On October 20, 200 people gathered in the community of Kalkarindji to protest against the policies of the Northern Territory intervention, launched in 2007 by the Howard Coalition government.
Under the intervention, Aboriginal welfare recipients in the NT have half their pay “quarantined” onto a Basics Card, which can be used only in approved stores and only for food, clothing and medical supplies.
The Gurindji people of Kalkarindji — known for their heroic 1966 walk-off from Wave Hill station — are protesting, in particular, because the government is now forcing Aboriginal people to work 16 hours a week for $115, plus $115 credit on a Basics Card. These workers, participants in Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP), previously received welfare benefits plus “top up” wages in exchange for their work.
Aboriginal people have called this change to CDEP, once a community-controlled program that allowed some degree of flexibility and development, a “return to the ration days” of the last century. People who don’t take part in this enforced new work-for-rations scheme have their benefits cut off.
The Kalkarindji action was part of a national campaign to overturn the racist NT intervention and demand “jobs with justice” — real jobs with real wages — and access to the same social services for Aboriginal communities that the rest of Australia enjoys.
As part of the campaign, Aboriginal rights campaigners are asking unions, organisations and individuals to sign onto a Jobs with Justice statement, (available at
The statement calls on the government to:
*End compulsory income management;
*Stop forcing people to work for the Basics Card;
*Turn all CDEP positions into fully waged positions, and
*Provide massive investment in job creation and service provision in all Aboriginal communities.
Mark Fordham is an Aboriginal Liquor Hospitality Miscellaneous workers’ Union member from the NT who was sacked by the Barkly Shire Council in April 2010 after questioning the way Aboriginal people were treated under work schemes as part of the NT intervention.
Fordham was a CDEP Works Manager. He is touring the east coast to speak to unions and community groups about the plight of his people and to raise support for the campaign and October 29 rallies.
He spoke to Green Left Weekly’s Peter Robson.
* * *
I was involved with CDEP for eight or nine months.
As soon as I got to Ampilatwatja [four hours’ drive northwest of Alice Springs], I was a CDEP participant. About six weeks after that, I got the supervisor’s job. It was part of Barkly Shire council.
There was nothing. There was no list of daily work programs going on at all. There was no leadership, no sense that we would rock up and be able to work. No idea what we’d be doing for the rest of the day. It was pretty dismal when I got there.
A lot of the guys were thinking about doing some training or making a difference, but there was nothing. They were just fed up with the supervisors and managers who were employed to run the CDEP programs.
We did a waste management course for three days in Tennant Creek and we never had any follow-up training after that, which is what you need to become fully qualified. The other course I was involved in was a machine operating course. We got eight or nine blokes through, we got their machine tickets.
A few months after we’d finished that course, I learned that the Barkly Shire Council was going to put a whole heap of money into roadworks out on communities. I put it to the supervisor that they put our guys on at a contractor’s rate — which would be about $30 an hour.
But their reply was: “No, we won’t do that, we’ll put on our own set-up, we’ll bring out our own workers and outside operators.”
But before we did the training, they’d told us: “You won’t get the jobs because you’re not qualified.”
When we did the training, they told us: “We’re still not gonna give you the job anyway.”
That’s what’s going on all over the Northern Territory with the intervention.
Aboriginal people are finding it really hard with the Basics Card. There are guys out there with two children, getting half their pay on the Basics Card.
What people fail to remember is, the guys I worked with in Ti Tree, some of them are about 10-15 kilometres from town. So if you want bread and milk, it’ll cost you more than $20 and the roads are pretty shocking, so there’s wear and tear. Simply getting bread and milk can take all day.
It’s really difficult for these guys at the moment, especially trying to work out how to budget their money. One thing people tend to forget is that with the Basics Card, if there’s a problem on any of the communities, they need to ring through to Centrelink to sort it out.
They don’t realise that English is a second language to these people. Many times I’ve had to get on the phone to help people out with their banking.
We spend far too much money trying to simplify this system, when it would be a lot easier, and have much better outcomes, if we had proper work programs for people on the communities.
The intervention hasn’t worked in any of the communities I’ve worked on, and I haven’t heard about it working anywhere in the NT.
I’m trying to launch training programs myself to try to fix things. We have to get our literacy and numeracy up, as well as comprehension. Then I’m looking at machinery licences for our people.
I’m trying to engage with a range of people to provide appropriate training. The people who provide training to us are like the people who planned the NT intervention — they’ve got their head in the clouds.
They have no idea what works and what doesn’t work on an Aboriginal community.