The two key members of the government’s intervention into indigenous communities, Dr Sue Gordon and Major General Dave Chalmers, flew into the top end community of Maningrida yesterday to begin a two-day survey into what shape the intervention would take in the community.

Maningrida is alleged to have one of the worst rates of child s-xual abuse in Australia. As many media reports have reminded Australians today, it’s the community where a 12-year-old boy was allegedly held captive, drugged and r-ped over a number of months by six men and boys who are currently before the courts. There are other equally horrific stories.

Despite those alleged incidents, the government’s “national emergency” has spread pressure and fear through Maningrida, fed primarily by a lack of direct communication. Residents have freely associated the recent history of the stolen generation with their uncertain futures, resulting in many residents fleeing to distant outstations or even to Darwin. As much as a third of the 2500 strong community left immediately the government announced its plan.

Powerful, not completely uneducated men, most of whom are tainted by past associations with child abuse, have stepped into the breach and cast themselves as the key disseminators of government information and leaders of the opposition to the intervention.

Now, four weeks after the announcement, some of those who left have returned, lured back perhaps by the annual booty provided by $3000 child payments. Dr Gordon and Major General Chalmers would no doubt have been impressed by the thumping new stereos and enormous card games that heralded the arrival of newborns and the new financial year.

Linking welfare payments to school attendance is only one front in the battle, but one that highlights the complexities of the intervention.

There are over 2500 people in Maningrida from 10 tribes, roughly 50% of the population is between 4 and 15-years-old. There are 450 on the school roll and when they all turn up (very, very rare) the school is bursting at the seams.

The nature of tribalism is such that people are resentful of anyone outside the tribe. Having a packed classroom of kids from different tribes is a teacher’s nightmare, and that’s before they find their students something to sit on. With today being the first day of classes after the mid-year break, Maningrida C.E.C. is having a “chair audit”.

Tying school attendance to welfare payments is not such a bad thing, per se, but it’s not a plan. The government has not taken into account that Maningrida’s school is not big enough for the community. Even if every child came to school there wouldn’t be room for them, and there’s every chance the chair audit will reveal insufficient seating.

And there’s another angle here – the teachers. If you stay in a remote community for long enough to form relationships, there’s the potential for conflict as your role changes from teacher to teacher cum holder of the family purse strings. That added pressure is hardly going to be welcomed by your average under-paid, over-administered chalkie.

Hardly a good outcome for the nation’s Indigenous young, especially when down the road in Jabiru, they pay folk $90,000 a year to drive a truck up and down a mine.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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