Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Simplistic employment programs fail Aboriginal people

Recently, we spent 10-days more than planned at a certain community, on account of a busted radiator, and a plane (bringing us a new radiator) that wouldn’t take off due to bad weather.

We’d had a good week of IT Training there, before we realised we’d be sticking round. The good thing about the telecentre there was that two anangu are employed to run it, which always makes our job much more rewarding in terms of having people we can focus on, work with etc.

But the second week, we didn’t do a lot of training. We had a bit of a break, and the life of the telecentre went back to what we assumed it was like when we weren’t there. We deferred to the leadership and decisions of the telecentre workers. We explained to people that our boss had told us to have a week off but that the telecentre workers were really the boss anyway and people could talk to them about opening hours etc.

I thought this was a good approach, that the visiting whitefellas shouldn’t automatically become the authority. But over that week, with much time for thinking on my hands, and seeing how the telecentre was used and the position the telecentre workers were in, I began to be concerned and sceptical about the situation.

As is often the case out here, I was able to recognise problems and flaws quickly, while offering solutions and alternatives often fails me. I am reminded of the complexities out here. Complexities that perhaps get lost in the slogans and phrases used as short-hand for talking about the ongoing consequences of colonisation and dispossession. For example, calls for investment into Aboriginal employment- a call which I of course support, and is vital to the empowerment and economic independence of Aboriginal people.

But here’s a thing.

The government (I’m not sure if it’s federal or state) has decided to provide a local Aboriginal media corporation with a certain amount of money to set up telecentres in each community across this, with satellite internet access etc.

The potential for these places is great I reckon. In theory, anangu can access government services and online media, control their finances through internet banking, etc, all without putting pressure on the already over-worked community offices.

It’s also generating Aboriginal employment, of sorts. Each telecentre has one or two local Aboriginal workers who open the centre, supervise them etc. And they’re paid real wages, again from the government via the contracted media organisation, rather than the controversial soon to be phased out Community Development Employment Program.

In practise there are huge problems, as with most well-meaning programs out here. While we on the left call for real jobs for Aboriginal people in these places, in this instance the government can say it is providing real jobs. But I think aspects of this program are a huge step backward in terms of empowering Aboriginal people, treating them as adults, giving communities control etc.

For example, the telecentre workers are paid for 20 hours a week. There are certain things they’re meant to do in those 20 hours. Menial but necessary things, I guess. Open at 9. Close at 5. Keep the dogs out. Etc. But there is no supervision, support, or training. There is no employer-type person acting like they give two hoots whether these people work or not, or supporting them when something goes wrong, or training them for the basic skills that they’d need to feel they’re doing a good job (surely our annual one-week visit isn’t adequate?!).

They are left to their own devices. Telecentre workers tend to be young people who have better English and basic computer literacy. Of course "we", the whitefellas, the government, the trainers, prefer to work with people more savvy in "our" ways. Much easier than learning theirs, right? For "us", that is.

But these very same people, according to their culture, don’t have a lot of authority or rights to tell people what to do. In a way, they are set up to fail.

There are situations where everybody knows a job isn’t being done properly, the computers are being used inappropriately, the community isn’t happy with the arrangement. But there are no consequences. The government is happy with the arrangement, because it apparently is providing 20—odd Aboriginal people with real jobs, real wages.

Effectively, the government says “you’re Aboriginal people, we have low expectations. We don’t expect you to do what we’d expect non-Aboriginal people to do. We’re going to let you do what you want, but we reserve the right to occasionally tell you off, disconnect your internet or maybe even sack you for doing the wrong thing. But this won’t happen very often because basically we’ll ignore you.”

I can’t see how this helps the self-respect of the person with the job, helps them take their responsibilities seriously or helps the community respect the worker’s authority viz-a-viz the running of the telecentre.

So the telecentre workers who open the room, leave it open 24/7 while they’re away, come back to (surprisingly enough) broken computers, shitloads of downloaded porn and a very uncomfortable community, gets paid the same amount as the worker in another community who works long hours, keeps the place locked up at night, calls community meetings to develop a grassroots response to the porn issue… all in the name of “investing in jobs for Aboriginal people”.

Giving Aboriginal people “real jobs”, without training, support, consequence etc, is just as problematic as all the other paternalistic policies, I reckon, though I’m sure that’s controversial. In the end the government will no doubt say, “well look, we tried. We paid you good money. And what happened? You trashed computers, downloaded porn in front of kids, etc etc…”

And another service will be taken away, again without people really understanding why, although they will understand that somehow they have failed another mystifying whiitefella test.

Things we see on the road

Ideally this blog post would be illustrated. There are many photo-worthy things happening on the roads out here. But alas we are always so focused on getting from A-B (remember the distances out here), that so far I have no photos to go with this story. Let’s call it a work in progress. One day we will remember not to pack the camera cases away in the depths of the troop carrier, will keep a camera up front with us, and will add photos. Maybe.

