Saturday, 30 July 2011

Refugees on hunger strike make public appeal

The following statement was released on July 22 by refugees, mainly Hazaras from Afghanistan, locked up in the Scherger detention centre in north Queensland. 67 refugees were on hunger strike at that stage. I am reprinting this from I'm not sure if the hunger strike continues, but the message is important.

On a more Darwin-related note, last week Hazara refugees locked up in the detention centre on the Stuart Highway also staged a hunger strike, and rooftop protest, in an attempt to draw attention to their lengthy imprisonment and related suffering.

The detention centre is on my way to work. Each morning I would see if they were still up there, and sometimes (not often enough!) a few of us would drop by on our way home, have a shouted conversation through the fence, over the noise of the traffic. It was so hot that week, and there was no shade on the roof. They stayed up there for four days.

Here is a photo I took one day while visiting:

And here is the statement from Scherger:

In the Name of Merciful God,

This hunger strike is a response to the continued pressure exercised by the Australian Immigration Department on us.

The participants in this hunger strike have been denied protection and robbed of their liberty for periods of time extending to over a year, even up to 20 months.

This punitive action and arbitrary jailing, has destroyed our physical and mental health.

Our families — including our children — living outside detention and overseas have suffered additionally from the terror of the Taliban, and the tyrannies of other dictators and regimes.

Daily sadness and additional trauma that we are exposed to remains unknown to certain officers and Immigration Merit Review members.

These members are neglecting our claims, the reasons for our claims, the arguments that we have supplied, and the documents available to them. They have consequently failed to reach a comprehensive humane and just decision.

We are locked in a “no man’s land”, inside a military base where average people and the media have no access to us.

Our friends and relatives cannot reach us and we have to accept the blame of officials, and the suggestion that “you are not looking after your case”.

Our treatment in this way is very hideous and painful. They are melting us in a bureaucratic oven, and pushing us through cracks in the law. All the while, money-makers are making their money and we have to suffer indefinitely and infinite trauma.

We have to suffer for such a long time, because you want to send messages to the opportunistic smugglers. You have punished us more than enough and the smugglers will have received your messages. Be happy.

Friday, 29 July 2011

"Let us fix you..."

On July 28, the federal Labor government held a public meeting in Darwin as part of the current "consultations" discussing what laws Aboriginal people might have heaped on them when the NT Emergency Response legislation (the NT intervention) expires in mid 2012.

I don't want to say too much about this. Plenty has been said, and Pete has written a fabulous article that will be in the next issue of, so check it out.

But I want to say something. As someone who works with Yolngu people of North East Arnhem Land, who sits with them for hour upon hour hearing amazing ideas and stories of strength and innovation from communities, ideas for a "stronger future" (if I dare use the term the government has adopted for its discussion paper). As someone who tries, often in vain, to help Yolngu discover for themselves the madness, offensiveness and incoherency that is contemporary Australian capitalism. As someone who spends my day de-constructing the entirety of western "civilisation" and trying to put it back together in Yolngu Matha, in a way that makes sense to Yolngu. There is something about this consultation business I want to say.

The meeting was helped along by a Powerpoint presentation, meant to focus discussion on the topics the government has decided are important (you can already see the fallacy of this process, right?).

Here is the text of the first Powerpoint. The welcome message, if you will:

"Why the special effort in the Northern Territory?

Many Aboriginal people are making changes to their lives and in their communities.

But Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory are still disadvantaged when compared to other Australians.

*Alcohol - a lot of Territory people still have a problem with grog: alcohol still causes violence.
* Schooling - a lot of people can't read or write; lots of children don't go to school or don't finish school.
* Jobs - a lot of people still don't have jobs
* Health - a lot of Aboriginal people in the Territory have poor health, and don't live as long as other Australians."

There are lots of things I could say about this. About the overwhelming majority of Aboriginal people who are tee-totallers (so different from white Australia!), about the jobs that have been lost as a result of the NT Intervention defunding community-based services.

