Aboriginal leaders say only immediate action will remedy the appalling state of remote communities in the Northern Territory, writes.
Tracker Tilmouth points angrily at a tin shanty where 23 Aborigines are living in squalor. "Take a look. That's not only a disgrace. It symbolises what I believe amounts to a form of cultural and social genocide," he says. "This is as bad as anywhere on earth, right here on Australian soil."
Tilmouth knows more than most people about Aboriginal poverty, poor health, high crime, alcoholism and substance abuse.
Snatched from relatives living in an Alice Springs creek bed when he could barely walk, Tilmouth has spent most of his life in remote indigenous communities, where new research reveals that a population explosion and 30 years of underfunding in education, health and infrastructure have created a social time bomb.
"I have to speak out now because things are getting worse for people in these communities," says Tilmouth, 53, a former head of the Central Land Council, the peak Aboriginal body in central Australia. "The system delivering services to these places has collapsed. But nobody wants to talk about it. Governments have one last chance to get it right or else they will be dealing with a catastrophe."
Bob Beadman probably knows more about the problems of Aboriginal Australians than any other non-indigenous person. He also says it is time to speak out to shock Australia about the state of remote indigenous communities.
The former senior public servant, who is chairman of the Northern Territory Grants Commission, says that 30 years of multilayered policies that bureaucrats considered generous failed tragically because they denied Aboriginal people any effective role in their own lives.
"We are now on the rocks," he says. "We need to fundamentally set a new course and abandon the old tiller settings. People need to be shocked. They need to be moved from their tacit acceptance that everything is OK. A huge task confronts the nation, and particularly Aborigines themselves."
Beadman says people need to abandon political correctness and tackle the taboos of indigenous communities such as "child molestation, family violence, or even diet or personal hygiene. Only when the dirty linen is put out for the wash will it be washed."
But above everything else Aboriginal people need to become re-engaged so momentum for change comes from them, Beadman says. "They have been encouraged to think inadvertently that government would prefer them to be paid to sit down rather than to work," he says. "Billions of dollars have been thrown at this problem and we still have a deteriorating outcome."
Steve Sunk, a lecturer at Charles Darwin University, has decided to blow the whistle on what is happening in remote indigenous communities, where he has worked for the past eight years. He told the Northern Territory Chief Minister, Clare Martin, in a letter that some children in the communities are starving and begging for food from teachers. Appealing for urgent government action, including providing protection and daily meals, he said children were being raped and "there is a lot of molesting and incest going on with the kids and it's too disgusting to mention the facts".
"They [children] are sleeping on concrete floors, they don't have the luxury of a mattress even to share with a camp dog," Sunk said in the previously unpublished letter. "Kids have sores all over which are not healing up because of lack of proper food."
The Australian National University's Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research has found that fertility rates in 1300 remote indigenous communities are so high that the present total population of about 100,000 could double in 20 to 25 years. John Taylor, a senior fellow at the centre, says that unlike the rest of rural Australia, where economies are shrinking and populations declining, the "clock is ticking for remote indigenous communities".
Speaking in Wadeye, the largest remote community, 420 kilometres south-west of Darwin, Taylor warns that unless there is an immediate response from governments the cost of trying to fix the inevitable social dysfunction in the future will be enormous. He says the communities have remained largely out of sight of mainstream Australia, which for years "managed to avert its glance, so to speak".
But he says that as the communities become increasingly accessible and open to the outside world "Australia cannot afford to avoid them any more".
The problems confronting Wadeye, a former Catholic mission with a population of about 2100, are similar to those of other remote communities. An average of 17 people are living in each sweltering, graffiti-covered house such as the one Tilmouth pointed out. Almost half the population is under 15 and most of the teenagers cannot speak English. Infant mortality is four times the national average and life expectancy is 20 years less than that of non-indigenous Australians. Up to 80 per cent of the prisoners in the Northern Territory's jails are indigenous, many from remote communities.
The administrators and elders in almost all the remote communities complain about a lack of basic services that are available to other Australians.
Many of the communities look like Third World refugee camps. There are no banks, high schools, libraries, bitumen roads, child-care centres, restaurants, nursing homes or even privately owned service stations, milk bars or hardware stores, the sort of facilities you would see in a town of similar size in other parts of Australia.
While thousands of well-paid public servants from federal and territory departments work on indigenous matters in air-conditioned offices in Darwin and Alice Springs, administrators in remote communities complain that their pleas for help go mostly unanswered.
