Credit where credit is due. Mal Brough does appear to have energised the
Indigenous Affairs portfolio. He’s been busy travelling around regional and
remote Aboriginal communities viewing the third world conditions for himself.
Today’s he’s in Alice Springs to announce a solution to the decades-old problem
of Aboriginal people living on the fringe of society in town camps.

A
month ago, Brough promised he wouldn’t let about “150 communities” become
“hell-holes”. Presumably, he now knows they already are and that they have been
for the entire decade his government has been in office. That said, the word
around Aboriginal Australia is that Brough does appear to be genuinely moved by
what he’s seen.

Wadeye, a community Brough visited earlier this week is a case in
point. Brough was greeted by several hundred people fighting each
other. They were described by media as gangs of youths – in fact
they’re family and language groups of men and women (and youths). And
why were they fighting? The first reason is frustration. The second is
land. The Kardu Diminin are the traditional owners of the land in and
around Wadeye. Aboriginal people from about 20 other clans and language
groups are living on Kardu Diminin land. This obviously creates tension
and that is heightened by the fact they all have to compete for
bugger-all in the way of resources.

Wadeye, with a regional
population of 4,500 and a school age population of more than 1,000 kids has no
high school. It has no road access for five months of the year (it’s cut off in
the wet) and the average number of people sharing a single dwelling (and I use
the term “dwelling” loosely) is 17. For the 2,500 people who live in the Wadeye
town proper, there are 148 habitable houses.

The average life expectancy
for a male in Wadeye is about 47 years of age – in other words, a boy born and
raised in Wadeye is likely to die about 18 years before he can qualify for an
old-age pension and about 30 years before an average white boy born in
Canberra.

Wadeye has been a COAG trial site for three years. COAG is
supposed to be a new way of delivering services where all levels of government –
federal, state and local – meet regularly to find coordinated ways of delivering
services to a community. The feds call this a “whole-of-government” approach. I
prefer to call it a “hole of government” approach. While a lot of good work has
been done at the local level, the process falls apart the further up the
government food chain you get.

Wadeye elders have been telling the COAG
process for three years that they need more police because of rising tensions
and frustrations in the town. No extra police have been forthcoming, despite a
promise last year for an additional seven. The town has just three police (plus
an Aboriginal Community Police Officer). As Lindsay Murdoch astutely pointed out
in The Age yesterday, “Tennant Creek, with almost the same population, has more
than 25 [police]. Most of its population is non-indigenous while almost all of
Wadeye’s population is indigenous”. An explanation from NT police minister Paul
Henderson would be most welcome.

The police recently told Wadeye they
couldn’t send any extra officers because… You guessed it, there’s nowhere to
house them. Now that’s a vicious circle!

Whatever Brough’s plans for the town camps in Alice Springs, the fact
is, no Australian government has ever been kicked out of office because
Aboriginal people die young and live dirt poor. Indeed, no politician
in Australian history has ever lost his seat because Aboriginal people
endure third world conditions in a first world country. As long as this
remains the case, Aboriginal progression will stagnate.

That is, of course, unless the poverty of Aboriginal people
begins impacting directly on white Australians. That’s precisely the case in
Alice Springs today. And despite Brough’s newfound enthusiasm, it’s also
precisely the reason why he’s also in The Alice today. Expect him to do the bare
minimum with a temporary band-aid to the problem. Then watch the issue disappear
from the media radar once again. To pretend other otherwise is to deny that all
this has been going on unchecked for decades and that towns like Wadeye don’t
really exist.

Peter Fray

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