Australian government treating the native aboriginal people as children who cannot use their own money properly
RAMINGINING, AUSTRALIA—Living in Australia’s Northern Territory, a vast stretch of sun-baked desert, swamps and tropical forests, a tough-as-nails truck is the only way to get around.
But with each 10-hour drive in his mud-splashed Toyota Land Cruiser to visit relatives, Albert Djiwada wonders whether the trip will be his last.
While the retired public-housing manager receives a monthly pension of $786, the Australian government demands Djiwada spend at least half of his stipend on food or clothing in a government-approved store. It leaves little leeway for discretionary purchases, such as parts for his decrepit truck, which wheezes and rattles each time he starts it up.
Djiwada faces the spending restrictions because he’s an Aboriginal and, therefore, his pension is subject to income management — a central tenet of the controversial legislation known as the “intervention policy,” brought in purportedly to improve the lives of indigenous Australians.
The legislation was introduced in the summer of 2007, weeks after a government-commissioned report concluded sexual abuse was widespread in Aboriginal communities. The “Little Children are Sacred” report claimed alcohol was largely responsible for the abuse, and the government pledged to find ways to limit the ability of indigenous Australians to drink so much.
Under income management, all Aboriginals in the Northern Territory must spend half their pensions or welfare cheques on necessities in a government-approved store.
“The government won’t let me save money for auto parts or for a washing machine even,” says Djiwada. “They don’t tell white people on pensions or welfare how to spend their money. Why are they telling me what to do with mine?”
The policy also bans pornography and alcohol in Aboriginal communities and gives the government control of Aboriginal lands. It was applied in the Northern Territory because it’s one of the few jurisdictions where the federal government could pass the law without the approval of a state-level government.
While the policy was introduced by the right-of-centre Liberal Party, its successor, the more liberal Labour Party, is planning to extend the policy another 10 years. Its plan is expected to pass with bipartisan support later this month. Australia’s senate reconvenes June 18 and Aboriginal activists say the policy’s extension is among the government’s highest priorities.
Supporters say the policy is necessary because Aboriginal communities are rife with drug addition, domestic violence, sexual abuse, illiteracy and child malnutrition. Aboriginal men, they say, typically fritter away their incomes on gambling and cigarettes.
Aboriginal community leaders counter that the intervention policy has wrestled control of villages away from locals, stoked negative stereotypes, and fostered a condescending paternalism the government promised to abandon decades ago.
Marion Scrymgour, the first indigenous woman elected to the Northern Territory state parliament, called the policy “a vicious new McCarthyism.”
“The policy has been a disaster,” says Sarah Maddison, a research fellow in the Indigenous and Dialogue Research Unit at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. “It’s just another chapter we as a country are going to look back on with shame and embarrassment. The legislation is paternalistic and racist and destined to fail.”
Like Canada, Australia has lurched from one Aboriginal crisis to another.
When British settlers arrived in Australia in 1788, Aboriginals — researchers believe there were at least 750,000 at that time and had hunted the country’s red plains for some 40,000 years — were ousted from their lands and hunted, poisoned and shot. Within a century, they were nearly extinct. In the 1920s, the population of indigenous Australians had plunged to roughly 60,000.
In Queensland, in northeast Australia, during the 19th century, Aboriginals were routinely jailed for offences including disorderly conduct and refusing to work.
Between 1910 and the early 1970s, as many as 100,000 Aboriginal children who had white fathers or grandfathers were taken from their families and forcibly assimilated. Cecil Cook, who held the position “chief protector” of Aboriginals in the Northern Territory during the 1930s, said assimilation would “breed out the colour.”
The government’s human rights and equal opportunity commission later said the policy was genocidal and in 1967, the Australian government finally gave citizenship to Aboriginals.
Citizenship, however, did little to improve their fortunes.
Today, Australia’s 500,000 indigenous people make up about 2 per cent of the population. Life expectancy for Aboriginals is about 17 years lower than for non-indigenous Australians. In some parts of the country, Aboriginal men are 25 times more likely to be incarcerated as whites.
Ramingining is an isolated brew of mistrust, like many other Aboriginal communities in Australia’s coastal Arnhem Land.
During the wet season, which can last half the year, the village of 1,000 is only accessible by plane. As many as 15 or 20 extended family members live in each house, one-storey structures with tin roofs, barred windows and fenced yards.
There are few jobs. The general store employs a few dozen, as does a local arts centre that sells woven baskets, paintings on tree bark, and didgeridoos, an Aboriginal musical instrument made of eucalyptus wood.
When young people aren’t playing Australian football on an open field next to the general store, they’re shuffling along the community’s dirt roads, listening to music on ghetto blasters and cellphones.
“We like everything from our own traditional music to Eminem,” said Marcus Gaykamangu, 25.
