Cafes, hairdressers and the NT intervention

July 22, 2011
Aerial shot of the township of Patjarr, population 30.

Sara Hudson, a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, recently wrote a comment piece on ABC’s Drum Opinion that supported the Northern Territory intervention. It also attacked public land title in remote Aboriginal communities.

The article was what you might expect from a research fellow from the conservative think tank. "Public bad, private good", and so on. But one passage stood out to me, given I had visited many remote Aboriginal communities recently.

Hudson said: “The absence of private property rights has seen remote Indigenous communities become sad slums with no resemblance to prosperous suburbs in the rest of Australia.

“If it is lucky a community will have one store, there are no cafes, motels, caravan parks, retail shops, hairdressers or the other services that abound in mainstream Australian country towns.

“By romanticising Aboriginal communities and failing to reward individual aspirations, government has consigned them to derelict public housing and the aimlessness and boredom of lives on welfare.”

The number of Aboriginal women living in poverty who have come up to me and said, “Gee, I wish there was a hairdresser or a cafe here — that would just solve everything”, is numberless — in the sense that no-one says that.

People sometimes want more choice in the community stores — although some stores make a real effort and it's really appreciated.

Other people want more health resources, although again, many of the clinics are hardworking and pro-active. But they never seem to want hairdressers.

In fact, the only people who seem to want this sort of private business operating in these communities are visiting politicians who can't believe they can't get a decent cappuccino.

Like most pro-capitalist ideologues, Hudson doesn't get that some business and economic models don’t work everywhere. Unsurprisingly, North Shore Sydney-style cafes and hairdressers aren’t as economically viable in, say, Patjarr, population 30.

These models don't even work well in many “mainstream Australian country towns”, because the population and money simply isn't there to support it.

Having been in the “mainstream Australian country town” of Laverton in Western Australia for a week, which is benefiting from the mining boom, I can tell you it can't support rows of hairdressers or cafes either, regardless of how much private land ownership there is.

The ALP's “Hub Towns” policy, which would starve smaller Northern Territory Aboriginal communities of funds and “encourage” people to move into the larger towns, is a case of trying to force Aboriginal people to conform to these economic models.

More Aboriginal people are living in Alice Springs because of the intervention. This has led to a rise in homeless Aboriginal people and the social problems that stem from that.

But no one seems to put two and two together and realise that these small “unviable” communities can be much healthier than urban decay.

It's been four years since the intervention was launched and some in the media are touting its successes. The Sydney Morning Herald said on June 24 that, even though the intervention was racist and there were some errors, it saved women and children.

The SMH neglected to mention how many, because research shows a rise in domestic violence reports under the intervention. Malnutrition has gone up too.

To believe the intervention has been beneficial we have to forget that the claims about organised pedophilia rings in Aboriginal communities were blatant lies.

We have to forget that an assistant to a federal politician pretended to be a Mutitjulu-based youth worker, and that the long list of incidents he gave to the media did not take place in one community as alleged, but were spread out across the whole of the NT.

We have to forget that the first Basics Cards were just gift cards for Coles and Woolworths — despite, as Hudson will attest — there being no Coles or Woolworths stores in remote Aboriginal communities.

We have to forget that former PM John Howard sent in the military to carry out the policy. We have to forget the intervention was a blatant election ploy from a politician who specialised in blatant election ploys.

We have to forget the racism of this policy.

The problems in remote Aboriginal Australia are difficult and ongoing. In some of the most remote places, white colonisation happened as recently as just 50 years ago and, for some, as late as 1984.

The damage caused by colonisation takes generations to even begin to heal, even if everything were done respectfully and with the communities rather than against them.

Anyone who says we just need to “get tough” on the symptoms of this damage is choosing to avoid thinking about the problem. It's a non-solution that does more damage in the end.



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