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: