Of Town Camps and Uranium Mines

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When Central Australian Prosecutor, Nanette Rogers, appeared on the ABC’s Late Line program in May, she described in shocking detail sexual assaults and domestic violence being perpetrated in Aboriginal communities. The media responded as if this was all new and used the story to launch a frenzy of racist vilification of Aboriginal culture. But for Aboriginal people, the problems were far from new. Reports written by Aboriginal women demanded action as early as 1988. In 1998, Associate Professor Paul Memmott delivered a report to the Minister which, in part, summed up all the previous reports. The Minister sat on it for 18 months before it was even released. The message was clear. Indigenous people want action, not more talk. What’s needed is well-funded community-based solutions, created and driven by Aboriginal people. Ray Jackson, President of the Indigenous Social Justice Association, agrees. He puts the current bashing of the Aboriginal community into context and explores solutions.

There is currently an ideological war being waged by the Federal and Northern Territory (NT) governments against those Aborigines living in remote communities and what are known as town camps.

For a long time, there has been a breakdown of the social fabric within those communities. This goes to the heart of the tragedy that is being perpetrated upon the women and children on a daily basis.

Cynically, governments have described the horrible violence against women and children as being part of Aboriginal culture. These actions are most definitely not any part of Aboriginal culture. They arise as a result of the alienation that springs from the denial of our ancient culture.

If one is to believe the Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mal Brough, this is a problem which he has just “discovered.” And he is “determined” to stamp such practices out. Back in 2003, the Howard Government held a National Summit specifically on the problems which are once again being “discovered.” It was a talkfest with no real outcomes. Indigenous people can be forgiven for thinking that the summit held on 26 June 2006 will be just as useless. We’ve heard it all before!

The violence against women and children in the camps does not happen in a social vacuum. It is, however, exacerbated by a political vacuum that goes back forty years or more. Governments have known of the violence that has infected our communities, and all they have done is to avert their collective eyes.

A history of neglect. In 1967 a referendum was held. Ninety percent of voters agreed that Aborigines should be counted in the census. Another change was to allow Aborigines to vote in Federal Elections. The referendum also gave the Federal Government the power to take full responsibility from the States and Territories to make positive change for the Indigenous peoples of Australia.

Whether Coalition or Labor, no government has fully used the powers given to it by the Australian people. Rather, this clumsy and ineffective duopoly of Federal and State and Territory jurisdiction has continued to this day.

During the latter part of the 1960s and the early ’70s, some NT Aborigines established the town camps around Alice Springs, because they were not allowed to be in the city boundaries after dark.

Over the years, twenty town camps sprung up outside town boundaries. Alice Springs also serves over 260 remote communities. Residents travel to Alice Springs and stay in the camps in greatly overcrowded conditions with relatives who live there. It is, after all, the Aboriginal way.

In the town camps there is no electricity, no garbage removal service, no mail deliveries and no bus services to town. Virtually no community services are provided. Some camps are better than others are, but all become problematic when kith and kin flow in from remote communities.

Housing in the camps needs to accommodate sometimes twenty or more members of an extended family. Programs that were once funded by either State or Federal Governments have been cut. The money is redirected towards non-Aboriginal programs in order to buy votes.

Whatever the politics of the government in power, under-spending on Indigenous affairs continues. According to recent reports, the NT Labor Government, led by the Chief Minister Clare Martin, underspent at least $118 million dollars of monies specifically earmarked by the Federal Government for Aboriginal housing. Another recent example was the report that showed that the NT Government spent only 40 – 60 cents per Aboriginal student for every dollar spent on non-Aboriginal students.

Over the past forty years a culture of inter-government buck-passing has become entrenched. The Federal Government has the right, granted by the 1967 Referendum, to have this money returned so that they can initiate the spending on housing and education! But no Federal Government has ever taken the initiative to implement their power.

Racist media frenzy. The town camps have never been made viable, because the governments involved have never wanted them to be viable. What they needed was a convenient blame-the-victim trigger to try to force the closure of the camps. In May 2006, Prosecutor Nanette Rogers handed that trigger, and all the bullets it would ever need, to the Federal Government.

The public airing of the physical, sexual and mental assaults in the camps forced both the Territory and Federal Governments to look like they were doing something. Initially each blamed the other and argued they had no responsibility for the violence festering in the town camps.

The Federal Government argued that the camps needed more police, while the NT Government argued that more housing was needed. Both are needed. And once the camps have been made safe, the police need to get out and continue their policing strictly on a call-out basis. The elders and the community do not need any racist over-policing. Our jails are too full already.

Next the focus shifted to the victims and the widespread use of alcohol, marijuana and petrol sniffing. The Australian media went into a frenzy of misreporting, misrepresentation and just downright lies. Suicides and child abuse made them salivate even more. And it was all our fault of course. What was lacking was any discussion of positive solutions for the camp inhabitants.

Other Aboriginal communities were also “discovered” to have long-term problems. Graphic descriptions were continually given of rapes, assaults, murders and substance abuse. Everything was grist for their dollar-making mill. The cause of all our misery was “proved” to be our own culture. Hey, it sells papers and advertising, doesn’t it!

Unbelievably, there was debate about whether to move abused children out of danger. Of course they needed to be moved, and quickly. Child abuse happens in all communities, not just Indigenous communities. All children need to be protected from abusive situations. Indigenous children should be promptly removed from the abuse but not from the Indigenous community. Senior Aboriginal women must be enlisted to supervise safe places for Indigenous children faced with the threat of abuse.

Despite all the calls to “do something,” I have yet to see any reports that this has occurred.

Racist policies. The Federal Government used this human crisis to facilitate its aims. It posed as sympathetic to the victims while pushing its own agenda. Since coming to power ten years ago, Howard has continuously pushed assimilationist policies upon Aborigines.

Aboriginal communities, such as the town camps and remote communities scattered around Australia, are seen as being incompatible with the government ethos of commercialism. Lands that are not being “used” to enrich the mining, pastoral, tourism or some other industry, is land that is not “viable.”

This explains the attempts to wind back the NT Land Rights Act, (See editorial on page 15). Aboriginal traditional owners hold about 40% of the NT land mass, by far the greatest holding in Australia. Little is used for commercial purposes, but is instead used for cultural purposes. The owners grant access to some mining and other businesses. But this is not enough —Howard wants it all!

Howard sees land being used for other than commercial interests as “dangerous communism.” Communal ownership and use threatens Howard’s agenda which is why the NT Land Rights Act is under attack.

Forty percent of Australia’s uranium is in the NT; most of it on lands handed back to the traditional owners. With the Howard Government now pushing for the opening of more uranium mines and pushing the community to accept nuclear power plants, the two policies intermesh.

For the governments involved to use the social tragedy that is happening to our women and our youth in the communities and town camps in order to further their assimilationist and land grabbing policies, shows clearly that their ethos is based on commercialism, not compassion.

Now Tony Abbott wants to return us to the mission days when we were “administered” by white mission managers. We want no return to those destructive days, nor do we want to live in toxic communities, driven to despair because of a total lack of services that other Australians take for granted. We want nothing less than the full equality that governments continue to promise us, not the “special treatment” that continues to strip our people of our cultural and other rights.

We must have our lands, with full control of all resources. We need sovereignty, treaties with each Indigenous nation, and social justice. We demand that our cultural rights be restored in full. Then — and only then — will the terrible legacy of invasion and genocide cease and all the misery arising from that history be truly reconciled.

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