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Aboriginal Australia: like the poorest of Africa, says Amnesty chief

The Secretary General of Amnesty International has likened conditions in Central Australia to the poorest parts of Africa and Asia, and described the gap between rich and poor in this country as the most stark she’s even seen.

Irene Khan — the head of the world’s largest human rights organisation — made her comments during a tour of remote Aboriginal outstations in Central Australia yesterday.

The 2006 Sydney Peace Prize winner is in Australia this week as part of a campaign by Amnesty International to urge the Rudd government to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act to the Northern Territory emergency intervention legislation.

Her trip includes a meeting with the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin in Canberra tomorrow (Tuesday), and an address to the National Press Club later in the week.

Yesterday, Ms Khan flew to the Utopia region of Central Australia — a string of small Aboriginal homeland communities north east of Alice Springs — with a delegation of Amnesty workers, including National Director of Amnesty Australia, Claire Mallinson.

Speaking from Camel Camp, a tiny outstation of about 100 people, 220 kilometres north east of Alice Springs, Ms Khan described the poverty before her as a “tragedy” and a “puzzle”:

The conditions in which people are living here are similar to the conditions you would see in poor countries in Africa or Asia,” Ms Khan said. “But they don’t need to be like this here. That’s the tragedy. That’s the puzzle.

I’m not unfamiliar with poverty. I come from a poor country — Bangladesh. We were in Brisbane earlier this morning… and between Brisbane and this within a few hours you go from the first to the third world.

[I’ve never seen that] in such stark terms.

It is very shocking to see this kind of abject poverty in the heart of a country that is very high on the chart of human developmental indicators.

There are around half a dozen homes in Camel Camp. Some of them have hot water, courtesy of wood-fired hot water heaters built decades ago. The rest do without.

But there are more humpies than houses. Around 100 people live in the community — it’s hopelessly overcrowded, so residents spill out into humpy shelters cobbled together from tree branches and left over building materials.

Ms Khan sat with an Aboriginal elder in her 90s — Topsy Ngale — who lives in one of the humpies. She heard the woman describe her living conditions and the reality of life in Central Australia.

Despite access to government welfare, it’s a life trapped in abject poverty. Clearly moved by what she saw, Ms Khan said it was wrong to measure poverty simply by income.

You measure poverty by the discrimination people suffer, by the deprivation in which they live, by the insecurity that they suffer, and their voicelessness — not being heard, being excluded from decision-making, from participation,” she said.

I think those are features of poverty. It’s not about justifying what is or isn’t there. It’s about the reality. And the reality of what we see here is people are living in very desperate conditions.”

Ms Khan said the solution lay in listening to the people living the nightmare.

One needs to analyse and find out what’s happening. As far as these people are concerned, from what they have said, they feel they are not being heard.”

But they were heard, at least by the Amnesty International delegation. Before Camel Camp, Ms Khan and Ms Mallinson met with dozens of elders from the Utopia region at Arlparra, the small town that services the region.

Utopia’s most famous resident — Rosalie Kunoth Monks, the star of the 1950s film Jedda — told the gathering that Aboriginal culture was still strong with her people, that they would not surrender their land or their rights, and they would die before they suffered forced assimilation.

The Utopia region is a decentralised community of 16 homelands. We live on our homelands by choice, as our forefathers did for thousands of years,” Ms Kunoth Monks said:

We have our language. We have our culture, and the practices of that culture. And we have responsibility to our country. We have our family responsibilities and the ceremonies. We do not want to relocate to one large community. That’s what the… government is trying to make us do. And because we won’t do it, we’re being punished.

They might as well line us up against this wall and shoot us, because we ain’t going nowhere. We are not about to lay down and die.

If the government is not willing to assist us, we need to tell our stories outside of Australia.

Harold Nelson, the traditional owner of the land around Arlparra also addressed the meeting. Mid-sentence he removed his Basics Card from his pocket — the card used to control Aboriginal people’s spending under the NT emergency intervention — and held it in the air. “The government people, they’re playing up. They’re rubbish. They’re lying. It’s shocking.”

Ms Khan said the message from Aboriginal was clear.

It’s a very tough life here. I heard [people] speak of their anger, their frustration, their despair, of being pulled apart from their homelands through policies they feel are unjust, unfairly applied.

I will be spending the next few days listening to more people… [and then] moving to Canberra and meeting with the government.”

There, Ms Khan will meet with Jenny Macklin about the NTER measures, and the government’s response to the enduring poverty in Aboriginal Australia.

Ms Khan said she would keep an open mind on the intervention measures until her meeting with Macklin, however she did have a message for the government on the reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Amnesty International has been working on this issue for some time. I think our position is pretty clear,” she said. “Any measures need to be in line with international standards set by the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and on the Australian legislation on racial discrimination. That’s been our position, that remains our position.”