Ngukurr, a community at the edge of Arnhem Land, asked for eight months for help on chronic petrol sniffing among teenagers. One social worker with expertise on the problem visited for one day.
Wadeye, which has a new invigorated governing body based on centuries-old traditions, has declared that enough is enough. It is planning to sue the Territory Government for years of neglect of its children's education.
A report written by Taylor says the community receives less than 50 cents in the dollar for the education of a local child, compared with the full dollar distributed to children on average across the Territory. But the average is weighed down by other remote communities and Taylor says a direct comparison between Wadeye and Darwin is likely to be many times worse.
The revelations about remote communities come amid signs that a bold experiment by the Howard Government to trial a "whole of government" approach to delivering services to 10 indigenous communities, including Wadeye, is faltering.
In early August, the federal Minister for Family and Community Services, Kay Patterson, was taken aback when she was told during a visit to Wadeye that community elders were close to quitting the second stage of the Council of Australian Governments trial.
Patterson, whose department leads the trial in Wadeye, was not aware that the community was missing help from government departments it should have been receiving because it was wrongly believed it was getting all the help it needed from COAG.
A report written in August by Wadeye's Thamarrurr council told COAG the trial was "placing unsustainable pressure on council members and staff and on council resources". The report suggests the trial has caused the community to chase its tail. "We have come across our own tracks many times," the report said. "Our people ask how can this be?"
Of $1.3 million allocated to another COAG trial in the far-east Kimberley region of Western Australia, only $327,000 was spent on Aboriginal people and programs over 2? years. The rest went on salaries, travel and other related administrative expenses of the Department of Transport and Regional Services, which administers the program.
Tilmouth describes COAG as a Band-aid solution and a waste of time. "There are so many meetings they have to hold more meetings to discuss the problem of so many meetings," he says.
As the Howard Government pushes shared responsibility agreements it has negotiated directly with communities such as Wadeye, Aboriginal leaders and administrators in central and northern Australia question how much of the federal funds sent to the Territory Government to tackle Aboriginal disadvantage actually reaches the communities.
Norman Fry, chief executive officer of the Northern Land Council, the peak indigenous organisation in northern Australia, says spending on indigenous health, housing and other social indicators within the Territory Government remains a "deep, dark secret" that his organisation wants investigated. He says the truth about Aboriginal funding "must be exposed so that the true causes of dysfunction in remote communities may be addressed".
The council's chairman, John Daly, told the National Indigenous Times last month that "every indicator and every report points to serious concerns with the NT Government's expenditure of monies targeted for Aboriginal disadvantage".
Indigenous leaders point to reports that just over $1.5 billion of the $4 billion of the GST revenue expected to be collected in NSW and Victoria in 2005-06 will go the Territory Government to meet the needs of Territory Aborigines. They say that $1.5 billion is more than the entire national budget of the now dismantled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.
They point out that while the commission's taxpayer funds were spent primarily on work-for-dole and infrastructure maintenance programs, the Territory Government is responsible for education, health and infrastructure.
Indigenous leaders in the Territory regard education as the most important priority and want to see an exact account of where the money is being spent. Taylor says that only 25 per cent of children of school age in remote communities actually sit down behind a desk on any one day at school. But the Territory Government continues to receive 100 per cent of federal funding for the education of these children.
The delivery of health services is another area of concern. The Territory receives about $115 million from the Federal Government for Aboriginal health.
The Northern Territory's Aboriginal leaders believe that after the demise of ATSIC the Howard Government should establish regional authorities that would receive and distribute Commonwealth funds earmarked for Aboriginal disadvantage rather than send them first to mainstream government departments and agencies.
Beadman, a former head of the Territory Office of Aboriginal Development who has written a report on the future of Aboriginal youth for the Menzies Research Centre, says the establishment of strong regional authorities would be a "better co-ordinating mechanism for state and territory-level funding and federal funding".
Leon Melpi, a Wadeye elder, is fed up with bureaucrats coming to the community with pieces of paper to discuss one solution or another. "They should stay away and do their business and not come back until they have a final solution," he says. "All I will say is that we want to deal directly with the people who actually make the decisions that affect us. We want to cut out the middleman."
In the meantime, Melpi plans to build an ecologically friendly motel on his land above a magnificent white sand beach that few non-indigenous people have ever set foot on.
"We just want to be a normal part of Australia with all the services and opportunities that are available to the rest of you," he says.
By Lindsay Murdoch posted 18 September 05
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