Ampilatwatja walk-out stays strong

Issue 

Aboriginal elders and families from Ampilatwatja have set up a permanent protest camp outside their government-controlled community in protest against policies that have neglected their needs and desires.

Ampilatwatja is a remote community 350 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs. As part of the federal government's intervention into Northern Territory Aboriginal communities, the Aboriginal land on which Ampilatwatja stands has been acquired by the government on a five-year lease. Ampilatwatja residents believed the lease would mean they would get new public housing and repairs to infrastructure in exchange.

But on July 15, with 25-year-old pipes broken and sewage running through the streets, residents left the township and set up a camp outside of the boundary of Ampilatwatja. They said the NT intervention had done nothing to solve their problems and had actually made things much worse.

Richard Downs, spokesperson for the camp, told Green Left Weekly: "Nothing has happened in the community in the last three or four years. There's no consultation. People are pushed to one side and not involved in any of the discussions. We realised that the government is just ignoring people and we realised that this was just a waste of time.

"We've got no response from [Aboriginal affairs minister Jenny] Macklin, she hasn't shown any interest or shown any courtesy or respect towards us. Discussions with her have become a waste of time so we said 'bugger it' and set up a permanent camp out there."

Downs said there had been no new houses built on the community for the past three years and that overcrowding was a huge problem, causing health problems and social dysfunction. "The numbers vary from 12 to 17 [people] per house at times."

In a letter to Macklin, Downs said: "As our rights have been taken away by your governments, we feel that to try to continue and play the waiting game will only result in further demoralisation of my people.

"We have no other choice but have now decided and agreed to return to our grandfathers' and [grand]mothers' country, which is on the pastoral lease [as opposed to the five-year government lease]. And [we'll] leave you and your government to live in the community as you wish."

No Labor minister has met the protesters, nor has Macklin replied to their letter. However, on July 24 she confirmed that Ampilatwatja would receive no new public housing, just repairs to old houses and emergency infrastructure. The sewage services were repaired only after the protest camp was established, despite being broken for some time.

Downs told GLW"[The NT Labor government] are all trying to find a hollow log to hide in because they can't come up with justification for the breakdown of the $672 million for the housing", Downs told GLW. He was referring to the joint NT-federal governments' $672 million Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program, which, more than one year after its launch, has yet to build any new houses for Aboriginal people.

The Ampilatwatja protesters are calling for an end to all aspects of the NT intervention. They have labelled the "welfare quarantining" policy racist, which places half of all Aboriginal welfare recipients' income onto cards that can be spent on only food, clothing and medical supplies, and in only certain stores.

Welfare quarantining extends to retired Aboriginal workers — "the elders and leaders involved in droving, working on cattle stations, which helped open up parts of the country … is this the way the governments show their appreciation to them?" a protest camp statement said.

Meanwhile, Macklin's attempt to force Alice Springs town camps onto 40-year leases has been postponed by a court challenge, led by town camp resident Barbara Shaw. The entire negotiation process between Tangentyere Council and the federal government has taken place with the government's threat to compulsorily acquire the land hanging over the council's head.

The outcome of the court case — and thus the deal — is still unknown, with the hearing set for August 28. However, ABC Online reported on August 7 that the parties involved would meet on August 12 to consider mediation. Spokespeople for Tangentyere Council, which represents the town camps and two weeks ago signalled in-principle support for signing the leases, maintain they did so "with guns to [their] heads".

Downs offered the council his support: "We support Tangentyere holding on to the lease", he said. "We don't see why the government needs to take over the lease to be able to do repairs and maintenance and build some houses. What we want to say to Tangentyere is 'try not to hand back the lease to the government — it's just a land grab'."

The Ampilatwatja camp is calling for political and financial support from unions and community organisations to help make the camp more permanent, such as by sinking a bore and getting more tents. To make donations or show your support, email Downs on .