Today another authoritative voice weighs in on the lamentable state of life in the remote Aboriginal communities of the Northern Territory. John Cleary, who returned to Darwin last night after visiting the Tiwi Islands where he was CEO of Tiwi Islands Local Government for three years until last year, says things are getting worse in the remote communities.

“The whole social fabric of these communities is breaking down, undermined by alcohol and ganja,” he says. “It’s like a cancer. I blame welfare dependency and the ‘sit down’ mentality.” He is critical of Territory Chief Minister Clare Martin, arguing that her rejection of a crisis meeting called by Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Mal Brough as another talkfest was “very foolish.” The revelations in the past week about the terrible reality of life in remote communities had been public knowledge for years – but under a veil of silence, he told Crikey.

Cleary was a Liberal member of the Tasmanian parliament from 1979-86 and from 1988-99, holding various portfolios including Health, Aboriginal Affairs, Small Business and Local Government. A pharmacist by training, he is chairman of the Commonwealth’s Community Pharmacy Authority. While on the Right of politics, Cleary is no armchair pundit. He and his wife lived within the Aboriginal community while working in the Tiwis and now divide their time between Hobart and Darwin.

Cleary’s community was beset by drunken brawls when the local club shut after serving alcohol for three hours five days a week, quite apart from men, stoned out of their brains by ganja, belting up their families and destroying houses. Health was shocking and the suicide rate alarming, not only of young men but also of older men and women. All this, yet Cleary says the Tiwis are one of the best communities in the Territory. It’s a bleak picture: “There’s not a lot of good things happening in remote communities. Art is one good thing, but it’s probably the only thing.”

Cleary accuses many of the “big men” of drunken self-interest at the expense of family and community. But he also accuses many white administrators and investors who hang onto the veil of silence out of self-interest, be it jobs, money and/or power.

He cites Sylvatech Tropical Timbers, a public venture in the Tiwis, with one fifth of Melville Island identified for plantations. Although the vast tract was agreed to by the Tiwi Land Council, there was disquiet about the scale of clearing, but there were promises of up to 400 jobs for Tiwi people. The reality was that Sylvatech preferred to employ contractors to local people.

Cleary said that during his three years in the Tiwis the average number of Tiwi actually employed was just six people. Sylvatech didn’t contribute a single dollar towards their wages, they were paid as CDEP participants. And when either the Land Council or Sylvatech made representations to Government for financial assistance for forestry infrastructure, it was largely on the basis that it would help develop an independent Tiwi economy and provide Tiwi people with jobs, resulting in substantial financial assistance to the company and its partner, the Tiwi Land Council. Yet when Sylvatech was sold to Great Southern Forests last year for about $40 million, 80 to 90% of Sylvatch shares were held by just four business people and that none of the proceeds from the sale went to any Tiwi people.

“They were four white business people and one was a former politician,” he told Crikey. “It was and is a scandal.”

Peter Fray

Save up to 50% on a year of Crikey.

This extraordinary year is almost at an end. But we know that time waits for no one, and we won’t either. This is the time to get on board with Crikey.

For a limited time only, choose what you pay for a year of Crikey.

Save up to 50% or dig deeper so we can dig deeper.

See you in 2021.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

SAVE 50%