Posts tagged ‘Aboriginal issues’
The problem is the record is patchy, written by whites and with the most awkward bits left out. It doesn’t help that a sense of Bussamarai the man does not emerge from Collin’s book. What does emerge is that early Europeans were tolerated as adventurers but not as a permanent and disruptive presence. When explorers Mitchell and Leichhardt drifted into what Collins calls East Maranoa in the colony of NSW (the current Queensland local government region of Maranoa plus all of the Balonne shire north of St George), they were followed by a handful of whites determined to take advantage of the fertile lands suggested by Mitchell’s descriptions of “mount abundance” and a “champagne region”.
Mitchell and Leichhardt also described their meetings with “the blacks” so the settlers knew the land weren’t empty. But they were not occupied in a way the new settlers understood. So with a sense of entitlement allied to superior firepower, it gave carte blanche to mass murder as the competition for territory expanded. The white had brought with them “too many dreams and two many cows”.
After NSW surveyor-general Thomas Mitchell came to East Maranoa in 1846, he recounted his adventures in Sydney to William MacPherson, secretary to the NSW parliament and his son the grazier Allan. Mitchell gave Allan maps and encouraged him to set up a land claim there. Macpherson Junior would be the first farmer in the Roma region setting off with men and livestock from his headstation in the Gwydir in 1847.
Without an inspection of the land, MacPherson was taking a large leap of faith with Mount Abundance near Muckadilla some 200km from the nearest white settlement at Moonie. Mitchell and MacPherson weren’t the first whites in the area. Clarence River area squatter Finney Eldershaw described his search in 1842 for suitable land after he heard of “luxurious downs” in the region. But it wasn’t the Aboriginals that stopped Eldershaw, it was economic conditions. Australia was in depression and East Maranoa’s remoteness from white settlement made it a difficult financial prospect.
Five years later, conditions were improving. While MacPherson was setting off, another friend of Mitchell, Edmund Kennedy was back in the region to do more exploration. He was joined by Archer, Blyth and Chauvel who explored the region from the north. MacPherson started his run in October 1847 with 20 men working the property. While we know a lot about the early whites, the Aborigines are more inscrutable. The character of the warrior “Bussamarai” who gives his name to the book is particularly problematic.
Collins claims that a tribal leader called variously by different whites as old Billy, Eaglehawk, Possum Murray and Bussamarai was the one and the same person but the evidence is not always convincing. Collins said the elder who helped Mitchell find Muckadilla Creek and the Maranoa River was “probably” Bussamarai but offers no proof. All Mitchell said is that they were not covetous and asked for nothing. But by the time Kennedy got to the region, relations had gone downhill and he had to use “one or two shots in the air” to frighten 200 Aborigines away from his camp. As the decade went by the Mandandanji lands became untenable as more whites entered the East Maranoa motivated less by fame and discovery then by land acquisition.
MacPherson recorded the first cattle killing at Warroo station near Surat in late 1847. By December 1848 there was all out war between the blacks and the settlers affecting every station the area between the present day towns of Roma and Chinchilla. Station hands working for absentee landholders dispensed rough justice in retaliation for attacks on their livestock while authorities in faraway Sydney and even further London turned a blind eye.
Finally a new force gradually restored “order” by 1851. This was NSW’s northern division of the Native Police, who served the economic ends of the pastoralists. Pastoral superintendent Frederick Walker led a team of 20 Aborigines up from the Macintyre River district dispensing rough justice wherever they went. Walker was renowned for his good relations with Aborigines but he showed no mercy in East Maranoa.
Scanty evidence exists of the genocide that followed. Pastoralist Gideon Lang testified to an 1854 parliamentary select committee on the select police that he wanted them to protect his Darling River runs. But Lang also knew of the “wholesale and indiscriminate killing” and “cold blooded cruelty on the part of the whites quite unparalleled in the history of these colonies”. Walker’s men used “fair means or foul” to bring about a lopsided peace in East Maranoa. There were significant massacres at Yuleba Creek in March 1850 and Yamboucal station near Surat in May 1852.
In retaliation, Collins said Bussamarai united the Bigambul people and two or three other groups with the Mandandanji to try to to drive out the whites. They engaged in battles with the Native Police with inevitable conclusions. On November 1852 a Sergeant Skelton noted a skirmish at Ukabulla between the Aboriginals led by Bussamarai and armed troops in daylight. Two Aboriginals were “shot in the attempt to apprehend them,” Skelton said. “Likewise four more of the Blacks were shot before I could drive them to the station.” The East Maranoa front was “tamed” and the war and the atrocities moved on to other areas of Queensland.
The surviving Mandandanji settled into a life of fringe dwellers in their own territory. Many were forcibly removed to settlements at Taroom and later at Woorabinda and Cherbourg, scattering the memory of their sacred link to the land. The Goodbye to Bussamarai is not only to a warrior but to a way of life that had no chance against European civilisation.
It was a joyous day in Mitchell today. The Gunggari people, traditional owners of the land south and west of town celebrated a native victory yesterday with a march down the main street. “Who are we?” they chanted. “GUNGGARI” was the response. Loud and proud, they were celebrating the first native title determination on mainland Southern Queensland.
The marchers were happy a day after the Federal Court of Australia came all the way to Mitchell Shire Hall to make a consent determination. Justice John Reeves announced the decision immediately shaking hands with Gunggari elder Wayne Saunders as many people cheered and wept. The determination recognises native title rights and interests over 13,600 sq km of land and waters in central southern Queensland. The area is broken up into parcels, the two biggest of which are in the middle of a triangle between Mitchell (east) Charleville (west) and Bollon (south).
In these areas, the Gunggari People negotiated IndigenousLand Use Arrangements (ILUA) with three local councils (Maranoa, Balonne and Murweh) , electricity supplier Ergon, telecommunications provider Telstra and five pastoral properties. Once the ILUAs are formalised, the Gunggari Native Title Aboriginal Corporation will be the prescribed body corporate to manage the native title rights. Their rights are non-exclusive but allow Gunggari people access to, travel, camp, hunt, teach, light fires and use water in the areas affected. They can also hold religious ceremonies and spiritual activities on the land.
The rights are a long time coming. Queensland South Native Title Services principal legal officer Tim Wishart handed up the list of documents to Justice Reeves on which the claim was based. Wishart made powerful speech documenting the history of the Gunggari “from time beyond memory”. Wishart said the Gunggari land ran west from the Maranoa River and included the headwaters of the Nebine Creek, Mungallala Creek, Wallam Creek and Neabul Creek which together feed into the greater Murray-Darling basin. They fought to protect those lands “probably before English developed as a language,” Wishart said.
