When Senator Bill Heffernan visited the remote community of Wadeye in late September — unannounced — he was appalled at what he the “war-like” conditions he saw.

“I’m not interested in what a bunch of bureaucrats think is a plan for red tape when they’re not treating the cause,” Senator Heffernan told Crikey this morning.

“I’m sick of people flying in and getting in an air conditioned car… If you have an official visit it’s all structured … You can’t drive around, you have to walk around. You don’t go there announced, you go there unannounced, without TV cameras. “

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Heffernan says he’s been raising the alarm about the living conditions of indigenous communities since 1996. So why is he going public with damning observations of Wadeye now, when it doesn’t exactly paint his government’s COAG plan in the best light?

“I think Heffernan is weighing in because he actually went to Wadeye and saw the place with his own eyes – it has to be seen to be believed,” Chris Graham, editor of The National Indigenous Times, told Crikey.  

“When Howard went there in April 2005, he got the whirlwind sanitised tour, as Howard always does. Howard never visited a single home, just the local council and the concrete factory, plus the new pool at the school,” says Graham. 

“If he’d actually bothered to look at the housing and the conditions in which Wadeye people live, he’d have been as appalled as Heffernan obviously was.” 

Heffernan says he wasn’t surprised by what he saw, but it made him angry.

“It looks like a rubbish tip when you fly into there,” says Heffernan. The police “live in a compound surrounded by razor wire, it looks like a concentration camp…”

“The people there have no definition between day and night… because there’s nothing to do at night or in the day. Between boredom and overcrowding and alcohol …these kids have got no chance.”

The Senator says one of the biggest problems for kids at Wadeye is that there’s no high school – and a primary school that’s designed for 300 kids had 600 turn up on the first day. “There’s no chance these kids will make it if they don’t go to school.”

The overcrowded housing conditions also struck the Senator. “You walk into a house with no windows, and the floor is covered in foam mattresses and you can’t walk between them… 20 people in a house that’s designed for five….”

“Centrelink is a phone in a hole in a wall with a line of people as long as the toilet queue at the football at half time.” 

There is a glimmer of hope, says the Senator. “There’s a new headmistress there… she’s arrived in Wadeye because she’s the doctor’s wife…She told me that for the first time ever … this school had awards on award day for achievement rather than just for attendance…”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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