Racism and resistance in Mparntwe (Alice Springs)
Racism and resistance in Mparntwe (Alice Springs))

I really shouldn’t have been surprised. A mainly white town, surrounded by townships where Black people live in rundown housing, with grossly inadequate services and infrastructure. It could be the former apartheid regime in South Africa. Or Alice Springs today.

But still, it was a shock to learn on my recent visit that, in one of the richest countries in the world, traditional owners of Mparntwe—the Arrernte word for the place—are living in corrugated iron shacks. Let me say that again. Just three kilometres from the lush green watered lawns and air-conditioned shopping malls of Alice Springs, a community of Aboriginal people in the town camp of Irrkerlantye, also known as White Gate, are housed in unlined tin shacks with no access to the town’s water, electricity or sewerage systems.

The story of White Gate has been reported often enough—by NITV News last year and by the Adelaide Advertiser last week. It should be a national scandal. White Gate’s connection to town water was cut off in 2014. At that time the Northern Territory’s community services minister, Bess Price, referred to the residents (including traditional owners) as “squatters”: no government support of any kind would be provided to this small community of up to 70 people.

Contests over land and the conditions of life in Alice Springs/Mparntwe have long had a national significance. Price’s attack on White Gate blazed a trail soon to be followed by Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2015. Abbott sparked national protests when he declared that remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia were “unsustainable”, representing “lifestyle choices”—rather than a lifeline to country and culture—and announced that they would be denied government support of any kind.

Events in Alice Springs have been at the centre of a national storm this year. Over the course of a week in February, I have meetings, catch-ups, and random encounters—interspersed with a crash course of reading on the history and present of the contested ground of Mparntwe.

I’m far from an expert. But it’s clear that behind the hype of a right-wing law-and-order campaign, and behind the reality (according to the NT Police) of dozens of young Aboriginal people being drawn into a high-profile cycle of damage, anti-social behaviour and criminalisation, a profound social crisis is gripping many Indigenous communities—perhaps especially the remote communities. The scenes that have been flashed on TV screens and social media over the past weeks are just a small glimpse of this much bigger crisis.

The social crisis is the deliberate product of government policy. In particular, it’s the product of the Intervention. The Northern Territory Emergency Response was launched in July 2007 by the federal government led by John Howard, amid a law-and-order campaign based on false accusations of child abuse in remote communities. Key rights won by Aboriginal people—to land, income support and local decision-making—were abolished. After Labor won the election in late 2007, the new government rebranded the Intervention as “Stronger Futures” and extended it until 2022.

Barbara Shaw is a youth worker, a lifelong Aboriginal activist and community organiser who was one of the most prominent campaigners against the Intervention. We sit chatting outside her house in Mount Nancy town camp, on the northern outskirts of Alice Springs, as kids and family come and go. They’ve kept away from the trouble in town, and Barbara is keen to ensure it stays that way.

As we turned into the town camp, Barbara points out a blue and white sign dating from fifteen years ago, banning alcohol and pornography. The stigmatising Intervention-era sign is still prominent, and obscures other signs about community programs, including women’s safety.

I ask Barbara to rank the biggest problems facing Aboriginal people in Alice Springs. “Housing”, she says, straightaway. “Jobs and training. Then services.” Alcohol might be number four: “alcohol sits over all these other problems”.

In my few days in town, pretty much every Aboriginal person I talk with expresses some version of this priority list. Some, like Tangentyere Council—the organisation of town camp residents—oppose the alcohol bans, others don’t. But everyone I talk with is categorical that alcohol is far from the start and finish of the problems, and is scathing about the media focus on the supposed “alcohol-fuelled crime wave”. Everyone agrees that the problems go much deeper.

Living conditions in most of the town camps around Mparntwe are not as bad as at White Gate. But there is a vast gulf between conditions in the town camps and those provided for most residents of Alice Springs. Residents in town camps have no parks or playgrounds and few if any activities for children and young people. Roads and lighting are inadequate. Air-conditioning is unreliable, and modern necessities like wi-fi are non-existent.

There is extreme overcrowding. Official figures show an average of seven or eight people in every occupied house in the town camps. Several communities average thirteen. This is probably an underestimate: visitors from remote communities who come into Mparntwe for a variety of reason—to visit relatives, for medical treatment, for legal proceedings or for work—generally stay in one of the town camps.