But, on a more emotional level, thinking about my Yolngu colleagues who couldn't make the meeting but wanted to hear all about it... I just thought what a load of heavy shit that is to lie on Aboriginal people. What a way to start a "consultation". "Here is everything We think is a problem about You. Here are all the areas in which You fail. Now we're here to listen to you suggest how We can Fix You."

I don't know how the Aboriginal people in the room felt when they saw that first slide. I guess it was an indication of how genuinely (or otherwise) the government bureaucrats were willing to listen for the next 2.5 hours. I salute all those who spoke their heart at that meeting.

But seriously, where else in this country - in what other demographic - would the government have the gall to spend thousands on propaganda inviting people to "Tell us what works, what doesn't, and what needs to be done", call a public meeting, then start be listing everything that is wrong with all the people you've invited along - as though they'd all been called into the principal's office to settle a playground scuffle.

Maybe this is a common occurrence and I am simply biased because of the circles I work and play in.

But, more so than anywhere else, I think, the government has A LOT of trust to re-build, a lot of damage to repair, among the First People of this land. It sickens and saddens me that every time the government does anything regarding Aboriginal affairs- any time it so much as mentions the word "Aboriginal" - it is done in the most appallingly patronising and offensive context. Every time the government does anything to "fix" the "Aboriginal problem", people get hurt, and the situation gets a lot worse.

Maybe genuine consultation could begin with a heartfelt congratulations to Aboriginal people for surviving the whitefella problem for 230 years, followed by an invitation to list all that is wrong with government and ways the government could fix its behaviour.

UPDATE: article done by Pete here.

Friday, 8 July 2011

More things we saw on the road

Our 10-week journey, providing IT Training to eight remote Aboriginal communities throughout the Ngaanyatjarra Lands (and occasionally beyond their borders) has finished.

Here are some stats from our trip

Distance travelled: 6200 kilometres
Communities visited: Nine
Communities missed due to vehicular breakdowns: 1
Flat tyres: None! Incredible!
Radiator replaced: Once
Alternator replaced: Once
Fresh food consumed: Not nearly enough
Times we got lost in the middle of the desert, miles from anywhere: Once
Camels: Too many to count
Helicopter rides: One
Digital cameras broken: One
MacBooks damaged: One
PCs damaged: None (PC wins our vote)
Number of times we lost control of vehicle and slid of the road: Twice
Vehicle roll-overs (not ours!) we came across and assisted at: Once

Here are some photos from the road

Heading east along the Trans Access Road, from Kalgoorlie to Tjuntjuntjara.

The first time we attempted to find Tjuntjuntjara, we got slightly lost. Or, at least, we knew exactly where we'd come from, and how to get back, but where we ended up was nowhere near where we wanted to go.

Here's some of the intersections and road signs we had to interpret (and clearly failed) along the way.

It pays to get out of the vehicle at intersections, and wander around for old hub caps and drum lids that might have directions painted onto them. They don't always help though.

You can't see it, but right down the bottom, this sign "Tjuntjuntjara, straight ahead". Alas, it had fallen off its tree, and there were three possible directions it could have referred to. Using our map, we guessed. Turns out, our map was out of date. We guessed wrong. And that's where the nightmare began.

We were about to turn on the sub tank, which meant we'd used exactly half our fuel. So, realising we had no idea how to get to Tjuntjuntjara, and hitting a railway line, which meant we'd gone south when we needed to go north, we turned around and carefully retraced out steps back to Kalgoorlie. All up, 10 hours in the car and two tanks of diesel, all for nothing.

Had a recovery day in Kalgoorlie, updated our map, and tried again... and had more luck this time.

For our last trip, we did a drive I wanted to do years ago when I lived at Wingellina. It theTjuntjuntjara - Wingellina track. It's not used very often, and has a bit of a reputation. It's based on a walking trail the Ngaanyatjarra people made in the early days, and all along it are hidden water sources, rock holes and soakages and these days - not so hidden- water tanks.