Flea-bitten dogs prowl outside the fenced yards, nosing through the frequent piles of trash. Most locals are understandably suspicious of outsiders and many don’t want their photos taken.
“These people have had their spirits broken,” explains Deborah Harding, a Darwin-based Aboriginal rights activist. “There’s a real sense of shame.”
On a recent weekend, leaders of nearby communities gathered in Ramingining to talk about how they might coax the government to abandon its efforts to extend the intervention policy.
As a group of 30 sat in the dappled shade outside the arts centre, Djiniyini Gondarra, a prominent Aboriginal rights leader, spoke over a cellphone that was hooked up to a loudspeaker.
“We don’t want to always bend down and kiss (white) people’s shoes,” Gondarra said. “We need to take a lesson from Malcolm X in the United States. With these government rules it’s like indigenous people are slaves working for the masters in the field. If a kid misses one day of school a week we’re going to lose all our welfare. This law is about punishing us.”
The intervention is officially called the Northern Territory Emergency Response and was announced in August 2007, weeks after the June 15 release of the “Little Children are Sacred” report.
Reaction to the report was swift. The Australian, the country’s biggest-circulation newspaper, wrote in an editorial that alcohol was largely to blame, suggesting it “lowers inhibitions, and . . . combines with low self-esteem, boredom, cultural anomie and lack of education to produce the toxic levels of sexual abuse now seen in the bush.”
Australia’s former indigenous affairs minister Mel Brough went further, claiming that there were “pedophile rings” operating in the Northern Territory, allegations that were later disproved by Australia’s crime commission.
Based partly on Brough’s incendiary statement, the army was sent to round up children for mandatory medical checkups. Then-prime minister John Howard pledged to bring Aboriginal communities into “the mainstream of Australian society.”
“Imagine what it was like for people in Aboriginal communities with the military rolling in, people in fatigues grabbing kids,” said Les Malezer, co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples in Sydney. “It was totally intimidating.”
“This is a wealthy country, but scratch the surface and it’s the most racist developed country in the world,” Malezer said.
Aboriginal activists say the policy contradicts the government’s apology in 1998 for taking children from their homes.
“This policy is part of a long-term effort at assimilation,” said Jeff McMullen, a former correspondent with the Australian Broadcasting Corp. who specializes in Aboriginal issues. “The policy coincides with the belief that Aboriginal people should abandon their culture, subdivide communal lands and move towards private home ownership. These ideas are not supported by most Aboriginal people.”
The government claims it needed oversight to build schools, health clinics and police stations.
In Ramingining, the community no longer awards contracts for building and repair work. Those are handled by a state shire council hundreds of kilometres away. The money the local council managed to save up — locals say they had saved several thousand dollars — has been clawed back by the government, which has seized control of council bank accounts.
Even so, when a contract came up to build a men’s shelter, Peter Gambung felt he had a shot at winning a job. The 64-year-old arc welder was trained in college in Brisbane and once built an eight-metre-long barge.
“I’ve been welding my whole life,” he said. “I was perfect for the job.”
But Gambung never heard back. Instead, workers from Darwin — all of them white — arrived.
“They’ve kicked locals out of employment and brought in white people. It’s profiteering and the system supports it,” said David Suttle, a researcher with the Darwin Aboriginal Rights Coalition. “To have such blatantly racist and disempowering legislation should be seen through in an instant.”
It’s Ramingining custom that when a death occurs in an Aboriginal family, the body is laid out in front of their home for a funeral ceremony that can last two weeks, longer if out-of-towners are delayed in attending.
“The government has told us it’s not healthy, that we have to change,” said Ross Wanybarrnga, 29. “But why would they do that? We’ve been doing it like this for thousands of years and no one has become sick that I know of.”
Homes built with government money are designed with toilets in the middle of the structure, said Harding.
“The government doesn’t understand that women in this culture have to slip away to go to the bathroom,” she said. “It’s not something that they even let their brothers know they are doing.”
Ramingining’s school, for students ages 5 to 17, has computers and overhead projectors and a well-stocked library. But most days, fewer than half of its 300 enrolled students turn up, said teacher Sarah Cattermole.
The government recently stopped funding for the school to teach in two languages, English and a local dialect.
While English is now the school’s only language, it’s typically the third or fourth language spoken by children here.
“My stepdaughter is 10 and she only goes sometimes,” shrugged Wanybarrnga. “Why should we go if they don’t teach us in our own language?”
A few feet away, Gambung clucked his tongue and wagged his finger at Wanybarrnga.
“Not everyone thinks that way,” Gambung said. “I insist all of my grandchildren go to school. They have to have choices.”
Cattermole said it’s routine for teenaged boys to disappear from class for a month at a time.
“They go to hunt,” she said. “There isn’t any way to stop them.”
