha Stott Despoja and Andrew Murray, means that the Australian Democrats no longer have any representation in parliament. That is indeed a devastating result, and I would like to congratulate Senator Andrew Bartlett on his career in office, and thank him for the focus and attention he’s given towards indigenous affairs, something that until recently had been largely ignored by both major parties. I also wish him the very best for the remaining 8 months of his term before the newly elected senate is sworn in. You can also read Bartlett’s own remarks on his blog.

So overall, it has been a rather bittersweet victory. On one hand we’ve punished a hubristic, arrogant, highly conservative government, and have replaced it with a slightly less conservative opposition, and quite resolutely so, but we’ve also lost a minor party in the process. For the most part, I think the country voted correctly for the first time in a long time, for as long as I can remember, as a matter of fact. Now, all that’s left is to hope the senate will be strong enough to keep the Labor government in check, but that’ll be difficult when the senate is so tightly balanced.

All in all, I’m very much looking forward to the next three years.

~

<update>
News of Rudd’s win has already filtered into the podean linguabloggosphere, with Language Log’s Bill Poser pointing out that at long last, we have a non-monolingual Prime Minister, as Rudd speaks Mandarin quite fluently. Of course I wrote about this back here.

If only he spoke an aboriginal language, he’d be perfect.

I couldn’t agree more. May I suggest Wagiman?
</update>

The people of the Numbulwar community, on the western coast of the Gulf, were appalled to find that one of their most important cultural sites had been desecrated by the digging of a pit toilet, right in the middle of it. The 7:30 Report has the full story here.

I wouldn’t want to ascribe any maliciousness to any of the five responsible contracted workers; it was most likely just a mistake, despite the fact that the sacred site was clearly signposted. In any case, they were specifically directed by the community to use the existing amenities. They ignored this request and built a toilet near where they were erecting a demountable building for use by the taskforce when they arrive.

Taken as an incident on its own, General Chalmers is probably right in denouncing it as a merely ‘individuals behaving thoughtlessly’. But taken in the context of this entire intervention in which the thoughts, arguments and wishes of indigenous people have been ignored, and it is another, though possibly a more abhorrent, example of the fundamental lack of respect with which this intervention is being carried out. It’s no wonder that it caused sentiments such as this:

They think that our culture is a toilet culture. You know, that they think it’s not real. But to us, it’s real, because we belong to this ground. (Billy Gumana)

Bobby Numggumajbarr, traditional owner, expands further on this and demonstrates how a lack of respect for the community inevitably results in a lack of trust from the community.

They’ve got no trust for them now because they’ve done this now, they’re thinking they might do it again in the long term. So really, they haven’t got no confidence with the intervention group now.

Really. If we want to effect change for the better in indigenous Australia without further disaffecting tens of thousands of people, we have to stop being so culturally abrasive. I know it’d be asking a lot from Australian white people who so desperately lack a culture of their own that they feel the need to denigrate others’ cultures, but for the sake of peace, let’s try, shall we?

Just in case you had any doubts about my opinion on the cessation of CDEP, the quarantining of welfare payments, the loosening of the permit system and the prohibitionist restrictions on alcohol sales and consumption, here’s another bit of evidence for my theory¹ that it’s all designed to make living in communities so unviable that people have no choice but to move to towns, thereby freeing up the land for the more lucrative activities such as resource extraction and waste sequestration – mining and dumping.

The small community of Wallace Rockhole is about 100km west of Alice Springs, and the people there were due to have their welfare payments quarantined as of today. However, nothing at all – not even their unquarantined half – has come through yet.

They will have to drive to the nearest Centrelink to go through all the new loops to receive their money. The main problem is that, typical for a remote community, there’s probably no more than one functional vehicle per 50 people.

