Mparntwe Alice Springs, what’s the real emergency?
Written by: Lindy Nolan on 22 February 2023
Above: Mparntwe Photo source: Bob Caddell Creative Commons Flickr
When Arrernte, Luritja, Warlpiri, Pitjantjatjara and the other Peoples of Mparntwe hear the word “emergency”, they know they’re the ones branded with it.
Earlier this month the overwhelmingly non-Indigenous residents at a 3000 strong Alice Springs’ protest meeting called for just that – emergency action, more police and a reimposition of the NT Intervention. It was in Arrernte country, but Arrernte did not feel welcome.
In 2014, now deceased Anmatyerre Elder Rosalie Kunoth Monks told Australia, “I am not the problem!” Then, quietly speaking one of her three languages, she showed her Peoples’ strength, beauty, Law and culture.
Now an article in The Saturday Paper, originally titled Children of the Intervention, Gurnaikurnai Wotjobaluk journalist Ben Abbatangelo gives voice to those central desert Peoples who have yet again been blamed.
He writes, “Analysed through the all-too-familiar prism of difference and otherness, this desert town has been depicted as a war zone and its people as alien-like problems that need to be solved. … Those who know the least have been provided with megaphones to say the most, which is why fiction continues to pass as fact and facts as fables.
Of the so-called out-of-control young people, Abbatangelo says, “Dispossession and displacement lives within each of these kids. Most adolescents at the centre of the firestorm are also the grandchildren of the Stolen Generations and the great-grandchildren of those who were herded onto missions or massacred,”
Aranda woman and Ntaria/Hermannsburg community organiser Que Nakamarra Kenny told him, “What’s clear is that no one cares more about Aboriginal people than Aboriginal people themselves. We’re at the tail end of the Northern Territory Intervention and these children are a product of that. They are the children of the Intervention who have grown up watching their parents be demonised and rejected.”
Abbotangelo then reports on a 300-strong meeting of First Peoples’ leaders from across the region. It’s a must read.
The Intervention has been an increasing disaster for 16 years.
Its aim was to force First Peoples off homelands, sometimes called outstations, and into towns, ensuring land was free for mining and drilling. Now we see the results in Mparntwe Alice Springs.
All research shows homelands are healthy for kids. Before the “Emergency” Intervention many young people were immersed in language. Law showed them who they were and where they stood. They helped create their own healthy diets with fresh bush foods. Homelands were often alcohol free. Towns were usually the opposite.
Overnight, homelands were starved of funding.
All the evidence shows that alongside land, language is the heart of culture and education. Yolngu Law Man (and now NT parliamentarian) Yingiya Mark Guyula has been outspoken against the ‘Four Hours English Only’ program imposed on teachers and children each morning, destroying strong bilingual programs. It’s a crime against both young and old.
And into towns
BasicsCards controlled how welfare payments were spent. The cards were forced on First Peoples, based only on where they lived.
In The Intervention, an Anthology (edited Heiss and Scott), Djiniyini Gondarra says the Arnhem Land Progress Association, had successfully run not for profit stores for 40 years, with 300 local people employed. But Centrelink banned BasicsCards use in the stores.
Post Intervention, shopping in Mgarparu, for example, meant chartering a $560 return flight to Elcho Island, rather than a walk to its award-winning store.
People, including young people poured into towns like Alice, causing chronic overcrowding, severing links to country. Lands were emptied of youth.
Gurindji worker Peter Inverway said of the cards, “It's like in the old days, before our walk-off, when the station workers were just paid in rations.”
BasicsCards – for 20,000 First Peoples only – weren’t abolished when the Intervention ended.
Where’s the money?
In 2007, Aboriginal run community organisations and councils were replaced by white run shire councils. Employment disappeared, replaced by CDP slave labour. People went hungry. Contractors accidentally cut off one community’s water supply for many weeks.
Police stations took $100 million of the construction budget. No one knows what happened to the $672 million for housing.
John Pilger revealed that in 2012 Olga Havnen, NT Co-ordinator-General of Remote Services, “was sacked when she revealed that almost $80m was spent on the surveillance and removal of Aboriginal children compared with only $500,000 on supporting the same impoverished families.”
And on it goes.
Labor’s ten-year extension of the Intervention was cynically called ‘Stronger Futures’.
Alice Springs Mayor Matt Patterson, the non-Indigenous meeting’s key spokesperson, welcomed the current NT and federal governments’ work to reintroduce the Stronger Futures laws especially in town camps.
Despite many extra police in town, he said he wanted more.
But how many of the non-Indigenous population at the meeting had protested against humiliating apartheid BasicsCard lines outside supermarkets? Had any worked to support justice reinvestment or argued against ten-year olds being jailed? Had they put their hands in their pockets to assist families supported by the Strong Grandmothers of the Central Desert night patrol before its suspension? Or many other things they could have done to assist First Peoples? Perhaps some had. Or were those emergencies okay?
Or what about Media Watch host Paul Barry, who said he’d watched the video of the whole meeting, that everything was fine, and reprimanded First Peoples’ ABC journalist Carly Williams for not giving so-called balance? Williams dared to give air time to the small number who walked out. A non-Indigenous friend in her 80s, mostly spent in Mparntwe, didn’t go to the meeting, because she knew it would distress her. But Barry knows better, eh?
What brings any young person to recklessly risk themselves and others? Are they or their families the problem, yet again?
Who benefits most?
Who wouldn’t be angry with whitefellas who’ve ignored the catastrophe imposed on them by the Intervention, making money from “services” to communities that those communities used to provide themselves? Or worse, growing relatively wealthy working for pastoral, mining or fracking industries on First Peoples’ lands.
Despite appearances, racism is only part of the cause for the suffering of the First Peoples for whom Mpartnwe is home.
Racism is a ruling class weapon to divide and conquer. It’s the opposite to First Peoples’ millennia of community.
Who benefits most? It’s corporations that seamlessly inherited the colonialist legacy.
Often the corporate hands behind the attacks on First Peoples are hidden. Sometimes, like in Alice Springs now, they foster underlying racial superiority myths to protect mega profits. Some like WA’s Twiggy Forrest say all Aboriginal Peoples need are jobs, not land. Other monopoly capitalist leaders instead welcome selected Blackfellas into their lower ranks through the Business Council’s Supply Nation project.
Whatever the approach, the aim is to suppress and divide First Peoples.
Allies and enemies
Before the Intervention, through their own ceaseless struggle and determination to survive and thrive, First Peoples managed to gain some control of their own lands and lives. They were supported by allies across the lands alerted to the shocking conditions they’d lived under.
Commenting on the current situation, Human Rights Commissioner, Bunuba woman June Oscar said, “Arrernte people, Warlpiri people and peoples from across the Northern Territory have fought tirelessly for decades through their community-controlled organisations for a sustained long-term holistic approach to investing in communities, culture, services and infrastructure.”
That’s the immediate way forward. Collective empowerment not imprisonment.
First Peoples are not the problem. Colonialism was. Now the problem is monopoly capitalism.
First Peoples will continue to stand up to those ignorant individuals and groups who blame them.
But they will also create many allies, because beneath the surface our biggest enemies are the same.
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