They were uninclined to let the European invaders have free run of the place after Sir Thomas Mitchell first explored the area in 1840. In 1855 an exasperated Crown Land Commissioner Wiseman wrote “No tribe will allow of the peaceable occupation of their country,” The whites fought back and with superior weaponry killed at least 75 Aboriginals along the Maranoa River up to 1862. In 1880, George Thorn (who served as Queensland premier two years earlier) boasted the inland Queensland Aboriginals were “pretty well shot down and got rid of”.
Thorn was wrong. The Gunggari and other tribes hung on tenaciously even after losing the war to the colonials. Monitored by the border and native police, They were tolerated as joint owners of the land until the twentieth century when the patriarchal attitudes of the new Commonwealth brought about the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of Sale of Opium Acts 1901. Under this act the camps that existed across the Maranoa were dismantled and hundreds of people were moved east and north into alien lands at government reserves and missions at Taroom, Purga, Barambah/Cherbourg, Palm Island and Woorabinda.
Most Gunggari ended up at Taroom settlement established in 1911. They stayed there until 1927 when the site was abandoned for a dam on the Dawson River. Though the dam never went ahead, they were marched north to a site near Rockhampton called Woorabinda. Here they were among 17 different language groups under the control of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals, an Orwellian title who was supposed to “protect them from acts of cruelty, oppression and injustice.” Instead they turned a blind eye at best, or ran at worst, schemes to rob Aboriginals of what little they had.
The few Gunggari that remained behind on country didn’t have it easy either. They mostly gravitated to Mitchell town and were housed on the Yumba (“camp”) on the eastern edge of town near the Maranoa River. At the Yumba, Gunggari elders spoke their language but repressive white attitudes discouraged them from passing on their knowledge to the next generation. They did pass on the cultural laws and customs and hunting traditions. Yumbas were often shantytowns and many towns such as Mitchell and Surat demolished theirs in the 1960s. The people moved into town and started meeting the whites in school when previously they would only ever meet on the rugby league or netball field.
The 1967 referendum, the Keating Redfern speech and Mabo and Wik decisions slowly changed attitudes both of the white and black communities. Robert Munns for the Gunggari People first filed a native title application in March 1996 and followed it through despite no legal representation for 11 years. The application was modified in 1998 to reduce the covered areas and the application was split into two parts in 2001. In 2007 Queensland South Native Title Services became the legal representative and they registered an ILUA with the Queensland Government in 2008 for the first part which saw parcels of land change hands in the Dunkeld area south of Mitchell. Friday’s decision was for the second half. Applicant Munns did not live to see it. He died in July 2009 and five others continued the application in their name.
In December 2010, the State of Queensland began substantive mediation. The applicant and respondents submitted their material to the Federal Court who announced their decision on Friday. As well as the many Gunggari who celebrated in Mitchell, others celebrated from afar such as Queensland State of Origin star Johnathan Thurston and Opera Australia baritone Don Bemrose. “I am very proud to say I am a member of the Gunggari community,” Thurston said.
“It is important that our history with this land, and our customs, have been observed in this way and I congratulate everyone who has fought for this recognition over the past 17 years – almost as long as I’ve been playing rugby league.” Bemrose, the first Aboriginal member of Opera Australia, said he was always proud and honoured to represent the Gunggari. “This moment is acknowledgement of our people’s continued bond with the Maranoa and the persistence, dedication and strength of a few to do all possible to again connect our land to all Gunggari past, present and future is amazing,” he said. As Wishart concluded in Court on Friday, the determination has confirmed what the Gunggari already knew: the land was theirs.
The camp proclaimed itself as a dry area and in the middle of the garden lay a giant fire circle with an Aboriginal flag and a sculpture of the word “sovereignty” all looking out across the lake. More than the tent, it was this “sacred fire” of sovereignty that gave the embassy an imposing air of permanence. The use of the word embassy gives it a stateliness that is contested by the Australian Government, but not to the point of seeking its removal. There was no sign of any cops about to shut down a long-standing “occupy movement”. Nor was there seemingly any movement there to disoccupy. There was no sign of life that morning though presumably there were people asleep inside the tents. It was all peaceful and remarkably normal.
The tent began in 1972 in frustration at the McMahon Coalition Government’s refusal to recognise land rights. Hopes were high for Aboriginal land rights after winning the 1967 referendum to be counted at the ballot box. But five years later it was clear the Coalition was not about to disturb powerful interests. All McMahon would agree to was “general purpose leases” which would not affect existing land or mining titles. Most of the land titles were granted under common law “terra nullius” which assumed nobody lived on the land before the British granted title. The mining titles took precedence because, as McMahon said, they were “in the national interest”.
One of the embassy founders, Gary Foley, said McMahon’s laws made Aborigines “aliens in their own land”. Like other aliens they needed an embassy which meant it had to be in Canberra. The notion of the ramshackle embassy as an “eyesore” has been central to its validity since the start. As John Newfong said in 1972: “If people think this is an eyesore, well it is the way it is on Government settlements.” Aboriginal policy was an eyesore that needed to stay in the public eye. Governments tried to remove the embassy by use of police force, invoking territory ordinances and planning guidelines, direct negotiation and simply turning a blind eye with the hope that the embassy would fizzle out. None worked. In tandem with another symbol invented the same year – the black, red and yellow flag – the black power activists’ tent reminded white Australia it was built on shaky foundations.
Ever since 1972, the embassy has only occasional impinged on wider conscience. Paul Kelly’s monumental The March of Patriots covered the Keating and Howard eras in great detail but made no mention of the embassy, even though the embassy became permanent just after the elevation of Keating as PM. Aboriginal affairs were a telling difference between Keating and Howard and deeply affected their tenure as prime ministers. Yet there were similarities too. Both men were affronted by the notion there was “another Australia” outside their jurisdiction though neither was foolish enough to raise in public the notion the “ambassadors” should be removed.
It was not politicians but judges who changed the law during Keating and Howard’s time. The Mabo and Wik judgements ended the fiction of terra nullius and helped forge a proper agreement over native title. 200 years of wrong could not be righted but some compensation was needed. Keating offered an apology in his 1994 Redfern speech but was hamstrung by his own side (corrupt WA Labor Premier Brian Burke had killed Bob Hawke’s Land Rights proposal in the 1980s). Keating was voted out in 1996, but not before getting a Mabo agreement through parliament over the objection of the Coalition.
