Wake Up Time the first 30 pages

Wake Up Time

In ePub, Mobi (=Kindle) and PDF (A5, 200+ pages)  formats.

In ePub, Mobi (=Kindle) and PDF (A5, 200+ pages)
formats.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

by Jaap Vogel

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© 2014, Jacob D. (Jaap) Vogel, Braintrotter.

All rights reserved

This book is protected under International and Federal Copyright Laws and Treaties, and as such, any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is strictly prohibited. Making or distributing copies of this book constitutes copyright infringement. It may not be reproduced in whole or in part, by any means, without written permission from the copyright holder.

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1st Edition July 2014

Braintrotter,

Jacob D. (Jaap) Vogel,

New Farm, QLD, Australia

jaap.vogel@wakeuptime.com.au

Acknowledgements

This book is written for my soul mate and partner, Elisabeth Fediay, with whom I am travelling this great continent we are so lucky to call “home.” Her critical remarks contributed significantly to the final result.

I must thank all those with whom I engaged in conversations about the problems in remote Aboriginal communities, most of them not being aware that I would publish a book about it. In this book I include remarks made by many people I met over the years, including Aboriginal people from many locations, Members of Parliament, managers, teachers and social workers at remote Aboriginal communities, Aboriginal tour guides, students of Aboriginal affairs, managers of Indigenous arts centres, officers of the department of Aboriginal Affairs, prison guards and many others.

Special thanks go to Austin Adams for reviewing and editing the book in its final version, and to Irena Kobald, a teacher in Willowra, who allowed me to include several lively texts of her experiences in that remote community. She is also a writer and her children’s book My Two Blankets was successfully published in 2014.

I also wish to express my appreciation to Susan Fleming who contributed by reviewing the first draft of this book.

Finally, I acknowledge Timothy, a fifteen year old Aboriginal boy from Willowra. Meeting him inspired me to include his story in this book. It would be great if – at some time – he could be given the chance to grasp exactly what a black hole is and thus both to quench, and to further, his thirst for knowledge.

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About the author

IMG_5707edited 500x500Jaap Vogel, BSc, has travelled extensively in Outback Australia. He worked most of his career in international publishing, copywriting and journalism. He published his first articles about Australia in 1992 after a visit to this continent from his then homeland, The Netherlands.

After several trips through Australia he moved there in 2002. Since late 2011 he has lived with his partner Liz and two dogs in a bus, travelling continuously, spending most of the time in the Outback.

Jaap publishes on national and international medical, economic, social and political topics from Australia.

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Table of Contents

PREFACE…………………………………………………………………………………… 9

WELCOME TO THE RED HEART……………………………………………. 12

SIT DOWN IN ALICE SPRINGS……………………………………………….. 28

Sit down money………………………………………………………………………… 30

Banned Drinkers Register………………………………………………………… 37

BasicsCard……………………………………………………………………………….. 53

DOWN TO THE ROCK……………………………………………………………… 62

CENTRAL DESERT DESOLATION………………………………………….. 81

School attendance……………………………………………………………………. 88

The Royalties Maze………………………………………………………………… 103

Employment, lease programme and household income………… 106

Traditional Owners Distributions…………………………………………….. 113

Early Learning Centre…………………………………………………………….. 124

Reflection……………………………………………………………………………….. 128

CREATIVITY IN THE DESERT……………………………………………….. 131

THE TOP END………………………………………………………………………… 145

Tribal law………………………………………………………………………………… 154

Land ownership……………………………………………………………………… 163

The Ranger Mine……………………………………………………………………. 169

Land management………………………………………………………………….. 175

AFTERWORD…………………………………………………………………………. 186

The royalties maze………………………………………………………………….. 187

The legal distinction……………………………………………………………….. 188

The Constitution……………………………………………………………………… 193

Victims and perpetrators…………………………………………………………. 194

REFERENCES………………………………………………………………………. 196

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PREFACE

final preface alice (Small)This book is the story of a journey through some remote areas of the Northern Territory, as well as an analysis of the confronting, sad, scary and puzzling life of Indigenous Australians in remote communities.

The stories within Wake Up Time are based on observations gathered during extensive travels through the outback, in particular during a journey in 2013 to Alice Springs, Uluru, Willowra, Ali Curung and Kakadu.

In addition, a selection of relevant documents ranging from newspaper articles to official annual reports are analysed to complement the observations. The main question is: why have the billions of dollars spent on Aboriginal issues not closed the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and what should be done about this?

