NT Intervention – the struggle continues after six years of racism and disempowerment

Barbara ShawBarbara Shaw at 2013 SNAICC Conference, Cairns

By Barbara Shaw, Mt Nancy Town Camp, Alice Springs, 22 June 2013

Six years ago my family watched the TV in my living room as John Howard announced he would be sending in the military and taking control of our communities.

I have never been more frightened in my life. I locked the gate of my town camp and kept the kids inside for two weeks for fear of them being taken. I worried constantly about my family out bush who didn’t understand what was coming.

They said the Intervention was about stopping children from being abused, that it was going to stop the drinking and domestic violence. But all I have seen is racism and disempowerment of our people. It’s the old assimilation policy back again, to control how we live. The government and many non-Aboriginal NGOs have taken over the assets and responsibilities of our organisations, both in the major town centres and remote communities forcing us to comply with their policies that take no account of Aboriginal culture and our obligations.

Take income management, which I have been on for five and a half years. I ran for parliament in 2010 and outpolled both Labor and Liberal candidates in Central Australian communities. I have represented my people at the United Nations. But the Government says I can’t manage my money. On their own estimations of $6000 to 8000 per person per year administrative cost for income management, the government has spent more than $30,000 dollars just to control my small income.

Barbara Shaw

This system has made it much harder for us to share and care for each other. I used to run an unofficial safe house here at Mt Nancy town camp. I’d get money off all the parents every week. If there was drinking and fighting and the kids needed somewhere to be, they knew they were safe here at “Big Mamma’s” house and that I could buy meals for them. No one has the cash to chuck in any more. The Government has refused to fund a community centre here on our town camp.

The town camps of Alice Springs have seen a massive influx of people coming in from remote communities. Taking away Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) and Aboriginal Community Government Councils out bush means people have nothing to do there. At the moment I have five families and four generations staying in my house, my little family and others from the bush, many trying to access services like respite care which should be available back in their home community. We are one family in each room and another in the lounge room. As always, I have given up my bed out of respect for older relatives.

Many who come into town to access the services just stay here, or others come in just to drink. I am witness on a daily basis to the increase in drinking and fighting on our camps that has come from this.

Bess Price - MLA Northern Territory representing
an extreme right wing political party.

It makes me sick in my stomach when I hear Aboriginal MLA Bess Price attack me in Parliament as an anti-Intervention activist who does not care about the suffering of women and children. I have to deal with these issues every day and I see them getting worse because of the policies she has supported. The massive influx of her own constituents from bush communities that have been robbed of jobs and assets is a major driving factor.

Bess Price promised on ABC radio after being elected to the Northern Territory Parliament last year that she would put back the Yuendumu community council. Where is that promise now? Her Country Liberal Government has made it clear they will not be bringing back the Councils. Her Government has cut funding for our youth programs, has cut funding for domestic violence workers in NT Hospitals. These are all things we have been campaigning for. The $1 billion that has been budgeted since the Intervention for the income management system Bess Price supports — but has never had to live under — could fund the support and services that we actually need to deal with these issues.

Many more police are employed now in Alice Springs, supposedly to deal with the social problems. But the relationship with Aboriginal people has seriously broken down. We live in fear of the police, always hearing stories about them bashing our relatives, or taking them 20km out of town so they have to walk back. We are scared what happened to Kwementyaye Briscoe, who died last year after being taken into “protective custody” by the police.

Extra Police in Northern Territory have 'special powers' for the 'special measures' that don't meet the UN descrimination guidelines

The Intervention gave police the power to enter our homes without a warrant to search for alcohol, along with “star-chamber” powers that treat us as terrorists. I have heard that this week in a case brought by Palm Island residents, the High Court ruled that alcohol laws which target Aboriginal people are “special measures” under the Racial Discrimination Act because they are for our own good.

Let me explain what this means for my life. Earlier this year there was a massive police raid here on my camp which they said was a “routine operation” to search for alcohol. There were paddy wagons, squad cars, four wheel drives, a surveillance van and police officers on dirt bikes circling every yard, going in to search every house.

I was shaking in my shoes. I had many children in the house who are already scared of police and I didn’t want them coming through. I was breaking the law that day. I had three cans left over from a six pack of beer in the house. I was worried I was going to be arrested and taken away with all these children in my house. I gave it to the police and asked them not to come through because of the children. But they said they had to. They walked through making comments like they were a landlord doing an inspection, “this is a nice house, not like those other ones”.

NT Police using torture on an Aboriginal man in custody (applying pen pressure on fingernails)
- he later died in their lockup.

So many more of our people are going to prison. There are twice as many people locked up now than before the Intervention and three times as many woman. Close relatives of mine — men, women and teenagers are all currently in prison. I’m giving support to my brother in law looking after a baby and young child while his wife is in prison.

The house I live in is just one year younger than me. My father fought for funding to build houses on our town camps. We used to manage them ourselves before we were forced to sign over our leases to the Commonwealth government. Now I am paying next to market rent to the NT Housing agency on a house I have lived in for much of my life.

We have so many problems with NT Housing. We used to get repairs and maintenance done through our Aboriginal council Tangentyere, but now we have to wait and wait for shoddy work from NT Housing. We used to be able to have people making trouble on our town camp dealt with straight away through Tangentyere. now we don’t have that power and can’t do anything about problem visitors.

I sit at my front door and see Public Housing Officers, toy coppers who just cruise around our camps watching for trouble and calling the police. It used to be our Night Patrol — our own people who would actually get out of the car, engage with us, try and solve problems where they could without police. Our Night Patrol is still active, but are being pushed aside out of their role.

This is a photo taken at NT Intervention in 2007

Living under Territory Housing rules and regulations is not culturally appropriate. For example, in Aboriginal society when somebody passes away, the family moves out of that house and another moves in. We swap houses. Or if a young fella comes out of ceremony camp, he has to stay in a house with other young men. We can’t take our own initiatives to make these changes any more. There is a real ignorance and a hostile mentality towards Aboriginal people within the NT Housing department.

I have fought the Intervention from day one. We built a massive amount of support from people and organisations right across Australia to try and stop the government from continuing the Intervention for another 10 years through the “Stronger Futures” laws. But they refused to listen to us.

I will keep fighting. Self determination is the key to getting us out of the social problems that we face today. It is the only way to do this. It is just disgusting how much money has been wasted on bureaucrats to control us, or on ineffective non-Aboriginal services that can not engage with our people.

Whether it’s in a remote community or here in a town camp — services must be delivered by our people. We must be given the power and resources to take control. We have the language, we have the communication, we can relate to one another. And there must be proper funding to our organisations, on a scale that can actually help lift us out of shocking living conditions. Not just peppercorn short term grants that set us up to fail.

I want to appeal to all the supporters I know are out there to keep fighting alongside me. Income management is not just in my backyard, now it’s coming to yours.