The residents of the town camps have a proud history of self-organisation stretching back to the 1970s, but the Intervention stripped them of the limited local control they had won from that time. The town camps were founded in the face of opposition from the local establishment in Alice Springs, which wanted Aboriginal people pushed as far as possible out of town—a pressure that continues to this day, as journalist Chris Graham has described.

The living conditions shine a light on why everything in Alice Springs is not sweetness and light. Yet many of the people I talk with say that many of the young people roaming the streets of Alice Springs don’t live locally— they come from remote communities where the levels of poverty and social crisis are even higher.

Que Nakamarra Kenny is an Arrernte woman from Ntaria, also known as Hermannsburg, a community of around 800 people 120km to the west. She now lives in Titjikala, a smaller community to the south. I ask her about conditions in the remote communities now and in the past.

“Throughout the period of the Intervention, Aboriginal people were demonised in the Northern Territory and central Australia purely based on lies”, she says. “The Intervention has expanded into a very problematic era, and the damage is done. Even though there is more housing that has been built, people are still living with overcrowding. These houses look like they’re detention homes. There’s no proper kitchen cabinets; it’s all stainless steel.”

In March 2019, the federal and Territory governments committed to building 650 new houses in remote communities. Nearly three years later, less than a quarter have been built.

I ask Que about the abolition of the CDEP, the Community Development Employment Project. This had provided part-time work for up to 36,000 people, mainly Indigenous, living in remote communities throughout Australia. Many people on the CDEP in the early 2000s could earn more money than the dole. And CDEP projects were decided at a local level, potentially allowing a large degree of collective local decision-making. John Howard announced the scrapping of the scheme in 2007; Kevin Rudd’s Labor government completed the demolition in 2009 under cover of a CDEP “reform” project. Que Kenny is scathing:

“We’re living under a system which is basically to disfunction Indigenous people and make them vulnerable. That’s the aim of the government. The CDEP actually worked for remote communities. People were actually going to work. People were actually being paid for the job that they were doing. People in remote communities were being successful. Some councils, remote community councils, were being very, very successful. There have been a lot of positive outcomes in that time ...

“In my opinion, something had to be done, and they’ve done a good job of it by destroying us. And you have now brought us destruction. And I wouldn’t say no hope, because I’d say we do have hope to climb back up and pick up the pieces and put them all back together and work ourselves. But we can’t do that if we have a government which is purely control freak—which opposes the empowerment of Indigenous communities.”

The Intervention officially ended with the lapsing of Labor’s “Stronger Futures” legislation last June. However, the CDEP or anything like it hasn’t been reinstated. The result for at least some communities is permanent economic crisis, leading to enormous difficulties in maintaining their connection to country.

There are new crises. The surge in inflation is hitting the poorest and most remote communities the hardest. New electricity prepayment meters leave many families with no electricity on the hottest days. Schools in remote communities are routinely funded for less than half of their enrolled students, sabotaging efforts to build attendance.

On top of all this, NT Housing is dramatically increasing rents on public housing in remote communities. Disability pensioner Teresa Timber, a resident of the remote community of Belyuen, west of Darwin, told the ABC in August that her rent was being hiked from $78 to $560 per fortnight. “If all my money’s going to go out of my rent through Centrelink, to Territory Housing, I’m going to be left with maybe $200”, she said. “So we could have either food on the table or power in the house.”

It’s not like the solutions to the extreme poverty and social disadvantage are a mystery. Aboriginal people have been working on them for years, and are vocal about their need for backing, rather than punitive approaches like the Intervention.

Cherisse Buzzacott is an Arrernte woman and the Head of Health at Children’s Ground. Describing Children’s Ground as an organisation led by First Nations and especially Arrernte people, focused on early childhood education and community development, is accurate but sounds a little dry. Their reports bring the organisation’s work to life. A mainly non-verbal young girl is part of a group trip learning about birds and their country, and suddenly finds things she wants to talk about. A community just getting involved with Children’s Ground holds its first community meeting.

The programs are extraordinarily effective. A report in late 2021 found that, among families engaged with Children’s Ground, 82 percent of children are in formal learning—up from just 14 percent in 2018—and the majority are learning in their first language. Nine in ten families who participated in the program said that their children’s physical and mental wellbeing improved.