Wake Up Time considers whether two major issues are in the way of finding solutions to the problems in remote communities.

The first issue is the alleged system of compensations and royalties payments by mining companies. Does this system exist? If so, what are these payments and what is the role of the mining industry and of the federal government in the equitable distribution and use of these payments? Have they lead to appropriate solutions?

The second is the question of whether the present legal distinction between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is beneficial. This policy appears to be a hangover from the days of the White Australia policy, something still engrained in legislation that is counterproductive for all Australians. Has our appreciation, and support, for an ancient and very much alive Indigenous culture led us to an acceptance of inappropriate legal distinctions and exceptions regarding race?

Finally, Wake Up Time questions the proposed changes to the Australian Constitution, to be decided in a referendum due in 2016. Should we maintain the formal distinction in the constitution regarding Aboriginality? Will the foreshadowed changes to the Australian Constitution, eliminating some “racial” clauses and adding a new one, help the integration and future of people living in remote communities?

In Wake Up Time you will be taken on a fascinating journey through the Northern Territory, introducing you to the complexity of a major human problem which has to be solved for the benefit of the entire Australian Nation.

If the narrative illuminates some of these matters  then the title of this book will be justified, indicating that it is indeed…

…time to wake up!

Jaap Vogel

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WELCOME TO THE RED HEART

final chapter 1 alice (Small)It’s hot as always, here, at the camp grounds of the National Transport Hall of Fame and Old Ghan Museum in Alice Springs. It is 33 degrees, no wind and flies by the zillion. A couple of camels are chewing their cud next to the gypsy cart they have pulled through the central deserts for the past two years. Behind our bus are some retired vintage carriages of the old Ghan.

It’s the seventh time I have made it to “The Alice” (as it is never called by the locals) and it’s also been my longest stay. When I leave next week it will be three months since I arrived. It was in 1992 when I visited central Australia for the first time and I have come back time after time. I have continued my journeys to and through the outback from my home in the Gold Coast hinterland.

At the end of 2011 I sold hearth and home, bought a bus that was converted into a motor home, named it The Spirit of Curiosity and started a new life as a 24/7 full-timer on the road with my partner and two dogs. Here I am, travelling the continent in search of the soul of the land, far beyond the black stump.

There is nonstop diversity in the dry, endless deserts with their wedge-tailed eagles, camels, thorny devils and dingos, their mountain ranges and gibber plains, their dry rivers in the south and croc infested wetlands in the north. There are ghost towns and stories of men and women striking it rich in search of gold, or perishing on a lonely track after a breakdown. The Territory has it all.

Aboriginal people and their culture provide endless intrigue. The Aboriginal presence is a magnet. There’s a fascination in seeing the remnants of the world’s oldest living culture not on display in a museum, but alive in the real world. That real world, though, is often far from pleasant. With very poor health, low life expectancy, low education, high unemployment and a lack of future, the living conditions of many thousands of Indigenous Australians do not meet the standards of a modern, civilised society.

What has puzzled me most is why Australia has not managed so far to find a fair and equitable way out of this situation. By the way, in this book the term “Aboriginal” is used as it is the most common word used to refer to the “First Australians” and because it does not include Torres Strait Islanders.

Talking to numerous born and bred Australians has not given me any real insight into, or clear understanding of, the situation. Most Australians are thoroughly weary of the problem and manage to keep it as far as possible from their dining tables. In a geographical sense that’s easy to do as it’s all very far away indeed from the main Australian cities.

Along the East Coast the Indigenous problem is a topic to be avoided; in the Northern Territory it is something to be coped with. Politicians face a lack of respect by a world community that summarizes and simplifies the analysis. According to the world community, Aboriginal people are victims of an unfair invasion of their continent and have been the victims of degrading, racist policies. True as those past events are, is the present situation forever to be laid at their feet? Present reality demands much more careful thought.

In trying to resolve this complexity I have decided to try to find answers to the many related questions I have collected over the past twenty years.

In the past few months we travelled from the East Coast to Alice via the southern route, from Brisbane through Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Port Augusta, Coober Pedy and Alice Springs.
In Coober Pedy, a small mining town in the north of South Australia famous for its underground dwellings, our free campsite was located in the desert, eight kilometres south of town. Despite being only one kilometre from the highway, the spot we had generated the thrilling sensation of seamlessly merging with the endlessness of the outback.


