Saturday, December 25, 2010

Alice Springs - Not Your Holiday Destination of Choice

Here I am, writing from Alice Springs, where I have spent almost five days as a "layover" before I jump on the Ghan, the amazing Railway Route which takes you up from Alice Springs to Darwin. I will be writing out of order from my pictures again (the rest of Uluru and then Kings Canyon are still to come), but I thought that I would take the time to write while I am in the writing mood, and leave the pictures until later.

I want to talk about what I have learnt about Australia - my home country, the Northern Territory and I want to share it with Alice Springs being the centrepiece - being where it all becomes just a collective bundle of all of the problems that exist out here in Central Australia. I want to talk about our Aboriginals.

Here is the Wikipedia explanation of Alice Springs:

Alice Springs is the second largest town (sometimes incorrectly referred to as a city) in the Northern Territory of Australia. Popularly known as "the Alice" or simply "Alice", Alice Springs is situated in the geographic centre of Australia near the southern border of the Northern Territory.[2] The site is known as Mparntwe to its traditional inhabitants, the Arrernte, who have lived in the Central Australian desert in and around what is now Alice Springs for more than 50,000 years. Alice Springs has a population of 27,481 people, which makes up 12 percent of the territory's population. Alice averages 576 metres (1,890 ft) above sea level; the town is nearly equidistant from Adelaide and Darwin.

The town of Alice Springs straddles the usually dry Todd River on the northern side of the MacDonnell Ranges. The region where Alice Springs is located is known as Central Australia, or the Red Centre, and is an arid environment consisting of several different deserts. In Alice Springs, temperatures can vary by up to 28 °C (50 °F) and rainfall can vary quite dramatically from year to year. In summer, the average maximum temperature is 36.6 °C (97.9 °F), whereas in winter the average minimum temperature can be 7.5 °C (45.5 °F).

That is the Wikipedia explanation of Alice Springs. Now, I am going to write this post about what I have learnt of "the real" Alice Springs, Central Northern Territory and the suffering of our Aboriginal people.

Before I write what I am going to write, its very important for all of my readers to know that -it has been tried and tested - there is not racist bone in my body. I believe in justice, fairness and equity for all. I have always been extremely interested and sympathetic to my country's causes, particularly the suffering of our Aboriginals at the hands of our earlier Federal Governments (including the suffering of the Stolen Generation). I have also paid particular attention, as a lawyer and as a believer of human rights for all, to such initiatives that the Federal Government has attempted to implement in the past, most recently being the Northern Territory Intervention, or the Northern Territory National Emergency Response (in 2007).

  1. So first things first, I am writing this as an Aboriginal sympathiser, not as an Aboriginal criticiser. Secondly, I am writing this using (1) my own observations; (2) information that I have read online during the quiet times of my journey about the Intervention; and (3) third parties - "White, Anglo-Saxon or European" people who have shared their insight into living their daily lives side by side with our Aboriginal people (who I will call "locals" for the sake of ease and clarity). Please do not take this "locals" as a racist statement - "white locals" does not mean that the Aboriginal people are "black locals" - I refuse to call Aboriginal people in this post "black" because I believe that is a derogatory term).

  2. You will notice that I will not speak of our Aboriginal people as our "indigenous people" because I have been told by locals that the word has been incorrectly used. They are not "indigenous people". The word "indigenous people" started being used by the Federal Government to incorporate Torres Strait Islanders (cultures that exist on the islands between Indonesia and Australia), because as one local said, the Torres Strait Islanders refuse to be called Aboriginals - and Aboriginals do not like to be referred to as "indigenous". I found that quite interesting, given that we so often call our Aboriginals as our "indigenous people".

  3. I am of the generation in which we saw a Federal Government in 2008 agree to say "Sorry" for the Stolen Generation, and past abuses of Aboriginals. This was a significant act by the Federal Government to recognise these past wrongs. Prior to that, I was also a law student who had the benefit of learning about the decision of Mabo, which recognised pre-existing land rights of Aboriginals before Australia was "settled" by the Anglo Saxons in 1788. Therefore, if you add up these two significant recognitions by our Federal Government in the past two decades, you can understand why I was told by a local that (1) the Aboriginals are considerably hostile towards the Northern Territory locals and the Federal Government for past abuses; and (2) the Aboriginals are considerably hostile towards the Northern Territory locals and the Federal Government for "stealing their land" and hostile towards tourists for "being on their land" (nb: these statements were statements made by a third party who I spoke with about the issue - I have not received any verbal abuse from an Aboriginal whilst in Alice Springs).

  4. Now, when speaking with a local when traveling around Uluru, he painted an incredibly dire picture of the Aboriginal communities surrounding Yulara (the town closest to Uluru) and Alice Springs. Rampant alcoholism, child abuse, third world conditions, piles of rubbish lying around, severe malnurishment of children, lack of education, violence....the list goes on.

