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Aug 5, 2009

Up to their ankles in sewage, a remote community's patience runs out

The NT community of Ampilatwatja is overrun with raw sewage, and with complete inaction from the government, the residents have finally cracked.


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Almost three weeks after the nation’s media reported up to 150 Aboriginal people had abandoned their sewage-soaked community in protest of the failing Northern Territory intervention, residents have still not received a visit from a single Territory or federal government bureaucrat or politician.

And so the community of Ampilatwatja — in the Utopia region just three hours north east of Alice Springs — waits. Dozens of residents — many aged into their 80s, but some just little children — remain in the desert, camping in the dead of winter, which reaches below freezing at night.

For some of them, shelter is a tent. For others, it’s simply a windbreak made of branches and leaves, or a blanket in the dirt. One elderly man is sleeping in the rusted-out shell of long-abandoned vehicle. He’s put corrugated iron up against the sides to try and keep out the wind.

The forced takeover of their community store in May by the government almost tipped the community over the edge. But as Ampilatwatja became overrun with raw sewage, courtesy of a hopelessly inadequate sewerage system and an overcrowded community — the residents finally cracked.

Sewage stream outside the community of Utopia

In mid July, they simply walked out of town, and established a protest camp three kilometres away, at the site of an old bore.

The only visit the community has had from government officials since is the arrival of some Barkley Shire Council plumbers, who fixed sewerage problems in a handful of houses.

A truck was also sent by the Shire to pump some of the sewage from the failing system, which was overflowing into the streets. Alice Brennan, the ABC journalist who broke the story of the walk-off three weeks ago, said the smell of the raw sewage made her and her cameraman dry-retch.

“Most Australians would expect to see that sort of thing in a third world country,” Ms Brennan said.

Not a single bureaucrat from the Henderson or Rudd governments have stopped by. And Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin has so far ignored a letter co-signed by dozens of residents pleading for an opportunity to meet with government officials on the future of their community.

Their protest — and their plight — appears to have fallen on deaf ears. But community leader Richard Downs says if the government thinks it can simply “wait out” the community, they’re mistaken.

“I don’t know whether [the government] is trying to hide or what. I think maybe they’re ignoring it and hoping it will go away,” Mr Downs said.

“But look, the old people have said they’re quite happy out here. They’re going to stay. The young people are drifting back and forwards from the community — we’ve told the young people they’ve got kids and they’ve got to get them to school. And there’s some sick people (back at the community) as well. But they drift back and forwards and just come out and support us.”

Mr Downs predicted the protest could last months. It might even take on more than a temporary status.

“It could turn into a permanent camp. I’ve had a couple of calls from Sydney, there’s a lot of support building up,” he said. “We might get a little bit of funding from the unions to get the ball rolling. We’re camping on one of those old stock route bores with a windmill, so we’re looking at putting in a tank, a tap, some showers and toilets.”

Barkly Shire President Rosalie Kunoth-Monks’ mother chooses to live in this lean-to in the Central Australian community of Utopia.

Federal Country Liberal Senator for the Northern Territory, Nigel Scullion also believes the government is mistaken if it thinks it can outlast the people of the Utopia region. Scullion and NT MLA Adam Giles (the Opposition spokesperson on Indigenous Policy) visited the community last week, and were “stunned and embarrassed” by the federal and NT government responses.

“It was national news,” Senator Scullion said. “They were up to their bloody ankles in sh-t, saying ‘We’re leaving our community.’ ‘Ho hum,’ said the Northern Territory government, ‘ho hum’ said the federal government. They’ve done bloody nothing.”

Mr Giles described the condition of housing in Ampilatwatja as the worst he’s ever seen anywhere in the nation.

Aboriginal people who have abandoned Ampilatwatja are sleeping in whatever they can find.

Senator Scullion said he spoke directly to Jenny Macklin about the issue on Monday morning.

“I rang Minister Macklin and explained the circumstances I found there, and that they’re still waiting to hear from her three weeks later,” Senator Scullion told NIT. “I told the Minister that I think it’s really, really important that she or one of her representatives go to Ampilatwatja and speak to them. She thanked me for the information and that was it. I just hope she took it on board.”

Senator Scullion agrees with Mr Downs that the government is mistaken if it thinks it can ‘wait out’ the local residents. “If they think this community will just get tired of this and go back home, then they haven’t met these people,” he said. “They are determined. This is as significant an event to them as the Gurindji Walk-Off. This is a major event for them. They’re not trying to make some political point, they’re just asking for someone to bloody come and talk to them.”

The minister acknowledged in an interview with the ABC she had received the letter, was looking through it but would not commit to visiting the community. When asked if she was intending to visit the community, the minister told the ABC FACHSIA representatives would be conducting consultations in the region around mid August.

One of the protest camps outside Ampilatwatja.

Mr Downs said the community remained strong in the face of the adversity.

“We’re a remote community. Our traditions and customs are still strong, our law’s still strong, Aboriginal way. We’re not going to let it go away — we’ve just had enough. This is the first time our mob is speaking up, because we never do — we’re generally very easy going and patient.”

“But our patience has run out.”


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28 thoughts on “Up to their ankles in sewage, a remote community’s patience runs out

  1. Liz45

    Sadly, I think Jenny Macklin may be a likeable sort of person, but this is just too much – she just can’t delegate and has no sense of horrific health risks. Perhaps they’ll wait until a couple of little ones die from gastroenteritis or something worse, and then, when the family’s anger overflows, and there’s another tragedy, something will be done! Oh wow? Another inquiry? That should fix it? (I think of the cholera outbreaks in Zimbabwe and Iraq in recent times caused by just this type of situation?) How can people be expected to even remain in this area? It’s beyond disgusting! Three weeks?