Our two Labradors, Boris and Zilla, could freely run around and enjoy the desert with all its smells and flavours. Midway through the third night the dogs, sleeping outside, barked and woke me up. It was a dingo disturbing their sleep. When I stepped outside the dingo fled and the silence returned for the rest of the night. The next night the same thing happened again, this time with two dingos. When on the third night three dingos showed up we decided to take the dogs inside the bus for the rest of the stay. We were clearly not in the Gold Coast hinterland anymore. Coober Pedy is in wild desert country and living in this region is very different from living on the east coast.


Coober Pedy is no longer a thriving town as the famous opal mining is effectively extinct. It is only for tourists that opal mining is still in any sense alive. One solitary mine is open for visitors and there are several opal outlets in town. Almost all the thousands of small mines and shafts are abandoned. Tourism only flourishes during the three Winter months when grey nomads, as older retired tourists are often called, and a few other visitors travel north to seek shelter against the cold before returning south to avoid “the wet.” There is nothing else in Coober Pedy, nothing else to keep the town alive.

Aboriginal people hang around on the streets and footpaths. Except for the very few who are buying groceries, most of them do not seem to have any goal. If they interact, it is mainly with their own people. A weird and sad impression of loneliness and discomfort surrounds them.

Time for shopping, it’s not my favourite pastime, but it has to be done.


He looks at me, very shy.
An old guy, tall, black, a bit scruffy, is bending over the open freezer with meat. He seems a little helpless.
“How much?” he whispers.
He hands me the chicken mince and I read him the price and quantity: “500 grams, $7.50.”
“Mmm… expensive,” he mumbles. “And that?” pointing at the beef.
I guess that his eyes are gone or that he has left his glasses at home. But the price of the beef is reduced and has been written in very large figures….
After yet another few packs I realise…. he can’t read!
Finally he decides to take the kangaroo tail. “My wife always likes that,” he says. With a thank you and a smile he turns around and finds his way to the register.


Illiteracy is something I have hardly ever experienced. In Cuba, a rather undeveloped country that I visited recently, illiteracy is practically non-existent. But here, in remote Australia, it is common among the blackfellas. Nationwide thirty percent of Aboriginal adults lack basic literacy skills[1]. Many speak a local language that does not exist in a written form. By year seven, just fifteen percent living in very remote Indigenous communities can read at the accepted minimum standard, 47 percentage points behind their urban Indigenous peers and 74 percent less than non-Indigenous students.[2] One can only fear what that percentage is for elderly people in those communities.

After packing our groceries in the car we drive around town and end up in Umoona, the Aboriginal community of Coober Pedy. It looks very similar to Aboriginal suburbs elsewhere in the Outback, with broken fences, houses in very poor condition, gardens littered with rubbish, elderly people sitting on what used to be verandas and kids and dogs running around in this rather disgusting mess.

Umoona is home to more than 100 Indigenous people.

Officially, the community is dry: this means that no alcohol is sold, bought or used there. In the Coober Pedy Regional Times of 6 June 2013 one of the elders describes his own house in the community as a “pigsty” and by the looks of it that describes all other houses as well. In the same newspaper we read that the South Australian Government announced plans to construct a $3.4 million Transition Accommodation Centre as part of new efforts to stimulate and support South Australia’s housing and construction industry. It will be a centre where Aboriginal families from remote communities outside Coober Pedy can find shelter for a maximum of twenty-eight days while alcohol addicted family members receive treatment in the already operational Sobering Up Centre.

The Sobering Up Centre helps local, drunk, Aboriginal people to sober up and it provides facilities for a good night’s sleep for their wives and children.

Local Aboriginal people of the Umoona Community are strongly against opening up the Sobering Up Centre to Aboriginal people from elsewhere. They also oppose the establishment of the Transition Accommodation Centre, because, so I read in the same newspaper, “transients are not from here. They fight with the locals and make a mess and need to move on.” They want the proposed location of the centre to be declared alcohol dry, because they “are concerned about the murders, rapes, stabbings, stealing etc.”

Other locals of Coober Pedy also object to the centre. They reckon that the centre is mainly meant to support the local liquor shops (Coober Pedy has three bottle shops for less than 1500 residents).

They wonder how children can be safe when they are travelling with their alcoholic parents who are encouraged to come to a town with three liquor shops.