Howard inherited Keating’s Stolen Generation Report that documented the extent of Australian 20th century interference in Aboriginal affairs. Ever conscious of the power of symbols, Howard could not bring himself to apologise. His later NT intervention was paternalism writ large masked under a pretence of preventing sexual violence. Despite the scale of the response (which the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments have been unable to undo), there was never a sense they were dealing with equal partners. The prospect of a treaty similar to Canada and New Zealand seems as remote as ever.
The embassy supporting that Treaty celebrated two notable anniversaries Day last week. The embassy has intermittently existed on the lawns since Australia Day 1972 and permanently since Australia Day 1992, so it either 40 or 20 years old according to taste. These anniversaries are appropriate moments to examine its worthiness. My view is that the overwhelming evidence suggests the “other Australia” still exists and therefore the indigenous protesters that live on the site are right to seek diplomatic relations. In all key life indicators, indigenous people lag behind the rest of the population thanks to two centuries of massacres, paternalism and benign neglect. As a defeated people since colonial times, they are under no obligation to accept white Australian rule as a fait accompli.
The howls of protest that accompanied Tony Abbott’s claim the embassy’s time may be over, reflect a deeper concern that as Prime Minister he would not advance Aboriginal interests. He might also, despite the denials, be prepared to use his power to shut it down “occupy-style” using the media-generated confected rage against the “riot” that apparently caused the prime minister to lose to trip over and lose a shoe. The Courier-Mail front page called it a “day of shame” without saying who should be ashamed. “Australia Day 2012 will be remembered for scenes of a terrified looking Ms Gillard being dragged away to safety,” the paper thundered. Whose fault was it? They didn’t say.
Instead they hinted at it. They said police clashed with protesters from the nearby aboriginal tent embassy and the two leaders were shoved into Ms Gillard’s bulletproof car and taken to “a safe place”. Police seemed to have overreacted in the way they escorted the politicians from the premises. Gillard and Abbott were at the Lobby restaurant presenting emergency services medals when “100 protesters surrounded the building”. Alerted by Labor apparatchiks (who presumably knew Gillard was there also), they came to protest against an answer Abbott gave in a press conference earlier that day. Marxist march participant John Passant said witnesses reported that during a speech a woman interrupted to say Abbott had said the Tent Embassy should be moved on. “He was 50 metres away with his twin in racism, Julia Gillard,” Passant said. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. When protesters made the 50m journey to the Lobby, they banged on the glass walls. The chants started as “Shame, shame!” and “Racists, racists” and then became a steady “Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land.”
They were protesting an answer Abbott gave in a doorstep earlier that day. Some journalist (unnamed in the press transcript) asked him: “Is the Tent Embassy still relevant or should it move?”. Abbott responded by saying he could understand why the embassy was established but a lot had changed for the better. “We had the historic apology just a few years ago, one of the genuine achievements of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister,” Abbott said. “We had the proposal which is currently for national consideration to recognise indigenous people in the Constitution. I think the indigenous people of Australia can be very proud of the respect in which they are held by every Australian and yes, I think a lot has changed since then and I think it probably is time to move on from that.”
No one asked the obvious follow-up question: Did he mean moving the tent on? We don’t know because the media circus moved on to Albanese’s Hollywood faux pas and the embassy answer hung out there to dry. Gillard’s people were on to the political implications quickly. The implied answer, Abbott might act as PM to “move on” the embassy, took little time to filter out.
Gillard’s media adviser Tony Hodges told Unions ACT secretary Kim Sattler and Sattler told the demonstrators. When they got to the restaurant, there were unedifying scenes of Aborigines clashing with police but no evidence to suggest violence was intended on Abbott or Gillard. It was the mob violence that wasn’t. All they wanted was for both leaders to talk to them. The prime minister’s security detail took a different view. In this risk averse culture they took the view she should leave quickly. On camera Gillard accepts their advice and asked them whether they should also inform Abbott. She is then shown on camera letting Abbott know they were “in it together”.
Instead of confronting the protesters, the prime minister was dragged unceremoniously away. The footage of these shots showed the politicians, their security detail and news cameras. The protesters were well back. World media were entranced by the footage particularly the fairytale angle of the “lost shoe”. Behind her, Abbott was also ushered away quickly without any wardrobe malfunctions. Abbott walked away without injury but Gillard lost not only her shoe, but her dignity, her press officer, her backroom probity and the political high ground. Abbott was able to say, “At the very least the Prime Minister should be offering an apology to everyone who was in that awards ceremony.” But he did not clarify what Gillard had to apologise for except perhaps for incompetent staff who did not think through the consequences of their actions. Hodges paid the penalty and Abbott should stop playing put upon. He would have known fully what mischief his statement could cause on the Australia Day anniversary.
Meanwhile the 40 year sovereignty battle associated with the embassy has been damned by association. Since the so-called “riot”, influential voices like Bob Carr, Warren Mundine and David Penberthy have called for its abolition. None have attracted the opprobrium of Abbott but perhaps they should have. The time has not yet come to fold up the tent. The eyesore has not been treated. Sorry day has come and gone but the justice of sovereignty is no nearer for this continent’s oldest and most misunderstood inhabitants. Until it happens, they will remain aliens in their own land.
Behrendt is a NSW law professor and author who lives in New South Wales. Her father and paternal grandmother were Aboriginal. Her paternal grandmother lived in an Aboriginal camp before she was taken away from her family by the Aborigines Protection Board. Her paternal grandfather was English and her mother and maternal grandmother were Australian. Bolt made a schoolboy error when he said Behrendt looked “almost as German as her father” based only on the sound of the surname. Her father was a prominent, well-respected member of the Aboriginal community was an expert on oral histories. He was always part of her family and her mother was always strongly supportive of her Aboriginal identity. Behrendt was 11 when her father reconnected with his Aboriginal family and told her about his languages, dreamtime stories and Aboriginal traditions. Behrendt said she “identified as Aboriginal since before I can remember”.
She began to experience racism at school where she was teased for being “black”. She was motivated to become a lawyer because her grandmother was forcibly removed from her family. She became a Doctor in law at Harvard Law School and was not the beneficiary of any special admission program for Aboriginal people. She has won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Indigenous writing. Bolt called her “professional Aborigine” who is “chairman of our biggest taxpayer-funded Aboriginal television service”, a reference to the National Indigenous Television Service established in about 2006 for which she received $20,000 a year. Behrendt said she took the position because Aboriginal people needed to have their own voice in contemporary Australia. She said Bolt’s reference to her as “mein liebchen” was particularly offensive, patronising and denigrating. Her take-out message from the articles was they sent a message to young people that if you are light-skinned and identify as Aboriginal you will be publically attacked and criticised. She regards that message as very intimidating.
