BARRY ABBOTT (with microphone) and leading Aboriginal people at a protest about the Whitegate camp at the eastern edge of Alice Springs.
By ERWIN CHLANDA
Why are Aboriginal men angry? What message are their children sending us when they steal things they don’t need? What is the real reason for the government’s proposed national Indigenous art gallery? And what has Slim Dusty to do with all of that?
PHOTO by Alex Nelson (from left): Paul Everingham, Grant Heaslip (partly obscured), Steve Hatton, Ray Hanrahan, Eric Poole.
A bloated, top-heavy bureaucracy, a legal system failing to take account of the social problems of Aboriginal people, and the stubborn ignoring of their cultural requirements are all sins of the NT governments in the’ 70s and early ’80s that have relentlessly snowballed into the dismal political reality of today.
Charles Darwin University’s most senior academic in Alice Springs, Professor Rolf Gerritsen, has a challenging take on these questions.
When Malcolm Fraser gave Paul Everingham the key to the Territory through self-government, the first Chief Minister took it as a “licence to spend money, mostly on construction projects. We got into the habit of big government”.
Paul Everingham spent half a billion dollars on a resort at Ayers Rock, Paul Henderson the same amount on a sup
The gallery is but the latest incarnation of this habit – planned to be in our face just for the next election.
“The cycle we created is that every government has to invent a big construction project to get re-elected,” Prof Gerritsen said in a speech to the Rotary Club of Alice Springs on Wednesday.
“And that’s what the gallery is about – construction. Not about how we present Aboriginal culture to the world, or what it is it we have that is unique and might make people come. They won’t come for an art gallery.
“There are synergies out of the existing attractions in the town – the Desert Park, Strehlow Centre, a small group wanting to build a culture centre.”
Lala land emerges: Paul Everingham in a May 29, 1980 election poster: “A $400m coal fired power station for Darwin. Solar power for Ayers Rock. Gas pipeline and refinery for Alice Springs. Hydro electric dam at Katherine. An experimental wind power generator for Barkly Tablelands. There is more than one way to solve the energy crisis. The CLP’s approach will use all the viable options to keep the Territory moving ahead.”
We should be embracing all of the Aboriginal history, going back to the ice age when life was really hard.
What we need is “a national Indigenous centre, not the art centre, the whole thing.
“That would be a unique attraction that no-one else could produce. But because we have these electoral time cycles we are reducing our choices.”
Prof Gerritsen says when the two-year-old was raped in Tennant Creek, there were four child protection workers in that town, trying to look after a hundred families.
“Five families would be a full time job in Tennant Creek. But there are more supervisors in Darwin than there were actual child [protection] workers on the ground.”
Crime in Alice Springs “is the product of an inefficient Territory Government, because it made decisions back in the ’70s and early ’80s that are still with us, rolled along and got worse and worse.
“It’s largely a Federal Government problem in the sense that they have partly created it, by reducing Aboriginal representation, abolishing ATSIC.
“Then the NT Government followed suite and smashed Aboriginal local government.
“We have inter-personal crime, but we don’t worry about that, blackfellers hitting their wives. It’s ever present, it’s very bad, but that’s less of a concern.
“It’s just the coppers and the paramedics having to pick up the pieces. And then the courts fail, because we have a system deciding what is an offence and what is not,” says Prof Gerritsen.
Right: The latest example of the NT’s edifice complex looms behind the original seat of government, The Residency. Photo by Pip McManus.
On top of that is victimless crime, driving or licensing offences, “and we’re dealing with them like they’re handled in other states, without regard to the NT’s unique social problems”.
Yet these offences are a significant contributor to the incarceration rate, so we need to build “ever more and bigger gaols. And so we have ever more prison officers and we have even more managers of prison officers, sitting in offices in Darwin.
“And so we lock our expenditure in, and don’t have expenditure for alternative approaches. We don’t even have a debate about them. One of the responses to youth crime at the moment is to re-build the detention centres.
“We have too many people in gaol already and it does not serve any purpose to have them there.
“We need to start thinking about fundamentals. Are we locked into a path where we can’t really change and we can’t see the alternatives?”
Growing debt is narrowing the options even further.
“The NT has far and away the highest proportion of managers and administrators in its public service – twice the national average. And they are expensive.”
When Prof Gerritsen moved from the policy department in the office of the NT Chief Minister back to being a university professor his salary halved.
“We need conversation outside the loop, in civil society, which is us, the people who aren’t politicians, who are not in official positions of authority, to start talking about these issues, to say, this is obviously not working.
“We’re building another youth detention centre. In five years we’ll need to build another one. It’s a waste of money, the Territory over-spends anyway and our debt is steadily rising.