In the same newspaper they suggest that the government has other intentions in mind than only the best interests of Aboriginal people when setting up these kinds of projects. “Judging by ongoing published statistics it would appear that without perpetual aboriginal victims of violence, not only would the liquor industry suffer, but many of Australia’s 150,000 Social and Community Services (SACS) workers would be out of a job.” They are strengthened in that feeling because the South Australian government itself states, according to the Coober Pedy Times of 14 March 2013, that the building of the centre is mainly meant to stimulate and support South Australia’s housing and construction industry.”

Is it too cynical to wonder whether the major problems in Aboriginal communities are maintained by professionals providing services which address those very problems? Is it like a pesticide company selling products to kill pests that a related company introduced?

On 20 July 2013 a story in the Coober Pedy Regional Times continues: “A $367,000 Federal grant that allows $260,000 to employ a person for two years to work with the District Council of Coober Pedy and government service agencies to implement nearly 100 recommendations contained within the town’s newly developed Alcohol Management Plan, has been awarded to Coober Pedy. A further $10,000 is allocated to undertake a dry area summit and $97,000 to install an ID Tech System into each of Coober Pedy’s take away liquor outlets.”

Thus the Australian Government is investing $367,000 in two years to tackle alcohol abuse in Coober Pedy mainly caused by transients travelling to the town from remote communities seeking alcohol.

The then Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, said in the same newspaper: “The Coober Pedy Alcohol Management Plan has been developed with the South Australian Government, local organisations and the community. The plan addresses a range of issues identified by the local community including public drinking and antisocial behaviour, the transitory population, public safety and family violence and the supply of alcohol. . . . By implementing Alcohol Management Plans we can ensure the focus in communities is on protecting women, children and families, and reducing alcohol-related harm.”

Coober Pedy is facing a big economic problem because of the collapsing opal industry. One wonders whether this political solution – increasing the industry of serving and helping people with alcohol problems – is of any real help to the local economy and local residents of either race.

Is there any rationale behind a policy of attracting Aboriginal people from remote communities to one regional centre with three liquor shops to help them solve their alcoholism, while disturbing the already fragile social structure of Coober Pedy? Is the expanding “alcoholism” industry in fact replacing the dying, if not defunct, “opal” industry?

In the few days we spent in town, using the services of several shops and small businesses, we did not see any Aboriginal person at work.

After our visit to Coober Pedy we headed further north along the Stuart Highway. I know that many don’t, but I love this road. I love the vast open spaces, the slowly changing landscape with sometimes many, sometimes fewer, hills, bushes and gibber plains, the crows and birds of prey enjoying the feast caused by a road train too fast for a crossing kangaroo. The first whiffs of the real outback enlighten my spirits. This vast, dry, remote land is unique and majestic.

Just before crossing the Northern Territory border a sign along the road invites travellers to come to the small community of Iwantja to visit its art centre. Here is a great opportunity to visit a small remote Aboriginal village and admire some local Art.


We park the bus along the highway, drive our little four wheel drive out of the trailer and head off. After a ten minute drive off the Stuart Highway we enter the community of Iwantja. The well-travelled European hitchhiker we picked up along the highway joins us too, but is not familiar with the do’s and don’ts of visiting remote Aboriginal communities. Some locals get irritated when he doesn’t hide his camera while driving through the community looking for the Art Centre. From a front yard full of garbage a dozen or so pebbles are thrown at our car. Welcome to Iwantja and its Aboriginal Art Centre. At long last, and a little bit anxious, we find the centre. It looks more like a prison than a gallery. The metal doors, locks and high fences suggest anything but an art centre. Gingerly we park the car as close as possible to the front door of the centre and make our way through the door and gate. Two non-Aboriginal women welcome us and explain the beauty of the locally produced dot paintings. The two are from Queensland and manage the centre on a six month’s contract.

Some of the artists are at work here. They don’t answer our greetings, smiles and compliments. We would have liked to learn something of the lifestyle of the inhabitants of that community, to be able to exchange a few words, but we can find no way into their world, no way of crossing the deep gap between black and white. In addition, as usual, no photos of locals are allowed. That message finally sinks into our hitchhiker.

The works are cheap, mostly between $30 and $200. The quality of the productions is similar to the quality seen in any arts or craft centre in any regional community. We decide to buy a dot painting for $100, a fair price knowing that in an art gallery in a larger town the amount would be at least double.

