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Northern Territory

Aug 5, 2009

Up to their ankles in sewage, a remote community's patience runs out

The NT community of Ampilatwatja is overrun with raw sewage, and with complete inaction from the government, the residents have finally cracked.



Almost three weeks after the nation’s media reported up to 150 Aboriginal people had abandoned their sewage-soaked community in protest of the failing Northern Territory intervention, residents have still not received a visit from a single Territory or federal government bureaucrat or politician.

And so the community of Ampilatwatja — in the Utopia region just three hours north east of Alice Springs — waits. Dozens of residents — many aged into their 80s, but some just little children — remain in the desert, camping in the dead of winter, which reaches below freezing at night.

For some of them, shelter is a tent. For others, it’s simply a windbreak made of branches and leaves, or a blanket in the dirt. One elderly man is sleeping in the rusted-out shell of long-abandoned vehicle. He’s put corrugated iron up against the sides to try and keep out the wind.

The forced takeover of their community store in May by the government almost tipped the community over the edge. But as Ampilatwatja became overrun with raw sewage, courtesy of a hopelessly inadequate sewerage system and an overcrowded community — the residents finally cracked.

Sewage stream outside the community of Utopia

In mid July, they simply walked out of town, and established a protest camp three kilometres away, at the site of an old bore.

The only visit the community has had from government officials since is the arrival of some Barkley Shire Council plumbers, who fixed sewerage problems in a handful of houses.

A truck was also sent by the Shire to pump some of the sewage from the failing system, which was overflowing into the streets. Alice Brennan, the ABC journalist who broke the story of the walk-off three weeks ago, said the smell of the raw sewage made her and her cameraman dry-retch.

“Most Australians would expect to see that sort of thing in a third world country,” Ms Brennan said.

Not a single bureaucrat from the Henderson or Rudd governments have stopped by. And Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin has so far ignored a letter co-signed by dozens of residents pleading for an opportunity to meet with government officials on the future of their community.

Their protest — and their plight — appears to have fallen on deaf ears. But community leader Richard Downs says if the government thinks it can simply “wait out” the community, they’re mistaken.

“I don’t know whether [the government] is trying to hide or what. I think maybe they’re ignoring it and hoping it will go away,” Mr Downs said.

“But look, the old people have said they’re quite happy out here. They’re going to stay. The young people are drifting back and forwards from the community — we’ve told the young people they’ve got kids and they’ve got to get them to school. And there’s some sick people (back at the community) as well. But they drift back and forwards and just come out and support us.”

Mr Downs predicted the protest could last months. It might even take on more than a temporary status.

“It could turn into a permanent camp. I’ve had a couple of calls from Sydney, there’s a lot of support building up,” he said. “We might get a little bit of funding from the unions to get the ball rolling. We’re camping on one of those old stock route bores with a windmill, so we’re looking at putting in a tank, a tap, some showers and toilets.”

Barkly Shire President Rosalie Kunoth-Monks’ mother chooses to live in this lean-to in the Central Australian community of Utopia.

Federal Country Liberal Senator for the Northern Territory, Nigel Scullion also believes the government is mistaken if it thinks it can outlast the people of the Utopia region. Scullion and NT MLA Adam Giles (the Opposition spokesperson on Indigenous Policy) visited the community last week, and were “stunned and embarrassed” by the federal and NT government responses.

“It was national news,” Senator Scullion said. “They were up to their bloody ankles in sh-t, saying ‘We’re leaving our community.’ ‘Ho hum,’ said the Northern Territory government, ‘ho hum’ said the federal government. They’ve done bloody nothing.”

Mr Giles described the condition of housing in Ampilatwatja as the worst he’s ever seen anywhere in the nation.

Aboriginal people who have abandoned Ampilatwatja are sleeping in whatever they can find.

Senator Scullion said he spoke directly to Jenny Macklin about the issue on Monday morning.

“I rang Minister Macklin and explained the circumstances I found there, and that they’re still waiting to hear from her three weeks later,” Senator Scullion told NIT. “I told the Minister that I think it’s really, really important that she or one of her representatives go to Ampilatwatja and speak to them. She thanked me for the information and that was it. I just hope she took it on board.”

