On July 15, elders left the remote Aboriginal community of Ampilatwatja for more remote ancestral lands. They were protesting a dire lack of basic services in their community, despite repeated government promises to "close the gap" and end Aboriginal disadvantage.
The elders left the 150-strong Ampilatwatja community, outraged that after three years of the Northern Territory intervention, nothing had improved in their community.
Community spokesperson Richard Downs told Green Left Weekly: "We've seen no progress in community for the last three years. Our leaders in our community have been pushed to one side and made to feel as outcasts in their own community.
"So our people met and we said 'we don't feel welcome here. We haven't seen any action here in the last three years of the government intervention, looking at the way forward, getting the community involved.'"
As part of the NT intervention, Ampilatwatja was one of the communities acquired by the federal government under a five-year lease. This was supposed to allow the government to quickly supply housing and infrastructure. In reality, while some housing repairs have been made, not a single new house had been built in any Aboriginal community as a result of the intervention.
"Under that government intervention, we though that all would've been taken care of", Downs said. "[But] we've still got a lot of these tin houses, with sewerage over 25 years old.
"You can imagine what condition the sewerage service is in — it's ditch drains. It's gonna block up, it's gonna break down. So you've got stench, you've got sewerage flowing in some of the places, which creates a health issue.
"These are health problems that the intervention is ignoring."
The tin sheds are the NT Department of Housing's idea of public housing for Ampilatwajta. With no alternatives available, residents must pay rent to live in them. Pipes burst and when sewerage backed up, the refuse would flow over the floors of houses — as happened recently.
The walk-off led to media focus on the sewerage problem. Only then did the NT government commit to repairing the problem.
"We said 'that's it, let 'em have the lease — let's walk off somewhere'", Downs said. "The old people went back. It started off with about 30 people. It's about 70-100 now [camping] in the bush."
The protesters are going back to the community for supplies and health care, but the protest camp is outside the boundary of the government-controlled lease.
"It gives us time to talk through the issues and have discussions about what should be getting done and what's not happening."
The walk-off is about more than the housing department's neglect. Downs explained: "We sent a letter to [Aboriginal affairs minister Jenny] Macklin last week [stating our concerns with] income management, alcohol problems, housing problems, employment training problems. We want her to come there and [to] take her through the community and say to her 'This is what your government is not doing. You show us and you tell us where are the outcomes for the taxpayer money that you are wasting.' We certainly don't see [any outcomes]."
Despite the poor standard of housing, Macklin has said Ampilatwatja is not one of the 15 communities earmarked for new housing. Instead, the government will be "uprgrading: the tin sheds, according to ABC Online on July 24.
Under increasing pressure because of Labor's commitment to continue the intervention, introduced under the previous Coalition government, Macklin is proposing to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA), which was suspended to allow the intervention to be legislated.
If the intervention is deemed to discriminate in favour of those affected —Aboriginal people — it doesn't require the suspension of the RDA. Macklin has been trying to build her case by having a series of "consultations" with Aboriginal people affected by the intervention, hoping to prove they really wanted it in the first place.
But in addition to poor promotion of the "consultations", ABC Online reported on July 22 that many Aboriginal people were boycotting them because they feared they would be blamed for future government policy if they attended. They also worried it would be seen as endorsing a policy that most people opposed.
Macklin is continuing to roll out intervention policies, with no real indicators of success. The continued lack of basic services in Ampilatwatja can be seen in other communities that have turned over their land to government leases.
Tennant Creek town camps signed onto 99-year leases in August 2007. In exchange, residents believed they would receive more housing in the desperately overcrowded town camps.
NT housing minister Rob Knight has dashed such hopes, according to ABC Online on July 20. He said the lease only allowed for repairs and basic upgrades: no new public housing would be built.
On July 22, National Indigenous Times published an analysis of a leaked memo to Macklin, from within her department, that claimed the government's housing program would be unlikely to deliver any new houses in remote Aboriginal communities until 2011, at the earliest.
The memo was written in May 2008 and also warned that the tendering process was flawed and would drive the cost of housing up across the region. It was also unlikely to meet it's target of 20% Aboriginal employment for the public housing construction work.
Macklin proceeded with the program anyway, and has no new houses to show for it.
It's little wonder that Tangentyere Council, representing Aboriginal town camps in Alice Springs, has been unwilling to sign over the camps to a government with such a track record. Tangentyere has until July 28 to either accept the deal offered by the government — $125 million to be spent on housing upgrades, infrastructure and services in exchange for the town camps being government-administered — or face compulsory acquisition.
NT Aboriginal affairs minister Alison Anderson, who has been central to negotiations with Tangentyere, has revealed that the proposed takeover does not involve building any new houses for the massively over-crowded town camps, according to the July 24 Australian.
Despite government promises to "close the gap", public housing in remote communities remains a disgrace. However, when housing is made a priority, politicians have proven to be very efficient at making things happen. According to NIT, the thousandth public house has just begun construction as part of the government's economic stimulus plan.
These houses, which have been built in record time, are in Woolloongabba, in PM Kevin Rudd's own electorate of Griffith. Similarly, an Australian Defence Force housing project has been going full steam ahead. According the PM's Twitter account on June 11: "Handed over keys 4 1st house built for ADF in Brissie today from Economic Stimulus Plan. Only took 3 mths from announcement to hand over."
Three months for an ADF housing project. Three years of federal intervention in NT Aboriginal communities and no new houses. Disadvantage couldn't be starker.