Prof Gerritsen: We got it wrong from the start


2565 Whitegate protest

BARRY ABBOTT (with microphone) and leading Aboriginal people at a protest about the Whitegate camp at the eastern edge of Alice Springs. 

2565 Alex pic Everingham, Hatton etcBy 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
er prison.
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.
2565 Everingham poster“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.
p2497 Supreme Court & Residency Pip McManus“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.
p1833anderson-gilesSM“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.
2565 football players“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.”
p2301-Rolf-GerritsenProf 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.


  1. I’m sorry but when I see the term “whitefella” used I get annoyed.
    I know you aren’t allowed to have feelings when you’re a white fella but I do and being put in the same bucket as the “whitefellas” that are being talked about annoys me.
    Also the fact no one is looking inwards when the two year old was violated annoyes me too! Is it the Territory Families’ fault and not the person doing the crime or others around who would have been well aware of the situation but neglected to care more or do something about it to ensure it wouldn’t happen?
    I think the Aboriginal is a culture to be proud of, well at least the many years ago it was, the term pride gets thrown around a lot nowadays but I’m not seeing a lot.

  2. Prof Gerritsen correctly claims that residents of the Northern Territory would have a decent future if the Northern Territory was abolished.
    Prof Gerritsen incorrectly suggests Commonwealth resumption of control as a solution.
    Commonwealth racist tampering caused failure to thrive.
    Commonwealth rejected equality of opportunity, instead promoting apartheid and racism.
    Commonwealth ensured simple improvements were rejected, as they failed to satisfy Commonwealth apartheid policies, so ensuring each attempt to improve eventually became just another failure caused by racism.
    Most failures within the Northern Territory of the Commonwealth directly result from the Commonwealth’s ongoing promotion of racist apartheid policies.
    For NT residents the best solution is to rejoin it to the state of South Australia.

  3. Whitegate: The descendants of Sid Ross should decide what to do about claiming the land, the people trying to claim the land are not the rightful owners.
    It is outside of the Native Title determination area for Alice Springs.
    Despite this, eight years ago the government was prepared to give the entire block of land surrounds to LAAC to be owned and cared for by the entire group of traditional owners. But one greedy group prevented it.

  4. Professor Gerritsen’s thoughtful speech to Rotary makes some good points, but I wonder if anyone’s listening and concerned enough to continue the debate into parliamentary action?
    We are indeed in a rut with an electoral cycle dictating the window of change.
    It opens and shuts every few years according to ideological whim, so the prospect of it being a place of change in these dystopian days is dubious.
    It begs the question of what lies ahead.
    The proponents of the Youth Club idea have not made a statement for some months, but Prof. Gerritsen’s remarks on indigenous youth social pathology should be of interest to this collective. Perhaps, they are having discussions in the social worker network.
    The art gallery idea becomes less interesting as the edifice complex is revealed.
    I made the point recently that a cultural centre seemed more interesting and that it should include pre-contact history.
    There are enough commercial art galleries and museums around to justify Prof. Gerritsen’s suggestion that tourists won’t respond to the lure of an art gallery, especially the way it’s been rolled out in Alice.
    The NT is like no other place in Australia, with the possible exception of the Kimberley.
    I recently flew into Katherine from Burketown, via Borooloola after a period of working interstate.
    That night, I had dinner at some kind of RSL/Sporting Club and afterwards, while waiting for a taxi, I was humbugged for “some loose change” by a smooth talking indigenous man of respectable appearance.
    I gave him a few dollars and he went straight to the bar, but I reflected on the role of beggar and money without having to work for it. This complex is bigger than the edifice complex.
    Slim Dusty may have brought the notion of romantic love, but so did the movie cinema, including the Drive-In.
    The formal protocol of adult chauffeur as a way of teaching indigenous boys and girls the birds and the bees was still practised at Papunya in the 1980s, but when liberal grog supply, porn (a Western cultural object – does anyone remember the ‘Blue Movie’ bus that did the rounds of after-dark Alice during the 80s?) and the decline of state education (‘safe schools’, etc.), it is no wonder that miscreant behavior is a phenomenon.

  5. Prof Gerritsen goes courageously well beyond my level of expertise.
    But I have been agitating for an Indigenous Cultural Institution ever since there was the faintest chance of it happening at Barangaroo in Sydney.
    We do already have plenty of the fabulous art in galleries across the country; and it would be hard to match that at a gallery in Alice.
    But offering an understanding of that art through explanations of the cultures behind it, the pre-colonial history, the laws and lore which created a society that has survived 50,000 years, and the ceremony that educated and sustained it is desperately needed for local and tourist consumption.
    Sadly, the logic is that the Institution should be in Adelaide where the artefacts to illuminate the story have been best collected.
    Maybe Paul Parker’s solution to NT governance is the answer!

