\'Apartheid system\' in the NT

April 19, 2008

"The intervention is an apartheid system. It's an abuse of our human rights — but we blackfellas are used to that", Mutitjulu elder Vince Forrester told a meeting of 130 people in Redfern on April 12.

The meeting discussed the effects of the racist invasion into the Northern Territory, which was launched last year by the former Howard government and has been maintained — and extended — under the new Labor government.

Forrester discussed the Third World conditions in which his people live and how in many cases the situation has worsened since the invasion. He said the number of nurses and health workers at Mutitjulu — an Indigenous community at Uluru — has decreased under the new legislation and there is no longer a doctor based in the community: now residents must travel to the nearby tourist resort of Yulara.

Forrester also argued that the welfare quarantining system — which gives Indigenous welfare recipients food vouchers instead of money — is part of a plan to drive people out of the communities, long portrayed as dysfunctional and unviable.

"There used to be 500 people [in Mutitjulu]", Forrester said. "Now there are only a few hundred. We can't use our cards at the community store, we've got to go to Coles in Alice Springs [450 kilometres away] and then we don't have money to get back home."

Monique Wiseman from the NT Intervention Action Group and the Aboriginal Rights Coalition told the story of Bagot, a community in the north of the state that has grown since the invasion from 500 to 1200 people. There are five houses in Bagot, three of which are due to be condemned. The community is on the outskirts of Darwin, so people head there from the further-lying communities so they can walk the 10 kilometres or so into town to get their food vouchers and do their shopping.

Wiseman explained that the store at Bagot — once Indigenous-managed, feeding profits back into the community — has not been registered under the welfare quarantine system. "It stands there now, unable to feed the community", she said. "This is a sad thing to talk about, but there is now a backlog of people waiting to be buried in Bagot, because people just can't afford the funerals."

Darren Dick from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission also addressed the meeting. HREOC tabled its Social Justice Report 2007 in parliament in March. Not surprisingly, the report finds that the invasion breaches human rights. To get around this, the federal government labelled the legislation a "special measure". But, as Dick argued, "If you haven't got community support, you can't call it a 'special measure' …"

The HREOC report proposes a "ten-point plan" to make the invasion consistent with human rights legislation. However, audience members argued at the meeting that the invasion cannot be "reformed": it is a racist land grab, and an attack on Indigenous self-determination.

On April 1, Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin announced that the federal Labor government had rolled out the welfare quarantining to four more NT communities, bringing the total number of people affected to 7700 in 29 communities and town camps.

According to the press release, "Centrelink officers have conducted individual interviews with community members to help them understand the process". However Wiseman — who has recently returned from the Northern Territory — said that during the week that Centrelink workers were in Bagot, only four people went to see them, due to language barriers and a total lack of understanding of the welfare quarantine.

Forrester urged people to keep up the fight, warning "this is a social experiment: they're going to take this right across Australia". He said people need to get out into the streets. Forrester noted that Uluru and Kata Tjuta bring $700 million a year in tourism into the NT, and hinting at the type of action the Mutitjulu community may take if the Labor government doesn't halt the intervention, he said: "We can close the climb. We can open professional tour services, charge professional rates, and we get the money."

The Aboriginal Rights Coalition is organising a national conference, "Unite and Fight", in Redfern on May 24-25. For information, phone Greg on 0432 050 240 or Paddy on 0415 800 586.

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