Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Ode to the long-grassers out the back

When you live in paradise, sometimes it is good to get up extra early, just to appreciate it in all its beauty.

So it was sunrise, the birds were going crazy. It was high tide, so I could hear the waves crashing on the sand. I was in the garden, which opens onto a park. Through the banana palms, I watched a family pack up their belongings, preparing for another day of trying to look like they weren't loitering.

The last few days, I'd noticed, jammed between branches in one of the park's trees, blankets and pillows, so I'd figured someone was camping there. Sitting in the garden, I watched young children dress younger children, as adults shook out the bedding and stashed it in the tree. One man came back from the public toilet, carrying bottles of water to drink and a bucket of water to wash in.

Someone peeled oranges and passed them around.

It was very orderly and peaceful, as I've always thought mornings should be. I wondered if this was the group of people I'd heard the night before, playing guitar and singing what sounded like hymns. I'd been trying to catch some of the phrases to see if I could identify the language, to figure out where these fellow travellers were from. I don't think they were speaking Yolngu Matha.

There are some very flash houses where we live. You know the tendency we whitefella coastal dwellers have to clamour for the "priceless" ocean views (I've found, funnily, they do have a price- usually a fairly hefty one)? I thought about the other properties that back onto the park, as I sat watching the family very quietly tidy up and begin to leave. Perhaps it was out of respect for people still asleep.

I'll choose to believe that's what it was, and not fear that someone looking out the kitchen window at the view they pay so much for might call the police on the "illegal" campers in their sight-line. Are there really people in the work who would dob people in for sleeping outside in a public space? Isn't public space... public?

It got me thinking about the various attitudes to "long-grassers". What are some fairly typical responses to seeing a family- no, actually, let's racialise this, just to be realistic. What are some fairly typical responses to seeing an Aboriginal family, early in the morning, out in a park, surrounded by bedding and bottles?

a) Drunks! Those bottles are of course full (or worse- empty!) of grog (or worse- metho!)
b) Stay away! They'll rob/humbug you.
c) The poor things... nowhere better to go...

Well, I'm not sure about that third one. Remember the "priceless" views around here? Who wouldn't choose to live metres from the foreshore (global warming notwithstanding). For all I know, this area, where I park my car, ride my bike and go about my business like it's my place, belonged to the family out the back for ... thousands and thousands of years. Are there any whitefellas around here, sipping g & ts in their fenced fortresses and enjoying the sunset, who can lay that sort of claim?

And then I remembered this report I'd recently read, conducted by Yolngu researchers who, using Yolngu research methodology (but, what.... you mean Aboriginal people had... academics and learning institutions before colonisation??? Didn't all that civilised stuff arrive on the First Fleet?), studied the stories of the Darwin "itinerants"/long-grassers.

I am so glad I'd read that report and was able to see our neighbour long-grassers with (hopefully) less western-biased eyes. The report can be found here:

It would help the community of Darwin a lot, I think, if police, councillors, residents of Darwin writing letters to the NT News were to read that report.

Here's a snippet:

"The main findings from this research were that for most people drinking
alcohol was not their reason for living in the long-grass."

Dear readers of, and writers to, the mainstream media: Please take a minute to read that sentence a few times.

"Rather, it was the consequence of deeper problems, which had not been addressed or resolved.

"Most people said they wanted to go home and live on their country but
there were many difficulties which prevented them doing so, and had usually
triggered their leaving in the first place. The main reason for coming to
Darwin was fear - fear of violence, including suicide, mental illness,
aggressive behaviour and galka’ (sorcery).

[I have been told there is also an increase in "intervention refugees" in the long-grass: people fleeing the proscribed areas the government has taken control of, blanket-banning porn and alcohol, enforcing leases of Aboriginal land, disempowering elders and "quarantining" welfare and CDEP wages.]

To continue from the report:

"Some people who are living in the long-grass in Darwin have come to seek
medical treatment, or to look after a relative receiving medical treatment,
and have been unable to find acceptable, appropriate and/or affordable accommodation. When these people want to return home, they sometimes find themselves stuck, unable to afford the cost of the airfare, and having to wait until their family can afford to buy them a ticket.

"Other reasons why people chose to leave large settlements in East Arnhem
Land to live in Darwin are grief at the loss of a relative, or seeing their
elders being treated disrespectfully. They leave to escape disputes and
conflict in the community. People also leave because they feel alienated by
those in power, and cannot get jobs or access to other resources such as
housing. Some leave because they do not want to live in large settlements,
and some live on outstations in the dry, but return to Darwin for the wet
season. Many people say they enjoy the freedom of living in the long-grass."

I think the family out the back has moved in the last few days. The dry has kicked in, so rather than the shelter under the thick tree in the park, they might be sleeping out in the open, under the stars, near the beach. Or maybe their holiday in town has finished, school term has started again and they've returned to some other place they call home?