Leanne Enoch is the Red Cross Queensland director for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships. Her father is Aboriginal and her mother is Australian. Her and her siblings’ cultural upbringing was dominated by her father’s side of the family and she has always identified as Aboriginal. She grew up on North Stradbroke Island where her mother (whom she resembles) was always accepted as part of the extended family and her mother fully supported her Aboriginal identity and her education in Aboriginal culture. As the eldest grandchild of the eldest son (her father), she was groomed for cultural responsibilities from a young age Enoch has always been recognised as being an Aboriginal person and first faced challenges about her identity at school after her family left Stradbroke. Many thought she was adopted and she witnessed racism from people who didn’t realise she was Aboriginal and likely to be deeply offended. Enoch trained and then worked as a teacher for 10 years where she assisted with Aboriginal cultural awareness programs.
She then worked Aboriginal social policy and stood for election in the ALP. While first dismissive of Bolt’s article, she became more alarmed when she realised that everyone in her family and community would see it. Her father and many of her relatives saw it and were upset and she too was distressed by the effect on her children, particularly her oldest son who is fair, unlike her younger son who is darker, and who is going through identity issues of his own. Enoch said it was highly offensive Bolt said she was “not really Aboriginal” because of skin and hair colour. Because Bolt suggested she chose to identify as Aboriginal to further her political career he was saying her hard work, skill and talent were of no significance.
Mark McMillan is a lawyer and an Arizona Appeals Court judge for American Indians. He has an English father and a mother of Aboriginal descent. He was raised by his mother until he was eight and then moved to his maternal grandmother in Trangie, near Gilgandra, NSW. In Trangie McMillan and his siblings all knew they were Aboriginal. They were told stories about their Aboriginal relatives, including about their maternal great grandmother who was the last Aboriginal local language speaker.
His family were all involved in the Trangie Aboriginal Land Council and two years ago McMillan was elected to the Board of the Council. Like the other eight plaintiffs, he experienced racism and was called an “Albino Boong”. In 1996 he worked at ATSIC as a clerk. Three years later he was awarded an Aboriginal undergraduate award and studied law at the Australian National University.
He was selected to participate in further study through an exchange program in Canada. He was admitted to the bar in 2001 and found a research position with Larissa Behrendt at Sydney UTS.
In 2003, he was accepted to the University of Arizona’s Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program. McMillan found Bolt’s suggestion he was “not Aboriginal enough” offensive and said he inferred he only identified with his Aboriginal heritage for political gain. He was also infuriated by Bolt’s insinuation he was a “a gay white man with a law degree” and “just the kind of Aboriginal who needs a special handout” which was offensive and humiliating. McMillan was humiliated when subsequently forced to assure his American employers he was indeed Aboriginal.
Pat Eatock was born in Brisbane in 1937 and is now retired in NSW. Her mother is Scottish and her father had Aboriginal parents. Her father was ashamed of his background and it was never discussed at home. They were also afraid the authorities would take away the children if they ever found out about their black heritage. Eatock identified as Aboriginal since she was a teenager and she told the court much of her Aboriginal identity was formed by negative experiences.
At Primary School in Ingham, the playground at the school was divided by a fence. “White kids” played on one side of the fence and “black kids” on the other. Eatock and her sisters were put to play with the “white kids”. When the school teachers saw the father the childen were taken out of the “white” children’s playground and put in the “black” one. Some parents then complained about “white” children on the wrong side of the fence. They were then put back in the “white” playground and this was Pat Eatock first identity crisis.
She left school aged 14 and began to identify herself as Aboriginal so she would not be accused of hiding her background. She worked in factories until marrying in 1957. She cared for her children until 1973 when she went to university where she encountered a different kind of racism. People would make racist remarks about Aboriginal people in her presence which she found stressful. She would tell people at the outset she was Aboriginal or wear clothing associated with Aboriginal issues. Encounters with Faith Bandler inspired to get involved with the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1972 and 1973. She has stood for election in the Australian Capital Territory as an independent Aboriginal candidate.
Eatock graduated with an arts degree in 1978 and worked for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. She became a lecturer in Aboriginal Community Development in late 1991 and got a disability support pension in 1996. She still volunteers for Aboriginal issues and lives modestly in a one bedroom Department of Housing flat in Sydney.
Eatock told the court was horrified, disgusted, angry and sick in the stomach when she saw Mr Bolt’s Articles. She said Bolt disconnected her from her Aboriginality and denied her life’s work and ethics. She has been more disadvantaged than advantaged by identifying as Aboriginal and has had only six to six-and-a-half years of employment since 1977. She said Bolt’s articles were racist and she remains deeply offended.
These stories of Eatock and the others show racism was casual and endemic in Australian society. They, more than most, suffered for their background by not neatly fitting the stereotype of being black skinned. Judge Bromberg quoted the Australian Law Reform Commission’s 2003 Report on the Protection of Human Genetic Information which said ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ are social, cultural and political constructs, rather than matters of scientific ‘fact’.
Bromberg noted the ‘blood quantum’ classification for determining Aboriginality common in Australian law until recent times. “It is a notorious and regrettable fact of Australian history that the flawed biological characterisations of many Aboriginal people was the basis for mistreatment, including for policies of assimilation involving the removal of many Aboriginal children from their families until the 1970s,” Bromberg said. “It will be of no surprise that a race of people subjected to oppression by reason of oppressive racial categorisation will be sensitive to being racially categorised by others.”
The Northern Territory Emergency Response was a Howard Government initiative announced in June 2007 in response to reports of abuse and neglect of children outlined in the “Little Children are Sacred” report and supported by the Rudd Government when it took office five months later. The legislation period of NTER is five years and it commits the Government to actions to “close the gap” between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal key health indicators. The key objectives of NTER are ensuring the protection of women and children, reducing family violence, improving education, improving health, and promoting positive behaviours and personal responsibility.
In 2009, the Rudd Government attempted to remove some of the more odious elements of the NTER with legislation that is now before the Senate to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act. This was done after many in the 73 NTER communities felt they had been hurt, humiliated and confused by the often discriminatory way in which the original legislation was pushed through. However the same people admitted children, women and the elderly were were all feeling safer, better fed and clothed, and that there was less humbugging for alcohol, drugs and gambling.
