Questions from the Top End

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In December, a triumphant Kevin Rudd presided over a meeting of hand-picked Indigenous leaders in Darwin. The new Prime Minister had travelled to the Top End to court Aboriginal people on their own country, dubbing them his "advisory group" and promising nothing more than a meeting in three months time.

The second meeting of the group was held last week, but ‘Kevin from Queensland’ was in Papua New Guinea. His Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, was left to carry the can, explaining that Rudd has an "enormous schedule" and preparing the ground for further Prime Ministerial absences from the forum.

While Macklin was able to assure all concerned that, in general terms, the meeting was "excellent" and "very productive", there was the same absence of concrete detail that characterised the December discussions. In the Northern Territory, where the Federal Intervention is the only game in town, the big questions remain unanswered.

Barbara Shaw is a town-camper from Alice Springs’ Mt Nancy camp, and also a member of the Tangentyere Council Executive. She recently travelled to the national capital to speak at the "Converge on Canberra" rally which coincided with the opening of the Federal Parliament. Shaw told the Working Group for Aboriginal Rights of her trip to Canberra and her reservations about the Intervention. "We met with Minister Macklin, made our protest march and statements, and met with politicians in Senate meeting rooms at Parliament House where we each told our stories and asked for the Intervention to please be stopped."

But Shaw is concerned that the protest made little impact. "It is like no-one was listening and so the fight goes on in Central Australia. We are collecting stories from community members about how the quarantining of welfare payments is affecting them and making life harder." Yesterday more protests were held at Centrelink offices across the country.

The draconian welfare quarantining measures have also been beset with administrative difficulties. In the Alice Springs region – the only place where the Government’s cumbersome quarantining measures have begun to bite – it’s no surprise that many of those affected are unhappy about having their entitlements withheld because they are Aboriginal (meanwhile, the Intervention legislation denies them recourse under the Racial Discrimination Act). While there is some support for the scheme emerging in surrounding communities like Hermannsburg, the situation in the town of Alice Springs itself is highly problematic.

The ABC reported in late January this year reported that Centrelink admitted it was intending to quarantine the pension of an 80-year-old Alice Springs woman because her street name was the same as that of a town camp. She was advised that part of her pension would be withheld "to pay for rent and power bills" despite the fact that she lives rent-free with her daughter and son-in-law in a house that operates on its own solar power.

Steve Gumerungi Hodder is an Indigenous journalist in Alice Springs who presents the Strong Voices program on CAAMA Radio. newmatilda.com spoke to him on Tuesday when he expressed concern that the Federal Government had not put resources on the ground to match the broader commitments of the Intervention. "Look at how much has already been spent on the bureaucracy alone and compare that to the services that are in place. I know they’ve said that one of the next phases of the Intervention will be about the service delivery – but why wasn’t that done as part of the first phase?"

According to Hodder, the income management system is having some unfortunate results. "There is one fella who lives a fair way out of town and he doesn’t get any of his quarantined money put aside to travel in to do shopping. He is a good dad, and a man who cares for his country. But he can’t pay for a cab to get into town. He’s got to hitch-hike."

The mechanics of the quarantining system were clearly conceived in haste. Remarkably, the much vaunted ‘store cards’ are not issued in the name of particular clients. They are simply vouchers entitling the bearer to goods of a certain value and are traded as currency. Stories abound of individuals in possession of these cards being prepared to exchange them for cash or contraband at discounted rates.

But the hoariest chestnut of them all is the simplistic assertion that the problems facing remote Territory communities can be laid substantially at the feet of the permit system.

David Ross, CEO of the Central Land Council has made the telling observation that "the prospect of retaining permits for communities on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory provokes outrage among those least affected by the issue". He has also noted that "positive social change is best implemented with the consent of the people it most affects" That the permit system is imperfect is an argument for it to be strengthened, not jettisoned.

The Intervention has served at least to highlight the fact that the problems facing remote Indigenous communities in the NT are many and considerable. The injection of substantial amounts of funding for infrastructure will be warmly welcomed. Increased police numbers to curb the scourge of trafficking in alcohol, drugs, and petrol – and to help restore order when necessary – will also be regarded as a boon.

But to date, the Intervention has produced far more colour and movement than tangible results. In a landscape strewn with the corpses of well intentioned programs conceived in Canberra and foisted upon Aboriginal people, many Indigenous Territorians remain deeply suspicious.

Regardless of whether the Prime Minister’s pressing schedule allows him to darken the door of the next Darwin Group assembly, the Federal Government must respond to the concerns of those on the ground with statements of precision and substance.

For more on Australian politics, visit our blog PollieGraph

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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