Serious Whitefella Stuff: have we got a program for you!


p2340-Serious-Whitefella-coREVIEW by KIERAN FINNANE 
A book about Indigenous affairs policy in remote communities of recent decades: what I least expected was a collection of highly readable accounts with living, breathing individuals at their centre, residents and frontline workers of those very communities, the people who have to get on as best they can, often despite the policies that are supposed to be helping them.
This is the unusual offering of Serious Whitefella Stuff by Mark Moran (MUP), including contributions from Alyson Wright and Paul Memmott.
Moran these days is a professor at the University of Queensland, leading the Development Effectiveness group at the Institute for Social Science Research, but he began his involvement with Indigenous communities as a civil engineer, before he went off and got a PhD in human geography and planning. Wright, trained in geography and epidemiology, is a policy researcher with the Central Land Council, and has also worked for the Centre for Appropriate Technology and the Desert Knowledge CRC. Memmott, also a professor at UQ, has practised both as an architect and social anthropologist, and is the author of nine books and 220 other publications on Indigenous cultural topics.
The choice by such highly specialised authors to write for the general reader arose from their observation of the way that public opinion and the media have been such “potent drivers” of Indigenous affairs policy, with the furore that precipitated the Northern Territory Intervention as the most glaring recent example.
Their ability to tell the stories from the perspective of people on the ground relates however to their own personal qualities and experiences: their preparedness to enter into relationships that are respectful and reciprocal, and that at times develop into strong friendships that persist across decades. None of them labour the point, but the richly characterised women and men present at the heart of their accounts is what sets this book apart. No case studies, no ciphers. Named people in their homes, in their workplaces, on their country, buffeted around in a policy landscape that is highly politicised, over-crowded, complex and fragmented, having to getting on as best they can.
This comes with a clear analysis of the way that the ‘problem’ of Indigenous affairs is forever being reconceptualized, leading to new policy announcements and programs. Programs are introduced at a faster rate than they are completed, leading to an annual increase in their sheer quantity. It serves to be reminded of some of the absurd numbers, even though the book’s greatest strength is in its ‘on the ground’ accounts.
• At the end of the COAG trial in Wadeye (2003-06), which was supposed to be all about improved coordination, the number of funding agreements increased from 60 to more than 90.
• In 2011-12 Julalikari Council in Tennant Creek acquitted 81 separate government grants.
• The Australian National Audit Office in 2012 found that Indigenous organizations funded under one grant system were required to submit on average 25 different financial and acquittal reports. A not insubstantial number of grants were for less than $1000. The audit’s conclusion was sobering: the administrative burden imposed on the organizations the grants were supposed to be helping in fact undermined their capability.
p2341-Serious-ScullionYet still this situation persists and when its failures are highlighted by yet another media flurry, as provoked by the Four Corners program broadcast on 6 June, the buck gets passed: “It’s called self-determination,” said Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion (at right, holding the microphone for Deputy PM Joyce)  in Alice Springs the next day, essentially blaming the whole sorry mess on the aspirations of Indigenous people.
Moran’s stories are all from communities in far north Queensland. In their detail, and in particular in the account of the personalities involved, they are highly specific, but their themes will resonate strongly in Central Australia.
His account of Kowanyama’s grappling with the alcohol supply in their community spans more than 40 years. When the words ‘wet canteens in the bush’ are waved around as a magic wand solution to Alice’s public drinking problems, their speakers would do well to read this chapter.
However, most compelling, moving and at times enraging, is the account of people from Mapoon trying to remain on their traditional country and, for some of them, to own their own homes.
In contrast to desert peoples, the first peoples of this area lived in settled camps for weeks or months at a time. They had also long been exposed to outside influences from Papua to the north, although from the late nineteenth century these were eclipsed by influences from the south.
Mapoon Mission was established in 1891. Its second missionary, Revered John Hey from Germany, took an innovative approach in community development, encouraging the development of little ‘outstation’ blocks, separate from the mission village, for each newlywed couple. Their houses were self-built and self-purchased, using the wages that the men earned in pastoral and fishing enterprises, which elsewhere might have been absorbed into mission coffers.