There have been some good recorded improvements. The Government has built eight of nine promised new crèches and upgraded 11 out of another promised 13. Average school attendance has increased from 60.1 percent to 62.2 percent in 12 months. However this is still down on the 62.7 percent figure recorded in 2007. A school nutrition program is up and running staffed mainly by Indigenous people while over 140 new teaching positions have been funded in the NT. Another 173 health professionals are on the books covering nursing, GP, dental and allied health. Outreach teams have made 110 visits to 66 remote communities.
88 community stores were licensed to sell alcohol and out of 190 monitoring visits just one store had its licence revoked. Alcohol Management Plans are in place in Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Palmerston and Katherine and on their way in Borroloola, Maningrida, Gunbalanya, Elliot, Tiwi Islands and Groote Eylandt. The Government created 2,200 new jobs still leaving almost 17,000 on welfare quarantine known as “income management”. 96 percent of these spent $133 million on food and clothing using BasicCards.
The instance of child abuse cases increased over the 2009 reporting period giving the ABC its gloomy headline when discussing the report. The numbers of child abuses cases from 72 in 2007 to 142 two years later. However with 62 additional police deployed to communities, there is an obvious increase in reported crime, while the actual incidence of crime may have remained unchanged or have fallen. The numbers of alcohol related incidents went up 31 percent while the number of drug related incidents went up 23 percent while reported incidents of domestic abuse went up a staggering 75 percent between 2007 and 2009.
But undoubtedly problems still remain in the communities. Last year NT Indigenous children were six times as likely as other children to be the subject of a substantiation of a notification of abuse and neglect. Neglect remains the main crime (43 percent) followed by physical abuse (26 percent) and emotional abuse (24 percent). Sexual abuse accounted for less than 10 percent of cases and since July 2007 27 people (including 4 non-Indigenous people) have been convicted for child sexual assault.
Response to the report has so far been limited in the media and virtually non-existent in the blogosphere. Apart from the ABC article noted above, the NT News also picked up on the increased stats angle, The Australian published an article by Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin, while ANU’s Jon Altman in Crikey called the state of progress “disturbing”.
However what is truly disturbing is the mainstream lack of interest in the report and its contents other than for its political conflict value. Altman makes good points about some of the ways we have gone backwards since 2007. However, until there is a concerted hue and cry on behalf of white Australia to really follow through on the initiatives, nothing will change. Our media is failing us with this task. For those interested, Part 2 of the report provides detailed information and analysis by sub measure.
Mitchell is 550km west of Brisbane and named for Sir Thomas Mitchell who was the first white person to trudge this country. Mitchell called it “Champagne Country” but many of those that followed him found life less bubbly and prosperous. The Kenniff brothers Patrick (b 1863) and James (b 1869) were among those to find out just how barren a beverage Champagne Country really was.
The pair were sons of Irish-born James Kenniff and his wife Mary. The Kenniffs lived near Dungog in NSW but both father and his two sons were convicted for stealing stock in northern NSW and they scampered away north to escape justice. They established a property at Ralph near Augathella and were determined to live a straight life. They lived by bush work; they also raced horses and opened books on the local race meetings.
But conditions were tough on the land and the depression of the 1890s left them penniless. It was all too easy to return to old ways. With convicted cattle duffers Thomas Stapleton, John and Richard Riley and others, they launched what the Australian Dictionary of Biography called a reign of ‘mild terror’ stealing cleanskin and poorly branded cattle from Carnarvon and other neighbouring stations.
In 1895 the brothers were charged in Roma court with stealing or receiving stolen horses. Pat got a three year sentence and Jim got two years. Both served time in St Helena Prison off the coast of Brisbane. When Jim was released he went back to the Ralph property which was empty. A year later Pat was released and also went back to Ralph. Pat quickly returned to his thieving ways attracting the attention of Police Commissioner Parry-Ogden who sent a sergeant to investigate their activities. A warrant was issued for their arrest after a daring raid on a police camp and Jim was captured at Ralph after a shootout.
Jim beat the charge in court which encouraged his brother to turn himself in. But Pat was found guilty of another charge and was sent back to St Helena for another three years. While he was away, local landholders agitated the Lands Department to terminate the lease at Ralph Block when it expired in 1899. In the meantime, a neighbour bought the property directly from the Kenniffs and employed one Albert Christian Dahlke to manage the properties. He and Jim Kenniff had a personal animosity that ran deep.
Around the same time a new constable, George Doyle arrived in the area looking to set up a moveable police station. He chose Kenniff’s camp site on Ralph Block as the preferred site. Doyle and his Aboriginal tracker Sam Johnson moved into what was called the Upper Warrego Police Station.
In November 1901, Pat returned again from St Helena and was stunned to find a police station at his home. With the country in the middle of a massive drought, the brothers plotted to steal horses and sell them in Roma. In January 1902 they rounded up 36 horses and took them to Mt Moffatt in the Carnarvon Ranges.
Doyle and Johnson were patrolling in the area and intercepted Pat Kenniff. They took him to Mitchell where he was fined £20 and then released to find the money. He caught up with his brothers and launched a spree of retaliation burning down an outstation, driving off horses and robbing workers.
On 25 March, Doyle received another arrest warrant for the Kenniffs. Dahlke was there when it arrived and volunteered to help carry out the arrests. On Good Friday 28 March, Doyle, Dahlke and Sam Johnson set off to find the horse thieves; only Constable Doyle was armed.
On Easter Sunday the trio had arrived in Lethbridge Pocket 10kms from Mt Moffat Homestead where they spotted Jim, Pat and a third brother Tom. Dalhke and Doyle followed Jim while Johnson set off in elusive pursuit of the other two brothers.
When Johnson arrived back he found Jim Kenniff in their custody. Doyle told Johnson to ride the 200 metres to their pack horse to get handcuffs. While Johnson was away he heard gunfire that sounded different from Doyle’s revolver. Johnson rushed back only to see Pat and Jim riding towards him. Johnson took to the scrub and made his escape. He raised the alarm and another man, Jim Burke agreed to accompany Johnson back to the scene. They found two horses with blood stains but no sign of Doyle or Dalhke. They rode back to Mt Moffatt late on Easter Sunday to tell people of the news.
Johnson rode through the night and all the following day to get to Mitchell and the nearest telegraph station. Others returned to the scene where they found more blood stains and belongings of the two missing men. On the Wednesday they found a third horse which was Doyle’s mount. Inside its police pack bags were charcoal and burnt bones.
Police found the location where the bodies were burnt and a doctor confirmed the remains were of one or possibly two humans, recently deceased. Mt Moffatt was now a murder scene and a large manhunt began for the Kenniffs. On 12 May a reward of £1000 was offered for Pat and Jim’s capture. Early on Monday 23 June, the pair were found at Back Creek (later renamed Arrest Creek) a few kms south of Mitchell. They were captured unharmed and taken to Brisbane for trial.
