By KIERAN FINNANE
FROM OUR SEVEN MILLION WORD STORY ARCHIVE
It’s an election campaign like no-one else’s: parties, policies and platforms seem to matter little compared to the ties that bind.
People from across the vast electorate of Namatjira (formerly MacDonnell) were expected to converge on Papunya for the annual Sports Weekend. I made a date two weeks ago to travel out there with the community’s most famous daughter and sitting Legislative Assembly Member, Alison Anderson.
The day of travel arrives and plans change. We’ll overnight first in Hermannsburg where she must attend a funeral the next morning. My swag and stores are added to the load – her Toyota has become a rolling campaign office – and we set out.
In 2005 as a member of the Labor Party Ms Anderson won the seat with almost double the primary vote of her nearest rival, the sitting Member John Elferink (CLP). She was a Minister for the Henderson Government when she took it without contest in 2008, but something of a gulf had developed between her and the party over the Intervention. She broadly supported its measures and in The Centre nobody worked harder to translate its potential for “the little people on the ground”. For them it was, in her view, a last chance for people in remote Aboriginal communities to climb out of the cycles of poor education, welfare dependency, addictions, violence and the neglect and abuse of children. She famously resigned from the Labor Government in August 2009, in protest over the mishandling of the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Project (SIHIP). She sat for a year on the back benches as an independent until she joined the Country Liberals.
That will probably be the last time I mention political parties in this article for over our two-day excursion I scarcely hear a word about them, from her or anyone else. About her opponents, yes, but the focus is on what she sees as the weakness of their campaigns compared to the strength of hers. This comes down to one thing, she believes: being out there in the electorate, spending time with people in the places where they live, sitting down with them and talking with them about their lives.
Her concession to campaigning convention is in the matter of election materials, in particular corflutes. She notes with a certain pride the presence of her corflutes along our route, placed over the previous week by campaign volunteers. How much do they really matter, I want to know.
“They do matter, they remind people that there’s a contest on and what their choices are,” she says.
I watch her point them out to the people she encounters, stressing the election date – “in two weeks’ time!” She might well be confident of their support but they must remember to vote.
Visiting the sorry camp
The campaign goes on hold once we arrive at Hermannsburg. The funeral’s own strong protocols around respect for the deceased and his family are what matter. She does her part, delivering black and white funeral clothes and colourful artificial flowers to her aunty – the bereaved widow – and other relatives gathered at the sorry camp on an outstation a few kilometres from the settlement.
In the morning as the first bell rings out from the Lutheran Church, Ms Anderson joins the mourners and is soon lost in the crowd. Hundreds of people have gathered, for the dead man was an important Pitantjatjara elder, Mr Ngalkin, who had lived long decades with his Arrernte-Luritja wife, Alice. People, many of them including small children dressed in black and white, have come in from the communities all around and up from the APY lands. Many of the sympathy messages that are read out during the service come from places like Ernabella and Mutitjulu and even further afield. The inter-connections between families and language groups weave a dense web across the desert.
The church is overflowing and some mourners remain in the church yard, where the service can be heard over a PA system. Intermittently there is the wail of mourning, mixed with the voices of the Areyonga women’s choir, rising and falling like our earthly hopes. There are heartfelt readings from the gospels in Aboriginal languages and finally speeches in honour of the deceased and his family.
Grandchildren are instructed to go outside first, to form a guard of honour for the coffin. They emerge carrying wreaths and bunches of flowers. The wailing rises to a crescendo now and the bell tolls as the white coffin is carried from the church. One by one the mourners touch the coffin in farewell. A pall of sadness and distress hangs over the scene as they move towards cars to follow the hearse to the cemetery.
Time to move on
By lunchtime things seem to return to normal. People take off their black and white clothes. A long queue forms at the Top Shop takeaway and people are smiling again as they greet one another or say goodbye. Ms Anderson takes the opportunity to call in on Tjuwanpa Outstation Resource Centre, a stone’s throw from Hermannsburg, just across the Finke River. There she’s welcomed by its longtime manager Jane Rosalski.
Although the Aboriginal staff and program participants are mostly absent due the the funeral, business is booming at Tjuwanpa. The finishing touches are being put on a construction camp for New Futures Alliance workers who are due to arrive this week to start work on SIHIP housing in Hermannsburg – 26 new houses, four of them replacing dilapidated existing dwellings, Ms Rosalski understands.
