ABOVE: Youth worker George Peckham on the microphone at Tuesday night’s public meeting. AT RIGHT: MacDonnell Shire workers at Apatula (Finke). Photo source: MacDonnell Shire, 2010. BELOW: From our archive: Young local women staffing the Centrelink office at the Tjuwanpa Resource Centre near Hermannsburg (Ntaria) in 2007.
By KIERAN FINNANE
“I’ve got 55 positions across MacDonnell Shire – I can’t fill all of them because I have to compete with Centrelink.”
It was one of the starker statements of the two and half hour public meeting held in Alice on Tuesday evening, about the second phase of the Federal Intervention.
The speaker was Tracey McNee, coordinator of Community Safety at the shire, making a point about the disincentive to work created by ease of access to the dole. She “took her hat off” to shire residents who had taken the work, but commented on the remaining vacancies: “[People] don’t necessarily have the same pressure and pushes to apply for those jobs.”
The jobs are with night patrol services: “No-one is saying night patrol is an easy job, but it is a job,” said Ms McNee.
Centrelink is potentially “a large part of the solution,” responded veteran community development worker Bob Durnan, suggesting that the organisation has the motivation and capacity as well as permanent staff in communities to help people into jobs (presumably with some forcefulness, if necessary). He said while government has poured a huge amount of money into job networks, they are not based in communities and don’t have local knowledge. Centrelink is in a good position to take over job network functions, he said.
Brendan Heenan, an alderman and owner of MacDonnell Range Caravan Park, spoke of his experience of taking pre-release prisoners for work experience at the park and then offering them a job upon their release. He said they work for two to three weeks but then, under the pressure of family and alcohol, they don’t turn up for work. He saw mentoring as a possible remedy.
Well-resourced mentoring was also proposed by businesswoman Jenny Mostran, who said the incentives available to private enterprise for the employment of Aboriginal people are “miniscule” and do not take into account the amount of time a qualified person must spend to properly train a new recruit.
Mentoring got a tick from Barbara Shaw, town camp resident and lead activist of the Intervention Rollback Action Group (IRAG); she thought Indigenous Business Australia should be called upon to do the job.
Jimmy Cocking, of the Arid Lands Environment Centre, pointed to the opportunities likely to flow from a changing economy with a greater emphasis on land management and clean energy development. He suggested that people be helped to identify the opportunities and to set up enterprises.
Kay Eade of the Chamber of Commerce said that it is very hard to set up enterprises in communities because of a lack of accommodation. Without attention paid to this, she said, the NT’s growth towns will continue to be Aboriginal communities with government services but no other employment, and won’t be like any other town in Australia (contrary to the government’s intention).
The jobs discussion attracted the most targeted comments, although there were some broad claims from IRAG: Aboriginal people “are still stuck on the unemployment line”; “The shires have employed a lot of whitefellers, there’s not a lot of work on the ground”; “There’s no proper employment for Aboriginal people.”
This last came from Ms Shaw whose comments about her own situation suggest what she means. She said she is “in and out” of employment but wants to find a “proper job”: it would need to suit her and her children with respect to school hours and she would want to be “happy with the job for the rest of my life”. (Wouldn’t we all?)
Education, particularly school attendance, drew the fiercest exchange.
A woman, who described herself as a clinical psychologist having worked extensively in remote schools, said one reason that kids stay away is that school is “threatening and unsafe” for them. She said the programs are “not appropriate” and the “wrong kind of teachers” are being recruited.
Bess Price, Warlpiri woman and current chair of the NT Indigenous Affairs Advisory Council, told the woman she was “embarrassed” by her comments. She said kids probably should be “kicked up their arses” to get them to school, their parents too. We must “stop making excuses”, said Mrs Price, and “with one voice make sure we all try to help our children out in remote communities, even the ones running around the streets here in Alice Springs, to get them educated, to get them into a normal situation, like you would have in your home with your children.”
The “no excuses” message did not dissuade a woman who works for the Red Cross from talking about the racism of teachers playing out in the classroom, even if it is “unconscious racism”, nor comments from an IRAG member about the “massive impact” that changes to bi-lingual education policy has had at Yuendumu amd Lajamanu, about CDEP changes having forced a lot of Aboriginal educators out of the schools, about the “disaster” of SIHIP and its failure to address massive over-crowding.