If they come back, I would like to say hello. I've been wondering if it was them who took the paw paw we left ripening on the table outside. I was hoping it was them, but it was possibly the possums.

I'd like them to feel that, when they're sleeping out the back of our house, they don't need to be silent in case we call the police, that we will say hi to them like we do our other neighbours. Who are we to either pity them or feel uncomfortable with them around.

We live in paradise, but it's most likely more theirs than it is ours.

And, in paradise, who DOESN'T love sleeping out under the stars sometimes, falling asleep to the sound of the waves?

Sunday, 24 April 2011

A day at the football

Well, this is rather late but I thought I should share our last football-based adventure in the Tiwi Islands.

This was the day of the fabled Tiwi Island cup and the requirement for permits is waived for the day.

You go over by small plane. So small that Emma had to sit in the co-pilot's chair. Occasionally she bumped the steering wheel (or whatever that's called) but no one died and we can all laugh about it now.

"I didn't just see something fall off that wing, did I? Did anyone else? I'm sure it's fine."

The day is also a chance for the islands to showcase art and culture. Football fans rub shoulders with the artistic crowd and vice versa. Above is from the museum. The poles are carved into birds that indicate signs or events associated with that bird, such as fresh water and a particular plant, or clan groups for whom the particular bird may be a totem. They are also used in funerals.

It's a nature shot!

Ah sweet shade — a precious resource today.

"But Pete," you ask. "WHAT ABOUT THE FOOTBALL?"

Oh right. Action photography!

We did get better photos than that. First here's some shots of the women's game:

We can't really tell you much about that game because we were stuck looking for something vegetarian at the bistro. We settled for chicken.

The main game between the Imalu Tigers and the Ranku Eagles we got much more of. We found a place to sit, noticed we were in the Tigers' section and decided to go with them as our team. We got to meet some of the Tigers' strongest players:

And their most ardent supporters:

The Imalu Tigers won the day (GO TEAM!) mostly through, as far as I can tell, superior ball control and marking. There was some controversy that the Eagles had some bad calls from the umpire but I don't see it. 

Then people retired to the club for a hard-earned light beer. 

Having XXXX Gold as your main beer may be the most ingenious anti-drinking campaign yet. 

The above photo would probably used by a mainstream media organisation to decry alcohol abuse in remote Aboriginal communities but this really was just a nice little club in a unique location. 

The club is run by locals who enforce strict rules about how much alcohol you can have and when the club is open. It does make you wonder whether more "wet canteens" would be a good idea in more remote communities but, as always, I think it depends on what that community wants. 

No one got out of control here and actually most people were way more friendly than you'd find in many towns this size. It was simply a very pleasant afternoon. 

Sunday, 10 April 2011

A very Darwin interruption to the evening

A quiet Sunday as yet only punctuated by housework and a pleasant trip to the markets...

So we're lazing about a little and Pete decides to get some soda water to go with the vodka in the freezer he's selflessly decided Emma should drink. Emma gets hungry and decides she's going to start cutting up potatoes for dinner.

All of the sudden our plans descend into chaos.

Emma gets a call from her work colleague. He just caught a huge barramundi but is leaving for Yirrkala in the morning. (Apparently the secret to good barramundi fishing is using crab as bait, taken from the mangroves) He can't possibly eat it before then, so would we like it?

Well yeah, says Emma.

Can Pete clean the fish?

Well no, and neither can I.


So he drops off this monster of a fish 70cm long or something. By the way, he says, our Yolngu colleague has been craving barra. So drop a fillet off at her place some time, would you?

We stare at this enormous fish, which seems to stare back at us with a shocked, gaping mouthed look. Or maybe that's just what barramundis look like when their jaw has been taken out.

We know nothing about fish.

And we get an idea.

We ring up another friend and ask him if he'd like to come over. We tell him  we have acquired a frighteningly large fish and don't know what to do with it.

Wow, he says, you've got a friend who just gave you a 70cm fish? That's some friend.

Yeah, we say. Would you like some?

Nah, he says. I've got a freezer full of the stuff. But he says he'll come over and clean it for us anyway.

And so he does, filleting knife and all. Out on our veranda, telling us how to cook it and loving the vodka we serve him by way of thanks.

Our landlord drops by to harvest some papayas. We swap her a fresh barra fillet for papayas we give Ralph for his efforts.

We eat potatoes and fresh barramundi for dinner.

Darwin is weird. And awesome. And  fresh barramundi is nothing like the stuff we've eaten in fish and chip shops downs south...

