We must 're-empower' Indigenous Australia

February 19, 2011
Walter and Geoffrey Shaw, and William Tilmouth at Tangtenyere Council. Photo: Sam Mooy

The statement below was released by Tangentyere Council on February 11 in response to Prime Minister Julia Gillard's Closing the Gap 2011 address.


The intervention in the Northern Territory has created a number of alarming issues. To a large extent the Aboriginal population in the Central Australian Region has become disengaged from any development process with growing signs of increasing despair and family breakdowns.

Walter Shaw, the CEO of Tangentyere Council said: “The intervention was another attempt by the Canberra political and administrative process to ‘fix the Aboriginal problem’ with a new mantra of ‘normalisation’.”

Despite calls by many to engage with Aboriginal leadership, a new era of heavy-handed “tough love” was imposed. The outcome is one of the most significant disasters in the history of interaction between Aboriginal Australia and government since colonisation. There is now an endemic array of issues emerging as a consequence of this new process of “normalising” Indigenous Australia.

The intervention, coupled with Closing the Gap, has attracted a large amount of government funds, a full contingency of Canberra and Territory bureaucratic coffers — an investment never seen before in Australian history.

But it is certainly no different to past assimilation policies created by previous successive governments, as Aboriginal leaders bear witness to taxpayers’ money thrown into dead areas with no recourse to accountability.

As the raft of social injustices continues, strong considerations need to be made that “when an injustice becomes law resistance becomes duty”.

“I congratulate Malcolm Fraser for meeting with Aboriginal people from central Australia and listening to the issues we face. He is to be commended for opening up the debate,” Mr. Shaw added.

The toxic nature of aspects of the Intervention and the ever increasing band of new government officials brought in to “normalise” the Territory’s Aboriginal population has created the following emerging and disturbing patterns:

Large numbers of remote community people are leaving their communities and relocating to regional towns like Alice Springs and Tennant Creek. Some have even relocated interstate where the freedom of choice for Aboriginal services is still available.

Growing numbers of Aboriginal transients are moving to towns from more remote communities, adding to growing overcrowding or living in “rough camping circumstances”. The “rough campers” in Alice Springs are now being threatened with fines for illegal camping. It’s a cycle of cat and mouse between the enforcers and the transients.

Additional fines only lead to new levels of economic hardship and greater numbers of Aboriginal people entering the criminal justice system.

Large numbers of families in the town camps are at the point of despair, many are engaged in substance abuse with alcohol consumption soaring. Members of resident families that did not drink before the Intervention are now drinking.

Increasing crime statistics are making Alice Springs a very dangerous place, particularly at night.

Many of our Elders feel disempowered by the Intervention and cite the lack of consultation as one of the most disheartening aspects of the current approach.

Our young are not engaging at reasonable levels with the educational system, with appalling attendance rates.
Our young are still at risk and those in the industry of child protection would agree that the situation has deteriorated since the Intervention.

Many Aboriginal people feel distressed by the forced land grab by the federal government at both the remote community level and in the town camps.

New local government arrangements for remote communities, coupled with a loss of control over traditional lands, has added to the disempowerment of our leadership structures.

Confusion about programs, including the CDEP scheme, seems commonplace.

Despite income management, those who choose to consume alcohol are still doing so and in increasing amounts.
And while new infrastructure is being provided no real attention to the physical and mental health of the family units is being made so that Aboriginal families can participate in the mainstream community and its services.

Criticism of the Intervention is often met with open hostility by the federal administration which blindly says things are improving.

While the Territory economy is strong, there is a rapidly expanding line of new government officials as well as large numbers of contractors, consultants and new advisers who are gaining financially from the monies which are aimed at improving the lives of the Territory’s Aboriginal population.

Shaw said: “All of this is heralded by the Federal politicians and some Territory politicians as success. It’s a real pity that the money and measures are not achieving real results for the Territory’s Aboriginal population. For many Aboriginal people this huge effort has come at too high a cost.

“It is now time for people to step forward and recognise that we have a more serious situation on our hands than we did before the Intervention and the only way forward is with serious engagement with our people and a process of re-empowering our leaders.”

Shaw concluded: “It is easy to be critical and I have heard the opinions of a lot of critics but as a young Aboriginal leader I feel it is important to advocate on behalf of those who have just given up and to support those who stand ready to make a real difference to the lives of our people in a constructive and joint approach.

"It is distressing to hear leaders like the Prime Minister and other critics say that Aboriginal people must take responsibility. It’s hard to do so when your ability to control your own destiny has been taken away and put into the hands of Interventionists who control your income, your land, the services you receive and in broader terms, the purse strings which could be used to provide a future for our people.

“We don’t dream up these policies like ‘normalisation’, government does, and imposes new arrangements and we are then told to show leadership. I look forward to the day when Government can move beyond its rhetoric and politically motivated distortions so that cohesion between Aboriginal people and Government can hopefully be restored. ”



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