Getting the contract for the camp was a second best for Tjuwanpa. They would have preferred to get the contract to build the houses, Ms Rosalski tells Ms Anderson. They could have delivered the project over five years, employing mostly a local workforce. Unfortunately there was a 12 month deadline. Ms Anderson sees it as a wasted opportunity, especially as Tjuwanpa has shown that it can deliver.
She and Ms Rosalski take me to see the new office space (above) for Tjuwanpa’s CDEP program. This building could also function as a four-bedroom dwelling and was built by the Tjuwanpa team, including CDEP participants. The cost: $157,000. That’s well under the SIHIP average of $450,000 per unit for new houses.
Across the way is a more ambitious construction (below), nearing completion. Again it has been made largely by the Tjuwanpa team. They drew up the design based on a concept developed by the local women for what will be their training centre. On a 440sqm lot, it features four free-standing buildings grouped around an open circular courtyard covered by a roof.
Such a construction could house four related families, says Ms Rosalski , allowing them their privacy but providing an attractive central area for them to come together. Again the cost is instructive: $850,000.
“How do you get the best value for your dollar? Engage our local participants with employment and training,” she says.
She shows us over the facilities. They include a room for mothers and babies where young women will learn about caring for children, including bathing them and washing their clothes. Next door there’s a gym, which will be kitted out with exercise equipment. I’m a bit surprised by this, in a bush location where there would seem to be plenty of scope for physical activity.
But Ms Anderson says it’s important: overweight women are embarrassed to be seen walking in public, she says. Here they’ll be able to get fit on the treadmills, in privacy.
There’s also a kitchen equipped to commercial standard and it may well hold the key to the future of the whole operation.
Baking bread again
“FaHCSIA [the federal Department of Indigenous Affairs] have been very generous with this CDEP extension funding,” explains Ms Rosalski, “but there’s no operational money. We’ve had a meeting about how we’re going to keep all this going and the women’s idea is to do a bakery. The old women remember how they used to bake bread in Hermannsburg. Now we’ll do it in Tjuwanpa.”
Another enterprise idea is to convert parts of the construction camp, once the SIHIP contract is finished, into visitors’ accommodation. It could cater for tourists – and link them with other activities offered by locals, such as art and cultural tours. It could also be a base for families visiting their relatives in Hermannsburg, as well as visiting contractors and government and NGO staff.
Ms Anderson scores a bit of a political point with some of this – on a theme close to her heart, the wastage of human and finacial resources under the SIHIP scheme – but she’s equally keen, as she says to Ms Rosalski , to “get the good news stories out there”.
“There is a some progress on communities!” she says.
The afternoon is drawing on when we set out for Papunya, stopping first on the banks of the Finke River to answer texts and take last mobile calls before we lose signal. Heading west on dirt now, we’ve only done about 15 kilometres when we see two vehicles pulled up on the side of the road. Both of them look well worse for wear but we learn only one, a small bus, has ceased moving altogether. Ms Anderson and Leo Abbott, who is helping with her campaign, confer. Soon she is happily chatting to the women on board the bus – they’re all from Areyonga and had come in for the funeral – while Mr Abbott gets out his bag of tools and sets to work on the engine (above; below, Ms Anderson with Judy Brumby to her left, Esmeralda on her right).
Eventually, with the help of a tow – it takes two goes – the bus fires up and disappears westwards in a cloud of smoke. We don’t see them again but “our mob don’t forget thing like that,” says Mr Abbott with satisfaction. There’s a joke about votes in the bag but Ms Anderson shakes her head. For her, there’s never been any doubt of that. “Areyonga’s a great community,” she says.
Does she mean in terms of support for her or that it’s going well generally?
“Both,” she says.
We turn off the dirt onto the sealed Red Centre Way. The majestic Tnorala (Gosse’s Bluff) rises to our left. The native grasses shimmer in the late afternoon light – not much buffel out here – and we spot the occasional grass tree. “God’s country,” says Ms Anderson in response to my awe as we wind through this beautiful landscape. We stop at the Tyler’s Pass lookout and she enjoys pointing out the landmarks, one after another as we turn 360 degrees – they include Mt Zeil and Mt Sonder to the north and Haasts Bluff to the north-west, our direction.