Friday, 8 April 2011

Saw this at a Darwin bookstore

Bloody Darwin

the bloody town's a bloody cuss
no bloody trams, no bloody bus
And no one cares for bloody us
oh bloody, bloody Darwin

the bloody roads are bloody bad
the bloody folks are bloody mad
they even say 'you bloody cad'
oh bloody, bloody Darwin

all bloody clouds and bloody rain
all bloody stones, no bloody drains
the council's got no bloody brains
oh bloody, bloody Darwin

and everything's so bloody dear
a bloody bob for bloody beer
and is it good? no bloody fear
oh bloody, bloody Darwin

the bloody 'flicks' are bloody old
the bloody seats are bloody cold
and can't get in for bloody gold
oh bloody, bloody Darwin

the bloody dances make me smile
the bloody band is bloody vile
the only cramp your bloody style
oh bloody, bloody Darwin

no bloody sports, no bloody games
no bloody fun with bloody dames
won't even give their bloody names
oh bloody, bloody Darwin

best bloody place is bloody bed
with bloody ice on bloody head
and then they say you're bloody dead
oh bloody, bloody Darwin

- Soldier's chant, 1941

Possibly by Ronald Ernest Bruce

Sunday, 3 April 2011

CDEP gets a dubious supporter

The April 2 Australian reported that ITEC Employment and its related entity Community Enterprises Australia (CEA) are preparing a submission to the federal government that will argue “the pendulum has swung too far in favour of the jobseeker”, in relation to changes to the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) on Aboriginal communities.

CEA is the largest CDEP provider in Australia, according to the article.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the pendulum swinging “too far in favour of the jobseeker” meant, perhaps, people were finding work.

In fact, under Labor’s changes to CDEP, many Aboriginal people on communities have been shifted from doing meaningful, essential community service work, funded by a Centrelink base rate plus hourly top-up wages, to receiving “income support payments”, which are effectively Newstart payments but recipients need to work for them (a more honest name is “work-for-the dole”).

The changes are part of Labor’s “reformed CDEP”: a way of keeping its 2007 election promise to not scrap CDEP as the Howard government said it would, while taking control over CDEP out of the hands of communities and watering it down to a work-for-the-dole scheme. Unlike CDEP, income support payments, like Newstart, can be quarantined onto the Basics Card. (As part of the NT Intervention into Aboriginal communities', introduced in 2007, 50% of Aboriginal welfare recipients' payments are put onto this voucher-type card, that can only be spent on approved goods such as food, clothing and medicine.)

Between April and June 2012, all those participants currently on the “old CDEP” scheme (ie those who were employed by CDEP before the reformed scheme was introduced in July 2009), will be moved onto an income support payment (work for the dole. When making enquiries about this to Centrelink, I was optimistically told “Unless, of course, they have found a ‘real job’ by then”.

Labor has not created more meaningful, salaried, “real jobs” on communities. Swinging the pendulum too far in the jobseekers’ favour has not, it seems, meant government investment in community-controlled employment programs.

Despite the apparent pendulum swing, and despite Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s promise “to ensure that every Australian who can work, does work" (quote from her speech to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia conference in February), no money has been found to, say, pay the garbage collectors on communities, currently working for the dole, the award rates they would be paid if they worked in Darwin.

While Labor’s plan is for the eventual wind-up of the old CDEP, keeping Aboriginal people on work-for-the-dole programs is all too convenient- not to mention cheap- for Labor to move to create fully paid, equitable employment on communities.

According to CEA and ITEC Employment, the problem is “Centrelink is not penalising Aboriginal people in bush areas on the dole who avoid mutual obligations”, the Australian reported.

The job service providers’ submission will reportedly call for the “restoration of CDEP ‘wage-like’ payments”.

Many Aboriginal workers across NT communities, who have found themselves providing essential services for not much more than the Basics Card and lose change, are also campaigning against the scrapping of CDEP. They argue that, rather than close it down and shift people onto unemployment lines, the money should be spent converting CDEP positions into salaried jobs at award rates.

However, I don’t think Aboriginal workers campaigning for Jobs with Justice have found an ally in CEA and ITEC. According to the job service providers, restoring CDEP “would allow providers to implement no work, no pay principles on the ground in the communities”, as opposed to the “‘weakened’ compliance regime” that is work-for-the-dole.

CDEP was an initiative led by Aboriginal communities in the 1960s and ‘70s, in an attempt to combat the negative effects of “sit-down” money. However, coming from job service providers who stand to make much money from winning government contracts, and who are bemoaning the softening of penalties against Aboriginal people on welfare, we should be very cautious of this particular call defending CDEP.

Once again, discussion is focused on carrot-and-stick tactics for punishing Aboriginal welfare recipients. This distracts from where the spotlight should be: the government’s complete unwillingness to work with communities to take positive steps towards creating real, fairly paid, community-controlled, employment.