The trial took place in the Supreme Court in November 1902. Sam Johnson’s evidence was crucial for the prosecution. The defence was simple: neither Kenniff was there at the time of the murder. It was a landmark case. No white man had ever been convicted of murder on black testimony. The defence lawyer tried to discredit Johnson’s evidence. But Johnson answered the derogatory questions in dignified fashion reinforcing the credibility of his evidence.
Both the Kenniffs were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. A Full Court later commuted Jim Kenniff’s sentence to life imprisonment. Pat Kenniff was hanged on 12 January 1903. Jim was released in 1912. After working on cattle-stations in the north-west he fossicked in the ranges north of Charters Towers and died there of cancer on 8 October 1940, aged around 71.
Back in Mitchell, those sympathetic to the Kenniffs blamed Johnson for the conviction and threatened retribution. Even those who did not much admire the Kenniffs did not like it was the word of a blackfella that convicted them. Johnson eventually requested a transfer for his own safety. He moved to Longreach where he died in 1919 of influenza. Sam Johnson was buried in a forgotten, unmarked grave and to this day has no monument or memorial in his name.
Whites made every effort to put Aboriginals out of a society they had lived in for 60,000 years. Just prior to occupation in 1820 there were around 262,000 blacks in Queensland. By a hundred years later, extermination and disease had reduced that number to just 15,700. The 1884 “Queenslander” newspaper told its readers “if a blackfellow is seen, he is brutally shot down the same as a dingo and with about the same feeling of remorse”. Keeping “racial purity” was a higher priority of colonial society than preserving Aboriginal lives. Officials lived in terror of sexual “contamination” that might lead to a “half-caste menace”.Those that survived became government property. A massive system of reserves, missions and police bureaucracy controlled every aspect of Aboriginal lives. The system ran cheaply on the intercepted wages of black workers. The workers themselves were quarantined on semi-penitential reserves with no health facilities. Older Aboriginals still recall with horror sadistic Institutions such as Palm Island, Barambah (Cherbourg) and Woorabinda which were no better than concentration camps.Governments of every stripe blatantly stole from Aboriginals. Evans noted how the 1930s William Forgan Smith Labor Government “perfected the art of robbery with a fountain pen” and stole £72,000 ($3.5m in today’s money) from Aboriginal trust accounts claiming it to be a depression-era emergency measure. Such theft continued through the years and administrations that followed.The attitude to Aboriginals of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen government of 1968-1987 veered between neglect and outright hostility. Bjelke-Petersen insisted Queensland Aboriginal people lived “on clover”. They were “as wealthy as Arab oil sheiks”, he said. But the statistics proved the lie to this absurd claim. In 1980 Indigenous people were 89 times more likely to die of an infectious disease than other Queenslanders. Half of all Aboriginals were unemployed. Half of all Aboriginal homes had no sewers, a quarter had no electricity and a fifth had no water. In 1987, Aboriginal men died on average 27 years younger than other men and for Aboriginal women it was even worse. They died 34 years earlier than other women. Aboriginals were four times more likely to be involved in violence or accidents and seven times more likely to be imprisoned.
By 1974 trachoma of the eye was a disease eradicated across the western world. But it was still rampant in Queensland’s Aboriginal children with 80 percent infection rates. When Fred Hollows and his team attempted to travel around the communities to address the problem, Bjelke-Petersen expelled them on the spurious grounds the team contained two “well-known radicals” who had “contrived an upsurge in voter registrations.”
Around the same time a federal health team described the high rates of childhood malnutrition, gastro-enteritis and threadworm as resembling conditions in Biafra. Queensland Health officials played the report down laying the blame on parental neglect. Similar criticisms from the World Council of Churches and Amnesty International were dismissed by Bjelke-Petersen as a sinister, subversive “arm of Communist propaganda”.
In 1989, the Nationals were finally turfed out in disgrace and the Labor Goss Government came to power on a wave of new promises. But their Lands Rights Act of 1991 attracted the ire of the Land Councils who said it deprived 95 percent of Queensland blacks from any claims on the land. Black protests on the issue were met with a vigorous police reaction and matters did not improve after talented dancer and activist Daniel Yock died suspiciously in custody in 1993.
Well meaning efforts by the subsequent Beattie-Bligh Governments have done little to arrest the long slide in Aboriginal health. The adult black death rate remains 10 to 12 times greater than non-Indigenous rates, incarceration rates are 15 times higher and life expectancy is 20 years below the national average. In 2004, the Fred Hollows Foundation compared Queensland Aboriginal health unfavourably with experiences in Sudan, Sierra Leone and Nepal. Police issues remain a thorn. The Government-sanctioned police response to the 2004 Palm Island riot following the Mulrunji death was particularly brutal. 80 Tactical Response Group commandos conducted dawn raids armed with riot shields, balaclavas, helmets with face masks and automatic weapons. They declared war on local residents while Beattie disgracefully described the entire community of Palm Islanders as “lazy, disruptive and dysfunctional.”
As Evans’ book methodically shows, it is Governments from William Bligh’s day to Anna Bligh’s that are responsible for the real laziness, disruption and dysfunction of Aboriginal lives.
Australian politicians and media have adopted a typically hostile and defensive pose in response to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ considered statement on Indigenous issues released on Thursday. The hostility was uncalled for. James Anaya, the UNHCR special rapporteur on indigenous issues, has issued a thoughtful report which civilly applauded Australian efforts to improve human rights and conditions in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) communities while saying much more needed to be done.
Anaya, an American legal scholar, released his statement after spending 11 days in six states and territories. He met with Government authorities, representatives of indigenous communities and organisations, and other stakeholder groups. He said he was impressed and inspired by the forward-looking “strong and vibrant” nature of indigenous culture he saw despite having endured tremendous suffering due to “historical forces and entrenched racism”. He said those forces are still relevant today with Indigenous people still lagging far behind in quality of life indicators such as life expectancy, basic health, education, unemployment, incarceration, treatment of children, and access to basic services.
Anaya also praised the “close the gap” federal initiatives and said these programs needed to be improved and expanded. But he also noted some serious concerns. The biggest problem, he said, was with the Northern Territory Emergency Response with its income management regime, imposition of compulsory leases, and community-wide bans on alcohol consumption and pornography. Anaya said these measures overtly discriminated against aboriginal peoples, infringed their right of self-determination and further stigmatised marked communities.