After leaving the centre we drive directly back to the highway, to the perceived safety of home, our bus along the Stuart Highway. When the bus comes into sight I hear a sigh of relief from the back seat.


The next day we arrived in Alice Springs where it was time for our hitch hiker to say goodbye.


Before leaving us our visiting friend has a little surprise.
He asks, “Have you ever wondered about the pictures used on Australian coins?”
We collect all the coins we have, adding the one cent from an internet picture because it’s not in circulation anymore:
1 cent – feather tail glider,
5 cents – echidna,
10 cents – lyrebird,
20 cents – platypus,
1 dollar – kangaroos,
2 dollars – an Aboriginal.


Our hitch hiking friend reckons this says a lot about the way Australia sees its Indigenous people, as part of the fauna. He suggests that the pebbles incident is the result of 200 years of oppression, the coins being the proof. I suggest that the pictographs on the coins could also be interpreted as an acknowledgement, a recognition and commendation, of the importance of the Indigenous people.

It is hard to know where the truth in this lies, particularly as there is no clear and precise definition of the concept of an “Aboriginal.” Aboriginals can be as fair skinned as I am, others are dark skinned. What does “Aboriginality” really involve?

From 1981 a “three-part definition of Aboriginal identity” is used in Australia:[3]
“An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is a person
– of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent
– who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and
– is accepted as such by the community in which he (she) lives.”

In a further development, Justice Drummond in 1995 ruled that genetic links were no longer required, effectively dropping the first of the three points in the three-part definition. What remains is a definition relying on someone’s own interpretation of Aboriginality and on the acceptance by people surrounding him or her. Because Aboriginal people reckon that cultural attitudes play a major role in defining Aboriginality they support this definition structure.[4]

The important point regarding this present definition is that indigenous identity leads to specific entitlements, a point that will be returned to later.

At the time of the first fleet, when the British started their invasion, it is estimated that about 300,000 Indigenous people populated the continent. Many of them were killed by violence or disease in the first decades after the invasion.

The impact was felt all over Australia, in particular in Tasmania. Prior to British colonisation in 1803 there were an estimated 3,000 – 15,000 Aboriginal people on the island of Tasmania. Diseases introduced by the British, as well as warfare and private violence, killed most of them. Some refer to the events on Tasmania as genocide. Two individuals, Truganini (1812–1876) and Fanny Cochrane Smith (1834–1905), are separately considered to have been the last people solely of Tasmanian descent. With their passing, the Indigenous Tasmanian languages have also been lost.

Despite the apparent complete loss of the Tasmanian Aboriginal population, the 2011 Census shows 19,625 Tasmanians of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent.

Nationwide, between 1991 and 1996, the number of Indigenous Australians increased by 31%, partly as a result of the ruling of 1995. Between the 2001 and 2010 census the Aboriginal population increased by 40% to 563,101. An increase to 640,700 is anticipated by 2016.[5]

The Bureau of Statistics states that “much of the increase since 1996 can be attributed to greater numbers of people identifying themselves as Aboriginal or of Aboriginal descent.”

In discussing the recent large increase in the number of Indigenous Australians the late professor Helen Hughes, in Quadrant magazine of November 2008, states:

“With immigration adding to the non-indigenous population, the latter would be expected to grow faster than the indigenous population. However, because the children of the increasing number of mixed marriages are identifying as indigenous, this raises the share of indigenous people in the overall population.”

Earlier in the same publication Professor Hughes states, “Positive discrimination with the promise of material benefits no doubt also contributed to a movement to indigenous identification.”

That such positive discrimination leads to benefits to some individuals is illustrated by two examples.

– The Central Desert Regional Council has an Indigenous Workforce Development Strategy that begins, “The Central Desert Shire Council (the Council) is strongly committed to increasing the number of Indigenous people employed across the organisation.” It is difficult to see how this policy could be implemented without some form of positive discrimination.

– On 7 November 2013 an article in The Australian referred to a High Court ruling in favour of an Aboriginal father and son, pointing out that native title laws meant that state fishery laws did not apply to them. The ruling allowed the two men to catch and keep 24 undersized fish, which normally would have been unlawful. In making this ruling the court was forced to take into account specific rights given to a specific minority of Australians, a distinction created not by the court but by law makers.