  5. I was given the example of the condition of the camps around Uluru, including Mutitjulu. In 26 October 1985, the Australian Government returned ownership of Uluru to the local Pitjantjatjara Aborigines, with one of the conditions being that the AŠĻČangu would lease it back to the National Parks and Wildlife agency for 99 years and that it would be jointly managed. As part of the deal, the Aboriginal communities get a % of the total entrance fees to the National Park. One particular local, a tour guide in the area for over seven years, said "this percentage of money is handed back out to the community PER PERSON in the camp, no matter what age. This means that there is an incentive for the Aboriginal communities to have more children. So the camps are filling up with more and more children because it means more park fees per family."

  6. There is an interesting article which I have found about the furore about the fees and charges that tourists have to pay and the controversy that exists with the money people have to pay to go and enter the National Park. It is questionable where the money goes, but it is a fact (signs say so) that a percentage of they money goes to the Mutitjulu people here (read the comments - very interesting).

  7. The same local tour guide said "I used to drive the Aboriginal kids to the primary school. I used to drive into the camps and drive them out to the school. The conditions they live in are third world conditions. They live in federally built homes and often, within six months, that house will be destroyed so the family needs to be relocated again - for free and with no penalty for the damage caused - into a new federally funded house built."

  8. He said "They can't work, because of the discrimination against them, so they all receive the Federal Government pension and they can send their kids to school for free because the Federal Government have built and are paying for the local school - which is open to both locals and Aboriginals. Once the children reach a certain age, they are allowed to attend the college, which is for Aboriginals only. The locals have to send their children away to boarding school if they want them further educated past the age of around 12. If the Aboriginal family can get their elder child to go to school, the family gets paid up to $65 for that child to stay over at the "boarding school" between Monday to Friday - clearly an incentive to shift the kids off the school and not be responsible for them". He says, "when I pick them up, they are full of lice, are wearing dirty underwear and ripped clothes and when they get to the Federal Government school, they clean them up and given them new clothes, only to return them back on Friday afternoons to the community. Once the children reach 18, they are left to their own devices." The local tour guide said that when he drove the buses to the school, he used to have knock on the doors of each home and coax the children out, but there were often many excuses as to why they were not going to school that day. He said that as a result, the standard of schooling at the college (for children aged 12 - 18) was the equivalent of that of children aged 6 - 12. Inconsistent schooling.

  9. Here is when he gets quite hard - and I do remind everyone that it is entirely verbatim - its not fact, its not proven, its just one man's view of the situation. He says "with the children at school, and the mothers and fathers not needing to be responsible for the care of their children (except for those under 4), the adult Aboriginals have nothing else to do - so the pension money, park fees, education incentives and other hand outs get spent on alcohol and junk food". He speaks of the local IGA, and the stories he hears from the counter sellers, above some of the local women who have to remind the adult Aboriginals that they cannot feed their children properly by giving them Coca Cola, lollies, and chips. The local spoke of the patch of grass 1km out of the Aboriginal Camp, being the "greenest patch of grass in the entire Northern Territory". Confused, I was, given that Central Australia is arid land. He waited and then reminded me that our local beer, called "VB" is purchased in large green boxes. The babies that are not at school age, are often left to their own devices as mum and dad drink themselves into a stupor.

  10. Part of the NT Intervention stated that they would "removal customary law and cultural practice considerations from bail applications and sentencing within criminal proceedings". In other words, they would revert to "local" laws when dealing with juveniles and adult Aboriginal offenders. However interestingly enough, the local stated that "no Aboriginal under 18 ever gets charged here in the Northern Territory". I, quite surprised, told him that there was no possible way that a law could be enacted to stop the charging and prosecution of Aboriginals under the age of 18. Sure, in 2000, the United Nations slammed Australia's mandatory detention of Aboriginals under 18 and that practice was abolished in 2001 by the Northern Territory Government but that did not mean NO child (whether local or Aboriginal) became free from prosecution. His response? "The police just don't do it." He speaks of stories of adults aged 18 - 20 years stealing cars, and "then handing the keys to a 14 year old in order to avoid prosecution."

  11. Locals, both this tour guide, and a few other locals with which I have had discussions whilst up here, have said the same thing. The Aboriginals in the areas surrounding Alice Springs and in Alice Springs itself are in dire straits. To much extent, the Federal Government is doing its best to provide services to the Aboriginals to try and improve their living conditions, assist the Aboriginals to retain their culture and not succumb to "white local" temptations such as alcohol, and increase the mortality rate.
Sadly, from what I hear (above) from the locals and from what I am seeing with my very own eyes, the Northern Territory Government is failing badly at assisting the Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory. However, I then turn my mind to whether the Federal Government are in fact enabling them, through providing them so much in the way of financial assistance, so that they can go and spend so much money on alcohol?

They have tried to limit the financial assistance by providing their pension by making it in part vouchers but there is no education provided to the mothers and fathers about nutrition so that the younger generation to grow up healthy and strong. They have also allegedly tried "bush orders", that is, limiting their pensions and then bringing the food into the camps. However, there have been complaints by one website that states the food is often spoiled by then time it gets there because of the distance it travels.