Finally we are driving straight into the setting sun, through the dust hanging in the air from the cars that have gone ahead of us. On the outskirts of Papunya, we see a tourist vehicle pulled a little way off the road, setting up camp for the night.
“It’s good, I don’t mind at all,” says Ms Anderson, “that’s what tourists want, to get out here and really enjoy the bush.”
Further on we stop while she welcomes a group from Titjikala, also getting ready to camp for the night. They include Philip Wilyuka, the new chairman of the Central Land Council, and his sister Lisa, formerly a councillor with MacDonnell Shire, now a shire employee. It’s something of a commonplace to talk of arbitrary mainstream demarcations in the desert, such as electoral and shire boundaries, but contemporary social and cultural life and the connections made possible by the car do span vast areas: here is a large group of visitors from the south-eastern corner of the Namatjira electorate, come to enjoy the biggest event on Papunya’s calendar, travelling a distance of over 350 kms.
Next morning, before the day’s games get underway, we call in on some of Ms Anderson’s family at their outstation, Three Mile. This is the home of her brother Amos and his wife Linda, a long-time teacher at Papunya School. These days their three dwellings house just six adults, as well as their little granddaughter, Imogen. But for Sports Weekend, “it’s chockers”. Most of the visitors come from Finke, again a community in the far south-eastern reaches of the electorate. The connection is made particularly through Sylvana Marks who grew up at Papunya – “our daughter”, says Ms Anderson, with a sweeping gesture that includes Linda and Amos. Sylvana has married a Doolan and now lives in Finke. Her little daughter, Zahara, is brought out to stand with Imogen for a photo. The two little girls (above right) are all dressed up for Sports’ Weekend, with Imogen in the Australian green and gold, and everyone is delighted with them.
Ms Anderson delivers pituri (native tobacco) to her mother and settles down with the women. For a while the focus is on Imogen, who has a little purse full of coins and likes to get them all out, to “count” them with her grandfather. Later this kitty will come in handy, providing the cash float for Sid Anderson’s barbecue stall at the oval, the coins replaced with notes (I didn’t get to see Imogen’s face when she next inspected her purse!).
Getting going in the morning
With the sun already high in the sky, Ms Anderson’s niece Makisha gets ready for softball umpire duties. Her mother Linda comments that back in her day, three games would have already been played: “I had to get up early!”
We arrive at the oval around lunchtime. The first game of footy is about to start, Utopia versus the Kintore Hawks. Utopia want me to take their photo (see at the end of the article). One of the team, on his own initiative, organises them to turn to face the sun, so that I’ll get good exposure on their faces. The pride is clear, the mood upbeat.
Utopia versus the Kintore Hawks. Utopia won.
The match gets underway and little by little the cars and spectators start arriving. Ms Anderson greets almost everyone in her path. Here are visitors from Napperby. They tell her they were pulled up by police on the way in. There’s a slight air of complaint but Ms Anderson won’t have it: “That’s their job,” she says, “they’ve gotta do it. They pull me up too.”
A little while later police themselves drive up. They’ve come in from Kintore to help out the Papunya police on their big weekend. They stop for a long chat with Ms Anderson. The senior officer tells her: “I love it there, you’ll need a crowbar to get me out, the people are good, the population’s growing.” He talks about problems too in a useful exchange of information.
Meanwhile Sid Anderson (MacDonnell Shire President and Ms Anderson’s older brother) arrives with supplies for a food stall – meat, bread, onions and soft drink. Leo Abbott offers to do the cooking and soon the tempting smell of barbecued meat and fried onions draws the first customers. A soft-serve icecream van does the rounds and Imogen scores a treat.
Ms Anderson makes her way from car to car, group to group. She urges the Haasts Bluff football team to don their colours for a photo (see at the end of the article), and sits down with some of the Haasts Bluff women (Doreen Lane in shadow, Hazel Butler in front, Vronita Malta in pink sweater, then Verna Abbott) while they get ready. Most of these exchanges happen in Aboriginal languages, of course, though there’s frequently a peppering of English, especially for things to do with the mainstream world.
Does she talk to people about issues, about what she and her party can do for them?