In spite of benefits such as the two illustrated, there are some clear negative effects of positive discrimination. A quote from the website of the Department of Human Resources of the Australian Government raises an important one:[6] “The experience of the past thirty years indicates that positive discrimination towards Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, no less than past discrimination against them, not only leads to degradation in welfare-dependent settlements, but also prevents the transition to mainstream society of those who wish to enjoy high Australian living standards.” Here, positive discrimination has not worked out as intended. Perhaps it should not exist in the first place.

Finally, there exists one huge “benefit” arising from positive discrimination, one that, as will be shown in some detail later, has most definitely not operated to the benefit of the indigenous population. It is that various government and statutory bodies collect large amounts of money from mining royalties to be used only for Indigenous people in the Aboriginal Benefit Account (ABA). As we shall see, the accounting and transparency associated with the processing of this money leaves much to be desired, and indeed the effect of this money once distributed, either to Indigenous bodies or to Indigenous individuals, has often been counterproductive.

So, here we are back in Alice, in the grounds of the National Transport Hall of Fame and the Old Ghan Museum. These two Museums are fully run by their private owners and dozens of enthusiastic volunteers. No government dollars are involved!

SIT DOWN IN ALICE SPRINGS

final chapter 2 alice (Small)Travellers who spend twelve hours per week volunteering at the counter, the coffee shop or the mechanical workshop can use the grounds of the National Transport Hall of Fame and Old Ghan Museum as a free camp site.

The two museums are icons of Alice Springs, celebrating the epic adventures and achievements of thousands of people involved in Australia’s trucking industry over the past 100 years, and the history of the Ghan railway connecting Darwin and Adelaide. The Transport Museum’s Hall of Fame displays hundreds of portraits of brave Australian men and women who developed the vital transport industry in the outback of this vast continent. Together, the museums celebrate the life of settlers and pioneers in remote parts of Australia.


While dining with transport entrepreneurs I learn a lot about the difficulties and challenges transport businesses in Australia experience. In most countries people drive on the right hand side of the road, requiring the vehicles to have left hand side steering, with trucks and buses mostly built accordingly. For countries like Australia, the trucks are modified and that modification can easily lead to a weaker construction. Accidents have occurred because of the adaptation to right hand steering, an issue of continuing concern for truckies and transport entrepreneurs.

The left/right problem has yet another effect. The exhausts and other hot parts of the engine of many trucks and buses sit at the right hand side under the truck, to avoid the extra heat affecting the driver. In Australia, though, the driver sits on the right hand side, on top of these heat sources. In some cases the problem can be partly overcome with additional insulation, but mostly it means that drivers have to sit over a vigorous heat source for many hours per day.


One of the pioneers illustrated in the museum is Tom Kruse, not the Hollywood movie star but our Tom Kruse, the mailman of the Birdsville track. The 1954 movie in which he acts as the main character screens continuously at the museum, showing the two weeks’ round trip Tom made fortnightly with his truck in the fifties through the desert to Birdsville. In the movie the Aboriginal workers are portrayed as happy people, appreciated for their skills. But was it indeed so much better in the past, or is this the romance of cinema?


I am in town to get my bus fixed. Due to a power fault I need a local electrician. Apart from fixing the problem in a snap, he uses our short encounter to tell me a little bit about his personal experience with the Aboriginal people of Alice. He is appalled by the “lethargic” attitude and “miserable, lazy lifestyle” of the local blackfellas nowadays.
“When I was young we had excellent relationships with the Aboriginal kids here in Alice. We played together, visited each other’s homes and our parents got along very well. Most Aboriginal people also worked, they were employed. All of this changed after the Constitutional referendum of 1967 and especially after the Labor Whitlam Government introduced the Land Rights act in 1973. From that time on it went wrong. The distance between black and white increased and welfare looked after the Aboriginal people.”


Sit down money

Welfare is what now keeps many people in Alice alive. NT Senator and Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion stated in the Alice Springs News of 17 September 2013: “Receiving Newstart payments in an area that has no economy and no jobs is inappropriate. In these conditions governments have been taking the view that the dole is unconditional.”

Dole or unemployment distributions are popularly called “sit down money.” Theoretically, it applies to everybody living in circumstances as described by the Minister. In practice, certainly in the Northern Territory, it mainly applies to Aboriginal people.

One of my favourite books is “Above Capricorn,” by Stephen Davis, 1994. The Elder Biddy Simon from Birrindilil near Kununurra is quoted:
“Pretty soon lot of people came along town
All leave the bush,
And then Welfare start to look after them
Plenty of damper and tea
And then they just sit down
Only think for grog then.”

