Sunday 18 October 2009

NT walk-off: Indigenous community defies racist intervention

by Peter Robson & Emma Murphy 10 October 2009 From Green Left Weekly In early October, Green Left Weekly visited the Alyawarr people’s walk-off camp, three hours north-east of Alice Springs. A statement from the protest camp reads: “On July 14 we, Elders from the Ampilatwatja Aboriginal community, three hours north-east of Alice Springs, walked out of our houses and set up camp in the bush. “We are fed up with the federal government’s Northern Territory intervention, controls and measures, visions and goals forced onto us from outside. We felt [like] we were outcast and isolated from all decision-making — there has been no meaningful consultation. “We therefore have no intention of going back there. We intend to stay here until our demands are met.” The NT [Northern Territory] intervention was launched in June 2007 by the then-federal Coalition government. Its policies, which continue today under Labor, were supposedly designed to mitigate instances of child abuse and neglect in remote NT communities. In fact, the laws making up the intervention were so racially discriminatory they required exemption from the Racial Discrimination Act to be passed. They included the takeover of Aboriginal land under compulsory five-year leases, widespread pornography and alcohol bans, increased police powers and the implementation of “welfare quarantining”. Community-based elected councils were dismissed in favour of broader shires, administered by non-Aboriginal people in regional centres. “Welfare quarantining” transferred half of all payments made to Aboriginal welfare recipients into a “Basics” card, which could only be used in certain stores, and only on food, clothing and medical supplies. Ampilatwatja, part of around 300 square kilometres handed back to the Alyawarra people in 1976, is one of the communities compulsorily acquired under the intervention. Elders at the walk-off camp told GLW they felt shame and anger at the discriminatory measures of the intervention. The previously community-run housing, now the responsibility of Territory Housing, had fallen into such disrepair since it was taken over, that sewage from burst pipes ran in the streets. They decided to leave, and set up camp on an area of their homeland not covered by the government-imposed five-year lease. For the last three months, they have maintained a 30 to 40-person strong presence in the protest camp, despite high temperatures, scarce water and fierce dust storms. Donald Thompson, an elder at the camp, told GLW: “We won’t go back. The government can take [Ampilatwatja] and we’ll keep this one.” He lifted a handful of the red dust of the camp and let it run through his fingers. The elders of Ampilatwatja are not strangers to this sort of protest. Thompson and his colleague, Banjo Morton, said they where involved in strikes, sit-downs and walk-offs from as early as World War II. Morton and Thompson worked as drovers and station hands since they were teenagers, part of the vast and largely unpaid Aboriginal workforce that cleared much of central Australia for white settlements and cattle stations. The Alyawarr people were driven from their traditional lands in 1910. The men were employed as drovers and station hands, working for rations and sent to whatever cattle station required the cheap labour. Women and children lived on the outskirts of the large stations, working as domestic help — again in exchange for rations. For many of the old people, the intervention’s Basics card is a direct reminder of the ration days. “Just like that welfare card, they’re making us go backward, back to the welfare days”, Morton said. “We’re staying here til everything comes good, might be good news from government, something like that … There’s no work for my mob. Things were working good before the shire [and the five-year lease] came in there.” The Basics card is particularly galling for the two men who had spent their entire working lives opening up the country, paving the way for the incredibly lucrative pastoral industry. They told GLW that around the time of WWII they were involved in a sit-down strike for £2 a week on top of the rations they received. A sympathetic police officer agreed to drive the workers back to their traditional lands. Scared to lose his captive workers, the station-owner gave in and paid them. The Lake Nash walk-off was among the first of many such struggles waged by Aboriginal workers in the NT. Thompson was working in Tennant Creek at the time of the historic 1966 Gurintji walk-off, which started as a struggle for wages but went on to become a campaign for the Gurintji people’s right to live on their traditional lands. By the time Ampilatwatja and surrounding country was handed back to the Alyawarra people by the Whitlam government, work on cattle stations had dried up, as station owners sacked Aboriginal people rather than pay them the new wages they were entitled to under the equal wages decision of 1968. “[Pastoralists] are rich now, nothing for Aboriginal people”, said Thompson. “We got a new government and they just follow John Howard’s laws.” The people of Ampilatwatja hope their action will inspire other communities affected by the intervention to follow suit. They are planning a meeting of different language groups to discuss the potential for other communities to walk off. Meanwhile, the Alyawarr elders have no intention of going back. No government representatives have met them on their own terms. Aboriginal affairs minister Jenny Macklin has confirmed that Ampilatwatja will not receive any new housing. They plan to establish a more permanent base than the basic, un-irrigated bush camp in which they now live. They hope to build a new community based entirely on donations from supporters, free from government help. To build support across the country, especially among unions, they have sent their spokesperson, Richard Downs, to eastern states, to profile their struggle in the cities. Downs’ packed schedule includes meeting unions and community groups and speaking at public meetings. Downs was particularly happy with the response from unions so far. After a meeting with the Maritime Union of Australia in Sydney, he told GLW: “They go way back with our mob. Back to the Lake Nash walk-off, Gurintji. They said they’d stand alongside us in this campaign, and tell all their members about it.” In Sydney on October 7, he addressed a packed lecture theatre at the University of Technology Sydney, along with Harry Nelson from Yuendumu and National Indigenous Times editor Chris Graham. Downs spoke of the importance of building support for his people: their struggle wasn’t against white Australia, but the government. He also spoke of an issue affecting us all: climate change. He said in establishing the new camp, his people planned to use renewable technology and permaculture, and become an example of a sustainable community. Reflecting on the fact that, three months after walking out, the protest camp continues, Graham said: “The government might just have underestimated their resilience. This could be the start of something big.” [For details of Downs’ tour, to make donations or for more information, visit]

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