For now, I will paint a picture with words, no analyses or solving the problems of the world, tonight, dear reader. Just a ride with us in the front of the Toyota, along the 2500 kms we’ve done since May 1.

For the map-inclined, our journey has roughly been: Alice Springs-Irrunytju-Blackstone-Yulara/Uluru-Jameson-Patjarr-Tjirrkarli-Cosmo-Newberry. With more to come!


We see lots of tracks of course. When the road gets rough you’re meant to stay in the tracks of the last car that went through. It’s the best way to avoid getting bogged, and a helpful way of deciding whether to go through or around the puddles.

Also from the car you can see camel tracks in the sand fairly easily. For the smaller animals you need to be travelling by foot to see their tracks.

At Patjarr I would go for a walk along the road each morning and see how many animal tracks I could spot. One day, back in town, a nine-year-old girl was walking behind me. She suddenly said “Emma- have you been going for walks out on that track?” I asked her how she knew, and she pointed to my shoes’ imprint and said “I was out there this morning, and I didn’t know whose track that was. Now I know it’s yours!”


Cheeky things. They like to sleep on the sand after the sun has warmed it all day. They’re never in a hurry to get out of your way, either. They tend to amble along slowly in front of the car rather than move to the side. Last night, we came across a big mob on the road after dark. I don’t know if it was fright or if we’d interrupted some serious cud-chewing, but as they slowly jogged along in our headlights, there were some impressive drool-strings blowing out behind them.


What long, solitary hours those grader workers spend making sure these roads are passable. There are so many long roads out here, which people rely on for clinic visits and food supplies, that you can’t really drive for more than half a day without passing one.

Whenever I pass one I think about a day in the life of one of these men (so far they have all been men).

Sometimes there are two graders a few hundred kilometres apart, so I imagine them meeting halfway, camping together to at least have some social interaction in the evenings. Because of the distances, and the slow speed at which they travel (about 20ks an hour when they’re actually grading), they usually don’t make it back to a town. Hence they are fully self-contained, travelling with a caravan and a vehicle in case they need to get somewhere in a hurry.

Usually you will pass this rough graders’ camp before or after you come across the grader. But on one track, a very rough disused track (I was surprised to see it being graded) we came across a site that for some reason I found quite exciting. It was a grader towing a caravan, towing a ute. While it graded. How cool?

I was reminded of China Mieville’s The Iron Council, although I’m sure I was reading too much into it.

I like to imagine the grader drivers with a dog or two. For company. The graders go so slowly, the dogs could run alongside sometimes, or sit up in the cabin at the driver’s feet. And a little comic relief and puppy-distraction never goes astray on long drives.


After camels and birds, dingoes are the next most numerous, at least that’s the view from the road. One day, on the same old track where we saw the travelling grader road show, we spotted a dingo up ahead. They are usually fairly shy, but this one wagged its tail and ran towards the car. It seemed genuinely excited to see us, and when we passed it slowly it started running behind the car.

Was it someone’s pet? Out here in the middle of nowhere? It got shy and ran off when I opened the door, which is probably just as well because I might have had to adopt it.

We still don’t know what that tail wag of recognition and the car-chasing was about. Maybe prior experience had told it that sometimes the white Toyota animals camp along there and leave food scraps in their wake.


Everybody has probably heard of the famous car wrecks strewn along the tracks of outback Australia. There’s a great one near the SA/NT/WA border, an old panel van, painted like an ice cream van and brightly displaying the words “Ice cream. Now open.” If you’re doing the eight-hour drive from Alice Springs to Irrunytju, that wreck appears just at about the time you wouldn’t mind a roadside stop and, say, an icecream.


Around Warburton, we kept passing this big mob of utes, trucks and caravans with “Terrex Seismic” logos on them. I had no idea what it was all about but it was an exciting distraction after numerous hours on the road.

Anyway someone pulled us over and said “We’ve got men on the road for the next 20ks, so just take it easy and slow down past the equipment”. The “equipment” was one very long extension lead lying along the road, at various points plugged into something stuck into the ground. That’s the technical definition, anyway. Plus there were fancy looking trucks with satellites on their trays and metal legs that held them firmly into the ground.

It was all very intriguing and hard to keep my eyes on the road ahead.

I didn’t really know whether “slow down past the equipment” meant “ case someone steps out in front of you” or “…because that extension lead is plugged into machines buried underground that might explode if the vibrations get too full on”. Anyway we didn’t explode, nobody got hurt, and I just found this link on Terrex’s website:

“The “Reflection Seismic Method” is a geophysical technique used to map in 2D or 3D, an image of the earth’s subsurface. Reflection Seismic is used by Oil & Gas, Coal Seam Gas, Minerals and Coal Exploration and Production companies to develop a clear understanding of subsurface rock structure and other geologic properties. “

Fabulous. I’ve read a thing or two about coal seam gas. Not impressed.

