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"So I think there may be a misconception that we're here to fix things. We're not. We're here to examine as many kids as we can in two weeks and to send the figures back to Canberra, and also to give the figures to the local health service."
[volunteer doctor, stationed in Titjikala, south of Alice Springs for two weeks as part of the Government's response.]

It's now a month since the Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, and the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, stood together to announce that There is A National Emergency of sexual abuse on Aboriginal communities, And the Government Will Send Out The Gunships.

We have a right to expect that if the Government sends out the gunships, there is good reason to. There is. We also have a right to expect that when the problems are longstanding there should be a good plan with longterm solutions. The last month has shown that there isn't.

The gunships were sent off with only a mud-map, under the command of a taskforce which has no member professionally trained to work with sexual abuse victims. Without advice from Indigenous doctors or people who know about Indigenous health interventions, sex abuse or Indigenous children. Without paying attention to the advice of Pat Anderson and Rex Wild, the authors of the report that triggered the announcement. ('Gunships' and 'swarms of locusts' are Wild's metaphors). And with no idea of how much the operation would cost.

It's bright shiny lip-gloss to call the present disastrous state of many Indigenous communities a National Emergency - because emergencies are things you don't expect, and you can be forgiven for not foreseeing them. The problems in Australian Indigenous communities have been laid out in report after report after report over the last 10 years. Many people have shown the need for long-term solutions, and many communities have trialled solutions, some successful, some not.

Lots of people very much want this intervention to work. But their hopes for change are being undermined by the Iraq-sized lack of planning, the arrogant dismissal of the people who've been working on these problems for years, and the unbelievable stupidity of linking land tenure to sexual abuse. The saddest moment of the last month was watching the Reverend Djiniyini Gondarra during a Mawul Rom 'workshop' at Galiwin'ku on Elcho Island, on the 7.30 report (thanks Mel). There's an extended interview on video here. I recommend it. He is speaking with passion and a bitter sense of betrayal. He and his community had been negotiating a shared responsibility agreement with Mal Brough.

DR DJINIYINI GONDARRA: When he [Mal Brough] came here [last year] there was a good spirit, do you know? We sat and we talked to him, you know? We didn't march, we didn't demonstrate. We said, "Come and sit down. We are your friend. We want to talk to you. We want to solve problems. What are your problems? Tell us. We can work together."

Mal Brough offered them 50 new houses, classrooms, more teachers, more doctors, help for people starting small businesses. They said "This is good, we can work with you". They wanted to work together to improve law and order. But when he asked them for a 99 year lease, they said, not yet, they needed to talk it through. They did what he told them to, they consulted with 15 clan nations, they gave him reports. They thought they were starting something new, they would build a better community.

Then this year the gunships sailed in. Compulsory acquisition, abolish the permits.

DR DJINIYINI GONDARRA: I am really sad, I am sad. Here was this government of the day asking us to work with them. New ways, they said, new ways. A new way is sitting and talking. And fine, the solution was the best way and when we're ready to take that challenge, they change their mind. What sort of government is this? What are they really doing? Are they really want to sit and talk?
and later,
"But now John Howard and his government has just let us down. .. Everything is just spoiled ... Theres nothing we can hope for . ..Who can believe this sort of a government - doesn't emphasis peace just emphasise inconsistency" [my transcription]
"I feel just, disgusted. There's nothing for me there. What can I say? It's going to destroy our people. That's not working together." [my transcription]

Two other reports have been quietly ignored in the gunfire. Either report should have seen the responsible Governments (Federal and State) walk the plank. The first casualty was the Social Justice Commissioner's report which said that the administration of Indigenous affairs generally is stuffed (my opinion here). It includes longterm recommendations for addressing family violence. And the other was the 2007 report card on Indigenous Health [.pdf] from the Australian Medical Association, which said the administration of Indigenous health is stuffed, although "The bottom line, of course, remains criminal [my emphasis] underfunding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health,".

So, what money are the Feds putting into it? Ken Parish at Club Troppo points out that a month later we STILL don't know.