Ms Khan also had a message for the Australian people more generally.

I believe the Australian people have an innate sense of fairness — what is fair and what is unfair. I would tell the Australian people to call on those values of fairness to [consider] whether it is fair that in a country as wealthy as Australia, as well developed as Australia, there should be such disparity and equality.”

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  • 1
    Jon Hunt
    Posted Monday, 16 November 2009 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Yes, yes, yes. One hears the same thing over and over yet over and over it seems to fall on deaf ears. Where is the Australian public demanding that something be done? If not, then why not?

  • 2
    Liz45
    Posted Monday, 16 November 2009 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    I agree JON. Maybe Irene Khan will succeed in getting through. I’ve heard that the Rudd Govt’s answer to their disgraceful racist behaviours re the quarantine of incomes, is utilising it around the country. It just begs belief doesn’t it? It’s just plain wrong and they must know how demeaning and offensive it is. Some? a few? people like it, and that’s OK, but it should’ve always been an elective issue, in consultation with people, not upholding Howard’s patronising and paternalistic policies - smacks of the ration days of tea, flour and sugar? Back to punishing those who are suffering immense neglect, instead of being uplifting and exercising decency! Unbelievable!

  • 3
    Rena Zurawel
    Posted Monday, 16 November 2009 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    I do not believe for one moment that our governments are so stupid that they cannot help indigenous population or they have no idea how to solve the water supply problem, or instal solar panels on public buildings.
    If they are not intellectually challenged then they do things or do not do things, deliberately.
    Tertium non datur. Or is it the case of senatores boni viri sed Senatus bestiam?
    Probably. I personally heard from a ‘good’ SA politician, some years ago, that ‘the situation of Aboriginal population is not an election issue’.
    Fancy that. And the situation of boat people is..?.

  • 4
    jungarrayi
    Posted Monday, 16 November 2009 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    Deaf ears indeed:
    One Warlpiri description I’ve heard of visiting politicians and bureaucrats is “langa pati”
    Langa= ear(s) , Pati= hard impenetrable ground.
    One of the most common complaints I hear (I live on a remote Aboriginal community) is that
    “nuwu kaluju purta nyanyi” (they’re not listening to us).

    The Government appointed GBM (Government Business Manager) is known as “ngipri” (egg). His compound (complete with satelite dish, fence and barbed wire) is the “minna” (nest).
    Figure that one out!

  • 5
    Jon Hunt
    Posted Monday, 16 November 2009 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

    Yes, that’s the whole problem and this is why nothing changes. They do not see that it is their attitude which perpetuates the problems that they allegedly are are trying to solve.

  • 6
    Sean
    Posted Tuesday, 17 November 2009 at 1:00 am | Permalink

    hmm, there’s a number of different issues raised here, and I don’t know if it’s all about wilful neglect and failure to listen etc. the issues are about recent efforts towards some level of forced centralisation and assimilation, but the existing ‘neglect’ is no worse than the living conditions before European settlement — and I believe that is why many of the people still live like this — you cannot have solar panels and phones and running water and all those things without some degree of assimilation and westernisation — which the people resist. I believe the govts then just give up and say it’s too hard and let people live and let live in this fashion. There are some current pressures by the govt to centralise which I am suspicious of, it may be more about dispossession from lands in order to get access to minerals or what have you.

    but I believe traditional low-tech living standards go hand in hand with ‘refusal’ to assimilate, and once you have mobile phones and running water and modern new homes etc then you have forcibly then assimilated the people, they’ve started to modernise and industrialise. if you have these things, then you also need to have repairmen in utes dropping by to fix things etc etc and you have created a cosy little european culture in no time.

    while govts also believe of course that these people have nothing to contribute to a technological age, especially while they want to live in the middle of nowhere. there is no ‘exchange of value’ in their eyes.

    I think people beating themselves up about lower quality of life, or shortened lifespans, or lack of plasma TVs and ipods or even basic mod cons etc are missing the point about what the terms of coexistence are going to be, and how you can possibly deliver these services without creating an assimilative environment. when kids live out in the middle of nowhere in basic camps and are surrounded by ground-borne bugs etc and have little or no access to modern medicine or even hygiene as we understand it, how do you deliver such education and services and amenities without fundamentally altering tribal structures and the professed desire to be left alone?

    this terms of coexistence dilemma is going to go on forever…

  • 7
    Chris Graham
    Posted Tuesday, 17 November 2009 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    … the existing ‘neglect’ is no worse than the living conditions before European settlement — and I believe that is why many of the people still live like this.”