“It just means a big headache, big trouble for the people who are looking for food, so it may even mean that people start packing up and leaving the community.” (ABC News)

The mass exodus of people from communities may have been just what Howard and Brough wanted, or, it would appear that way from the observed effects of the intervention and the way in which both Howard and Brough so frequently pat themselves on the back for such a monumental failure of policy. Andrew Bartlett has more on this, relating to Howard’s speech at the Liberal Party election campaign launch yesterday. I might just quote a bit:

It is a curious and (presumably) unintended irony to offer to “preserve the special place in the affections and history of our nation” of Indigenous Australians whilst at the same time indicating that the only way they can share in our nation’s bounty is to become “part of the mainstream”.

Presumably unintended indeed.

~

¹Well, as a matter of fact, Jane Simpson publicly enunciated this theory at the Indigenous Languages Conference in Tandanya (Adelaide) a couple of months ago, so it’s really her theory.

For anyone who’s interested in what is happening in remote aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, but don’t want to rely on the writings of those of us who blog and have seen the effects first-hand, last night’s Four Corners visited two communities, Maningrida in western Arnhem Land, and Aputula, or Finke, in the Simpson Desert, in a report titled Tracking the Intervention (follow the link to watch the program in full, or read the transcript from here).

Because the intervention began in the south of the Territory and gradually moved north, Aputula has endured the taskforce for longer, and is considered further down the path; it is a ‘phase three’ community. Maningrida on the other hand, is about as far north as you can go without getting wet, and is still in ‘phase one’.

Generally speaking, it was great to see such a huge and important issue given the airtime it deserves; far too few people in this country realise what is happening. In fact, my family saw for the first time glimpses of what I’ve been ranting about for the past four months, and they were all appalled at the blatant injustices being committed, and the covert assimilationist policies being carried out in the (rather insincere) name of child protection.

There were four main points detailed in the four Corners report that elicited gasps of disbelief and cynicism in my household, and I’ve summarised them here.

In Maningrida, the community women operate a night-watch called the Child Safety Service. The women ensure that children are safe at night while playing, and that they go home at a reasonable hour on school-nights. The service was praised in the Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle report:

The Inquiry regards the [Maningrida Community Action Plan Project, including the Child Safety Service] as an extremely valuable project and one that can be utilised to both establish a Community Justice Group and help guide reform in relation to the mainstream response to child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities.

However, the funding is about to cease, and none of the $1.3 billion spent so far on the intervention (a lot of which is going towards the extra Centrelink bureaucrats) is finding its way to helping out this group of 15 Maningrida women who are undertaking this ‘extremely valuable project’.

This is particularly hard to understand, since the purpose of the entire intervention is the protection of children, presumably, and not the scrapping of CDEP nor the quarantining of welfare payments, which are mere means to achieve this end, supposedly. It beggared our collective belief that something as closely related to the issue at the heart of the intervention as this project is, could be allowed to suffer, especially with all the investment the government is putting in.

The next aspect that caused considerable concern was the seizing of assets. Under the legislation, commonwealth appointed ‘Business Managers’ (community administrators, or Superintendents¹) have the power to seize community assets. In Maningrida, this means up to $40 million worth of land, structures and houses on some 32 outstations, vehicles and heavy machinery, community stores and so on, can be taken away with the mere stroke of a pen.

The community have been trying to get answers from their appointed ‘Business Manager’, Luke Morrish, as to what legal powers they have, and under what circumstances and under whose authority can the government seize their property. Here is the exchange:

MATTHEW RYAN, HEAD DJELK RANGER: There’s a lot of people are curious and want to know what’s going to happen with their assets and everything, you know, but there need to be like more members too, that way they can ask you questions as well. And like Peter said earlier, we had three times taskforce come up here …

LUKE MORRISH, TASKFORCE BUSINESS MANAGER: Mmm mmm.

MR: We’ve asked them, they haven’t come back with the answers and it’s not good enough. If you want that good working relationship with us mob, well you need to have the answers.

LM: I’ve got to say, I’m not going to be able to give you all the answers myself straight away, but when I say I’ll get the answers for you, I’ll get the answers for you. And I can’t run away, I can’t hide, I’m here so I’m going to have to do that.