Anaya conceded that affirmative measures were necessary but said they needed to take due regard of self-determination and to be free from racial discrimination and indignity. He said there needs to be a holistic approach to address Indigenous issues nationally. He quoted Prime Minister Rudd’s apology speech and said governments needed to form partnerships with Indigenous people “based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.”
It was only with the aid of local partnerships that issues of alcoholism, domestic violence, health and education could be addressed in culturally appropriate ways adapted to local needs. He said some government programmes fail to take into account local initiatives or duplicate local services undermining Indigenous institutions. He welcomed ATSI social justice commissioner Tom Calma’s call for the government to appoint a new ATSI representative body but said that indigenous groups must strengthen their own organisational and governance capacity.
Anaya also called for constitutional change. He said there needed to be recognition of ATSI rights in a charter of rights to be included in the Constitution. He also urged continued land rights, fixing housing needs and said the Native Title Act should be amended to include UN recommendations on racial discrimination. He said the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples should frame legislation, policies, and actions that affect ATSI people. The declaration, he said, “expresses the global consensus on the rights of indigenous peoples and corresponding state obligations on the basis of universal human rights.”
But despite the reasonableness of Anaya’s suggestions, it was met mostly with hostility this weekend from media and politicians alike. The Weekend Australian’s editorial claimed he missed the point and went on to indulge in a bit of silly UN-bashing. Former Liberal indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough said Anaya was “pontificating about human rights” while former health minister Tony Abbott bizarrely called him an “armchair critic”.
The stupidity of the response was matched on the Labor side of politics. Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin used the feeble excuse of protecting children to reject the main findings of the report (despite the fact that Anaya specifically justified affirmative measures in this area). Former national president Warren Mundine said the report should be binned and claimed that although racism exists in Australia, “we are actually in Australia working towards resolving those issues.”
It is difficult to see how exactly those issues can be resolved when “we” cannot even treat the considered opinion of an unbiased outsider with respect. It also shows yet again an Australian inability to deal constructively with criticism. Both Labor and the Liberal have thrown out Anaya’s baby in a childish tantrum because they didn’t like the look of his bathwater. Greens’ Indigenous affairs spokesperson Rachel Siewart is one of the few to come out of the affair with any credit. She said she was not surprised by his findings. “It is good to see an independent outside voice that brings a wealth of international experience of Indigenous development airing such strong criticisms of where this ill-thought-out top-down intervention has gone wrong,” she said. “This may ultimately result in the Government listening.”
We can only hope, Rachel.
(Photo “Health Dept” by Kate in Sydney)
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd put off the decision today for six months whether to implement a $16b public health revamp suggested by the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission. Rudd says he is not frightened to tackle the issue but will consult with the public and health professionals before taking recommendations to the COAG meeting at a date to be announced late this year.
The revamp was outlined in a report released today by commission chair and BUPA Australia chief medical officer Dr Christine Bennett. The executive summary is available here in in PDF format. The report had five recommendations across the areas of indigenous health, mental illness, rural issues, dental care and access to public hospitals and suggested moving full funding of the system transfer from the states to the Commonwealth.
Though the additional funding required is problematic, the transfer of powers is not as big a deal as it sounds. The federal government already runs the health system at a macro level. As Medicare Australia says, Canberra has the primary role of developing broad national policies, regulation and funding for the industry.
It also does much of the spending. The department’s 2007 factbook (pdf) revealed that Canberra spent 46 percent of the total health budget with states responsible for another 22 percent (individuals spend 19 percent with “other private” bodies on 13). But it is the states that have primarily responsible to deliver and manage public health services. It is NSW, Victoria and the rest that also maintain direct relationships with most health care providers, including regulation of health professionals and private hospitals.
Bennett is not so much interested in taking power away from the states as giving individuals more power. Her stated motto is “wellness begins with you” and the aim of the document released today is to ensure the Department of Health lives up to its name rather than being a Department of Sickness, Injury and Death. This is reflected in the name of the report released today: “A healthier future for all Australians”.
The report had five major recommendations. The first was improving health outcomes for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders (ATSI). It recommends a new authority to run ATSI health. The new body will be better funded, target nutrition, and train up an indigenous workforce. All this are good ambitions but a holistic health plan must take into accoun the impact the appalling imprisonment rates are having on ATSI life expectancy.
The second priority is improved care for the mentally ill. It wants more “sub-acute” (which defines a stage of illness between acute and chronic) services in the community with 7 x 24 “rapid response outreach” teams to provide alternative to hospital treatment. The third priority was support for people in remote and rural areas. This concept of universal service obligation (USO) is borrowed from telecommunications and insists that rural and remote citizens get treated the same as urban citizens. This is admirable but often impractical in a country the size of Australia. To address the shortage of doctors, nurses and facilities in remote and rural areas, the report suggests top-up funding to match communities who have better access medical, pharmaceutical and other primary health care services.
(Photo: 7 Day Dental by flickr_b3rn)
The fourth key recommendation is improved access to dental care. One in three Australians put off dental visits due to costs and there are 650,000 people (3 percent of the total population) on the public waiting list. The report recommends education of dentists and schools and a new universal scheme called Denticare Australia where basic services can be paid by private health insurance or the public purse.
The fifth and final recommendation is improving timely access to public hospitals. It says large public hospitals should have emergency beds available at all times, as well extra funding to reduce waiting lists beyond the budget moneys allocated to 2010-2011 (Health’s $52b annual budget is scheduled to be slashed in half for 2011-2012). It suggests a national access target to measure whether people are getting access to health services when they need it.
The report is talking about fundamental re-design. Bennett wants to embed prevention and early intervention, connect and integrate health services, and move to what it calls the “next generation of Medicare” to review comprehensiveness, the USO and safety nets. Crucially it will also examine what pharmaceuticals and services get onto the lucrative Medicare benefits schedule which is five percent of the total health spend.
The report says COAG needs to agree on a Healthy Australia Accord to realign roles and responsibilities for health. This talks for the need for “one health system” under full Commonwealth funding control of primary health care, as well as dental, aged and ATSI care. The Commonwealth would pay the states “activity-based benefits” for public hospital care to share the risk caused by increased demand and provide an incentive for better care. It will start at 40 percent of cost of every public hospital admission and will eventually rise to 100 percent at which time the federal government will be in de facto control of Australian public health.
It suggests a timetable for the Accord to be 2010 and says the reform plan will cost between $2.8b and $5.7b with a further $4.3b to $7.3b in infrastructure. The Denticare plan will cost an additional $3.6b which could be offset by a 0.75 percent increase in the Medicare levy. This taxation hit will be difficult to sell. But as Bennett says in the report “[governments], the community, health professionals and health services are…ready to embrace reform”. Let’s hope COAG sees it that way.
