Thursday, 17 March 2011

Alice Springs: Ugly racism on show in TV ad

Here is an article Pete wrote for Green Left Weekly check out GLW for a whole lot of other important news that you won't find elsewhere.

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Media reports paint Alice Springs as being in the midst of an out-of-control crime wave.

Action for Alice, a group of local business owners, has produced a commercial for Imparja television. The ad calls for a law and order push to end the alleged crime wave, which it blames on Aboriginal youth.

The level of hysteria reached a new pitch in an article by Nicolas Rothwell in the February 19 Australian. Rothwell claimed that Alice Springs was plagued by rampaging young Aboriginal people, fuelled by alcohol.

Residents have called for vigilante groups, claiming that the police are letting criminals get away.

Aboriginal country musician Warren H Williams has launched legal action against Action for Alice’s advertisement, saying it was racist.

"I have never encountered anything like the unjust portrayal and vilification demonstrated by these advertisements," Williams said on March 3.

"Many Aboriginal peoples have seen these advertisements and feel they have been unjustly represented.

"A serious repercussion of these advertisements is the effect on self-esteem and self-worth, further fuelling a deterioration in the mental health of Indigenous peoples, particularly our youth.

“There is enough segregation within our society between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people … these advertisements just wedge that gap open even further.”

The stabbing of a tourist and the savage beating of a woman in her house were cited as examples of the crime wave.

These examples are tragic, but violent crime has fallen over the past five years, according to a statement by the People's Alcohol Action Coalition in the March 3 National Indigenous Times.

Most reported crimes are property offences and criminal damage — crimes of the poor and dispossessed.

Some have blamed the policies of the NT intervention, which enforced widespread alcohol bans in August 2007. This, the argument goes, has forced more Aboriginal people into Alice Springs.

The outrage ignores the causes of crimes and appropriate solutions. In the absence of facts, Aboriginal people and the Aboriginal town camps of Alice Springs have become scapegoats for a social crisis.

Rothwell said: "Just as significant is the role of town camps as magnets. Since the racially defined zones serve as bases for out of town visitors, and they are apartheid zones, with entry restrictions, they encourage a double standard in service provision and social responsibilities for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal."

Social justice commissioner Mick Gooda went so far as to call for the town camps to be closed.

This proposal ignores the reality of the housing crisis in Alice Springs.There is no way Alice Springs could cope with the closure of the camps.

The town camps of Alice Springs were set up in the 1970s as places for Aboriginal “fringe dwellers” to live. They have public housing and were administered by Tangentyere council until the federal government forced them to lease the land in 2009.

Housing in Alice Springs has become more expensive and the growth of the town has far outstripped its housing capacity.

Aboriginal people face the sharp end of the housing crisis. The camps, previously on the edges of Alice Springs, have been absorbed by encroaching suburbs. Now 180 houses must cater for up to 2000 people, Rothwell’s report said.

This is made worse by recent changes to the leasing system imposed by the federal government.

Town camp land has been leased to the government, ending local control over the camps. Humpies and other emergency accommodation have been levelled to "clean up the camps”, making the housing situation even worse.

Alice Springs is also a hub for Aboriginal people across central Australia as the main place to access health and other services, adding to the housing crisis.

The Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program has not succeeded in turning this around. New, temporary housing has yet to open. This has created a new level of homelessness.

Aboriginal activist Barb Shaw tried to explain this to an angry February 22 meeting of Action for Alice, but was shouted down. People at the meeting demanded buses to send Aboriginal people home to their remote communities.

On March 8, a community sector meeting discussed a different approach.

Some of the youth support services have been very popular and effective in combatting youth apathy in Alice Springs, but are drastically under-funded.

More resources for such services would go a long way to fixing the problem but have had little support from groups like Action for Alice.

Alice is booming economically, but Aboriginal people remain marginalised. The riches of the mining boom are not for them.

It is this marginalisation of Aboriginal people that is at the heart of the crisis. Unless this is addressed, Alice will remain a town with an ugly reputation.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Our faithful steed

On camels, salt lakes, and more food angst

When we arrived at a certain community, we heard that the phonelines, ATMs and eftpos were all down and had been down since the previous week. The store hadn't bothered opening because nobody had any money to buy food.

Some people had managed to catch a kangaroo or goanna, or dig up some maku, but most people were pretty hungry. A bunch of kids came knocking on our door looking for food that night.