    I’ve also heard good reports about those toilets. Now, that sounds like a common sense solution – that’s why it won’t even be entertained. No wonder people have walked off. I wish I lived closer, and could protest with them or at least show some support and solidarity with these long suffering people.

    What happened to the mining magnate who’s going to find employment for 50,000 aboriginal people? He could start with those toilets. Employ indigenous people where they’re required?

    $20,000 to paint a house? Some ‘houses’ in the Kimberley area only have 3 rooms? How big are these? Even a McMansion wouldn’t cost that much? The paint got gold flecks in it or something? I feel like elbowing my way in(to Jenny Macklin’s office) telling others to get out of the way, and then do SOMETHING! I’d start by saying, that anyone who didn’t want to roll up their sleeves and work, to go home. NOW!Then I’d be on the next plane up north!

  2. Liz45

    Geoffrey, the Australian LABOR Pary is spelt without the “U”. It has nothing to do with your English spell checker. It’s been spelt without the “U” since its conception. Go and look at the arhives of the first meetings etc. Look at the electoral web site etc. Go back as far as you like – always spelt this way. The British Labour Party is spelt with a “U” not Australia. If you can’t get this bit right, well……..

    If you look at the the horrific situation of aboriginal people, you’d know that most of the responsibility belongs to the Federal Govt and has for some time – 1967? The Conservatives have been in power for most of the time since Federation. I’m not supporting the role Labor is playing re aboriginal issues, but it’s unfair to blame the Greens as they’ve not been in a position to make policy in any sphere of govt. It sometimes amuses me, but usually annoys me, that every time a Labor govt is elected, everyone(including the Opposition -remember the pensioner increases? and in almost 12 yrs Howard did what? zilch!)expects radical changes, eveything fixed in the first 6-12 months, otherwise it’s a failure.

    The other point to make about Howard, is that his govt organized several? many?7 I think? inquiries, and he did nothing. I recall his many talk fests with some wonderful women who were/still are caring for the victims of DV etc without many resources, let alone acknowlegement. Howard used these as an opportunity for a ‘photo shoot’? “The Little Children Are Sacred” inquiry was instigated by the NT govt. Howard usurped the publication of that report for his own ends. He hoped he’d get re-elected on another ‘shock & awe/racist’ agenda, and it back fired. The assertions made by Howard and Brough were baseless, and the lack of evidence has been proven to be disgrace. Hardly a handful of so-called pedophiles have been charged, let alone convicted of offences. In fact, there’s been more non-aboriginal priests, brothers, teachers, public servants etc who’ve been arrested since 2007 of pedophile offences. I don’t recall the media carrying on about the ‘pedophile rings’ etc. There’s been no call to quarantine these peoples’ incomes, let alone restrict the sale of alchohol or pornography for that matter? The Adult shops are still functioning I believe. The result in the NT, is that many decent caring men have had their reputations tarnished, by just living there, when there’s not a shred of evidence against them. If this happened in non-aboriginal areas, there’d be grounds for defamation; the shock jocks would go off the planet, and there’d be apologies all round. But, when you destroy the heart and soul of aboriginal men, it doesn’t really count does it? After all, it’s not like they’re ‘real people’ with feelings is it????Not the same thing at all is it?

    I recall commenting to a woman friend some time ago, that I was the only one who didn’t laugh when my brother told a sexist/racist joke at a family gathering? She said, ‘everyone knows that feminists don’t have a sense of humour’? (she was also a feminist).Is this too complicated for you to get, Geoffrey? If you’d spent all of your life being the butt of abuse, jokes, unequal pay, humiliation and denigration, being patronized, I don’t think you’d find it very funny either. As a non-aboriginal woman, I can only imagine how much worse it is for aboriginal women. It’s to do with ‘walking a mile in someone else’s shoes’ Geoffrey – it’s called empathy! Incidently, saying you live with an aboriginal woman, and therefore you can’t be racist, is a bit like saying you can’t be sexist because your mother is a woman!

  3. jungarrayi

    And while we are all arguing the merits and mostly de-merits of lefty/trendy/green/baby-boomers (and my favourity description of people like myself- in an article in the Australian- “ante-deluvians”!) and the pragmatist/economic rationalist/ assimilationist/ethnocentric/ xenophobic/ conservatives, the multi-pronged assault on remote Aboriginal Australia continues.
    The promised Review of the Intervention (on its first anniversary) came and went. Peter Yu et al. did a brilliant job. On income management (IM) the Review recommended: “Blanket compulsory income management cease”. I don’t think it gets more unambiguous than that. So what do Macklin et al do? They are busy setting the scene so that when they re-instate the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) they can continue that bizarre, inefficient, costly scheme (IM) as “Special Measures” under the RDA.
    The Northern Territory Education Department that recently destroyed the last few remaining bi-lingual programmes in remote schools, by decree, gives no indication that it may remove that stupid “compulsory four hours English only” policy.
    “In Australia, our ways have mostly produced disaster for the Aboriginal people. I suspect that only when their right to be distinctive is accepted, will policy become creative”… Kim Beazley Sr.
    PS-Geoffrey, that comment that implies that leftists lack a sense of humour (albeit specifically feminists) is the one I take most umbrage to! Here in Yuendumu it’s the Warlpiri sense of humour that prevents us from despairing in the face of the assault. Pay us a visit and I bet we can get you laughing!

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