p2341-Serious-Whitefella-Mo“Hey left a legacy of owner builders and young men trained in carpentry,” writes Moran (at right).
When you think of how such a legacy is craved today it is shattering to read what happened at Mapoon in the mid-twentieth century, when the Queensland Government first enticed people to move away with false promises, then forced them out, to make way for Comalco’s bauxite mine.
Some Mapoon locals held out. On the black day of 14 November 1963, Queensland Police forced the core resisters onto a boat and relocated them to New Mapoon 150 kms to the north. Most of the houses they had built were burned down. The following year all bar one were demolished.
This incident was witnessed by Rachel Peters, who is one of the people Moran met three decades later at Mapoon and through whose experiences he tells the story.
In 1972 she, her husband, six children and their dog sailed from New Mapoon back to their homeland – a sea journey in a small dinghy, the stuff of local legend. Better facilities drew them to nearby Napranum where tragically there was also plenty of alcohol. They would retreat to Mapoon for peaceful getaways and a wonderful diet of seafood and bush tucker, but the allure of town and grog was strong. It would cost Rachel’s family dearly when her 22-year-old son Alwyn killed his 19-year-old partner in an alcohol-fuelled rage. (Their story was told in a memorable documentary, State of Shock, by David Bradbury.)
Rachel’s family never really recovers from the upheaval of these years, but Rachel herself remains a remarkably resilient figure through the rest of the story that Moran tells. Taking their place alongside her, younger leaders emerge: Linda McLachlan, Ricky Guivarra, Lou Akenson, members of the Mapoon diaspora, who grew up far from home, coming back with education and skills that they can apply to the rebuilding of Mapoon. They are among the people with whom Moran and a team of outsiders work to recreate the original mission layout of family blocks, which the families still claimed.
Individuals with Indigenous roots in their communities are not the only distinct personalities to emerge in the stories told in this book. Moran and his contributing authors recognise the essential role of “trusted outsiders” with appropriate skills and mindsets, including a sense of justice: senior bureaucrats like the late Peter Taylor of ATSIC and subsequently the Centre for Appropriate Technology; a Queensland Government public servant, Duncan Wallis (“no one rose to the occasion more”).
As Moran writes, “The history of Mapoon displays not only the worst but also the best of Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations.”
Eventually in 2000 Mapoon gains local government status, by which time it has developed a considerable civic society that includes a number of tribal and land-holding groupings. Moran, however, notes the familiar paradox of remote communities, that self-determination in Mapoon is operating “within a context of reliance on economic and institutional support”.
In a second chapter on Mapoon, Moran takes up the story of more and more people returning to the community, their quest for housing and in particular for some, the desire to own their home. We follow the arduous journey to this goal of Polly Smith and her non-Indigenous husband Tony, through the ins and outs of policy and up against land title insecurity. They end up having to finance the purchase of materials through a high interest loan but do eventually manage to build their own place, a modern “humpy, but with all the mod cons”, as Moran describes it, completely unregulated and unlikely to ever be insured. We leave this determined couple dreaming of opening up tourist accommodation on their block, while along the way Polly has become an active community leader, a member of the council and chairing a landholding corporation.
Private home ownership may not be the panacea that it is sometimes touted as by the likes of Twiggy Forrest; and the road to it for traditional owners is high risk, when you have former Premier Campbell Newman thinking he could legislate away the problem of communal land tenure by allowing Aboriginal land to be converted to parcels of alienable freehold title. It’s not hard to see how this could lead to a massive loss of land under Indigenous ownership. There are other models, such as implemented on First Nation lands in Canada, which avoid the risk of alienating land from the community, but where mortgages have been secured for home ownership and economic enterprise.
Closer to our patch, Alyson Wright recounts the fate of a Shared Responsibility Agreement (SRA) made with the community of Ali Curung, some 150 kms south-east of Tennant Creek. In some ways this chapter is the best illustration of the book’s ironic title, Serious Whitefella Stuff, although perhaps that is because it is about the policy innovations of such recent memory and familiarity, supposed to offer such hope for turning the tide on the corrosive impacts of welfare dependency and the many ills that seem to go with it. (Memmott’s story about cultural revival on Mornington Island, featuring among others the legendary brothers Lindsay and Dick Roughsey, lawmen, artists, leaders, is fascinating but feels more distant.)
