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"Over the last eleven years [2000 - 2011] we have made annual visits to a central Australian Aboriginal community about two and a half hours’ drive north west of Alice Springs on the edge of the Tanami Desert. The community comprises about 250 people who have communal ownership of only a couple of square kilometers excised from a pastoral lease.
There are no police based in the community. There is a four teacher school, a community office, a health clinic, a child care center and an aged care service providing meals and community support.
Life before the Intervention
Although it has always had many problems, the community until 2007 had its act together pretty well. It was a dry community by consensus, with a local night patrol actively excluding grog. School attendance had been improving for a number of years and a secondary program has been attracting growing numbers. The school and the community council employed a number of local people on CDEP.
In August 2008 we visited for the first time since the Northern Territory Emergency Response. We have visited twice more since. Although we have come to know personally a number of members of the Aboriginal community, including the council chairman, the Aboriginal people, of course offer only very limited and guarded comments to us as occasional visiting whitefellas. So our observations are based principally on what we witnessed and comments from health and teaching staff based at the community.
Life after the Intervention
The community is prescribed under the Intervention, so grog and pornography are forbidden under severe but apparently unenforced penalties. We observed drinking going on openly in the community for the first time in 2008.
The Government nominated this community for a pilot process to decide whether the community should be dry or whether controlled alcohol sales and drinking should be permitted. This process involved protracted meetings of invited community members with dwindling participation, especially among those who favoured alcohol sales. As a result, the process is likely to lead to a decision not to permit drinking but the decision will not be owned by the full community.
The community population has declined, with several families or parts of families migrating either to the town camps in Alice Springs or to other communities (somewhere drinking is permitted). School attendance, even among the families who remain, has dropped. The clinic is responding to higher rates of domestic violence, much of it grog related. The CDEP arrangements are causing much confusion, new candidates cannot join and the future of people already participating is uncertain.Income quarantining was scheduled to start in 2009, but the community store is not qualified to participate and vouchers will have to be redeemed either at approved stores in Alice Springs, or at the store at the adjacent cattle station which will monitor individuals’ expenditure.
The impact of the Intervention is complicated by a separate NT Government initiative which has amalgamated the council into a larger shire council with communities several hundred kilometers away. This has served to further dilute the self-management of the community and adds to the impression that the government is prone to take arbitrary, unilateral and unfathomable decisions which impact on the lives of powerless people.
The outside of the houses in the community have been repainted but nothing was done about the plumbing or electrical equipment in the houses. We heard of a neighbouring community where the outside of the houses were repainted twice in three months. We also heard of a nearby community where a women’s refuge has been established. The refuge is a three hour drive from the community we visit so it will be of no use to women there. In any event it comprises a shipping container surrounded by a cyclone and barbed wire fence so sounds completely forbidding.
Video: Life in a community after the intervention
Vanessa Davis, community activist in Alice Springs, shares her personal experiences of the Northern Territory Intervention and its effects on Aboriginal communities in central Australia. (To skip the intro, fast-forward to 2:25 mins.)
Why no-one complains
The only opportunity people from this community had of contributing to consultations when the government reviewed the Intervention was to travel several hundred kilometers at their own expense to speak among strangers at a public forum or to lodge a submission by e-mail. Neither is culturally realistic.
Community announcements were made by the government throughout the NT inviting people to raise issues with Community Business Managers. These are the whitefella officials appointed by the government and housed at significant expense in each community. They are seen in some communities as the personification of all that’s wrong with the Intervention. The notion that community members would feel confident enough to raise grievances with these officials shows that the consultation is not fair dinkum.
Although there may be people in some communities who have welcomed some elements of the Intervention, it needs to be tailored to the requirements of individual communities so that it doesn’t have perverse consequences. Communities need to be consulted about what their needs are and offered the chance to manage whatever elements of the response they believe are warranted in their circumstances.
In the community we visit, the effects appear to have all been negative. The people have given up trying to manage their own community, their own families, their own affairs and their own lives, because no matter what works for them, the government will always come along and push them around."