So far, these are some of the visual highlights from our driving adventures. My words won’t do them justice, alas, but soon hopefully I will add photos.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Patjarr: In which Emma rides in a helicopter and the future looks grim for camels

We were looking forward to a week at Patjarr. Perhaps it was because of how tiny and remote it was: even by my standards.

Populatipon:30. About 12 of them are children. The government, however, insists there’s only one child there, and as such has closed down the school. Quite literally there is no school there; there empty block behind the friendly, colourful “Patjarr Remote Community School” sign confirmed the government’s “re-allocation of resources”, which in this case meant taking the school building to a community down south.

The community consists, it seems, of one or two extended families plus three whitefellas who combined run the store (open two hours a day), the office (which last year burnt down and has been relocated to a staff member’s kitchen table) and the art centre.

This tiny, very functional and largely self-reliant community confirmed what we have already heard in terms of the improved health and social engagement in the smaller homelands and communities not over-serviced by government agencies.

Each day when the shop opens, a group of kids and adults will wander down and help sweep, stack shelves, flatten boxes then quickly do their shopping so the store manager- who is also the office manager- can lock up and go back to her other job.

The adults as much as possible try to compensate for the lack of school by organising bush trips for the kids and involving them in the daily jobs around the community.

When we arrived and went looking for the key to what would be our house for the week, we were told the house didn’t lock. In the months since the lock had broken, nobody had gone into the place, nothing was stolen, so they figured they wouldn’t bother with locks anymore.

This contrasts enormously with the “whitefella houses” in most communities, which feature deadlocks, bolts, and often a padlocked cage around the front door.
But what about the camels? And the helicopter?!

We saw many camels- and camel tracks- on our drive to Patjarr, though deep red sand and over steep sandhills. They like walking and sleeping on the soft sand of the tracks, so one needs to take care when going over crests.

Camels look like they belong in this arid country but they were introduced by explorers who recognised their advantages over horses in this landscape and, more numerously, by Afghan camel drivers who have a rich history intertwined with the history of colonisation, of “opening up” of the Centre, starting in the 1840s.

Australia is now the only country in the world where camels live and breed in the wild. In fact, Australian camels are in demand from tourist operators around the world. There are specially converted aeroplanes to transport them in comfort and safety.

But these majestic, entertaining characters of the desert are endangering the original animal inhabitants. Indeed, this time round we have seen no emus and only one kangaroo in the 1000+ kilometres we’ve travelled so far.

That’s a huge change from 10 years ago when I would see mobs big and small of the native creatures – and the occasional camel.

And hence the Camel Management Program, the government’s pseudonym for culling what are indeed pests in this delicate ecosystem- very large , somewhat endearing pests, but nonetheless…

On a quiet Patjarr morning, the arrival of a helicopter- which landed just metres from the store- caused much excitement. It was the camel management blokes, flown in from Kalgoorlie to fly over country with the owners of the land around there, plotting the likely camel habitats and seeking permission to come back later in the year to do an air-to-ground cull.

I learnt that in most parts of the Australian desert, you can tell whether a body of water is salty or fresh from the air. There is something unique about the country around Patjarr though, and the only way to predict if the camels will come back to a certain lake or waterhole in the dry is to land the helicopter and test the water the old-fashioned way.

I was struck by the seriousness and sensitivity with which these two ex-army, frontiersmen who shoot large animals for a living approached the task of building relationships with elders, learning the laws and culture for the area, and ensuring land owners knew what they were agreeing to as they flew over their vast estates and gave permission for them to come back later and shoot the camels.

Just goes to show, I guess…

So for three days, the helicopter arrived early in the morning, swooping low over the houses to wake people up, then landing to pick up two men who would spend the day flying over with them.

I thought about these old fellas, the first time they see their country from a chopper or plane. Country they have walked over since the beginning of time. Somehow, having never been airborne, the people already have aerial views of their country: when they paint, they paint as if looking down on the earth.

So I wondered what it must be like being up there in the sky, looking down on it for the first time. Would it be like… an epiphany? An exciting moment of seeing something so close to them from a whole new perspective? But Pete pointed out they know the country so well, they probably just nod and say “Yep. That’s it.”
Be that as it may, they still took more than 300 photos with the camera we lent them, and other family members painstakingly arranged them in the appropriate order into a stunning slideshow.

And, also? I got to ride in the helicopter. Just for the hell of it, because I could. Because I looked jealously at the guys getting in and said “I’ve always been fascinated with, and a bit scared of , the idea of riding in a chopper”. And the boss said he’d take me for a quick spin, up to the airstrip to re-fuel. Possibly because he was about to ask us to make a short promotional film about the project which he could show other communities. Whatever. The six-year-old in me was rapt.

And flying in a tiny helicopter, over amazing country, with a pilot who quite possibly wanted to show off, was as terrifying and breathtaking and fun as I always thought it would be.