The army arrived in Utopia last week on the 7th of February. A convoy of military trucks with uniformed soldiers drove into town along the dusty and corrugated Sandover Highway, 180km east along the rough dirt road from the Stuart Highway turnoff. They have come to check the children.

They should have asked me or one of the other doctors who has recently worked in the community of Utopia about the place. It could have saved the interventionists a lot of time, saved the people of Utopia the anxiety of seeing the army arrive and saved the taxpayer the expense of finding out what is already known.

Don’t get me wrong, something needs to happen. It’s been needing to happen now for thirty or more years. It’s the way that it is happening that disgusts me — the lack of community consultation and the subliminal blame pointed at Aboriginal men for the dreaded scourge of s-xual abuse. It seems likely that it will soon be forgotten again only to be reignited with fury and indignation in another decades’ time when Aboriginal health and welfare remain shockingly poor and someone tries to blame someone else, and no-one really does anything.

I was told that many of the locals fled when they saw the trucks pull in today. Apparently they’ve all returned after having been reassured by staff at the Utopia health clinic that the nurses and doctors who have arrived are there to help. There is no doubt that the healthcare workers come with goodwill, it’s just that Aboriginal people seem a bit confused about what this intervention business is really all about.

Take for instance the police station that has now been set up at Utopia. When I was working there 12 months ago there was no police station. The people of Utopia didn’t really feel that there was a need for police officers. Violence wasn’t a big problem and alcohol was banned by community leaders.

It’s good that there is a police station now. There is a lot to be said for the benefits of well-established road rules in preventing avoidable death, and in the rule of law in the protection of citizens. But the people of Utopia see the two immaculately uniformed officers in a different way. The police have been focusing on road rules. They have a speed camera and have been fining people who are travelling too fast. They have been booking people driving unregistered vehicles, and they have been prosecuting drivers who have too many people in the car.

People are getting fines which they don’t understand and can’t pay. The court list has been growing since the police arrived, mainly for non-payment of fines. Immediately the police have arrived, the number of people on the wrong side of the law has grown. It’s as if all of a sudden the people of Utopia have become more criminal than they were.

The Sandover Highway is 50 meters wide and growing, a series of continued expansions to get around unpassable bogs. It’s rough and very corrugated. Every time it rains, axle-breaking washouts appear on the road and aren’t repaired until the annual passing of the grader occurs. The toll of these rough roads is high on suspension and brakes, and even the best Toyota 4WD’s owned by the clinic last three or four years at most.

For the rest of the population of Utopia, the cars they buy from extremely unscrupulous second-hand car markets in Alice Springs at exorbitant prices last a year or two before they fall apart. Once a car enters the community it rarely leaves, attested by the haunting metal graveyards littering the highway. Getting the cars registered isn’t easy. An appointment has to be made with the Harts Range police officer some 150km away. Fuel costs just under $2 per litre. The new police station in Utopia doesn’t isn’t permitted to issue vehicle registration certificates. And most of the cars wouldn’t pass a roadworthy anyway.

It begs the question of the value people at Utopia get from paying the $600 rego fee. Try explaining the concept of registration fees to Aboriginal people who have been into Alice Springs maybe a few times in their lives, the full extent of their understanding of white culture coming from television shows like ABC news and MTV in a language they don’t comprehend – “so everyone who uses the roads contributes equally to it’s upkeep”. What upkeep? The explanations I have attempted to Aboriginal people for these and other laws — speeding for instance — are met with puzzled expressions confirming that white people really are a strange lot.

All of this intervention bullsh-t seems to miss the point entirely. Northern Territory Aboriginal communities are extremely infrastructure poor. Over-policing further marginalises a group of people who are having extreme difficulties with modernisation. Doctors are paid very large sums of money to put bandaids on people. The army is now employed to record the shocking health problems associated with over-crowded housing and the paucity of fresh food.

Teachers are paid less than they would be in a city and attrition rates are high. There are no mechanics, no tradespeople employed to teach young people the skills needed to function as independent communities. There is no policing of the real problems in the community: unscrupulous second hand car dealers, art racketeers, store managers who are only too glad to help illiterate and innumerate people with the eftpos machines, and alcohol vendors in Alice Springs backed by an enormously powerful lobby group who continue to roll in the profits of cheap goon.

And a bureaucracy that still doesn’t care if the truth remains hidden.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey