In the remote township of Maningrida in central Arnhem land the lack of communication from the federal government over its national emergency plan has led to unnecessary instability and fear and may well ensure the plan’s intended positive results become unachievable.
Most of the community found out about “the plan” through newspaper reports and television. Media grabs of children in Aboriginal communities and file footage of Australian Defence Force personnel combined with a general lack of linguistic comprehension on the part of the community to create an initial wave of fear.
This was reinforced by the general tenor of many reports. In a multi-lingual community where English is some people’s fourth or fifth language, such reporting had the effect of scaring people and many believed the army was coming to take away their kids.
As this fear gained traction, a couple of local men organised a hastily convened public meeting which was characterised by incredible misinformation, including comments such as “the UN peace keeping forces are coming with guns” and “Mr. Canberra man (Mal Brough) wants to take our kids because he thinks they have AIDS”.
By the end of last week the fear in the community was palpable, there was panic buying at the local shops and it is my conservative estimation that one-third of the community packed up and headed into the bush to stay at one of the 35 outstations in the area. People are now returning slowly, but confusion and uncertainty prevails.
In the interim there’s been no contact with the community from the Federal Government other than a letter from the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations who delivered a supplementary condition to the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) contract. The change stipulated that local organisations must comply with any and all directions given to them by the Government’s to-be-appointed administrator.
These directions effectively usurp any Indigenous governance structures and mean that failure to comply will lead to withdrawal of funding and the non-payment of CDEP participants, who number 550 people in Maningrida. The community has been given twenty days to sign the contract or lose its funding.
Meanwhile, the more literate and comprehending Indigenous leadership in the community has been desperately trying to calm people down, but many are in no doubt as to where they stand in relation to the changes.
“There is no point talking to the Government anymore” one elected representative told me: “they can’t listen to blackfellas and they just want our land”.
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Many Aboriginal people in Maningrida are unable to see the connection between the proposed compulsory leasing arrangements and the s-xual abuse of children. In a letter to three of the main Indigenous organisations in the community, the Land Owners have stated:
As the Traditional Owners of Maningrida we consider the safety and welfare of our children as paramount. In reply to the Australian Governments ‘emergency response’ to the Little Children Are Sacred Report and more specifically, Mal Brough’s media release titled National emergency response to protect Aboriginal children in the NT we do not support the following three measures proposed by the Government:
• Acquiring townships prescribed by the Australian Government through five year leases including payment of just terms compensation
• Scrapping the permit system for common areas, road corridors and airstrips for prescribed communities on Aboriginal land, and;
• Appointing managers of all government business in prescribed communities.
As the Traditional Owners, we view these measures as directly compromising the welfare, safety and futures of our children.’
The letter has been signed by 22 of the township’s traditional owners.
While the weeks ahead promise to be critical to the Government’s plan, it is clear from the perspective on the ground that the Prime Minister and the Indigenous Affairs Minister have much to do if they are going to engage this community in their intervention.
Ultimately, their lack of communication and consultation with the people affected may prove to be a critical mistake.