MR: Well that’s what the taskforce promised us which they haven’t yet, so, hopefully it’ll be you.

LM: But they’re not, you know, and they probably had a view that, yeah, once I’m here on the ground that I’d be able to do that …

MR: Oh we hope so.

LM: And that’s why I’m here.

Same question evasion, different government department.

And so the report moves on to Aputula, where the intervention has been in full operation for months. Some people in Aputula were moved on from CDEP onto real jobs: seventeen out of the twenty-eight. Most of the seventeen are now employed in the child and aged care facility. There are also reports that people who were previously able to receive welfare without doing anything, now had to earn their money through work-for-the-dole.

There were however, a number of Aputula residents, mostly men, who were employed under CDEP to tend to the community-owned fruit orchard. While they provided food for the community, there was no commercial viability in the venture as they couldn’t grow enough surplus to sell, so the project was funded by CDEP. Its cessation meant that the former workers will be moved on to something else. In the meantime they receive ‘CDEP transitional’ payments of $8.24 (that’s not a typo: eight dollars and twenty-four cents) per fortnight, for 50 hours work! That’s less than 20 cents an hour!

Since the men’s wives often work in the aged and child care centre and get a steady wage, the men feel justifiably disinclined to work 25 hours a week for an extra four bucks. This is how the government apparently gets people into jobs.

The worst part for the men though, is that whereas before they were performing important community-oriented tasks and were widely regarded as good workers, they now feel completely undervalued.

The welfare quarantining has also come into effect in Aputula. The basic premise is that the government, under the guise of the ‘Minister’, can mandate that half of all welfare payments in proscribed areas (all aboriginal communities and town camps) will be spent on certain goods or services, including food, clothing and bills, and will be spent either at a Woolworths (of which two exist in the Territory excluding Darwin) or a community store. And it’s lucky that Aputula have one of the latter, otherwise residents will have to drive some three-and-a-half hours to get to the nearest Woolies, in Alice Springs.

It sounds simple, but it has been an administrative nightmare and required the enlisting of some 350 extra staff for Centrelink to figure out the details. But it seems that when it comes to Aputula, they’ve merely passed on the job of working out the details to the communities.

Every morning Centrelink emails her updates on the quarantined money owed to each Finke [Aputula] resident on welfare. She downloads it and then enters the new data on her computer in the shop. She then prints out this list so she can refer to it all day when customers want to use their income managed funds for purchases.

Many customers come into the shop several times a day for small purchases. Every time they do, they sign their receipt.

Many can’t write, so they mark the receipt with a cross, and Rewa Angell [Manager of the Finke store] prints the name and attests that it is the customer in question. At the close of business, she then reconciles each receipt against the Centrelink data.

It’s turned community store operators into micro accountants.

I’d like to finish off this post by pointing out that I really haven’t spoken much about child sexual abuse, alcohol and drug abuse, violence, incarceration rates and all those other issues that are central to this debate and central to (the most recent incarnation of) the report that started it all. There’s a good reason for this, and that is that the response from the government to these issues – this very intervention – doesn’t address them either. Instead they’ve gone after community assets, land rights, the permit system, and everything there is that makes living in remote communities possible. In this respect, and I say this (repeatedly) without delving too far into the realm of politicking, it looks as though the real motivation is to free up that resource-rich land.

Kim Christen has written an excellent post on the history of the intervention so far, as a guest-post on the brilliant Anthropology blog Savage Minds, which I have thus far neglected to add to my blogroll (note to self: fix that) and it is well worth the read. I spent quite a few minutes composing a lengthy response there, but as it contained a link or two, it hasn’t appeared yet. In other words, I rote U a rply but Askimet eated it².

~

¹White bureaucrats who were employed in the earlier days of Australia, during the height of the Assimilationist days, to act as paternal overseer of all aboriginal people within their jurisdiction. Their job was effectively to keep them downtrodden.

²I can’t believe I just made a lolcat reference! I’ll make amends by showing you this xkcd comic:

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