Ali Curung was perfectly situated to be an early guinea pig for a Howard Government SRA in The Centre – at the end of the bitumen, an easy drive from Tennant, not too far from Alice, a great place to visit for bureaucrats who wanted to get out of the office, says Wright. Contending with them falls to the council CEO Karen Worth and her key ally on the community, Noel Hayes, a ‘two ways’ educated Kaytetye man who moved back to Ali Curung after the abolition of ATSIC, employed as the council’s office manager. Wright, and the book as a whole, is instructive about the way personality and relationships make a difference in communities. It was critical that Karen and Noel got along and that they both had personal qualities that made them resistant to burnout.
(My one misgiving about Wright’s account is that she, as narrator, is not visible, in contrast to Moran and Memmott as narrators. The reader does not know what she was doing on the community, how much time she spent there, what her own relationships were. To a degree this undermines the strength of her position as an author ‘on the ground’.)
The SRA brought $1.5m worth of projects into Ali Curung, while supposedly committing families to a long list of personal responsibilities, like sending their kids to schools, fed and clean, looking after their homes and, most importantly, finding paid employment. Despite this household level focus, there was little involvement of the families themselves in the negotiations. They were invited to public meetings for information sessions, but no translators were provided. The families never really understood their end of the bargain, says Wright, and were never reminded when they failed to live up to them.
We follow the fate of the SRA through the dissolution of the council, which was the de facto lead agency for its implementation, and through the ill-fated attempts to get community members involved in farming, first via a community market garden which was to serve as a training ground. The ultimate goal was for people to then take jobs with the commercial fruit-grower who was  negotiating a lease on their land.
p2142-Serious-Elton-LimbiarA CDEP gang was formed to work the community garden but their activity was limited to intermittent 10-week courses when trainers were available. The garden fell over. The commercial farm went ahead, with great fanfare about the local jobs it would create, however, “after the failure of the market garden, local workers were far from ‘job ready’, in capability, self-confidence and interest,” says Wright.
At left: Elton Limbiari, son of Noel Hayes, one of the few Ali Curung locals to take a job at the commercial  farm. Source: Territory Q, 2008, No 2. 
The one shining light through the fiasco is the creation of the Arlpwe Art Centre under the shrewd stewardship of another trusted outsider, Lorna Martin, enticed by Karen to Ali Curung from Tennant where she was CEO of Barkly Regional Arts. Her husband Vic takes up the job of the SRA project manager and then has his common sense advice ignored.
The SRA is eventually swept aside by the Intervention, for which Wright says Ali Curung became a ‘pin up’ community following national media reports of alcohol abuse, a high incidence of domestic violence and inter-generational sexual abuse, even though the cases had already been handled through the courts and the perpetrators had served their time.
Centralised decision-making and drive-in workers take over and Karen, Noel and residents watch as their vehicles and other equipment leave the community, new staff arrive and their local decision-making bodies are subsumed into the shire. And soon another layer will be added: Ali Curung will become one of the NT Government’s ‘growth towns’. Karen decides to move on to WA, “away from the chaos”. But for Noel Hayes Ali Curung is home. How he maintains equanimity in face of all the shifts and turns is astonishing.
These years later it is dubious whether Ali Curung is in any way better off (except that the art centre has survived). Youth are harder to engage; school outcomes are poor, work opportunities are few; community unrest, grog abuse and violence continues. Wright leaves Noel “strained but unwavering” in his commitment, “waiting for the next policy wind to sweep in”.
So what to make of all this in conclusion? The stories certainly seem to illustrate Moran’s analysis of the traits of Indigenous affairs policy: it purges, discrediting what has gone before; it swings, from decentralisation, for example, to centralisation and back again; it mimics, with successful practices in one place duplicated elsewhere regardless of history and context; it contradicts, different programs pulling in opposing directions, with a bewildering array of behavioural expectations.
The stories also illustrate how “seemingly against the odds, those engaged in the daily business of community development negotiate its ambiguities, indeterminacies and dilemmas” and how “practice ultimately triumphs over policy”. Imagine the time and energy on the ground, not to mention morale, that would be liberated to more useful purpose if policy were more connected and immediately responsive to frontline context and practice, in other words to the people it is supposed to serve.
Serious Whitefella Stuff: When solutions became the problem in Indigenous Affairs
By Mark Moran, with individual chapters by Alyson Wright and Paul Memmott.
Melbourne University Publishing, 2016.


