Labor and Liberal wasted millions


Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin poses with Aboriginal dancers from Arnhem Land Benny (left) and David Wilford in Canberra on April 3, 2009 at the ceremony to endorse the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin poses with Aboriginal dancers from Arnhem Land Benny (left) and David Wilford in Canberra on April 3, 2009 at the ceremony to endorse the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Northern Territory Senator Nigel Scullion last month accused Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin of wasting $150 million on Labor’s Alice Springs Transformation Plan, slamming her for letting down residents of the town camps. But CHIRS GRAHAM* reports that both sides of politics have let town campers down.

ONE OF the most striking things about researching the Aboriginal town camp movement in Alice Springs is the amount of available information on basic infrastructure, even though a five-minute tour of a town camp reveals there’s very little to speak of.

The Northern Territory government’s Bushtel site lists and maps everything that government has ever spent any money on, such as fence lines, housing lots, water courses, roads (sealed and unsealed), footpaths (if there are any… and there usually aren’t), power lines etc.

But remarkably, Bushtel is strangely silent on the most important piece of information of all – population data.

A search on any Alice Springs town camp brings the response “not available”.

For the record, more than 3,000 Aboriginal people call a town camp in Alice Springs their home. But it’s unthinkable that an Australian government could have no idea of the number of people living in a community, given that population data underpins government planning for basic services.

It seems when it comes to Aboriginal communities, counting government infrastructure matters more than counting people.

That simple reality – better than anything else – explains the history of the Alice Springs town camp movement.

White settlement in Alice Springs began in 1872, when the Alice Springs Telegraph Station was established.

That’s when the dispossession – and the killing – began.

Over the next two decades, the Aboriginal resistance saw hundreds of police sent from South Australia, and more than 1,000 Aboriginal people slaughtered.

By 1928, as more whitefellas moved into the region, Alice Springs was declared a ‘prohibited area’ for Aboriginal people, so blackfellas began establishing ‘fringe camps’ on the outskirts of the town.

During the outbreak of Word War II, the whitefellas increased efforts to rid the town of ‘the blacks’ – Aboriginal fringe campers were moved to Hermannsburg, 150 km west; Jay Creek, 50 km west and Little Flower Mission, 110 km east of Alice Springs. But still, Aboriginal people kept trying to settle in and around the town.

Government tried again in 1960, moving campers to Amoonguna, 15 km south-east of Alice Springs. Even so, two new town camps sprung up.

During the 1960s, the whitefellas realized they had to change tack – instead of forcible evictions, they used the ‘welfare argument’ by sending in police and welfare officers to patrol for health hazards, child neglect, drunkenness and general untidiness. Child removals, of course, increased.

By 1968, federal law decreed that pastoralists must pay Aboriginal workers on cattle stations equal wages. Farmers responded with mass sackings of black workers, placing even greater pressure on the town camps as families from remote regions flooded into town.

Over the next few decades, the whitefellas could no longer hold back the tide, and the town camp movement was formalized, despite repeated attempts by government to close it down.

Tangentyere Council – the peak body for each of the town camp associations – was established in 1979, and by 1988, town campers had managed to secure 16 special purpose leases over land in and around Alice Springs.

If had taken 100 years, by Aboriginal people have finally secured land – albeit very modest amounts – in and around Alice Springs.

And then came the Howard government. In 2007, amid certain defeat at the upcoming federal election, the Liberals launched the Northern Territory intervention, a policy aimed at shifting the blame for entrenched Aboriginal poverty into the victims.

After decades of fighting for the basic right to exist in Alice Springs, town campers faced a new threat.

Then Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mal Brough told town campers that unless they signed their land back to the government for 99 years, he would compulsorily acquire their leases.

To sweeten the ‘gun to the head deal’, Brough promised $50 million in upgrades to housing and basic infrastructure in town camps.

Tangentyere Council flatly refused.

Fortunately for town campers, the Howard government was booted from office before Brough could make good on his threat. But, unfortunately for the town campers, the incoming Rudd government had precisely the same plan.

New minister Jenny Macklin upped the pressure on town campers by promising $100 million in upgrades, but still with the threat that their land would be forcibly acquired if they refused.

Legal attempts to block Macklin failed, and, faced with the prospect of losing their land forever, town campers signed over their land for 40 years.

Underpinning the policies of both Brough and Macklin is the belief that government cannot invest in Aboriginal communities unless it owns the land.

It’s a policy, of course, that wouldn’t wash in white Australia, but it’s entrenched in black Australia, evidenced by the extent of Bushtel data on infrastructure, versus its lack of detail on people.