Senator Scullion agrees with Mr Downs that the government is mistaken if it thinks it can ‘wait out’ the local residents. “If they think this community will just get tired of this and go back home, then they haven’t met these people,” he said. “They are determined. This is as significant an event to them as the Gurindji Walk-Off. This is a major event for them. They’re not trying to make some political point, they’re just asking for someone to bloody come and talk to them.”

The minister acknowledged in an interview with the ABC she had received the letter, was looking through it but would not commit to visiting the community. When asked if she was intending to visit the community, the minister told the ABC FACHSIA representatives would be conducting consultations in the region around mid August.

One of the protest camps outside Ampilatwatja.

Mr Downs said the community remained strong in the face of the adversity.

“We’re a remote community. Our traditions and customs are still strong, our law’s still strong, Aboriginal way. We’re not going to let it go away — we’ve just had enough. This is the first time our mob is speaking up, because we never do — we’re generally very easy going and patient.”

“But our patience has run out.”



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28 thoughts on “Up to their ankles in sewage, a remote community’s patience runs out

  1. jungarrayi

    As far as I know soon after the Intervention started, contractors arrived at Ampilatwatja to paint the houses at $20,000 per house. This in a community that in the not too distant past used to paint their houses themselves. Now that the Intervention is in its third year a truck has been sent to pump out the septic tanks at $10,000 per tank (a moot point that the truck broke down causing further delay).
    As someone living on a prescribed area I suspect that the media, politicians and bureaucrats have missed the point of the walkout. I believe that the walkout has very little to do with sewerage and everything to do with the way the authorities have systematically stripped away people’s initiatives, self-determination, respect and dignity. Its all about control and people’s rights to run their own lives as they choose.
    Many years ago Kim Beazly Sr. put it thus:
    “In Australia, our ways have mostly produced disaster for the Aboriginal people. I suspect that only when their right to be distinctive is accepted, will policy become creative”….
    A great pity such vision has been all but ignored.

  2. stephen martin

    “Barkly Shire President Rosalie Kunoth-Monks’ mother chooses to live in this lean-to in the Central Australian community of Utopia.”

    This is the home of Rosie Kunoth-Monks mother ( Ms Kunoth-Monks was the star of the 1950s movie Jedda), what isn’t mentioned is that the mother chooses to live in this shelter because of the appalling condition of the house offered to her; it beggars belief that any home would be worse than this for an old woman, or indeed anyone regardless of age. Considering that Rosie Kunoth-Monks, or as she was then Ngarla Kunoth, was about 16 when the film was made 50 odd years ago, her mother well over 80.

  3. Geoffrey Ross Fawthrop

    Haven’t any of these labourites heard of the waterless, solar powered, composting toilet. Most states, territories and local governments have them in remote locations like national parks/camping grounds/recreation areas. Why haven’t they been building them into remote indigenous housing communities? They are as cheap as chips and don’t pollute or waste water.

    OH that’s right they don’t want black fellas to have a life just more bureaucrats wasting taxpayers money.

  4. davidk

    When oh when will somebody with a brain and the capacity to consult and negotiate take charge and start addressing these issues in a methodical manner. If we had this situation in a white community it would be all over the media with calls for urgent action. Regretably Jenny Macklin is yet to impress in this portfolio.Think outside the box, involve the community in the decision making and implementation and possibly achieve a lasting resolution.

  5. James Bennett

    You want to involve the community – Guess what !

    No-one is stopping them having some pride in where they live now.

    If it was in a white community they would be able to and would clean up their own shit.

    I know these fellas are backward ( read traditional if you like ) but can they do anything for themselves?

    Surely some basic maintenance and cleaning is not beyond them.

    Buy them some tools Chris !
    Get them off their lazy arses.
    Quit whinging about stuff they can fix themselves.