These small, concrete and significant steps are part of a much bigger project. They have to be, given the serious, interlocking challenges that keep Aboriginal people in extreme poverty. The holistic approach is crucial—“There’s no point trying to fix this part of your life while this other part of your life is burning”, Cherisse says—but it causes funding agencies to scratch their heads.

“We don’t fit into any existing silo: ‘If you’re housing you need to stick to housing, if you’re education you need to stick to education’. We don’t have that in our mindset. We’re all about changing the whole of the system.”

These projects can be scaled up, but so far very little government funding has been forthcoming. I ask Cherisse about the connection between the work of Children’s Ground and the current controversy swirling around Mparntwe.

“Everything we’re seeing as an issue is something that we’ve been talking about for a long time”, she says. “We’ve been seeing it growing since the start of the NT Intervention.” The Intervention involved “pushing people from outside communities into town, but they’re pushing us out of the centre. So, effectively, there’s nowhere for Aboriginal people to belong ... We’ve known there was going to be a problem. It’s kind of too little too late. Things are right at the end now where things have gone really crap.”

Cherisse is pleased that Children’s Ground has been able to share the work that they are doing, with both the public and government officials. “I feel like we’re finally being heard”, she says.

It’s no small feat to win extra support for desperately needed programs. But there are obvious doubts about how far and how fast governments might move to address the problems. Children’s Ground CEO William Tilmouth recently told ABC program The Drum that the new money recently announced by the federal government—$250 million over four years—is “a pittance”. Que Kenny has described it as “inadequate”. Domestic violence researcher Chay Brown said it was a “drop in the ocean”.

I ask Cherisse to comment on my view: that maybe the last thing any Australian government really wants is thriving Aboriginal communities with a strong connection to country—perhaps this might get in the way of mining, or some other development?

“Keeping us down and in a state of constant poverty and oppression is benefiting someone”, she responds. “So it’s benefiting people higher up for us not to self-determine and not to make our own decisions.”

Of course, exactly how the current crisis will unfold is still unclear. Public advocacy, activism and political organising can play a crucial role in the outcome of any crisis. And there is a bunch of all those things happening in and around Mparntwe right now.

On my first full day in town, I sit down with Declan Furber Gillick and Kumalie Kngwarraye (Rosalie Riley). They’re both Arrernte people, and both are part of a long tradition of political activism and community organising. Kumalie was part of the movement in the 1970s and 1980s that pioneered bilingual education in the schools in and around Alice Springs—a struggle that continues right up to today. She is one of the Strong Grandmothers Group, who for years have walked the streets of Alice Springs engaging with young people. Kumalie is critical of the idea that the police are any sort of solution. Quite the contrary:

“That’s where it starts, with the cops. The kids can’t stand around like every other group of kids ... they get told, ‘What are you doing here?’ and blah blah blah. That’s where it starts because these things are instigated by the cops. Pissing them off all the time, moving them on all the time ... Kids have got a right to gather around in the mall just like other kids.”

She is equally critical of the media narrative of “alcohol-fuelled violence”:

“Alcohol is not the problem, it’s the system that fails us—to educate us and empower us and give us self-determination ... It’s like being in a pressure cooker. And the pressure comes out and bang, it’s like a volcano, and the wider community don’t know how to control it. They fail to include us to sort out this problem.”

Declan Furber Gillick is the son of Arrernte man and veteran Stolen Generations campaigner H. Furber. He explains that the immediate spark for the organising project he’s involved in with Kumalie and others was the enormous “town meeting” a week before I arrived in Alice Springs. A crowd of up to 3,000 had filled the Convention Centre. But the focus was solely on the immediate manifestations of the crisis. The fact that a lot of Aboriginal people had been in crisis for years didn’t rate a mention. Declan explains:

“People who went to that meeting, a lot of them were very concerned—rightly concerned, including myself—about the state the town is in ... It’s not a lie to say that young people are very disillusioned, and that young people are running amok on the street ... It’s not a lie to say that the town is in a heightened state again ...

“There were so many really good-hearted liberal-left or centrist people who just wanted some answers, and the answers that they got weren’t good answers, and the answers that were offered gave that social licence for racists to be racist again. And that’s what was shocking, and that’s what necessitated immediate counter-organising.