$3-4 billion over 5 years is what Jon Altman (Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University) estimated that it would cost to do it properly. Immediately he was jumped on by the Federal Finance Minister Nick Minchin accusing him of double counting and saying: "The Prime Minister's right to say this current initiative will be in the tens of millions of dollars."

The NT Chief Minister, Clare Martin, estimated $1.5 billion was needed for housing in the NT. She was jumped on by Mal Brough saying that was political opportunism. What he was considering was "an existing $1.4 billion package for remote indigenous housing across Australia, insisting it not be spent "on the same system that has failed before."' What's this all mean? Maybe that, while appalling overcrowding of houses is a major cause of health problems and perhaps of sexual abuse, the States haven't spent the money the Commonwealth gave them for improving houses because "the same system" is code for "Aboriginal land rights" and the Commonwealth wants "land rights reform" a.k.a land rights abolition, before they'll hand the money over (at least, that's South Australia's position.)

The Australian Medical Association asked the Feds for an extra $460 million a year, ($1.8 billion over four years), to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander primary health care. Dead dead silence.

So what's the Something Big been?

The most obvious thing is that no one knows what's going on. Least of all the people the operation is supposed to help. As Andrew Bartlett points out, the Wild-Anderson report hasn't been translated into Indigenous languages yet (which was one of the reports' recommendations). Not that that matters, since the Government is ignoring the report's recommendations anyway. But lack of information breeds anxiety. Pat Dodson was told this, the Opposition spokesperson on Indigenous affairs, Jenny Macklin, was told this. The Taskforce was told this too, but their head blames other people. "Some people are really causing mischief," You don't need mischief-makers, when you don't tell people what they can expect - as the volunteer doctor's comment at the start of this post shows.

Today we learned what the Government has achieved so far - and Rex Wild's concern about the intervention being just a visiting swarm of locusts seems alarmingly accurate.

• 15 policemen have been stationed at a few communities. Probably a good thing - but are they just temporary - are the Feds going to keep paying for them? Apparently the NT - like WA - has found it hard to recruit and keep police officers.

• One permanent doctor is in place at Mutitjulu. Good! But no plans for attracting and keeping doctors in communities generally. Which everyone knows is hard.

• Standardised health checks have begun in 5 communities (no longer mandatory, probably no longer all Indigenous kids, and no more direct searching for sexual abuse since they learned that's beyond the training of most volunteer GPs) .... And what have they found out so far? Yup, among other things, anaemia. Which Max Kamien found 37 years ago among the Aboriginal children living in Bourke*. A disease of poverty which, seven years ago, the National Health and Medical Research Council. expressed concern about (Nutrition in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples: An Information Paper [.pdf]). And today we learn that the NT Government probably doesn't have the money to pay for the follow-up health care needed. Kids referred to an ear/nose/throat specialist, when Alice Springs doesn't have one.

• Six Government Business managers and three Community brokers are in place. They may know what they're doing - but it seems that the locals don't - Kerry Moir, President of the NT’s Local Government Association (LGANT) is reported in Crikey as being concerned that there appears to be no effective coordination between the NT Government’s Local Government Reform program and the elements of the Commonwealth intervention that will affect local community administrations. Track back to the Social Justice Commissioner's report...

"Drafting of legislation is well advanced to allow legislative measures to be put in place as quickly as possible." It was supposed to have been in Parliament next week. But maybe they're having trouble drafting it, since... Lots of people have pointed out there's no link between land-tenure and permits and child abuse. Every lawyer, every bush lawyer and their dog has protested this theft of property rights. AND, surely the killer argument, the NT Police Association says that abolishing permits will mean open slather for grog-runners and drug-smugglers to go into communities.

• Oh, and Mal Brough says that "NORFORCE personnel have been a hit with communities, particularly the children." Pretty expensive footy games, and Tonstant Weader is fwowin' up again.

And the other thing that has completely disappeared from the news is what is happening in those communities where CDEP jobs and income stopped on July 1. Salacious stories of sexual abuse are so much more marketable than the way the Government has let successful CDEP programs die, or the consequences of the loss of aged care workers, meals-on-wheels, women's centres in communities. Or the fact that the Fed made NO arrangement for the transition. It's all been quite haphazard. Cape York gets CDEP places changed to real jobs. At Umbakumba 112 people now go back on the dole.