Creative Commons Photo by Philipp Roth
“You shouldn’t climb. It’s not the real thing about this place. The real thing is listening to everything” Kunmanara, Traditional Owner
Life might not be about choices but moments often are. I was at Uluru in 2002 and I had the choice to climb up or walk around. I chose to go up because I knew I could walk around any time. I did this despite knowing that Uluru is sacred to the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara peoples. They do not want people to climb it as plenty of signs around the base advise. The rock has spiritual significance as the traditional route of the ancestral Mala men on their arrival at Uluru. But they left the ultimate decision to me, the tourist, and expected me to make an informed decision. They asked me – out of education and understanding – to choose to respect their law and culture by not climbing. But despite my education and understanding, I flouted the owners’ wishes and climbed the damn thing anyway. I did it because I could. What happens when the owner of anything says to you “I don’t want you to do this but I won’t stop you”? Maybe you think what the consequences are if you do it. And if the consequences don’t seem bad you’ll do it.
So I did it. The climb is dangerous. But you cannot say you haven’t been warned. It is a long and strenuous climb that requires much patience and care especially on the way down when gravity does not work in your favour. The hardest part is right at the end when the chains run out and there is still (or was at least in 2002) ten to twenty metres to get to the bottom. The distance is big enough that if you fell, you probably survive but you’d be a mess. 30 people have died over the years. You had to inch out your way down by picking out each carved out rock. You were watching out for wind gusts. But not for a minute, did I expect the owners to make it any safer. If I did die, it would be entirely my own fault. The worst thing was I’d be making things hard on the Anangu. They have a traditional duty to safeguard visitors to their land and feel great sadness when a person dies or is hurt. The view of Centralia from the top was great but not sensational enough to have earned it.
Now I’ve done it I’ve no intention of ever doing it again. But it is not like the Haj, something you have to do once in your life. Let’s assume I didn’t have the choice in the first place. I might be pissed off a little I couldn’t climb but would not break the rules to do it. Others too might grumble, but I don’t think many people would break the law to climb it. The few that did would simply prove the efficacy of the law. It certainly wouldn’t have stopped many from coming out here to admire this astonishing monolith. There is also a good environmental case to be made that erosion from tourist damage is changing the face of the rock. Uluru is made from sedimentary rock called arkose sandstone which has been eroding for 300 million years. So that means it is bloody resistant but in yet again human impact, this time through weathering and urine, is starting to take its toll.
Given that the law to ban outright seems useful on a number of levels, the question is what would be lost if no-one could climb Uluru? Would people stop coming? More than 300,000 people visit Uluru national park each year. It is the prospect of collapse in these numbers that stopped the Prime Minister from supporting the move to ban climbing. The land formerly known as Ayer’s Rock has been owned by the Pitjantjatjara people since the Hawke Government gave it back in 1985. But the sneaky colonials put in a Hong Kong clause and insisted they give a 99 lease to the National Parks and Wildlife agency.
The agency combines with the Uluru–Kata Tjuta Board of Management to run the national park that combines Uluru and Kata Tjuta (formerly the Olgas). Two thirds of the board are Anangu and the other third are government. Last week, a draft management plan for the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park issued in both the names of the National Parks and board issued its vision for Uluru and Kata Tjuta for the next ten years: They explained what cultural behaviour was driving the changes. “The Uluru–Kata Tjuta landscape is and will always be a significant place of knowledge and learning. All the plants, animals, rocks, and waterholes contain important information about life and living here now and for all time. Anangu grandparents and grandchildren will always gain their knowledge from this landscape. They will live in it in the proper way. This is Tjukurpa.”
The Anangu phrase Tjukurpa includes many complex but complementary concepts including those of time, religion, morality, the environment and knowledge. There is no single word in English that adequately conveys the complexity of that meaning. It has been distilled over thousands of years into an intimate relationship with the land and its features. It is not the ‘Dreamtime’ – there is no such word in Anangu language.
(Photo by Michael Pickard) It is Tjukurpa that drives the development and interpretation of Park policy. Tjukurpa prescribes the nature of the relationships between those responsible for the associated landscape, their obligations, and the obligations of those who visit that land. The Draft Plan for 2009-2019 tackled a swag of issues that currently or might affect the National Park. The issues would be informed by the Tjukurpa notions of integrity, respect, honesty, trust, sharing, learning, and working together as equals.
The most contentious item was the suggestion to shut down the climb before the plan expired. A survey of visitors showed that although one in three make the climb, the vast majority of visitors (98 per cent) would return even if it was banned. The Director of National Parks Peter Cochrane said the Uluru area was confronting the impacts of climate change and invasive species. But he was also interested in tourists. “We also need to think beyond the global economic crisis to longer term visitor travel patterns – who are our next generation of visitors? What experiences are they are seeking and what can we offer?” he asked. So the question for Cochrane was if they do close the climb for safety, environmental and cultural reasons what alternative experiences should we offer. He asked for feedback to the plan by 4 September.
The problem was that the proposal immediately became politicised. When Federal Minister Peter Garrett supported it, the Opposition rushed out to condemn it. On Wednesday Garrett’s shadow Greg Hunt issued a media release saying “Rudd must not close Uluru climb.” Visitors from around Australia and the world would be stopped from “completing the majestic and exhilarating journey,” said Hunt. And why was that a problem, necessarily? Because it comes at a time, he said, when “Australia’s tourism industry is facing massive challenges from the global financial crisis”. Hunt made a ludicrous claim: “Big Brother was coming to Uluru to slam the gate closed on an Australian tourism icon, the climb.”
Hunt recovered enough dignity to call Uluru an Indigenous treasure but said the climb was a matter of enabling “informed consent”. The Shadow Minister got his own consent with a Government climbdown two days later. On Friday he was able to gleefully report this as “Rudd Over-Rules (sic) Garrett on Uluru Climb”. Hunt is wrong about Uluru as is Rudd in rising to the bait. Consent to climb relies precisely on being ill-informed.
The simplest solution is to ban it. Not only would culture, safety and environmental issues disappear in an instance, but the economic issue is also furphy – the recession has nothing to do with it. Given the survey results and creative talents of the Australian tourism industry, it should be possible to answer “will 300,000 still keep coming?” in the positive without the lure of the climb. Don’t make us wait till 2084 for Tjukurpa. The tourist industry has ten years to work out a plan. Get cracking.