  6. Liz45

    Sadly, I think Jenny Macklin may be a likeable sort of person, but this is just too much – she just can’t delegate and has no sense of horrific health risks. Perhaps they’ll wait until a couple of little ones die from gastroenteritis or something worse, and then, when the family’s anger overflows, and there’s another tragedy, something will be done! Oh wow? Another inquiry? That should fix it? (I think of the cholera outbreaks in Zimbabwe and Iraq in recent times caused by just this type of situation?) How can people be expected to even remain in this area? It’s beyond disgusting! Three weeks?

    I’ve also heard good reports about those toilets. Now, that sounds like a common sense solution – that’s why it won’t even be entertained. No wonder people have walked off. I wish I lived closer, and could protest with them or at least show some support and solidarity with these long suffering people.

    What happened to the mining magnate who’s going to find employment for 50,000 aboriginal people? He could start with those toilets. Employ indigenous people where they’re required?

    $20,000 to paint a house? Some ‘houses’ in the Kimberley area only have 3 rooms? How big are these? Even a McMansion wouldn’t cost that much? The paint got gold flecks in it or something? I feel like elbowing my way in(to Jenny Macklin’s office) telling others to get out of the way, and then do SOMETHING! I’d start by saying, that anyone who didn’t want to roll up their sleeves and work, to go home. NOW!Then I’d be on the next plane up north!

  7. davidk

    ThanksJames for your contribution.I didn’t realise it was that easy. It should have been done long ago. I agree about Geoffrey’s toilets but don’t they have to be very deep i e long drop. Don’t know if the topography suits. I suspect Robert Forest was more about PR for Fortescue but hope I’m wrong. I would think employing locals in a CDEP scheme that pays real wages and provides real training aimed at obtaining trade qualifications and focused on establishing infrastructure would go a long way towards promoting the type of community pride that James espouses.

  8. stephen martin

    James Bennett says “If it was in a white community they would be able to and would clean up their own shit.”
    My brother lived on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria in the early 1950s in those days he had a septic tank, the drainage on his block was very poor and after a wet winter his septic tank started to overflow. He did what Bennett suggests, he cleaned it up – he did what the aboriginal community in fact did, he got it pumped out into a sewage truck. I don’t know if Bennett knows anything about septic tanks, but that’s what you do when they overflow. You can’t just clean it out.
    I wonder what the capacity of the septic tanks were in the community, but given that it isn’t a high rainfall area, it was manifestly inadequate.

  9. munners

    Outstanding suggestion James Bennett – perhaps you can lead the way. You seem like an all conquering, fix anything, jack of all trades type of blokey bloke.

    When was the last time you pumped a septic tank? Any idea how to do it – any idea how to maintain major civil infrastructure like sewage systems and electricity, not to mention the costs involved…?

    Of course you don’t James, beacuse you’re just plain stupid.

    Please back your good old practical self out of a issue you’ve clearly demonstrated, you know nothing about. There’s a good boy.

  10. Pelican Lini

    James Bennett,
    You’re a grub.
    And yet strangely you feel superior to your fellow Australians.

  11. James Bennett

    you lot get stroppy when someone suggests community members could learn new things and do some work to maintain their community.

    Would it be an unreasonable suggestion if we weren’t talking about NT aboriginals ?

  12. Chris Graham

    Unfortunately Munners, it’s the ‘same old same old’. Aboriginal people live desperate lives of grinding poverty. They have no employment, poor access to education, horrendous health statistics. They’ve ben dispossessed, had their culture mocked and trashed by generations of white Australians. They’re jailed at a rate up to eight times worse than South Africa under Apartheid. Their wages are stolen. Their kids are stolen. Their land is stolen. Even their ancestors remains are stolen. And some white-bread tool squeezer comes along, looks at a remote community that’s endured decades of government neglect and abuse, and all he see is rubbish on the ground. That’s the sign of a very racist, very ignorant beast… aka an average white Australian.

  13. Liz45

    JAMES BENNETT – You know what? You’re a real heap? You’re a typical revolting racist bigot who’s never even read any history; who’s always had it dealt up to you on a platter; who’s probably never suffered anything worse than a splinter in your arse? You’re pathetic! Sure you aren’t a descendant of those who poisoned the water over 200 years ago? Truly? If I were you, I wouldn’t advertise my pathetic lack of humanity! Go away!

