During the lead-up to the federal election, there has been almost total silence on Aboriginal rights and the Northern Territory intervention.
Aboriginal communities and towns across the NT have suffered three years of income quarantining, compulsory leases over land and housing, a bilingual education ban in schools and cuts to funding for employment programs and services.
The corporate media and politicians have ignored the problems caused and made worse by these racist and paternalistic policies.
But despite this wall of silence, the campaign to end the intervention has gained strength. The recent Defending Indigenous Rights (DIR) convergence, held in Alice Springs over July 6-9, featured personal accounts and evidence from many reports that condemned the intervention.
These included evidence of worsening health, inadequate housing and education, and rising crime rates.
Mark Fordham, former works manager of the remote Aboriginal community Ampilatwatja, told the convergence that the situation is growing worse.
“If you just so happen to be non-Indigenous, things like education, and health and housing, and a fair go are a human birth right, as it should be for all of us”, he said.
But on all counts, the “gap” — in health and social indicators between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people — is staying the same or getting wider. One example of this is Aboriginal employment across the NT.
Federal Labor promised to halve unemployment and deliver “real jobs” under the intervention. Yet Aboriginal unemployment since the intervention has jumped from 13.8% in 2007 to 18.1% in 2009 and jobs are being slashed across the NT.
Fordham spoke to Green Left Weekly about his experience in Ampilatwatja. The community suffered huge job losses under government cuts to Community Development Employment Projects.
CDEP across the NT has been restructured so that anyone who came onto the program from July 2009 received only Centrelink welfare payments -- rather than wages -- half of which are quarantined to the Basics Card.
For workers in many communities it has meant performing work such as rubbish collection, sewerage maintenance and council maintenance for up to 30 hours a week for less than $4 an hour.
Fordham said they were being paid “peanuts”. Meanwhile, government-run shire councils were employing non-Aboriginal contractors for up to $40 an hour to perform the same duties expected of Aboriginal people on CDEP.
“We were asking for better wages for the guys”, he said. “It was really ironic that they kept saying ‘no, we don't have the money to pay decent wages’, and yet they turned around and put on contractors.
“And there are guys out there who all their lives worked on stock camps and other jobs, and yet they can't even get decent wages and jobs on these communities.”
The lack of resources to provide basic services to Ampilatwaja got so bad, Fordham was told that rather than pay for proper disposal of sewerage it would be dumped on the community itself.
Fordham refused to make the Aboriginal workers do the dangerous task, and the shire again arranged contractors. When Fordham opposed this, he was persecuted.
He said very basic services needed on these communities have deteriorated dramatically with government changes. “They've really got no idea how Aboriginal people live, work, think, and what they want.”
The flow of public money to these communities is not going to services and programs that Aboriginal people want and need, he said. Instead it is being used to starve people away from their land.
“These supervisors and CEOs and so forth will still come out and dictate to us how and when, and what jobs will be done, and who gets paid, and what pay level you'll get”, Fordham said. “When I walked out onto the community I thought, where's your sense of fair play and social justice?”
Fordham said problems such as “mass unemployment, housing conditions, the failing of our health and young people continuing to take their own lives, low participation rates in schools from primary to university, and dismal aged care and youth programs” will only be solved when Aboriginal people have “control over our lives and our communities”.
Yet Aboriginal people, under the intervention, are threatened with having their welfare cut entirely if they do not comply with the appalling and exploitative new system.
“We're in the 21st century now, and we're still fighting for decent wages. Through history they were doing the same thing”, Fordham said.
A statement adopted by the DIR convergence titled “Worse than Workchoices: Exploitation of Aboriginal workers must stop! Jobs with Justice now!”, condemned the federal government for the atrocious conditions forced onto Aboriginal people as a result of government changes to employment.
The statement said: “Minister [Jenny] Macklin has referred these shocking revelations to a departmental enquiry and to Fair Work Australia. But this is not good enough. The gross exploitation of Aboriginal workers must stop immediately.
“The government is planning to spend $350 million (over four years) to expand income management across the NT. This money is desperately needed to create real jobs in remote communities and ensure the provision of basic services.”
The resolution put forward demands to end income quarantining and programs forcing people to work for the Basics Card.
It also demanded that the government “turn all CDEP positions into fulltime waged jobs” and “provide massive investment in job creation and service provision in all NT communities”.
It called on trade unions, state labour councils and the Australian Council of Trade Unions to endorse the statement and contribute funds to publish the statement in national newspapers.
The convergence itself made an unequivocal call for the abolishment of the NT Emergency Response legislation.