Many Aboriginal people in Alice Springs depend on sit down money. It is not an opinion anymore, but most definitely a fact, that this system has been the cause of most of the problems in remote communities. The Aboriginal lawyer, academic and land rights activist Noel Pearson has written extensively about it: “. . . passive welfare has caused some of the worst social disasters the world has known.”[7] Pearson has also pointed out that “passive welfare is an irrational economic relationship, in which transactions between the provider and the recipient are not based on reciprocity.”[8]

Pearson points out that passive welfare has distorted traditional cultural arrangements such as the sharing of goods because weekly payments are given to individuals rather than to the community as a whole. He acknowledges that the original cause of substance abuse was the occupation of the continent, the loss of land, the genocides etc., but points out that the current epidemic of substance abuse is independent of those original causes. He also notes that our social problems did not come before our passive welfare dependency – rather, they arose out of passive welfare dependency itself.

Finally, and most importantly, Pearson points out that Aboriginal leaders routinely defend access to passive welfare as a fundamental Indigenous right. The effect of this thinking is that it undermines traditional Aboriginal values on the one hand, and prevents the development of the attitudes that are necessary for successful participation in the modern economy. Pearson reckons that individual welfare payments should stop because they are the reason for the corruption of individuals and that reciprocity and responsibility should be built into all government-financed programs. In other words, payments from welfare need to be offset by obligations in some sense.

In short, it’s welfare that keeps Alice going on the one hand, and prevents it advancing on the other.


The hairdresser at the Coles Shopping Centre, 200 metres from the Todd Mall, raises for me a corner of the veil hiding the present-day soul of Alice Springs. Being a self-declared recent “migrant” to Alice she is not familiar with the past but certainly has a vision of the present. My haircut becomes an educational exercise as hairdressers love talking, often very sensibly, as I am about to note.
“Alice Springs only exists because of the Aboriginal people,” she states.
“Why is that the case,” I ask, “if only one fifth of the population is Aboriginal?”
“It’s very simple. The Aboriginal people get money from the government and they receive services from the government. To deliver those services, the government pays thousands of people.”
“But Alice also has lots of private businesses,” I suggest.
“Yes, because their products and services are bought by the people working for the government and by the Aboriginal people. Those businesses only survive thanks to the Aboriginal people.”
I try again, “Tourists, there are lots of tourists as well!”
“Yes, three months per year travellers visit Alice. The numbers are, even in the peak season, quite modest. No business could survive only because of those three winter months.”


That’s the story of Alice Springs in a nutshell. The town lacks mining, agriculture or any other significant, original, economy activity. Either directly or indirectly it is fully paid for by the government.

That’s it…or almost it. A dark night shines light on the second, eerie, pillar of Alice’s economy.


I like night photography and spend many evenings under the dark skies of the Outback. The Transport Museum grounds are located five kilometres south of town and, most importantly, on the “other side” of the MacDonnell Ranges. There is no light pollution from town. My fellow campers go to bed very early, thus dimming their caravan lights. Great, it’s time for me to get up.

I set up the camera and take some sample pictures to the west to find the best shutter time and aperture. It looks like an Aboriginal community is hidden in that direction because a faint light can be seen over the horizon. I take some photos, check the first results and notice several small blue objects moving upwards, mysterious little blue dots flying from the ground towards the heavens.
 


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REFERENCES

 

[1] http://www.creativespirits.info/Aboriginalculture/education/Aboriginal-literacy-rates#ixzz2xzfFJQGI

[2] http://www.Indigenousliteracyfoundation.org.au/what-is-Indigenous-literacy.html

[3] http://www.abs.gov.au/websitedbs/cashome.nsf/4a256353001af3ed4b2562bb00121564/7464946b3f41b282ca25759f00202502!OpenDocument

[4] http://www.creativespirits.info/Aboriginalculture/people/Aboriginal-identity-who-is-Aboriginal#toc0#ixzz2e01yyNYJ

[5] http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/lookup/4704.0Chapter210Oct+2010

[6] http://www.humanservices.gov.au/customer/services/centrelink/abstudy

[7] Pearson, N. (2000). Passive welfare and the destruction of indigenous society in Australia. In Saunders, P. (Ed.), Reforming the Australian Welfare State (pp. 136-155). Sydney: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

[8] Pearson, N. (2009). Up from the mission: Selected writings. Melbourne: Black Inc.