There are also small details of everyday life that can go overlooked by an outsider, such as the signs that read, “No Pornography” as you drive into an Aboriginal community. The signs were put up after Brough’s unsubstantiated claims of pedophile rings.
“It’s humiliating for people who live there, having to drive past signs like that,” said Bob Gosford, a lawyer with the Northern Land Council in Darwin. “It makes you think everyone in the community is some kind of sex addict.”
But income management is the most contentious part of the intervention policy.
In larger communities such as Alice Springs, in the middle of Australia, the policy has divided residents.
Aboriginal welfare recipients typically receive a card to process their purchases at government-approved stores. But because it takes longer to process than a typical transaction, stores have started introducing separate customer lines.
“It’s created a black line, white line situation, a type of apartheid,” Maddison said.
Politicians would understand how misguided the policy is if they spent time in remote communities such as Ramingining, Suttle said.
“In a place like Arnhem Lands, these people can go out and shoot a buffalo or magpie geese or a longneck turtle,” he said. “You can’t go fishing without catching something. There’s amazing food here, heaps of fruits and vegetables, 32 types of yams alone.
“And now, an Aboriginal doesn’t have the right to put aside money to save for diesel, which is now $2.50 a litre, or car parts, or bullets for hunting,” Suttle said. “It’s a real handicap, like tying their legs together, when people from the outside are telling them to manage their money. And remember, none of these policies would apply to white Australians on welfare who might live in the next community over.”
Some Australians insist the intervention is making a positive difference.
Jenny Macklin, Australia’s federal minister for families, housing, community services and indigenous affairs, has claimed most stores in the outback that are licensed to sell to Aboriginal welfare recipients have reported strong sales of fresh vegetables and fruit.
A clerk in the Ramingining general store said frozen peas and carrots are more popular than any fresh offerings, and added Coca-Cola and potato chips are typically the first items to sell out.
Macklin wasn’t available for comment, a spokesman said.
As a group of elders sat in Ramingining, eating a breakfast of canned spaghetti and scrambled eggs, Australian Senator Nigel Scullion, a member of the Liberal Party, stood to the side and defended the intervention.
“Look, you can’t have it both ways,” Scullion said. “You want to talk about preserving the old ways and rejecting modern society, but you want to drive around doing your hunting in Land Rovers?”
One of the criticisms of the intervention has been that a blanket prohibition of alcohol wasn’t necessary because some communities such as Ramingining already banned booze.
“That’s bulls—,” Scullion said. “I’ve been here when the whole place is pissed. The fact is there are big problems in Aboriginal communities. Look at the teen pregnancy rate. Look at how many 10-year-olds are contracting STDs. Don’t tell me they’re getting them off toilet seats. Men are trading them cigarettes for sex.”
Suttle said Scullion’s claims seem far-fetched.
“I’ve been working in Aboriginal communities for six years now and I’ve only ever seen one person who was drunk,” he said. “You’re more likely to find drunks when you walk down the street in Darwin. It’s true that there are problems, but you can’t say pin them all on one race. That’s just not fair or true.”
The Aboriginal Medical Association said in a 2009 report that the pregnancy rate of Aboriginal teens was four times higher than non-indigenous teens. That followed a 1996 study that found 22 per cent of Aboriginal births were to teen mothers, compared to 5 per cent for the total population.
Meantime, nearly 1,000 per 100,000 indigenous Australians were infected with chlamydia in 2009, compared to 287 per 100,000 in the non-indigenous population. The rate of gonorrhea infection was similarly higher among indigenous Australians.
Scullion said few locals are willing to report or condemn the crime of sex with minors.
“In an isolated place like this, community is everything, and if you stand out, you’ll be ostracized and that’s it,” he said. “They might even kill you.”
Scullion similarly defends the decision to force indigenous students to learn in English, even though most children in Ramingining grow up learning local languages Djambarrpuyngu, Gupapuyngu, and Ganalbingu before they study English.
“English is the language of Australia,” he said. “There has to be an interface. We have to facilitate people being able to communicate.”
The elders are ready to hear from Scullion, and he walks to a nearby microphone. He’s hoping to win votes, not alienate locals, so he begins by apologizing for the lack of consultation before the intervention’s introduction.
“We should have come here first before the intervention and asked what you wanted and for that I’m sorry,” Scullion said. “But that’s in the past.”
Diane Austin-Broos, an author and professor emeritus at the University of Sydney, said many women in Aboriginal communities privately support income management.
“I know some women who have to padlock their fridges to make sure their kids get the food they need,” Austin-Broos said. “They don’t leave because there’s nowhere for them to go. And with the income management, at least they can say to the men in their lives, ‘It’s not my fault that I can’t give you the money this month, it’s the fault of those guys out there.’
“That saves them from the extreme stress of saying no to a husband who wants the money for gambling or alcohol or cigarettes.”