As the decision to let the only airservice in the Western Desert go broke suggested, the Feds do have a long-term solution. They said so last year - audit the remote communities, decide they're unviable, close them down, and force people into hot demountables on the fringes of cities. Completely ignoring the evidence that people often live in remote communities because the rivers of alcohol flow much faster through the fringe camps, and the diseases of poverty flourish there, without the compensation of living on one's own land. No wonder Dr Gondarra sounds betrayed.

* Kamien, Max, 1978, The dark people of Bourke: a study of planned social change. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies ; Humanities Press.


wow. another excellent post. thanks jane.

Jane, thanks, this is brilliant, being over in the US I am not sure how much of the story I am getting, or how I can find out. You do a wonderful job of making me (and others) feel informed.

One of the immediate practical consequences here in the NT is that some on-going programs - language & culture, nutrition, education workshops etc – are being cancelled or postponed as there is not enough accommodation in the bush for the emergency personnel and for those who usually travel to remote communities on a regular basis. Communities are being completely taken over (more than usual) by meetings! We hear that ex-detention centre dongas will be deployed to remote places soon...

Sophie, a good e-news source on Indigenous issues is FACSIA's Indigenous alerts - online press-'e'-cutting service, Alerts-Lib . (I've spent FAR too much time browsing it over the last month...). Here's their blurb.

"If you have any comments, difficulties with accessing links, wish to be removed from this list or want to know about our other alert services, please contact the Library Services desk on (02) 6244 6385 or via email at library.research@facsia.gov.au. Please let other colleagues know of this service and we would be happy to add them to the list!"

Jenny, "Locust swarm eats houses!!" I thought the justification for the presence of NORFORCE was that they were supposed to provide accommodation for the Operation Outreach teams. Hmph, and hmph again.

3rd update on locations:
The 13 communities visited by "scoping" or "survey" teams were earlier identified for week 1 and week 2. I haven't noticed any identifications in the media of locations visited in weeks 3 and 4. Well there was Frank Baarda's letter in the 19 July Alice Springs News saying the team was at Yuendumu for the afternoon of Wednesday 11 July.

Now in the Minister's media release last Thursday there is a list of the 27 communities visited by the "survey teams" in the first four weeks. Passing over the 13 visited in the first two weeks, the names of the 14 visited in the last two weeks (weeks 3 and 4) can be extracted:
Ampilatwatja, Atitjere (Harts Range), Engawala, Kintore, Laramba, Nyirripi, Pmara Jutunta (Ti Tree and 6 mile), Robinson River, Tara, Utopia, Willowra, Wilora, Yuelamu, and Yuendumu. These are all in the CLC region except for Robinson River (NLC).

Notes: 1) Pmara Jutunta is "Ti Tree 6 mile", a community 10km south of Ti Tree village; "(Ti Tree and 6 mile)" in the media release could be an error or it could mean to include Nturiya (sometimes known as Ti Tree Station, the old homestead west of the village).
2) Haasts Bluff is Ikuntji; on the MCOAL map the place is marked as "Haasts Bluff (Ikuntji)".

The media release adds "Visits by pre-survey teams this week [i.e. week 4]. Katherine, Tennant Creek, Darwin, Arnhem Land". I don't know of any other mention of "pre-survey teams".

At this rate of seven per week, the remaining 46 communities will take more than another six weeks to survey, that is, into September.

Jenny, Jane
There is a problem with the Norforce tents - they are not insulated against the cold, and you can't light a fire in them, so the volunteer health people aren't very happy about staying in them on these frosty Centralian nights.

I'm not sure that they are even an available option for the itinerant public servants in the roving survey teams, but it would be a good idea for somebody to put out a press release complaining about this hijacking of accommodation needed for those going about their normal and important usual business.

Dave - I know I am asking for trouble here, but the official (registered) spelling is Nyirrpi, I thought, despite the version used by some NT departments.

I am told by those who know REALLY know, that the rate of survey will indeed take until late Sept.

A second health team is due to arrive at Ntaria on Wednesday, following one day of cultural orientation and one about local health systems and procedures.