Mrs Price responded: “I lived in a humpy, I got up at eight o’clock every morning, my dad dragged me out of the humpy and took me to school. I showered and got to school every day, so there’s no excuse for anybody and I survived …
“I didn’t have bi-lingual education when I attended Yuedumu school, I learned to read and write my language after I did for English.”
And, according to Mrs Price, Yuendumu school is doing well – “there were 100 kids the other time I was out there” and the school has “a great principal”.
Member for Drysdale, Ross Bohlin (Country Liberals), who happened to be in town, was very taken by Mrs Price’s statements: “M’am, you are an inspiration!” He suggested that hands-on and pictorial learning can be overlooked. He said he was not “academic”, had trained as a mechanic and later became a policeman. Academic education “is not always the answer”.
Robert Hoosan, president of Old Timers town camp housing association, said he had not been to school; he got his education in the police force. He said he tries to push his kids to go to school.
A man wanted less emphasis on compulsion, though that was not to say it does not have a part in the overall strategy. He wanted to see more thinking about ways to “instill a love of learning”. A woman agreed, finding incentives /disincentives arguments a distraction: “Let’s keep the conversation around education.”
Reducing the harm caused by alcohol was the third priority area of discussion proposed to the meeting by its chair, Mark Coffey, former senior police officer, now heading up the Alice Springs Transformation Plan. He asked Mr Hoosan, who had said he hates grog, what he thought.
Mr Hoosan might hate it, but he didn’t seem to want to be told what to do about it: “You tell us how to live, you’re controlling our lives.” And he said when he calls the police at night, “they don’t rock up”. He said that at Old Timers camp he’s “in a canoe”, and perhaps he needs to get “on the ship with you” (Mr Coffey, or perhaps whitefellas in general).
Barbara Shaw advocates local alcohol management plans, as are underway in three town camps, including Mount Nancy where she lives.
Tracey McNee pointed to the misconception that the Intervention was responsible for grog bans in remote communities. There were no “wet canteens” (bush-style licensed premises) in communities in Central Australia before the Intervention. Communities had already spoken on the grog issues and declared themselves “dry” (grog-free). She was concerned about undermining that with the negotiation of local alcohol management plans.
A woman criticised the Intervention’s “punitive” approach, and wanted community “empowerment”, for instance by more money to support Aboriginal-run, community-based programs.
Mark Lockyer, town camp resident and independent activist known for his strong statements on the drinking culture in camps, said: “Children learn what they live.” He recalled seeing children, when five-litre casks of wine were available, filling the bladders up and drinking them. He said restrictions had made a difference in the camp, he’d seen a drop in drinking, more people were sobering up.
Bess Price wanted to see “more guts” in the NT Government’s alcohol policy.
Betty Pearce, a prominent senior Aboriginal woman, said the government would be too “afraid to do anything drastic” on grog issues, because it would affect whitefellas’ economic interests.
She criticised the failure of the Intervention to provide rehabilitation and counselling services in communities, and fired a broadside at land councils (presumably relevant to the Intervention generally, rather than to grog measures in particular): “While land councils are in control, you’ll never get anything done.”
Phil Walcott, psychologist and early independent candidate for Greatorex in the next NT election, spoke about giving back to individuals the “responsibility for their choices”.
Jane Lloyd, who has long worked in the area of family violence, particularly in remote communities, and is an advisor to the Australian Crime Commission’s National Indigenous Violence and Child Abuse Intelligence taskforce, responded that people exercising choices (to drink grog) can “inflict great harm on others who can’t choose”, including unborn children. She called for greater support in schools for children whose capacity to learn has been affected by the drinking of others.
The groundedness of this comment did not stop the next speaker from asserting that “identity is everything” and criticising the absence of “real respect for Aboriginal culture and heritage” in schools. Cultural values are the “essence of what helps people rehabilitate”.
The meeting went over time to deal with safety, particularly policing, health and housing. Views continued to oscillate between the practical and the aspirational, between critique and grumbles (Barbara Shaw objected to having different coloured tiles in her taxpayer-refurbished house).
As people began to leave the meeting, the discussion was increasingly dominated by IRAG, who at least have to be given points for persistence and organisation. They were present in number, filmed the proceedings and distributed a two-page document outlining an alternative to the Intervention.
They want a return to Aboriginal community government councils, to reinvent CDEP, no township leasing, no hub towns, more money for all communities, more money for community-based programs, for Aboriginal-managed health services and culturally appropriate alcohol treatment, recognition of customary law … in other words, go back to where we started, and wasn’t that so successful.