“That leaves us ultimately with two options: One is abolition of the Territory and the resumption of Commonwealth control.”
Left: Once untiring defender of Aboriginal interest, Alison Anderson, with CLP Chief Minister Adam Giles whose government suffered annihilation.
He says the solution lies with organisations like this, the Rotary Club of Alice Springs he was addressing, like football clubs and so on, “requiring people, and the media, to look at things differently.
“Politics these days is just people slagging each other off. There isn’t the sort of sensible debate that two friends may have in the pub over a beer. This is all over the world, which is why we have Trump as a President. Citizens need to take more control over these debates.”
The Territory is on the wrong track with Aboriginal adults as well as children.
“In the 1970s we promised Aboriginal people self government. We did not give it to them. We’ve actually gone backwards, and they don’t like it. And so they don’t feel any responsibility for anything that happens.
“Losing their councils was terribly unpopular. That was worse than Kennett’s amalgamation of local government in Victoria.
“Aboriginal councils had a grader. The grader was seized. The new shire headquarters were all put on the Stuart Highway, so whitefellas would run the council because they could live in Katherine or Tennant Creek, not in Ngukurr or Lajamanu, and so we’ve bottomed-out on Aboriginal people.
“I see signs of a fight-back.”
Prof Gerritsen says councils of elders are being formed on communities which means “giving them some authority. And that means local government. Shires and Federal Government will have to give up some control. And they have to support these councils of elders.
“Traditional Aboriginal society before we came onto the place was a gerontocracy. Old fellers ran it.
“If a young feller stirred, created problems, he was either poisoned or speared. Old men controlled the supply and distribution of women which in Marxist terms was the main means of production in Aboriginal society.
“Women got [provided] 70% of what people ate. Controlling the women meant controlling the society.
“As soon as we arrived the veto of the old men disappeared and Aboriginal society has not adjusted to that and is finding it very difficult to adjust to very rapid social change.
“The status of women has gone up because the state, the government, has become feminised. Two thirds of the anthropologists at the Central Land Council are now women.
“A combination of Slim Dusty and Malcolm Fraser destroyed the control men had over women.
“Fraser gave women family allowance payments directly for themselves, so they had money separate from their men.
Right: Redtails – the future?
“And Slim Dusty introduced the idea of romantic love which was rather inimical to the traditional system in which old men married young women – good for the old men but not such a good system for the young women.
“The status of women is changing dramatically. Two-thirds of government expenditure programs is going to women. All these new programs, child care, arts et cetera, it’s women … they are becoming, in some respects, superior to men.
“The men don’t like that, and that’s a lot of what’s behind what we call family violence.
“Welfare dependency is part of the resistance to our control. And paradoxically we’re funding them to resist us. We’re saying, here is some money, and you can do nothing. And they’ll do nothing.
“We are a culture that values progress, and values planning for the future. Aboriginal culture is absolutely the opposite.
“There are two kinds of societies in the world: There are the agrarian based societies which is us and virtually all the Asians, and Europeans and North Americans … you have a duty to look after your kids, keep them healthy and make the best of themselves.
“And then you have the hunter-gatherer societies. And they are consumption now societies, not defer consumption. No hunter gatherer society, even if they had the technology, would bother with a fridge.
“And so we have this huge culture clash which we don’t recognise.
“We keep saying about these kids – and this is what I think is so hopeless about the crime situation – their parents should take control of them.
“Well, it’s not going to happen. The kids are in rebellion against their parents as much as they are against us.
“And they love giving us the shits.
“They love going down the streets, and we get on Facebook … terrible gang of kids coming down the street … and they’ll steal things they don’t need, nor want. They steal them to annoy us.
“We really have to start a discussion about these things, because the way we’re looking at them is the wrong prism. It’s not going to solve the problem. We need to do a new analysis.
“Assimilation is inevitable. But the society is in so much turmoil that very few people have any authority or even respect.
“When I witnessed initiations in the early ’80s they took months. Now it’s done in two days.
“The senior men are trying to get control of these kids. Their own culture is under crisis. Their relationships with us is under crisis. It is turmoil, and there are no simple solutions.
“We seem to think assimilation could be tomorrow. I think it will be another century, at least.”
Prof Gerritsen (pictured) is the Principal Researcher and Professorial Research Fellow at the Charles Darwin University. He taught at various universities, including a decade at the Australian National University in Canberra.
He was the director of the Australian Centre for Regional and Local Government Studies for five years, and a senior ministerial staffer at both Commonwealth and Territory levels, including in the Chief Minister’s Department in the Northern Territory.
His research Interests are economic and regional development policy; Indigenous development and community resilience; and natural resource and conservation management.
He was born in Indonesia to Dutch parents.
He’s been in Alice Springs for 11 years.