Aboriginal women condemn racist intervention

February 28, 2009

Since the intervention into Northern Territory Aboriginal communities began in 2007, Aboriginal people have been subjected to a national spotlight that has demonised the men and rendered the women virtually powerless.

The blanket implementation of measures such as income quarantining — the compulsory acquisition of half of all welfare payments — has been justified by the reportedly widespread alcohol abuse, domestic violence and child abuse that was described in the Little Children are Sacred report in 2007.

"It's been coming for a long time, now they've really done it", Raelene Silverton, from Urana Potara community, told Green Left Weekly journalists in December. She said the income management has had severe impacts on her family's ability to live properly.

"They made [income quarantining compulsory for] people like us, not the ones making trouble, we are law abiding people and we are suffering too.

"In the beginning, I had an argument with Centrelink. 'You people are cheating, you're cheating Aboriginal people' [I said] … I think they should stop punishing all the innocent people as well."

Silverton, who worked as a councillor and legal aid worker for the Central Lands Council, points out that the problems were in fact being addressed before the federal government took notice.

"The mothers and fathers [have been] reporting [abuse] to the police and taking them to court and all that. They've been doing that since before the intervention came up.

"We are law-abiding people", she added. "A lot of people are [saying] do this to only the people that do wrong things [but] they are being very very cruel people to Aboriginal people."

Audrey McCormack, a researcher at Tangentyere Council in Alice Springs, told GLW that a voluntary income management system already existed in many communities.

"They had that in place already … They had it through Centrelink. It was seen as a choice if the people wanted to get food budgets. These were the choices they made. Some people liked it, particularly the older people.

"[Now] it's taken us backwards to the old ration days. With the quarantining now, we've all got Basics Cards [used instead of cash at designated stores] … but it is racist because it's been put on all Aboriginal people.

"I look after my grandson", she explained. "He goes to school and loves to play football. And the problem with the quarantining is, when they go for trips down south or up to Darwin to play, I haven't got any money to pay for his trip. And I can't give him pocket money. And he feels like he's the odd person out."

McCormack said that alcoholism and violence do exist in communities and town camps, that is a harsh reality. But the negative impacts of the intervention have aggravated many of the problems and there are no longer the community-based initiatives to combat them.

"In the town camp [where the population changes all the time] there are probably 4000-5000 people there now. A lot of them come to get their bonus. A lot of them come to do their shopping; and a lot of them would be lucky to get a ride back to their community.

"Many of them don't have a car … but with their Basics Card they will do about $200 worth of shopping, then they haven't got any money to go back in a taxi … then they get stuck", she said.

"The government didn't look at that."

There are numerous examples of Aboriginal communities attempting to tackle violence and neglect without the "help" of the government. In Yuendumu, a night patrol run by community women operated for 14 years, the longest-running in Central Australia, which curbed petrol-sniffing and lobbied the Northern Territory justice department field officers to have a safety house built.

In comparison, the $21 million shelter plan promised by the then Coalition government at the beginning of the intervention has failed abysmally. The proposed "houses" are in fact furnished shipping containers, some of which have previously been criticised for exposing the carcinogenic chemical formaldehyde to occupants.

They are positioned in the wrong areas and are not adequate to the needs of each individual community, according to Bob Gosford's blog, The Northern Myth, on November 12.

Yuendumu community also had a domestic violence service that closed when the Community Development Employment Project was shelved as part of the intervention.

In the community of Maningrida, the Strong Women's Night Patrol is run by 12 volunteer women who drive the streets and take children to their homes. It applied for funding from the federal government prior to the intervention, but was denied by then Indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough.

Other groups have been calling for an increased police presence in communities. In 2005, the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women's Council, based in Alice Springs and representing women from across Central Australia, made a submission to the federal government calling for more female police to be posted in specific communities.

It was ignored. It wasn't until the intervention that the "increased police presence" was granted.

Unfortunately, this was accompanied by more problems than it solved.

"When the intervention came in we had a lot of problems with police", said McCormack.

"Because of the intervention, they can walk onto communities and into our houses at any given time. At 2 o'clock or 3 o'clock in the morning."

Silverton described the compulsory breathalysing that takes place every time she and her husband go back to their community.

"They know we don't drink. They still do it", she said.

"It's about making us criminals", she continued. "But we are not criminals, we are honest people, and we know how to look after ourselves."

"If the government wanted to do the right thing", said McCormack, "they should have come out, sat down on the ground and talked to us to find out what our needs are — but there was no consultation."

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.