  14. Pelican Lini

    You know damn well that your original inane contribution was front-end loaded with offensive comments.
    Speaking of backwards, you might take note of the fact that the dark ages officially ended in late 2007.
    No one can pretend any longer that it’s OK to spout racist rubbish.

  15. Sean

    Why do you think the respective governments aren’t acting? Because they want to chase people off these territories and claim what’s on it and under it for the white fella, i.e. royalty-free mining and pastoral leases.

  16. Geoffrey Ross Fawthrop

    All of you left wingers, bagging James Bennett, need to take a reality check, yes what he said was a bit over the top. But the politicians and bureaucrats principally responsible for this mess are the labour/green coalition who have been in power at state/territory level for most of the last 2 or 3 decades and don’t forget the Hawke/Keating federal crew either. The earlier Fraser conservative federal government did far more for black fellas than labour ever did.

    Who needs an apology when there is nothing practical being done on the ground. The Howard govt’s interventions may have also been equally as ham fisted as Jame’s comments but at least somebody attempted to do something.

    The labour/green coalition are long, on more capital city bureaucrats, surveys, stats, inquiries, social talkers dispensing tea and sympathy, and then actually, doing nothing, about everything, as usual.

    The post war labour Chifley govt contained less women, and more, “practical men” “who do things” like “the snowy mountains scheme”

  17. Chris Graham

    Geoffrey, I think you’re probably just taking the piss, but just in case you’re serious (you’re not, right?) here’s the facts.

    The Northern Territory Government was formed in 1978. Since then, it’s been under conservative rule for 23 years. It’s been under Labor rule (that’s Labor without a U Geoffrey) for 8 years.

    Surprising though this may seem (and I’ll write slowly for you Geoffrey, I know it’s tough to keep up) the apology was not actually meant to build any houses in the Northern Territory.

    As to your last comment about women and the Chifley govenrment, I think you might need to go and have a little bit of a lie down….

  18. Pelican Lini

    Tbe ongoing pollicy failures of successive governments (say for 200 plus years) has got absolutely nothing to do with the inappropriateness of JJ’s racist comments you considered to be “a bit over the top”.
    Using the logic of your intervention argument you could say World War II was “equally as hamfisted … but at least somebody attempted to do something”.
    You seem to be from the school of: “I’m not a racist but …”
    And if you’re going to use the stereotype that only left wingers get upset about race issues, I would suggest you’re probably a right w(h)inger who cares for nothing but the size of his bank account and reserves his contempt only for the powerless and poor.

  19. Geoffrey Ross Fawthrop

    Poor sad chris graham and pelican lini, i will attempt to set you straight, but i have always found left wingers to be either profoundly evil or stupid.


    This may come as a surprise to you but aboriginal people also live in QLD, NSW, ACT, VIC, TAS, SA, WA, as well, and they have all, been hearing platitudes from labour/green coalition governments over & over & over & over again for decades.

    For the record i vote for real minor parties and independents, then direct my preference against the sitting member in all electorates. If some of you loony, left sheeple did the same, there would be no safe electorates. Then none of these criminals, who claim to represent us, would last more than 3 years and never get their grubby hands on a super payout.

  20. davidk

    Profoundly evil or stupid! I see you are not one to make exaggerated generalizations then Geoffrey. Didn’t Whitlam pour sand into Vincent Lingiari’s hand following the Wave hill walk off? Wasn’t it under Keating that the Mabo ruling was made establishing genuine land rights under law? Wasn’t it Howard who stood in parliament with a map of Australia claiming much of the continent would be handed over following said ruling? Wasn’t the racial discrimination act suspended to allow the intervention to take place? You vote for real minor parties do you. The shooters party I suppose. The strength of our democracy is in the fact that we have voices from both the left and right in our parliaments so that measures that do get through have some balance to them. This is why politics is the art of the possible. i don’t think criminals are allowed to sit in parliament Howard was in power for 10 years in a commodities boom with a friendly Senate and so much money pouring in he was throwing it willy nilly at marginal seats but he couldn’t bring himself to say sorry. There is a difference between symbolism and platitude. He did nothing but obstruct any moves towards reconciliation. History will revile him for it.