  1. Re comments on Ali Curung, All members of the community speak and understand English so the claim that translators were not provided is misleading.
    Residents of the community did attend meetings because there were benefits on offer that they were very interested in, including a new community bus.
    Families were well aware of the obligations on them and already were fulfilling their duty to keep their kids clean and feed them.
    The exceptions were the numerous alcoholics in the community and the government program was not going to change the course of their addiction.
    In the end the bus and other goodies were used to death and trashed and not much else changed.
    Bribing people to live more like whitefellas is a failed strategy.

  2. Jack: In regards to “bribing people to live more like whitefellas is a failed strategy”.
    It’s called evolution and it’s a way of helping the transition. Unfortunately you can’t expect to live the same way and maintain old traditions and expect to be involved in a modern society without modifying / incorporating / evolving old traditions into in to modern life.
    Otherwise the “whitefellas” would still be running around conquering countries and owning slaves as part of their culture.

  3. Baron they are modifying / incorporating / evolving old traditions into into a modern life – an Aboriginal modern life, that is.
    Not understanding that is the fatal flaw in the book.
    There is an assumption that whitefellas and blackfellas want the same things when they don’t or rather want things on their own terms.
    Instead of recognising that bureaucracies are blamed for the failure to implement programs and excuses made for blackfellas who were not job ready, didn’t understand, weren’t consulted properly, could only work in the garden intermittently because trainers were not always there?

  4. Like Mark, I was an indigenous policy researcher. He did us a service by putting in print what every senior public servant knows.
    But everyone also knows what works. If you investigate how successful Aboriginal organisations and programs in Central Australia started, you will see they all began with a creative, cross-cultural partnership based on friendship and family. Some organisations’ futures were threatened by bureaucratic control, but those who sustained their partnerships survive.
    Those partnerships are often like extended families, and are based on the trust that all cultures need to survive adversity.
    Those values also express Central Australia at its best. But, as Mark’s stories illustrate, individuals get burned out resisting bureaucratic pressure, thus community-based creativity is needed to sustain our collective wellbeing.

  5. There are a lot of whitefellas in far away places deciding what blackfellas problems are, what they want and need.
    Obviously in Canberra or Darwin you are a long way from the reality and unaware of the real impacts these policies plans and programs have.
    In Alice Springs and surrounds there are people who have a strong in culture and have witnessed the direct impact of these policies on themselves and their friends and relations for the past 50 and more years.
    They know what worked what didn’t. what might have worked if it was run differently. Perhaps its time these experts are given the resources and support to develop their own solutions to these problems. They are family and live and care for their younger generations and unlike many whitefella workers and pollies they are here for the long haul.


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