The release of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data on the most — and least — disadvantaged Census Collection Districts in the nation is always grist for the journalistic mill. There is a weird fascination in comparing Doonside to Dover Heights, or Peppermint Grove to Peppimenarti. Crikey’s analysis (Tuesday, item 1) doesn’t so much snoop into details, as it glides over the statistics.

But Crikey’s lack of fine detail hides wonderful ironies.

The “most disadvantaged” locality is said to be Jilkminggan, the main population centre for Collection District 703078. Few Australians would realise that this is the current name of the Aboriginal community on Elsey Station — of We of the Never Never fame. Jeannie Gunn’s semi-fictionalised account of her time on the Elsey has been a popular favourite since its publication a hundred years ago. It’s been a staple of Australian literature: since 1908 it has never been out of print.

Jilkminggan was previously known as Duck Creek, later as Djembere. Since the community gained leasehold title to the land in 1983, it has been known as Jilkminggan after a dreaming site on the Roper River, just down from the collection of overcrowded houses that is home for over 200 Aboriginal people — mostly the Mangarrayi-speaking traditional owners of the Elsey area.

A hundred kilometres up the road from Jilkminggan is Collection District 7014108, mysteriously described as “Stuart Highway”, an odd title for a single collection district of a few hundred souls located at a single point along 3,000 kilometres of bitumen.

It is in fact RAAF Base Tindal, one of the nation’s front line air defence outposts, 12 kilometres south of Katherine, and home to some of “Top Guns” of our air force.

Back in 1983, the same year CLP Chief Minister Paul Everingham gave over a perpetual lease to Jilkminggan, the then-parliamentary Joint Works Committee held an inquiry into establishing Tindal as a major air base.

Only two groups raised substantive objections.

The RAAF Wives Committee argued — successfully as it turned out — against having the majority of Tindal personnel integrated into the Katherine community, favouring the privileged enclave now known as Census Collection District 7014108 Stuart Highway. In fact the highway was to be diverted north of the RAAF base.

The other group, the Katherine Aboriginal Action Group (KAAG) warned that there would be little, if any, benefits for local and regional Aboriginal groups. They alerted the parliamentary committee to increased problems with access to alcohol, and negligible advantage to Aboriginal people in terms of training and employment.

KAAG was proved correct. Aboriginal employment during the construction phase of Tindal was laughably small; it is now pretty well non-existent. Amidst the “rivers of grog” pointed to by Pat Anderson, of the Little Children are Sacred report, the Katherine region now has one of the highest per capita consumption rates of grog in Australia.

A prominent member of KAAG was Jessie Roberts, then, as now, a Jilkminggan community leader. KAAG was ignored, and Tindal went ahead.

1983 also saw the release of the movie feature We of the Never Never. Several Jilkminggan residents played the roles of their direct ancestors, as depicted in Jeannie Gunn’s book. The population of Collection District 703078 — Jilkminggan — have been there for the duration. The average Tindal RAAFie, living in the Territory’s least disadvantaged population centre according to the ABS, lasts something less than three years.

The people at Tindal enjoy some of the highest average wages in the Northern Territory; most of the residents of Jilkminggan now have half their incomes “managed” as part of the Federal Intervention.

Jeannie Gunn described the area around Jilkminggan as:

(a) land that bewitches her people with strange spells and mysteries until they call sweet bitter and bitter sweet. We who have lived in it and loved it know that our hearts can never rest away from it.

For people like Jessie Roberts, bitter sweet indeed.

Of course, data from Census Collection Districts are a crude measure. Perhaps we are yet to be told there is a money launderer at Jilkminggan that Operation Wickenby has yet to unveil; or an impoverished janitor at RAAF Base Tindal that has missed the welfare safety net.

I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Peter Fray

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