  21. Geoffrey Ross Fawthrop

    Half truth as usual davidk, I could not agree more about Howard, but that is my point, about why, the labour/green coalition is even worse, for being such hypocrites.

    Making all the right noises, in all the right places, but doing nothing. Other than waste more money on capital city bureaucrats, doing more nothing.

    Two wrongs, don’t make it right, no matter how many times, “the hollow men” run the numbers through the spreadsheet, or do, yet another power point presentation.

    For the record, it was, the only party in Australia’s history, never, to have broken an election promise, “the Australian Democrats”.

  22. Liz45

    Geoffrey Ross Fawthrop – by your own inferences, the only people who have the guts to come out against racist hatred are left wingers? What’s wrong with you right racists, don’t you have any decency? Were your ancestors part of those who poisoned the water; raped the women, used swords killing babies, other kids and the elderly, and introduced diseases that wiped out aboriginal people by the thousands? What’s the rot about the last 23 years? Try the last 200 or more? When all the bigots like you have lain down and died; together with the morons who use and abuse aboriginal people, their land, their culture and what should be their wealth – the country might move on! Until then, it looks like same old same old………
    Not one of you apologists have answered the question – it’s pretty simple; ‘why are the most impoverished aboriginal people been and are living, where some of the most wealth has been removed – under and on top of their land’? How did that happen? Where’s the money? Why are we talking about open sewers(for 3 weeks) anywhere in this country, where any human beings are living, in 2009?
    If it was Pitt St, Sydney, or Spencer St, Melbourne – the area would be removed of people, and people wearing masks etc would be spraying disinfectant(so the kids and the elderly didn’t get gastro?) and it would be FIXED! What is the problem? Some of us, sadly, know the answer!

  23. Chris Graham

    Geoffrey, you’re not a lover of facts, are you? The only way your theory – that the conservatives help the blackfellas, and the left-wing do nothing – can possibly be true is is the conservatives have never actually held power. Because if they had, then Aboriginal people wouldn’t be living in grinding poverty, would they? Unless you’re arguing that when Labor get in they go around burn down all the houses the Libs built (and for the record, I’m not suggesting that doesn’t happen, just that there’s no evidence I’m aware of).

    It’s a pretty stupid argument, one you should probably have quietly abandoned… but then, conservatives have always had a little trouble with ‘change’.

    But by way of conciliation, I fully endorse most of your final paragraph: “For the record i vote for real minor parties and independents, then direct my preference against the sitting member in all electorates…. Then none of these criminals, who claim to represent us, would last more than 3 years and never get their grubby hands on a super payout.

    PS. There’s no ‘U’ in Labor… get it!?! Arf arf.

  24. Chris Graham

    Like I said earlier, Geoffrey… might be time to go and have a little bit of a lie down.

  25. davidk

    We only have your word for the veracity of any of your statements Geoffrey. I’ve never suggested Labor governments are faultless but the current one hasn’t had very long to do anything yet. I suggest it’s better to have reviews and seek advice before taking action so you have a chance of getting it right eventually. You say we get upset when our bubble bursts but we can at least be civil and avoid the bile.

  26. Chris Graham

    I don’t know if noticed Geoffrey, but I’m not actually arguing with you (primarily because I don’t really see the point, but also because you’ve been gibbering for about five posts and I don’t really have the heart to point it out to you). All I’m doing is suggesting that you have a bit of a lie down… and take ALL of the pills that your doctor tells you. We’ve talked about this before Geoffrey, there’s no point just taking half of them…

  27. Liz45

    Geoffrey, the Australian LABOR Pary is spelt without the “U”. It has nothing to do with your English spell checker. It’s been spelt without the “U” since its conception. Go and look at the arhives of the first meetings etc. Look at the electoral web site etc. Go back as far as you like – always spelt this way. The British Labour Party is spelt with a “U” not Australia. If you can’t get this bit right, well……..