  6. Was enjoying the Prof’s views on traditional Aboriginal society erosion but raised an eyebrow when he said that Slim introduced romantic love.
    One of the most beautiful romantic love stories I ever heard out bush was the ancient Dreamtime story of the kookaburra legend.
    A young tribal man married his young bride and soon afterwards went on an extended hunting party trip.
    While he was away, his young bride died of natural causes unexpectedly.
    He grieved uncontrollably for his loss for many months.
    One night in a dream she came to him and told him to stop grieving; she was at peace; he should get on with his life. Next morning he woke up still grieving.
    The next night she came again, telling him again. Once more he woke up next morning and still grieved.
    On the third night she came again and said “Ok sport. Enuff is enuff. In the morning when you wake up I will send you a sign. To be happy and get on with your life. I am at peace.”
    Next morning the young lad opened one eye and saw this strange little bird a metre away on the ground looking at him.
    As he watched, the little bird rose in the air, circled him a few times, watching him and flew off, with a happy laughing sound drifting back on the desert morning air.
    He got the message, stopped grieving and lived a happy life thereafter.
    The kookaburra romantic story, an Aboriginal romantic story, around in the Dreamtime a few zillion years before Slim, God love him, came on the scene.
    How lovely is that, I ask!

  7. @ John Bell: Jedda, directed by Charles Chauvel in 1951, Australia’s first feature film shot in colour, tells a story of romantic love within a taboo tribal structure.

  8. A report just published on ABC News online “China has a bigger problem than the trade war – a mountain of debt” reveals a remarkable similarity when comparing the economic management of that country to the Northern Territory, notwithstanding the sheer difference of scale between the two regimes.
    The following quote from the ABC story could almost have been lifted from Professor Gerritsen’s remarks: “Their success and their ability to get promoted onwards and upwards is primarily based on their ability to generate economic growth,” he says.
    “They are invariably in these positions for very short periods of time.
    “If you only have three years to prove your ability as a proven economic manager, somebody who can deliver growth, then the easiest way to do that is to borrow a whole lot of money and build something big very, very quickly.”
    China’s economy is staggering; Australia’s largest trading partner is China so we’ve ignored the danger of putting all our eggs in one basket; and the NT’s economy is also racking up its greatest ever debt load, too.
    In the usual scheme of things, the fall of dominoes usually starts with the smallest progressing towards the largest but we seem to face this prospect in reverse order.
    As the old Chinese curse goes – may you live in interesting times.

  9. Alex Nelson is spot on. Having spent a significant part of my life living in remote and rural Fiji it was disturbing to see the influence China has there now. Where once Radio Australia was, there is now Radio China speaking in English, and sat. antenna, all solar powered. This happened at around the same time as our HF service disappeared as well, and here was a massive Chinese electronic surveillance ship in Suva harbour. Lee Kwan Yew had it right with his series of 5 year plans and that’s why our fuel comes from Singapore. We are just slow learners.
    However some things don’t change and sitting on the side of the road near the school, which we initiated and which the school community built themselves, sat some of the students that we taught, selling bananas at 50 cents a bunch to get the $30 a term school fees for their grandchildren. An old Indian friend – a small scale rice farmer- still walks the 15 KM to the school to pay the school fees for his grandson, seeing it as good value.
    That school produced a high ranking Police officer, a couple of doctors and a Diplomat. Then I returned here to see the bus doing its rounds of the camps to pick up kids to take them to school should they be inclined to do so.
    Then I recalled the incident years ago when I had to challenge a boy who threw chairs around a room in a maths class. His immediate response was “You can’t do anything to me, I’m Aboriginal” in pretty much those words. Another young woman accused me of picking on her for bad behaviour and I was accused of being racist.
    I pointed out to her that my own three children had the same skin colour as he did, being part Fijian. Again her response was “But they’re not Aboriginal”. We have to ask ourselves how these things came about and in whose best interests are they?
    There are many really positive stories of Indigenous achievement in this town – an acclaimed actor and several prominent academics, an international airline pilot – and my closest friends here over the last 35 years have been Aboriginal men, all of whom have done great things for themselves and their families, without excuse. What is happening now, and why?


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