The weekend before I last joined a few hundred others and drove 300 kilometres along muddy roads to the north-east from Alice Springs to the Ampilatwatja walk-off camp at Honeymoon Bore to attend the hand-over ceremony for a new house, one of the few that have been built on Aboriginal communities in the NT in recent years.

Walk-off camp spokesman Richard Downs and Alyawarr traditional owner
Walk-off camp spokesman Richard Downs and Alyawarr traditional owner

While there I sat down under a shady tree with Richard Downs, the spokesman for the group of senior Alyawarr men and women that walked away from the nearby township of Ampilatwatja to camp on Aboriginal freehold land a few kilometres away.

You can see and read more about that event at an earlier post here and an interview with Richard from August of  last year here.

The Northern Myth: What is your background?

Richard Downs: I was born in this country here, I’m an Alyawarr man. When I was a kid I couldn’t read or write and I was interested in droving, stock work with horses and cattle and I had old Banjo Morton and the non-Aboriginal stockmen out here as role models.

I ended up breaking a leg when I was about twelve years of age out in the mustering camp. Then the Halls family from Ooratippra Station gave me an opportunity to go to school and then I started work and I lost contact with my people for about ten or fifteen years. I could already speak four languages Alyawarr, Warramunga, Anmatyerr, Kaytetye and a little bit of Warlpiri – but not much. And I had a good understanding of our traditions and customs for this country.

Since then I’ve always been involved in the private sector with transport and mining companies. I tried working with government-funded organizations for a while but it didn’t work out for me – just too much red-tape.

Too much trying to suck up to the government to get funding and so on.

Alyawarr traditional owner Banjo Morton
Alyawarr traditional owner Banjo Morton

When I came back here last year old Banjo Morton said to me, “Just go steady-steady. You’ve got to read and understand people. You’ve got to work out how to bring them in without rushing – a bit like a mob of bullocks.

We walked off the community at Ampilatwatja in July 2009. Why we walked off was that we had tried to engage with the Intervention, the Government Business Managers, (Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister) Jenny Macklin and all of her puppets – for the last two and a half years – and they pretty much shut us out. They didn’t even want to listen to me or the old people here.

We also saw was that there was nothing happening at Ampilatwatja, no development. The only development was a BMX track for the kids that cost $20,000. And the place was in a mess, the place had just been let go.

So we said “No, we can’t live this lifestyle where we are just used as tokens to please Jenny Macklin so she can put her message out to the public.” So we decided “No, we need to get out of this control by the government and the Intervention measures”.

The Northern Myth: Is Ampilatwatja one of the “prescribed areas” under the NT Intervention?

Richard Downs: Ampilatwatja is a prescribed area but this walk-off camp here at Honeymoon Bore is on our Aboriginal freehold land. Aboriginal people have talked about self-determination and self-management for a long time and that is what is happening here. We are determining our own future, the way we want to go, what we want to set up here and how we are going to do that. Without interference from governments, without the NT and Federal governments telling us what we can and can’t do.

Living in that prescribed area is exactly like it was for our people in the old welfare days of the sixties and seventies. People’s income is quarantined and controlled.  For old people like Banjo Morton, we have to ask why it is that governments want to humiliate those old people like that.

They are the ones that opened up a lot of this part of the Territory through droving and helping the pastoralists.

We should be showing those old people a lot more respect and saying “You old people, we know you can budget and handle your money. You worked hard and we are going to leave you out of that income quarantining system.

It is just not fair.

In this area here many of the pastoralists that know the old people are really angry about this. They are angry that the Government is showing disrespect to these old people. There are a lot of pastoralists that we’ve got good relationships with. What the Intervention is doing is dividing those pastoralists and us – and the old people. They respect these old people for the hard work that they put in 24/7 over the years.

The Northern Myth: Have you got a message for Jenny Macklin? Do you want her to come and sit down with your mob here?

Richard Downs: No! Before we see her here she must abolish the Intervention. Start again. That is not just for us here but right across the Northern Territory.

The Northern Myth: People across the NT have told me about what they call the “double-whammy” effect of the Intervention and the recent NT Government reforms to local government that has resulted in the Shires being established.

Richard Downs: That Shires business has taken away our local decision-making rights and powers about what goes on here. We had our own Association here and that has been abolished. Under our Association we had employment, we had training, we had community clean-ups and we had visions and goals that we had set ourselves to follow. So when the Intervention came in, with the Government taking control of those communities in the prescribed areas then somehow the Intervention and the NT government’s local government reforms fitted in together.

The NT government took over our offices, our assets and our vehicles and what we had built up over the last 30 years was just gone. We’ve got nothing left, our Association just doesn’t exist anymore. It is all just a farce – just tokens, figureheads and a numbers game to say that we have Aboriginal people on our boards.

The Northern Myth: What about the extension of Income management – are people still subject to Income Quarantining even though they’ve moved out from Ampilitwatja?

Richard Downs: They are still subject to it, they don’t have a choice now, they are locked into it. And even with the new system where people could apply for an exemption that would be a real struggle. Dealing with Centrelink is never easy – particularly for these old people. To my mind it will be a bit like the old days when they used to put Aboriginal people under the “dog license“, where they had to grovel to the government for permission to do all kinds of things.

The Northern Myth: Why should the rest of the country be worried about what is happening here at Ampilitwatja, a small town four hours drive from Alice Springs?

Richard Downs: Well, it is very important. It is about having your rights and the freedom to decide what you want to do. People down south and all across the country also have to realize that Aboriginal people here are the guinea pigs right now. We are the first ones that they trialed here with Income Quarantining. They have already flagged that it will start going right across Australia shortly.

So the non-Aboriginal people out there on welfare, their money is going to be Income Quarantined, whether it is 50% or 100% we don’t know.

So it is coming on and people need to stand up and say “No, this is not right for Australia. What kind of country are we living in?