Macklin gained control of town camps at the end of 2009 when she launched the Alice Springs Transformation Plan. The deal, Macklin promised, was that in exchange for losing their land, town campers would finally have access to the same level of services that all other Alice Springs residents expect as a right of citizenry.

Yet today, life for the overwhelming majority of town campers appears little different, with a few notable exceptions.

Since the NT intervention, assault rates have increased exponentially (they’re up by more than 40 percent since 2006).

Alcohol flows freely on town camps. Dysfunction is rife. CEO Of Tangentyere Council, Walter Shaw, recently described life on the town camps as “ruled by fear”, with overcrowding caused by visitors pouring into the camps from outlying communities.

The visitors, of course, are fleeing trouble in their own towns, where the NT intervention and the closure of Aboriginal shire councils by the previous NT Labor government have led to even greater unemployment and less basic services. And bush blackfellas feel no more welcome in white Alice Springs today than they did 100 years ago, so they fill up the already overcrowded town camps.

Since Macklin’s Transformation Plan, there have been more than 86 new homes built on town camps. Of those, 80 of them were found to be structurally unsound, and had to have major works redone due to poor construction.

There were also refurbishments to existing housing stock – most look like they’ve had, at best, $20,000 spent on them, and almost all look today like they did three years ago, courtesy of overcrowding and poor workmanship.

As far as the civil works are concerned, little has been been completed. Truckies Camp – a small town camp on the edge of the Alice Springs industrial area – has new housing, kerb and guttering and street lighting, but it is the only town camp out of 16 to benefit fully from the upgrades.

Road works continue at Larapinta and Hidden Valley town camps – the site that Macklin always takes Prime Minister Gillard and media whenever she needs a photo opportunity – but the remaining town camps have received almost no civil works.

Truckies, Larapinta and Hidden Valley, of course, are the town camps where Macklin ushers the Prime Minister and other officials during photo opportunities to show the progress of the transformation plan.

They never go to Whitegate, however, a town camp situated several kilometres east of Alice Springs, which still has no paved roads, and no housing. Residents still live in humpies and tin sheds, and share a single tap while a kilometre away, thousands of white Alice Springs residents live in an estate that wraps around a golf course, where homes routinely sell for more half a million dollars.

Macklin, for her part, is claiming that $150 million has already been expended on the Alice Springs Transformation Plan. It’s hard to see where the money went, unless you know the history of Macklin’s handling of housing funding.

Two years into the Strategic Indigenous Housing Infrastructure Program (SIHIP) – the NT intervention’s $700 million housing program – Macklin had somehow managed to spend more than $100 million, without constructing a single home.

With extraordinary waste in the back of their minds, Tangentyere Council recently requested a detailed account of what funds had been expended so far under the Alice Springs Transformation Plan. Their members had, after all, lost their land in exchange for the funding.

In response, Tangentyere received a single page letter, with no financial detail. Macklin’s famed disdain for public accountability continues.

Given that both Labor and Liberal have the same policy – no government investment in basic services in Aboriginal communities unless government has ownership of the land – town campers have little reason to believe that a change of government in September 2013 will bring better outcomes.

Even so, Senator Nigel Scullion – the most likely Indigenous affairs minister in an Abbott Government – was recently interviewed by Tracker magazine, about his plans if he wins office. Shortly after his interview, Scullion issued a media release condemning Macklin’s “waste” under the Alice Springs Transformation Plan.

“I have seen Macklin’s houses trashed before their time, not the fault of the residents but due to uncontrolled visitor numbers. These visitors have made residents’ lives a misery and made many of the town camps dens of alcohol, drugs, violence and murder,” Scullion said.

“There are good residents here who want to do the right thing and Jenny Macklin has let these good people down. She should have tackled the visitor numbers before she spent the money on the houses.

“Typical of a Canberra-down approach, they failed to do the necessary hard work and put in plans and strategies in place that would control visitor numbers and protect residents from the social, cultural and violence problems that have beset the town camps for well over 30 years.

“If the Coalition wins government later this year we will work closely with the Giles NT Government to establish a proper plan that addresses the problems before one further cent is spent.”

Working closely with the NT Government is important. But what is really needed is a public inquiry into what happened to tens of millions of dollars from the Alice Springs Transformation Plan, and hundreds of millions from the SIHIP program.

None of this, of course, should give town campers hope that their lives will improve any time soon, although as their history shows, they’re a remarkably patient people.

* Chris Graham is a freelance journalist based in Sydney and the former Managing Editor of Tracker magazine. He provides occasional media advice to Tangentyere Council.

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