Another team is due at Areyonga (Utju) on the same day.

The first team at Hermannsburg (Ntaria) did a sterling job, checking the health of 104 children in a total of seven working days.

The local Aboriginal leadership have been converted from sceptics to true believers, but it remains to be seen whether the next team can strike the same chord with the locals, and track down the families which weren't covered in the annual school-based health screenings carried out by the DHCS Ntaria clinic nurses and the Western Aranda Health's Doctor and Public Health Nurse in May/June.

In an article dated July 9, 2007, and published in NIT Issue 132 - 28 Jun 2007

The federal government has refused to release the names of communities ear-marked for federal government intervention. However, NIT has obtained a copy of the most recent list of communities. There are 73 in total.
Not quite true: although I still haven't seen a text list of the target communities, there was released on 26 June what I have been calling the MCOAL map, posted on FACSIA's website linked from the Minister's media release that day. I discussed it the following day. The file is called "reform_map.PDF" and shows 56 communities.

Now, in addition to the 56 communities already announced, there are 17 more in the NIT list:
CLC region (12): Alpurrurulam, Atitjere (Hart Range), Canteen Creek (Owatilla) [sc. Owaitilla], Engawala (Alcoota), Imangara (Murray Downs), Imanpa, Kalkarinji (Wave Hill), Laramba, Tara, Titjikala, Wilora, Wutunugurra (Epenarra)
NLC region (5): Binjari, Bulla, Kybrook Farm, Nauiyu (Daly River), Yarralin

The list of 73 just about matches the NT Infrastructure Group's list of places with 'Indigenous Essential Services' (IES):

The Territory funds Electricity, Water and Sewerage services for the 72 communities listed with another 33 communities partially funded through being connected to the electricity or water grid of an adjacent larger community.
The egregious community is Mutitjulu: the only community which is on the NIT list and not on the NT Infrastructure Group's list (which is also here).

So, why not release the list of communities intended for the scoping survey? Especially if it is simply a matter of copying a rational list from public NT Government sources, and adding Mutitjulu.

By the way, the NT Infrastructure Group's IES list is of course pretty much the same as the NT Goverment's list of 'NT Remote Communities', all also shown on a useful map. There are two differences: the Remote Communities list has Iwupataka, and lacks Acacia Larrakia. (NB: Nganmarriyanga is the incorporated name at Palumpa so is not really a difference.) By the bye, the NT Goverment's Building Asset Management System has a fair amount of data on infrastructure at each community, available in various ways including good maps.

Actually the above overlooks Utopia, which has now been scoped according to the Minister's media release last Thursday. Utopia is not on the NIT list, nor on the basic IES list; it corresponds to the 16 'Urapuntja Outstations' in the 'Homelands (Outstations)' part of the IES list.

Great post, Jane. Having just come from the NT, and having spoken to many Federal Govt public servants there, it's quite disturbing how little anyone knows what's going on, what the long term plan is etc.

Overhearing a pre-survey-team-visit meeting between Barbara McCarthy and women in a Katherine region community last week, Barbara was asked, "Why do the army have to come here and set up tents to house people who want to carry out health checks we don't want? We have people here who can set up tents. We have a clinic that does health checks. The kids are checked at school for their eyes and ears."

I have to agree with Barbara, who said "Good question. Ask the survey team when they come."

She also said, "Organise. I'm out of the loop because I'm a Territory politician, but big changes are promised, so tell the survey teams what you want. Speak up."

The Shadow invites me to discuss placename spelling variation. Throw me in the briar bushes! He says

the official (registered) spelling is Nyirrpi, I thought, despite the version used by some NT departments.
I used the spelling as in the Minister's media release. Yes, Nyirrpi is the way to spell the name according to the standard Warlpiri orthography (the name derives from the noun nyirrpi 'desert oak (tree)' in Warlpiri and Pintupi). Here are the number of pages Google finds with various spellings:
Nyirripi 22,800
Nyrripi 4,070
Nyirrpi 638
Nyiripi 45
Nyripi 7
Nyrrpi 3
So there are two spellings more common than the "correct" one. The top spellings were in local use more in the past, but hang on in wider reference. The official NT Place Names Register and Geoscience Australia's consolidated gazetteer have only Nyirripi, which is also the spelling used for the airstrip (YNRR). Nyirripi is used in community government, such as on the NTG's Local Government site, reserved in this NTG URL, and nowadays Nyirrpi also is officially sanctioned as you say.