    One of the most ignorant comments I’ve seen in a while. Sean, in Arlparra theyy’re being charged $50 a week to live in a humpy. Is that how they lived prior to settlement?

  • 8
    james mcdonald
    Posted Thursday, 19 November 2009 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Sean, the “living conditions before European settlement” included hunting-gathering food supply that was relatively stable and are now broken. Most of the land is no longer available, and the rest has been profoundly changed. Aboriginal communities each had established annual customs including migration patterns, as well as intimate local knowledge of the available food supplies in nature. These annual customs and knowledge could be termed “technology”.

    The existing neglect is infinitely worse than the living conditions before European settlement. Something has been taken away — at its most basic, the food supply, and the right of ownership of that food supply — and very little has been put in its place, other than addictive substances, and a welfare dependency which is as degrading as it is hard to break out of.

  • 9
    Jon Hunt
    Posted Thursday, 19 November 2009 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    I think one of the perpetuating factors in the problems facing Aboriginal people is the lack of easily obtained robust information about this topic, meaning many have to resort to fantasy, myths and stereotypes. Has anyone ever thought of making Aboriginal issues a requirement of school curriculum? If not, then why is it that a better factual understanding of these issues is not important enough warrant this?

  • 10
    Sean
    Posted Friday, 20 November 2009 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Chris Graham
    Posted Tuesday, 17 November 2009 at 2:07 pm | Permalink
    “… the existing ‘neglect’ is no worse than the living conditions before European settlement — and I believe that is why many of the people still live like this.”

    One of the most ignorant comments I’ve seen in a while. Sean, in Arlparra theyy’re being charged $50 a week to live in a humpy. Is that how they lived prior to settlement?

    sorry, I’ll cross my HD-average anthropology major study off my transcript. I have no idea how paleolithic people used to live at all. No idea of the kinship relations and social structures, understanding of mutual reciprocity and collective ownership, use of territories and technologies, or the systems of social regulation and law.

    Chris, I think this ‘$50 humpy’ remark is a bit shallow and unhelpful. You’re saying somebody charging somebody else $50 for humpies is the root cause of all the problems? How about a more extensive analysis of these new economic relations then? Name names. Let’s stop crying in our lattes about this and get down to brass tacks.

    james mcdonald
    Posted Thursday, 19 November 2009 at 12:20 pm | Permalink
    Sean, the “living conditions before European settlement” included hunting-gathering food supply that was relatively stable and are now broken.

    I dispute that — there are still tribal groups in Australia huntign and gathering and subsisting off the environment, in some cases supplementing with brought in ‘Western’ food. At least that’s what I’ve been reading in the ethnographies, what are your sources? Not saying that nutrition and reliance on Western food is not a problem in some areas. By the way, see how your health goes wandering around in the desert all day fossicking for nuts and berries, catching the odd goanna as an easy target, exposed to the sun, countless parasites, snakes, insects, etc. You’re of the noble savage persuasion, james, obviously, and obviously extremely well informed. You suggest they should still be living this lifestyle, yet have A! Western standard health? Ever consider the average lifespan before European settlement with exposure to a harsh environment and no modern medicine or science? Not counting tribal warfare and violence.

    Most of the land is no longer available, and the rest has been profoundly changed. Aboriginal communities each had established annual customs including migration patterns, as well as intimate local knowledge of the available food supplies in nature. These annual customs and knowledge could be termed “technology”.

    The ‘migration patterns’ were generally extremely limited in locus, simply moving from area to area withn a prescribed range as naturally occurring food supplies ran out in an area. The range a tribe could roam in was pretty strictly controlled by common agreement with neighbouring tribes, backed up by force and warfare if necessary. A similar situation could be observed today in the South America rainforest or Papua New Guinean highlands. Although some South Americans and Papua New Guineans had graduated to a ‘horticultural’ style technology involving more fixed settlements which gave greater control over food supply by tending ‘gardens’ and keeping some domesticated animals — this never occurred in Australia, and all people were reliant on naturally occurring levels of food supply in a kind of equilibrium. Elders who became senile and slowed down the nomadic movements would often be killed with the agreement of the tribe elders.

    The existing neglect is infinitely worse than the living conditions before European settlement.

    yes, infinitely, infinitely worse. Very poetic stuff. I’m sure it’s factually true. Infinitely worse. No tear-jerking leftie latteism there. Why don’t you just leave the country in protest and surrender it back to the original occupants then, and they can return to a paleolithic lifestyle? Not got a visa? Like it too much in the inner city?

    As I’ve said, material conditions are much the same as before settlement. That’s why we have the current situation.