There are lots of camels out there at the moment. That's about the only wildlife we saw apart from lots of birds and all the lizards I tried to dodge while driving. When I lived out there, nobody would hunt or eat camels. I was told it had something to do with the camels being the mode of transport the first invading whitefellas used. Australia is now the only country in the world with a wild camel population. Saudis buy camels off us.

A few years ago the government decided there were too many camels and started a big cull. I've heard that a few people have started eating them and the meat is pretty good. There have also been attempts at mobile abattoirs etc to turn the meat into dog food - what else to do with all those camel carcasses that will otherwise just rot the waterholes etc? I wonder if that's why all the camp dogs are that much healthier than I remember them being?

We were right near a giant salt lake called Lake Hopkins- at least that's what the whitefellas call it. We were taken out there a few times. After a big rain you can walk out into the middle of the lake, across dried and crunchy mud flats, and be rewarded with knee-deep muddy water to cool off in. It's salty, though, so take fresh drinking water with you.

There is also a tributary creek running through the salt pan that apparently is always full- even in drought.

The country round there, they call it tali (sandhill) country. It's beautiful, and seems to change every couple of hundred metres. Steep red hills with beautiful rock formations punctuate the miles and miles of rolling red sand dunes covered with spinifex and desert oak. There is water, if you know where to look.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Food Angst

At one of the communities on our recent IT Training bush trip, we found ourselves with nothing to do for the day. Listless, we got ourselves excited about the idea of going "out for lunch", for the first time since we'd got out bush. Drove 100ks down the road to a nearby roadhouse.

I was served the worst chicken burger I've ever tried to eat. The fresh food truck was stuck in the mud over the SA border, so there was no salad, no cheese... I'm not entirely sure the "chicken" was chicken. Took two bites, chucked the rest out, drove 100 ks back to base, wishing we'd just opted for baked beans on toast in the home ec classroom we'd camped in for the week.

It was inconvenient and disappointing. But what about the people who live on remote communities permanently and deal with this sort of food insecurity?

When the Howard Coalition government introduced the NT Intervention in 2007, supposedly aimed at tackling child abuse and neglect on Aboriginal communities (cos that's the only place it's a problem, right?), half of Aboriginal welfare recipients' income was "quarantined" onto a "Basics Card", which could only be used in certain shops on food and other essentials. (see for more information about the Basics Card, which continues- indeed is being expanded- under Labor.)

This was meant to ensure children were fed. But what good is the Basics Card when there is no healthy food in the shop? When a Mars Bar costs $1.50 and an apple costs $2?

When I first wrote this reflection, on my Facebook page, I wrote "Rather than the Basics Card, why doesn't the government invest in community farms and training to grow fresh food out here?"

But sometimes it's not that simple. In fact, many communities have had government-funded orchards and market gardens established, and teams of people who spend time on the community teaching people how to garden.

In most instances, the orchards are now abandoned, died, or gone wild. Or have a dedicated whitefella tending them.

This isn't an indictment on the ability of Aboriginal people to learn new skills, or their commitment to practise healthy lifestyles. It is, rather, another example of the failed approaches government has taken to community "development", "bridging the gap", and all the other catchphrases.

Many, many well-meaning non-Indigenous people are living on communities, making reasonable money, doing their best to improve living standards etc. So many of them get burnt out and leave. We need a radical re-think of the entire concept of "training on Aboriginal communities". We need to re-think the criteria used to when inviting people to work on communities.

"Do you speak the language of the people you'll be working with?"; "Do you understand and respect their legal, social, political system? Are you willing to work within it?"; "Do you have any experience working with communities experiencing inter-generational trauma?" These are questions I have never been asked, in all my years working on communities.

Finally, when all these millions of dollars are spent on "training" and "development" aimed at Aboriginal people, and they don't work (because of how they're set up, what they aim to deliver, the language they deliver in, etc...) what message is being sent to Aboriginal communities? What effect do all these failed programs have on people's confidence, receptiveness, dignity and sense of collective wellbeing? What conclusions do people draw?

We need to radically rethink approaches to working with Aboriginal communities before Aboriginal people give up entirely on the invaders' system of law, health, education etc, and lose all hope in ever understanding it or mastering it so they can take the power back.

And so it begins...

For the past five weeks, we've been in remote Aboriginal communities in the Western Australian desert, teaching basic IT skills for a week at a time. We visited Wingellina, Wanarn, Warakurna, Tjukurla and Kiwirrkurra (the most remote community in Australia, according to some!)

It was an amazing time and we look forward to our next stint. We saw some fascinating country and met some great people.

In part, this blog is about those experiences, but it will also contain stuff that takes our fancy.