The spelling with the intrusive "i" came from people literate in English but not Warlpiri trying to write down the non-English combination of an alveolar flap (or trill) followed by a consonant. Note that a Scotsman happily writes kirk not "kirik".

The vagaries of spellings of community names could be a study in itself, with object lessons and some case studies just in the lists above (e.g. I could repeat my note about "Ali Curung" sc. Alekarenge from my 2003 'Authenticity in toponymy') but no...

Update: There is an NTG site Australian Government Intervention on
Child Abuse in NT Indigenous Communities
with a collection of basic information, published 12 July apparently (thanks Bob Gosford).
It includes a map of communities affected. This map has as base map the MCOAL map, to which is added in a lighter shade 17 additional communites whose names I extracted above (including the mispelling "Owatilla"). Although it is published on an NTG site (on 12 July apparently), the map is credited to FACSIA; but I don't see it on FACSIA's site. In any case, it gives an official confirmation of the NIT list of 9 July.

I would like to bring to this discussion, experience gained from my time as a nuclear worker and my long-term interest in the languages and cultures of Aboriginal communities.

Between 1965 and 1989 I worked at the Australian Atomic Energy Commission (later ANSTO) intially as a technologist in radiation health and safety then later as scientific editor. AAEC/ANSTO encouraged and funded my university studies at Macquarie (BA, BA(Hons), and MA (Hons)), all with major studies in linguistics, with an emphasis on the history of non-literate language studies.

My interest here led to a number of events, each with a bearing on Aboriginal issues in that region. I was part of a team that visited the Top End in 1979 at the invitation of the Northern Land Council to answer questions on radiological hazards put by elders of various Arnhem Land communities.

Earlier I was editor of some of the Alligator Rivers (Uranium Province) environmental studies (The Fox Inquiry), a report on the "black cloud" claim following one of the Maralinga bomb tests,a matter raised by the South Pitjantjara people (which was one of inspirations for the Royal Commission on the British Nuclear Tests in Australia - The McLelland Commission). In 1985, I was co-opted as Editor for that Commission (which included the then academic Bill Jonas as a Commissioner and anthropologists Annette Hamilton, Kingsley Palmer and Maggie Brady as advisors).

Along the way (1979), because of my editorial background and my interest in Capell's work (the subject of my BA (Hons) thesis), I was co-opted by Stefan Wurm (ANU) to work for one year with Arthur Capell on his last major statements on the history of Australian Aboriginal languages. I later worked with him on weekends until his death in 1986. Being made executor of his literary estate is, as many of you know, the reason that I'm working with PARADISEC at Sydney University.

This lengthy preamble explains my interest in Aboriginal matters in the NT and elsewhere, and my perspective on these things.

Let me get one thing clear: I am not anti-nuclear - but I do believe that a lot of rubbish is being delivered in support of a nuclear future for Australia. This is not really the place to canvass my industry-specific misgivings, but I do think we should be looking very carefully at the underlying reasons for the recent Northern Territory federal invasion. As some of you seem to imply the Brough/Howard spin on the issue is high on rhetoric and emotion and short on strategies,resolutions and time-frames beyond the four or five months to the next election.

Of course there are social and criminal issues to be resolved, as there have been for many years. But I would argue that these issues are being raised as a camouflage for the Howard Government's real agenda - the removal of the pass system and the eventual cancellation of Land Rights Acts to permit wide-ranging exploration, mining and extraction of uranium and other valuable but non-nuclear heavy metals with little or no return (social or financial)to the traditional owners.

Peter J.F. Newton
Visiting Scholar, PARADISEC

This post has been reprinted at On Line Opinion (Australia's e-journal of social and political debate, and there's more commentary there. On line Opinion and Club Troppo have selected it as one of the 40 best Australian non-mainstream-media blog-posts of 2007. (Thanks! and thanks to all the commenters)

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