This website (though it appears incredibly left wing) also states that the NT Intervention has failed because:
  • Ninety nine per cent of all Aboriginal communities in the NT still have no substance abuse service and 99 per cent have no dental service;

  • Only 54 per cent have state funded primary care services and 47 per cent have an Aboriginal primary health care service more than 50km away.

  • The Australian Medical Association has estimated that $700 million is needed to bring up to minimum standard the basic infrastructure needed to maintain health, such as water and sewage.
  • The government has funded only 20 child protection workers to cover the whole Territory, and currently only 1 is actually employed.
The locals say that the Northern Territory Intervention was supposed to turn outer Aboriginal communities into "dry communities" but that hasnt stop Aboriginals from coming INTO Alice Springs after each fortnight's Federal Government Pension Day to "binge" on masses of alcohol before returning back to their camps for a week or so. You can, sadly, see it when you are in Alice Springs.

My own observations show:
  • that there are countless groups of Aboriginals huddled in groups in the Todd River (the main river in town, which is dry) drinking from cases of VB. So, there's alcohol being served in large quantities in the town of Alice Springs.

  • that there are large groups of Aboriginals, both male and female, that linger around the liquor stores of Alice Springs, and there are numerous security guards that man the doors in case there is "trouble".

  • I had to hand over my drivers licence to be scanned into a register when I purchased 6 bottles of lite beer in order for the Liquor Store to see whether I had any court order against me. If I was registered as having a court order against me, it would be reported back to the court. I would then be refused alcohol. This is why they have security guards. It would it then not be easy to just ask a friend to buy on my behalf, given that the court order is registered only against me, right? And what would be my punishment? I expect, given the comments made by locals, that there would be little punishment for breach of order, as I expect the detention of any Aboriginal for summary offences are frowned upon.

  • I was warned when I went to Alice Springs that I was not to leave the hostel at night on my own or even in groups because of the danger that is presented.
The only real evidence of any action that I have seen in Alice Springs (and a few outer communities) to stop the masses of alcohol that is being drunk in this town are designated areas, through signage, that states alcohol cannot be consumed in a certain area.

How does that improve the conditions of our Aboriginal people in general? Do we really have control over the poor conditions that allegedly exist in the outer camps? My answer is no. And this is a sad, sad lesson to have learnt as I travel around my own country.

What is the answer to this? The Federal Government doesnt have the answer, clearly. I'd be interested to know what role the elders of the Aboriginal people have to say about this...


  1. You have given a completely unbiased opinion of the situation at least in Alice. The more people try to help- the more help they need. There isnt an answer to your questions Kate. some people need to help themselves and make an effort for their own families, but this is not a new problem. The Fed Govt can not be blamed as they are trying with so much money and advice but its just not working. Good piece. Ma xxx

  2. 1-4 : yep
    5 : nonsense
    6 : if people don't want to pay a visitor's fee to the land owners, they don't have to visit.
    7 : typical blame-the-victim reaction. Housing stock is VASTLY inadequate. if houses suffer accelerated decrepitude because there's 20 people instead of 5 living in one home, who deserves to be penalised?
    8 : that'd be about right. not sure where this leads you, but to me this describes evidence of the vast discrepancy in education service provision, and the imperative for mainstream services to accommodate traditional responsibilities and practices
    9 : probably all true. this is a real problem, but also evidence of a bigger problem (deliberate disempowerment and defunding)
    10 : horsefeathers
    11 : if this is honestly the best the feds can do (halve welfare, compulsorily acquire land and actually reduce funding of remote communities like mutitjulu) then they should be sacked. why do we set this appalling standard of action, let alone outcome, in aboriginal affairs?

    comments : I really must strongly disagree with the suggestion that 'the more people try to help, the more help they need'. that's just a petty excuse for ignoring a national challenge - and a national shame. Sorry, Ma, the Fed Govt are grossly underfunding remote territory communties, and recent policies at both NT and fed levels have deliberately defunded the majority of outstations and communities.

    enjoy the rest of your ride, kate.

  3. Sorry Larry. I have conflicting views on your post. I am not unsympathetic to the plight of our original Australians. I wish I could make everything right for them. Im holding out for the next generation of kids who are getting an education, there are many of those, but we dont hear about that. They are the future of their race. The teachers, Nurses and Doctors who will come through in the next few years, the Social Workers, the newly elected Politicians State and Fed. These people are the ones who live and work hard and hopefully they will take back what they learn. These people are primarily Nomads and have great difficulty living the way we do, but the money, huge amounts does help.I noticed your phrase "Horsefeathers" one which I havent heard used in years, you may be of my vintage, so you must have seen things ever so slowly improving, medical, social, education. It isnt the best but it is there, but getting the parents to care that the kids go to school, or get dental and medical care is a big problem, which may improve, but it gets me to the point where I say, you have to help yourself to a certain point and not sit and watch the kids turn out the way their families have, they deserve a fair go to. Kate went to Alice Springs with the opinion that the Aboriginies needed all the help they could get and she had the same opinion you have. She recieved a big shock when she saw the way things are. A lot different to a sympathetic city girl. She has done huge work for the needy, but this has changed her. Thanks for your comments Ma.