    If you look at the the horrific situation of aboriginal people, you’d know that most of the responsibility belongs to the Federal Govt and has for some time – 1967? The Conservatives have been in power for most of the time since Federation. I’m not supporting the role Labor is playing re aboriginal issues, but it’s unfair to blame the Greens as they’ve not been in a position to make policy in any sphere of govt. It sometimes amuses me, but usually annoys me, that every time a Labor govt is elected, everyone(including the Opposition -remember the pensioner increases? and in almost 12 yrs Howard did what? zilch!)expects radical changes, eveything fixed in the first 6-12 months, otherwise it’s a failure.

    The other point to make about Howard, is that his govt organized several? many?7 I think? inquiries, and he did nothing. I recall his many talk fests with some wonderful women who were/still are caring for the victims of DV etc without many resources, let alone acknowlegement. Howard used these as an opportunity for a ‘photo shoot’? “The Little Children Are Sacred” inquiry was instigated by the NT govt. Howard usurped the publication of that report for his own ends. He hoped he’d get re-elected on another ‘shock & awe/racist’ agenda, and it back fired. The assertions made by Howard and Brough were baseless, and the lack of evidence has been proven to be disgrace. Hardly a handful of so-called pedophiles have been charged, let alone convicted of offences. In fact, there’s been more non-aboriginal priests, brothers, teachers, public servants etc who’ve been arrested since 2007 of pedophile offences. I don’t recall the media carrying on about the ‘pedophile rings’ etc. There’s been no call to quarantine these peoples’ incomes, let alone restrict the sale of alchohol or pornography for that matter? The Adult shops are still functioning I believe. The result in the NT, is that many decent caring men have had their reputations tarnished, by just living there, when there’s not a shred of evidence against them. If this happened in non-aboriginal areas, there’d be grounds for defamation; the shock jocks would go off the planet, and there’d be apologies all round. But, when you destroy the heart and soul of aboriginal men, it doesn’t really count does it? After all, it’s not like they’re ‘real people’ with feelings is it????Not the same thing at all is it?

    I recall commenting to a woman friend some time ago, that I was the only one who didn’t laugh when my brother told a sexist/racist joke at a family gathering? She said, ‘everyone knows that feminists don’t have a sense of humour’? (she was also a feminist).Is this too complicated for you to get, Geoffrey? If you’d spent all of your life being the butt of abuse, jokes, unequal pay, humiliation and denigration, being patronized, I don’t think you’d find it very funny either. As a non-aboriginal woman, I can only imagine how much worse it is for aboriginal women. It’s to do with ‘walking a mile in someone else’s shoes’ Geoffrey – it’s called empathy! Incidently, saying you live with an aboriginal woman, and therefore you can’t be racist, is a bit like saying you can’t be sexist because your mother is a woman!

  28. jungarrayi

    And while we are all arguing the merits and mostly de-merits of lefty/trendy/green/baby-boomers (and my favourity description of people like myself- in an article in the Australian- “ante-deluvians”!) and the pragmatist/economic rationalist/ assimilationist/ethnocentric/ xenophobic/ conservatives, the multi-pronged assault on remote Aboriginal Australia continues.
    The promised Review of the Intervention (on its first anniversary) came and went. Peter Yu et al. did a brilliant job. On income management (IM) the Review recommended: “Blanket compulsory income management cease”. I don’t think it gets more unambiguous than that. So what do Macklin et al do? They are busy setting the scene so that when they re-instate the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) they can continue that bizarre, inefficient, costly scheme (IM) as “Special Measures” under the RDA.
    The Northern Territory Education Department that recently destroyed the last few remaining bi-lingual programmes in remote schools, by decree, gives no indication that it may remove that stupid “compulsory four hours English only” policy.
    “In Australia, our ways have mostly produced disaster for the Aboriginal people. I suspect that only when their right to be distinctive is accepted, will policy become creative”… Kim Beazley Sr.
    PS-Geoffrey, that comment that implies that leftists lack a sense of humour (albeit specifically feminists) is the one I take most umbrage to! Here in Yuendumu it’s the Warlpiri sense of humour that prevents us from despairing in the face of the assault. Pay us a visit and I bet we can get you laughing!


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