  • 11
    james mcdonald
    Posted Friday, 20 November 2009 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Sean, you majored in Anthropology, did you ever read Colin Turnbull’s The Mountain People? The chronicle of social breakdown in a hunter gatherer society after being forced off their land, which was made into a national park.

    Yes I know, hTurnbull was pilloried by his peers, scientific procedure issues, blah blah blah. Bullsh*t. The same peers who perpetuate the “noble savage persuasion” under cover of ever more elaborate terminology. In short, they were wrong about Turnbull’s work, which was why I did not major in anthropology. I gave up on the field in disgust after first year. My entire class including the lecturer did not even get this joke: Q: What’s the term for someone who studies Aboriginal culture? A: an Aboriginal

    What little knowledge I have comes from time in the outback, and from my father who spent 20 years being undermined in the doomed Department of Aboriginal Affairs. Noble savage? Mate, you have no idea. Young girls given as wives to elders as a privilege of status. Wives whored out to visiting men as hospitality. Dingos’ legs broken to keep them as electric blankets at night. Forests burned not for land management but simply to flush out game when the hunting is hard. Don’t lecture me from some classroom.

    The point is, we live by our choices, faults and all. By traditional rights of the conquered going back thousands of years of Anglo-Celtic traditions, they are entitled to something similar, within the limits of practicality and of the fact that, fairly or otherwise, we won. That’s what we used to call “Quarter” in antiquity, and the same holds true following most modern wars of conquest.

    The people you mention still living off the land successfully are not the ones we are concerned about. I have seen towns full of half-alive people so mutilated by disease that the places looked more like some 17th century vision of leper colonies than modern settlements.

    Colin Turnbull’s lesson is that a people must have control of their own food supply, or a proxy of the food supply, on something approaching their own terms. That’s the foundation layer of what we term wealth. Without it, they are reduced to the status of beggars, and social breakdown follows. Desperate measures like the Intervention become indicated.

    Many Aboriginal people adapted culturally to the pastoral industry with great ease. Of course, it’s a truism that a black man can do anything that a white man can. But not everything that a white man does for a living allows a black community to stay intact. There are ways of returning self-determination to those communities who have lost it, without turning back the clock to some n0ble-savage zoo-exhibit ethnologists’ wet dream. But first we need to appreciate and understand the problem.

  • 12
    james mcdonald
    Posted Friday, 20 November 2009 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    PS. On the infallibility of ethnologists. Another incident leading to my conclusion they are a failed academic discipline. A lecturer stands there in the lecture hall saying “In traditional culture, Aboriginals did not own the land. Rather, the land owned them.” (This was in the years before the Mabo decision.)
    An Aboriginal woman speaks up, “That’s your opinion.”
    The lecturer starts arguing with her.
    (Sorry, I don’t know where the woman’s accent was from. Like I said, I only know a little bit.)
    The woman stands up and turns around to the rest of us in the lecture hall. “That’s his f***ing opinion. He doesn’t know s***.” Then she walks out.
    It wasn’t just a one-off incident. From what I saw and read, and from what I later heard from Aboriginal people in the outback, it was typical of the entire field.
    Anthropology. The science of patronising people about themselves. Mate, you wasted a major when you could have been learning something.

  • 13
    Jon Hunt
    Posted Friday, 20 November 2009 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Well, that’s all interesting. I think that the problem with studying people is that the people then become objects and are no longer people. Not mums and dads and kids and aunties and uncles.

    I have heard it said that many of the dysfunctional problems of Aboriginal people are as a result of “poverty, dispossession, marginalization and despair”. From what I have seen and from what I know this is pretty much true. It is actually quite a simple thing, yet people seem to get their minds and thoughts in a twist with blame, and with theoretical concepts and the like.

    The only way forward is to address these problems, yet there seems to be very few who are aware of this.

  • 14
    Sean
    Posted Friday, 20 November 2009 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

    james mcdonald
    Posted Friday, 20 November 2009 at 11:44 am | Permalink
    PS. On the infallibility of ethnologists. Another incident leading to my conclusion they are a failed academic discipline. It wasn’t just a one-off incident. From what I saw and read, and from what I later heard from Aboriginal people in the outback, it was typical of the entire field.
    Anthropology. The science of patronising people about themselves. Mate, you wasted a major when you could have been learning something.

    I didn’t go to that university, or have that lecturer. I wouldn’t agree with him/her anyway, and none of my lecturers in sociology or anthropology ever made such a remark. (Did you go to UWS?)

    Some anthropologists have turned it all into a form of poetics however, they’re sort of failed novelists.

    I think I got a pretty fair smattering of economics, political science, psych, soc and anthropology. apart from my other studies in engineering, computing and electronics, and more lately medicine.

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