Utopia residents hungry, but this isn't news

Issue 
Rosalie Kunoth-Monks has raised the alarm about people starving in the NT.

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, a prominent member of the Aboriginal community of Utopia, said on April 1 that elderly Utopia residents were starving because they were not receiving adequate nutrition from their daily care packages provided by the Barkly Shire Council.

“The whole community including children and the elderly go without food, often on a daily basis,” she said in a press release by advocacy group Concerned Australians.

"What I saw appalled me, even my dogs are fed a hell of a lot better than old black people are being fed," she told AAP.

Alastair Nicholson from Concerned Australians said: “It is a continuing tragedy and an indictment of the Australian and NT governments' policies that Aboriginal people should be facing starvation conditions this Easter anywhere in Australia. Urgent action is needed to correct this situation.”

But within days the corporate media had dismissed the claims as “mischief-making” and “political grandstanding”.

The NT News sent reporters to Utopia, 230 kilometres from Alice Springs. NT News said on April 4 that it “found destitute people”, but not evidence of “enforced starvation” or “cancelled food services”.

The Australian quoted Barkly Shire Council President Barb Shaw as saying: "Rosalie runs straight to the media, she's a grandstander, she tends to agitate more than activate.

"It's absolutely mischief-making and I would ask the question, is this a lead-up to whatever political aspirations she's planning with the elections coming up?" The Australian then noted that Kunoth-Monks had run for the First Nations Political Party as a Senate candidate in 2013.

So the fix was in. This was not news; this was just normal blackfellah poverty. Nothing special. The explanation by the president of the shire responsible for Utopia was worth more than the “mischief-making” NT Australian of the year who was actually in the community.

Indeed finding anyone who would take responsibility seemed difficult.

SkyNews quoted NT Chief Minister Adam Giles as saying: 'I'm not responsible for cooking meals at Utopia.” Giles instead said his responsibility was for maintaining a “good level of infrastructure, amenities and job growth”. He claimed the local community store was well-stocked, so there was no problem.

Presumably we just have to wait for the jobs growth to reach Utopia and then the elderly can get jobs and afford the food in the shop.

Of course, on infrastructure Utopia has not done so well.

In September 2014, New Matilda reported that the health service at Whitegate camp in Utopia had spent three months with its main water supply cut off and had to fundraise to set up their own bore after the old one had collapsed.

The health service was responsible for servicing more than 800 people across the region and, at the time, was concerned that lack of access to clean water would worsen health conditions like scabies.

The health centre CEO told the Centralian in August 2014: “The biggest effect we've had is many people with scabies can't be treated because treatment includes bathing them in special solution and washing their clothes and bedding.”

The Barkly Shire Council was quicker responding to criticism than fixing the water bore. The Council trucked in potable water from Tennant Creek but dragged its feet on fixing the bore.

“We have been carting water every second day to ensure adequate supply of potable water,” said the Council's Chief Executive Edwina Marks.

“The current bore supply is sufficient for washing, just not drinking,” she concluded, disputing health centre staff's concern about treating scabies.

Part of the problem is the amalgamation of local councils into eight so-called super-shires in 2008.

This policy, promoted by the then-Coalition government, was implemented by the then-Labor government in the NT and was very unpopular. It meant that bureaucracies responsible for services were often located hundreds of kilometres from where those services were to be delivered.

For example, Wadeye is administered from the Victoria Daly Shire offices, seven hours' drive away. This means that when crises happen, like a collapsed bore or inadequate food delivery, it can take a long time to even notify those responsible and it can be extremely costly to fix the problem. Communities become disempowered as a result.

The policies were so unpopular that they were credited with removing NT Labor from office in 2012 and putting Giles' party, the Country Liberals, in power.

When Giles was but a minister, he launched a community consultation about replacing the super shires. He dropped this when he became Chief Minister in 2013 and, now he is in the big chair, it seems too hard for Giles to fix a broken system and help out a community that probably will not vote for him anyway.

Meanwhile, Concerned Australians has started drops of aid packages to the impoverished Utopia to supplement those services provided by Barkly Shire. Rosalie's daughter, Ngarla makes meals from this aid for some of the elderly. She said: “If I didn't have to cook for hungry people, I would believe services are being delivered.”

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