It also has some fairly hefty sand dunes.

Our dawn departure meant we woke up the camels sleeping on the soft sand of the track. And they weren't in a hurry to get out of our way

And that pretty much brings us to the end of the trip. We're now remembering about things like driving in traffic, having a ridiculously large amount of choice of fresh food from supermarkets and markets, reliable power and hot water, and a whole lot of commercial superficiality that comes with being back in what I suppose is mainstream Australia.

The red dust of the desert is always in my veins, but for now I am enjoying a week off in tropical paradise, eating healthy food (wishing all the anangu I just spent two months with had access to it) and thinking about ways we in the cities can continue to struggle for the rights and lives of our very remote, often forgotten, brothers and sisters.

Friday, 1 July 2011

The CIS has no idea (shocking I know)

Sara Hudson, a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies wrote a piece on the ABC supporting the NT intervention and attacking public land title in remote Aboriginal.

It's pretty much what you expect from a CIS shill. "Public bad, private good", corrupt land councils, etc., etc. But one part of her piece stood out to me as someone on remote Aboriginal communities at the moment. Here it is:

"The absence of private property rights has seen remote Indigenous communities become sad slums with no resemblance to prosperous suburbs in the rest of Australia. If it is lucky a community will have one store, there are no cafes, motels, caravan parks, retail shops, hairdressers or the other services that abound in mainstream Australian country towns.

"By romanticising Aboriginal communities and failing to reward individual aspirations, government has consigned them to derelict public housing and the aimlessness and boredom of lives on welfare."

Hudson is dead right here, you know. The number of Aboriginal women living in poverty who come up to me and say: "Gee, I wish there was a hairdresser or a cafe here - that would just solve everything" is numberless, in the sense that no-one says that.

People sometimes want more choice in the commmunity stores (although it has to be said that some stores make a real effort and it's really appreciated). People sometimes want more health resources (although again, many of the clinics are hardworking and pro-active). But they never seem to want hairdressers.

In fact, the only people who seem to want this sort of private business operating in these communities are those who are used to them, like visiting politicians who can't believe they can't get a decent cappuccino. That sounds like hyperbole, but in the early days of the intervention, that's precisely what one pollie said.

Like most capitalist ideologues who probably never actually had to run a business, Hudson doesn't get that some business and economic models don't work everywhere. Unsurprisingly, the North Shore Sydney cafes and hairdressers as far as the eye can see aren't gong to make it in, say, Patjarr, population 30.

They don't even work well in many "mainstream Australian country towns" anymore, because the population and money ssimply isn't there to support it. Having been in Laverton for a week, which is benefiting from the mining boom, I can tell you that that "mainstream Australian country town" can't support hairdressers or cafes either, regardless of how much private land ownership there is.

It also doesn't have much the way of ATMs, the community - oops sorry - town being too small to justify sending much cash there. This means everyone pays for things by card.

But Hudson has been sold the whole "tragedy of the commons" garbage and gosh don't she believe it. It's fun that people who romanticise the destruction of common title always neglect to mention its result - Dickensian London, with child slavery, crime, disease, poverty, etc., etc.

Such would also be the result of any similar moves in Australia. The ALP's "Hub Towns" policy, which would starve smaller Aboriginal communities in the NT of funds and "encourage" people to move into the larger towns, is one such modern form of the British Enclosure Act. The rise in Aboriginal people in Alice Springs has led to a rise in homeless Aboriginal people and the social problems that stem from that. But no one seems to put two and two together and realise that these small "unviable" communities are much healthier than urban decay.

I guess we now know the definition of "viable" - able to produce a decent soy latte for a visiting diginitary. Sorry Laverton, no infrastructure for you!

It's been four years since the intervention was launched and some in the media, like the SMH, are touting its successes. The SMH said the other day in its editorial that even though the intervention was racist and there were some errors, it saved women and children.

The SMH neglected to mention how many, because most stats show rises in domestic violence reports after the intervention and rises in malnutrition - but hey, this is an editorial, not a spreadsheet Poindexter!