Yes, of course: “I tell them we support homelands as long as kids are going to school. They may live in communities but they all have families who live on homelands [outstations]. There are three outstations around Haasts Bluff, for example.”
She dismisses the NT Government’s recent announcement of additional funding for homelands, and argues for per capita funding, citing the example of Bonya, a tiny community in the north-eastern Sandover-Plenty region of the electorate, which looks after five outstations. There the population is growing, she says, but the funding isn’t. Overcrowding is an issue with 50 to 60 people sharing eight dwellings.
(Per capita funding would appear to go further than her party’s policy which, like the NT Government’s, is focussed on maintaining existing housing stock that is permanently occupied. The government is committing “up to $20,000” per dwelling, while the CLP’s policy is to allocate $5200 per dwelling.)
The dirt and the ‘whoops’
During the drive out the conditions of roads in the electorate is a point of discussion. The dirt and gravel roads we take are on the whole in good condition, although on the way back there are sections of ‘whoops’ on the Gary Junction Road that would rival the Finke Desert Race track. If you take these side on, you roll.
We take them front on and go bouncing along, fine in the Toyota, much more testing for the old two-wheel drives owned by many community people. But this is definitely not the worst road in the electorate. It doesn’t rate in Ms Anderson’s list of the ones that need urgent attention: the Ernest Giles Road into Kings Canyon – “absolutely terrible!” – and the roads to Titjikala, Docker River and Santa Teresa.
The government’s ears must be burning, for virtually as we talk they announce money (an unspecified amount) for upgrading gravel sections of the road to Santa Teresa (the only road in The Centre to benefit from the total package announced).
Other issues come up in conversation as we move around. Housing’s a big topic. Ms Anderson makes a point about the necessity to think ahead and cater in each house for people’s possible future disabilities: “If it’s not done out bush, then sooner or later people will end up in town.”
More jobs for young people is another issue for people throughout the electorate, she says. Why then, I ask, don’t they take jobs at Hermannsburg’s Finke River Mission store, for example? When we stop there to buy the makings for sandwiches, there are only white staff on the cash registers. That’s because of the funeral, normally Aboriginal staff do work there, including on the cash registers, she assures me.
Her brother Amos tells me that his eldest daughter, Natasha, has come home for Sports Weekend from Adelaide where she works as an interpreter. She completed high school in Alice Springs, boarding with her Aunty Alison. How does he feel about her living so far away now?
Making their own lives
“It’s good,” says Mr Anderson. “When they grow up, they should be independent. They’ve been to school, they’ve got opportunities to make their own life.”
His son, who went to St John’s in Darwin for his secondary education, is working for the Central Land Council’s ranger program.
Dissatisfaction with the shires is another issue, says Ms Anderson: “People feel the shires have taken away their voice.”
If they’re financially unsustainable now, I suggest, how much more so will that be the case if they’re broken up into smaller councils, losing the advantage of economies of scale. She challenges that. Maintaining centralised control in a town-based HQ is expensive in itself. For instance, there are managers of shire services based on all the main communities and “then there’s a bloke who goes around checking up on them all”. That’s an example of money (his wages and associated costs) that could be saved with smaller-scale organisations. She suggests some logical clusterings, of people and communities strongly connected by family ties and language. For example: Kintore, Mt Liebig, Papunya and Haasts Bluff; Docker River, Mutitjulu, Areyonga, Imanpa; Finke, Titjikala, Santa Teresa and Amoonguna.
But it will be up to them, she stresses.
These conversations, about issues and policy, are short-lived. The energy out here is about the more intimate matters of people’s lives: a young mother’s hopes of having her baby returned to her now that there’s some family support in place; the obvious need for a change in diet for an obese boy; the many early deaths that families, including her own, suffer. “Poor thing” is a phrase often on her lips. But there’s also a lot of joking, teasing and laughter, a great pleasure taken in the company of others, that pushes into the background the signs of poverty, ill health and inertia that are so striking for an outsider.
Below: Haasts Bluff football team; bottom: Utopia football team.
PHOTO at top: With family at Three Mile outstation, Papunya: Alison Anderson in the pink top; to her left Sylvana Marks, to her right Makisha Anderson, nieces. Makisha’s mother Linda in the striped top; Alison’s mother Beverley, front ; Linda’s eldest daughter Natasha in green.