Julie is the salt of the earth, she has worked all her life supporting her family and her community.
Why would the government want to hurt her and people like her who give their all, and are model citizens to whom we can aspire?
I am one of the more fortunate in life, I have two of the best mums that have ever been. One mum lives in Melbourne, at the age of 87 she continues to serve, she drives neighbours to the doctor or shopping, and cooks regular meals for friends and relatives. At her age she is rarely at home. I remember not long ago when her grand-daughter Anna was called by her friends to celebrate their end of Year 12, she decided instead to spend the weekend with her gran instead.
My other mum I met when I moved to Galiwin’ku, Elcho Island in the Northern Territory to take up my first teaching post over 30 years ago. Walking to school every day I would pass a house where I would always hear laughter and music. One day I plucked up the courage and asked if I could sit with the mother and father of the household. Soon I was calling in every day, often well after dark, after having prepared my lessons and teaching program. Sometimes I would stay overnight sleep on the concrete floor of the kitchen, or during the dry season outside on the blanket by a fire.
Julie welcomed everybody to her house and I was no exception, except that I was white. This made no difference to her, and because I had no relatives she thought I should be her son. I was clearly interested in learning about Yolngu culture and language, but most importantly, was respectful and willing to listen and learn from her, her husband and their families. Mum Julie and her families have always been respectful of my background and looked after me, educated and advised me as their own.
It was deeply distressing to me to witness the devastating and debilitating effect that aspects of the intervention have had on my Elcho family.
In April income management was forced on all people receiving Centrelink payments and living on Aboriginal land, including Mum Julie.
Before going much further you need to know a little more about Mum Julie. In the 70s she worked for the local council as a cleaner, but it wasn’t long before she was given the pay clerk responsibilities. She was a natural for this position because of her honesty and frankness. She worked for many years while her children attended the local school.
Things were better organised during the mission and early days after the government took over, there were jobs, local people independently built, wired and plumbed all the houses. There was fishing and the market garden was productive. Later on governments began tendering building contracts, so fewer and fewer houses were built by local Yolngu. This was just one of the reasons for the low attendance at school. Why go to school if there are no jobs?
Mum Julie decided to get a job at the school in order to encourage her grandchildren to attend school. With a job at the school she could take them to school and be with them all day, a commitment many grandmothers would understand. Last year Mum Julie suffered a stroke and was unable to continue working. So she began to receive a Centrelink invalid pension.
Towards the end of April, Mum Julie rang and asked me to find out what this income management was about, and why she wasn’t receiving her full pension. She was outraged that half her pension was isolated without her permission, and at being treated like a child. She believed that all Australians, black and white, on Centrelink payments were being income managed. Centrelink had given her a food card to swipe at the local store, but for weeks and weeks she struggled and limped into the store to swipe the card, and for weeks and weeks there was no money in the food card. Upset and with her pride and dignity severely hurt she threw the card away.
After discovering what IM really meant, Mum asked me to assist her gain an exemption from Income Management. I became a nominee to enquire on her behalf, and not long after I was visiting Galiwin’ku and called in to the Centrelink office. I asked the officers the reasons why Mum was being income managed.
One officer responded, “it’s a response to the Little Children are Sacred Report”.
I responded, “You must think she is a child abuser. I want my mum exempted from income management.”
The officer asked, “What are the reasons she should not be income managed?”
I thought, then asked, “First you tell me the reasons she’s on it.”
At first he couldn’t answer then eventually replied, “because she lives on Aboriginal land.”
I went on to explain that Mum had never touched alcohol, which is not surprising given that all the Aboriginal townships in north-east Arnhemland are dry and always have been, she has never smoked, never gambled, has never abused children or any of the other things that the Federal government has labelled Aboriginal people as in the Northern Territory. The officer then said so far there have been no exemptions to IM. We later found out that the only valid reason is not to live on Aboriginal land.
The effect of this blanket targeting in the case of Mum and her families is debilitating and dehumanising. I was sensing that income management is having a severe and negative impact on the spirit and psyche of Aboriginal people; an elderly matriarch rang a couple of days ago and said, “the tide is in, we are drowning. Why don’t they just come and shoot us?”