It reminded me of what John Pilger quotes often, that the struggle for justice is often a struggle against forgetting.

To believe the SMH editorial, we have to forget the lies about child pedophilia rings. We have to forget that an assistant to a federal politican pretended to be a Mutitjulu-based youth worker, and  that his long list of incidents that supposedly happened in one community, were actually spread out accross the whole of the NT. We have to forget that the first Basics Cards were just Coles and Woolies gift cards - despite, as Hudson will attest - there being no Coles or Woolies in remote Aboriginal communities.

We have to forget that Howard - why? intimidation? Brough's love of men in uniform? Howard's fear of the darkies? - sent the military in to implement the policy. We have to forget that this was a blatant election ploy from a man who always did blatant election ploys.

We have to forget the racism of a self-admitted racist policy.

We have to pretend, like the ALP likes to, that this is just  a minor technocratic shift to the welfare system, along with some inadequate rises in child protection funding.

Sure it's paternalistic, but you can't have carrots without sticks, right? Or, in this case, dainty underfed, sick looking carrots without chainsaws, but that's not important! What is important is that this policy that has no evidence of actually working is expensive and that means that we can claim it as funding for Closing the Gap.

And isn't it more important that we can say we're spending more than ever before on that, even if it isn't closing any single social indicator?

The comments section of Hudson's article was full of the usual internet arseholery but Marlene Hodder, a tireless Aboriginal rights activist from Alice Springs, also commented. Here's what she said:

"In my experience some Aboriginal communities had been pleading for police for decades and were ignored. Others didn't want or need them but now have them. It didn't need an imposition of racist laws to improve people's lives. Nor did it need takeover of land or seizure of assets etc. And working closely with people living under income management (mainly women) it is almost universally resented and detested.

"Having sat with Centrelink clients trying to gain exemption from this demeaning regime when they became entitled to apply, I have witnessed Centrelink's tactics in pushing to keep people on income management at all cost. The staff had obviously been trained to work on the basis that Aboriginal people are incapable of managing their money and it was important to try and keep them on the scheme at all cost, even to the extent of bribing them with a $250 bonus every six months. Interpreters were often not used.

"I worked with two women,one fluent in several languages and her mother who speaks little English. Both had no idea how they came to be still income managed when they so desperately wanted to be 'free'. They had apparently agreed to stay on it 'over the phone'. In all the years of working with prescribed area people I have only met two people who liked income management. The vast amount of money being spent ($4,000 per person) income managing people could be better spent on lifting them out of poverty or on up-to-date banking services in communities."

I couldn't have said it better.

The problems in remote Aboriginal Australia are difficult and ongoing. In some of the more remote places, colonisation happened as recently as just 50 years ago and, for some, as late as 1984. The damage that colonisation does takes generations to even begin to heal, even if everything were done right and with respect and with the communities rather than against them.

Anyone who tells you we just need to "get tough" on the symptoms of this damage is just choosing to avoid thinking about the problem. It's a non solution that pretends to be simple but usually just means an embarrassing back-down later and more damage done.

Meanwhile, the nice folks at the CIS will continue to peddle their market fundamentalism from their nice cafes and while ordering champagne at the hairdressers and wonder what the poor people are doing today.

And now, music. In honour of Hudson's First World solutions to Fourth World problems, I bring to you MC Frontalot's "First World Problems".

Now while our capitalism is in a minor kerfuffle,
you have to hustle. Before the fates come, reshuffle.
Rustle up another couple grievances and air 'em.
You can laugh about it later (maybe needed while despairing).
For the moment though, you ordered half caf, didn't get it;
there was no TV set when you jetted; internet resetted
itself just as I was in the middle
of tournament play, and so I suffered from transmittal
interruption. Completely ruined my day.
MC Frontalot's a jackass, that's all I'm trying to say.
People buy CDs in these days of disaster,
so poor me: I have to be a professional rapper.