“The morning after that meeting, or on Saturday morning, there was swastika graffiti in town, there was big swastika graffiti and heil Hitler graffiti in town and a friend called the council to go and get it covered up straightaway.

“[In the meeting] this guy had been delivering this oration which said nothing of, ‘How did we get here?’, which said nothing of, ‘Would anyone like to offer a counter narrative?’ [or] ‘Does anyone want to talk about why these kids have ended up in the way they are?’ It just centralised, ‘This is our town, it used to be different, it used to be better. The government’s not doing enough to protect our interests’.

“And then it went into some rhetoric around, ‘It was disgraceful that kids who’d been in prison had been compensated—that compensation should have gone to business owners’. And it just sort of ratcheted over and it became increasingly focused on the protection of private property and business owners and the capacity to make money in the town. And once we started getting there, you could feel those little pockets of the right within the crowd just amping up and amping up.”

Somewhere in here, local business owner and meeting coordinator Garth Thompson addressed the crowd:

“The one thing that every single one of us can do to highlight the issue of these kids in town, and the lack of welfare that they have: every single time you see a group of kids, whoever they are, during school time, ring the police—do a welfare check.”

It was at this point that Declan gave a short, high-volume, and brave two-word intervention: “Fuck off!”

This intervention was, to put it mildly, not universally popular, but it was important. It meant media stories of the meeting included critical voices. At least as important, it sparked a discussion about organising and about what a real town meeting, which honestly addressed the problems and their sources, might look like. It’s not easy work, as Declan explains:

“To be able to generate a collective Aboriginal or even a collective Arrernte narrative and to set up demands and to say, ‘Here’s what we want and here’s how we propose to do it’—we’ve got a lot of work to do, like the left everywhere, to build alliances and have hard conversations between ourselves ... Getting a bunch of blackfellas from different organisations and different families in a room to nut this stuff out is hard work, it’s really hard work.”

The hard work has got things moving, though. Ten days after the Convention Centre meeting, a broad-based meeting of 300 Aboriginal people from Mparntwe and surrounding communities met in the Desert Knowledge Centre south of town. It’s been many years since any such meeting involving people from a variety of organisations and communities.

It’s not clear where things go from here. Effective organising is seldom easy. Add entrenched poverty, big distances and the legacy of the Intervention—carried out despite the vigorous opposition of a relatively high-profile protest movement—and the task just gets harder.

And some of the most powerful economic interests in the country get a clear benefit from weakening Indigenous communities and their connection to their land. Several amendments to the Northern Territory Land Rights Act (in 1987, 2006, 2015 and 2021) have weakened perpetual Aboriginal title and strengthened the hand of (for instance) mining companies wanting to open Aboriginal land for exploitation. Keeping these communities in crisis has the same effect.

The rights and services that the Intervention attacked were won in the struggles of the 1970s surge in radical politics across the country and around the world, which strengthened potential solidarity partners for every struggle. Though there’s widespread revulsion at the excesses of capitalism today, we have nothing like the same political situation.

Still, I find it impossible not to be inspired by Cherisse Buzzacott and Children’s Ground, organising for hope and dignity and a future in an area where it must be all too easy to lose hope. By Kumalie Kngwarraye and her continuing lifelong organising; by Declan Furber Gillick and his well-timed two-word intervention and dedicated follow-up organising; by Barbara Shaw and her fellow town campers, keeping life and soul and some measure of collective organisation together; by Que Nakamarra Kenny, who led her first rally in the Intervention time and continues her advocacy and campaigning today.

I have no idea how much all these efforts can shift the dial, but every win for the First Nations people of Mparntwe is a win for the idea that people have a right to live in dignity, regardless of what our rulers decide is “sustainable”.

We live in a country where the federal government pours more than $9 billion per year into fossil fuel subsidies. Where both Labor and Liberal celebrate a nuclear submarine project that will cost maybe $200 billion. Where the super-rich double their wealth every few years.

And yet we’re being told that everything that works for ordinary people—decent wages, a health system that isn’t in crisis, justice for First Nations people—is “unsustainable”. Every bit of dignity, every bit of funding, every bit of security and hope that the people of Mparntwe can win in the face of their challenges is a win for all the rest of us as well. We all have a stake in this fight.

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