In search of Doomadgee’s outstations

Doomadgee housing Late 1950s

Author Mark Moran shares his experiences of Doomadgee in his excellent book Serious Whitefella Stuff (2016). Doomadgee is an Aboriginal shire and township in North West Queensland, about 100km from Burketown and 500km from Mount Isa. It began in the 1930s as a mission called Old Doomadgee further north at Bayley Point on the Gulf of Carpentaria. Old Doomadgee brought together the remnant population of Ganggalia, Waanyi, Garrwa and Yanyula people from the western Gulf region. Their lands had been overrun in the 1870s and from the 1910s they lived in camps and shanties outside white properties, where they worked for rations. In 1933 they were herded up by Christian Brethren missionaries into Old Doomadgee.

A shortage of fresh water at Old Doomadgee led the Queensland Government to believe that the site was unsuitable for population expansion. When a cyclone destroyed the mission in 1936, they decided to relocate the mission despite local objections. Around 50 children and 20 adults living at Old Doomadgee were moved 100km south to the current site of Doomadgee on the banks of the mostly dry Nicholson River, named by Ludwig Leichhardt after he passed though in his first expedition.

The site grew rapidly in the 1930s and 1940s, when the Queensland Government removed many Aboriginal families from pastoral stations including Westmoreland, Lawn Hills and Gregory Downs. The Christian Brethren were strict and conservative rulers with no time for Aboriginal culture. Doomadgee gained a reputation as one of the most authoritarian missions in Queensland. Women had to wear ankle-length dresses and younger women were locked up at night and forced to do domestic duties during the day. As in Palm Island, Children were separated from parents into same-sex dorms. They were not allowed to speak their language or practise their customs. The superintendent’s word was law. Punishments included confinement or for women, cutting off their hair.

The various tribes initially had little in common with some from Queensland and some from the Territory, and some from near the sea and some from inland. But they eventually bonded calling Doomadgee home. The men and women were sent out to work on pastoral stations. Moran says than in 1965, 274 people – half of Doomadgee’s population – were working on 74 pastoral properties across the region, with the Mission receiving what little money they made. But in 1968 when the Commonwealth Arbitration Commission decided Aboriginal workers were entitled to fair wages, the stations sacked their black workforce rather than give them equal pay and Doomadgee’s function as a regional labour pool came to an abrupt end.

The Christian Brethren handed control of Doomadgee back to Queensland in 1983 but premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen showed no interest in granting the town autonomy. It wasn’t until 1988, the year after Joh was replaced, that Doomadgee became a local government region given trusteeship over the Doomadgee reserve land held in Deed of Grant in Trust, known in Queensland as DOGITs. By then many townsfolk had established outstations including at Old Doomadgee after the road gang cut a 120km road though “using a combination of local knowledge, compass dead reckoning and radio reports from a ministry pilot overhead.” The outstation movement was a Whitlam-era response to the problem of centralised missions and the assimilation era. In Doomadgee and elsewhere a land claim became a pathway to land rights. Elder Tom O’Keefe established one of the town’s first outstations at Six Mile, on traditional land owned by the Waanyi People of which Tom’s mother was one.

When Mark Moran arrived in Doomadgee in 1991, all white people in town lived in one area separate from the rest of the community, a legacy of mission days. The outstation movement was gathering momentum and Moran as a council supervisor did what he could to support it. At the time around a quarter of the town’s 1000-strong population wanted to move out in search of the bush life as a way of strengthening their culture. The outstations were ad hoc affairs using family labour and whatever materials they could scrounge. When the federal government introduced Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP, or more pejoratively, work for the dole) unemployment benefits were converted into community development projects which spurred on more outstations in Doomadgee.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was formed a year earlier and provided useful funds and functions for Aboriginal communities. ATSIC provided 1000 cattle distributed to four outstations to manage and each station got a $10,000 construction grant. The cattle were never profitable – a helicopter muster was prohibitively expensive – but they enabled young people to learn pastoral skills and helped the dormant Doomadgee Rodeo to resume. Young Jason Ned, now the mayor of Doomadgee, won the bareback bull ride in the 1993 event. Doomadgee had desperately-needed money to spend on new sewerage, street works, the airstrip and water infrastructure. But ATSIC reined in its outstation funding after many splurged on huge car costs, with maintenance providing difficult in rough conditions. There was funding available for housing in town but Moran helped local families who wanted to build more permanent accommodation on their outstations. That was until the Council went broke and an administrator was appointed who sacked all contractors including Moran.

Undeterred Moran returned to Doomadgee a year later working for the Centre for Appropriate Technology to prepare a planning report for the outstation housing grant he had brokered. They built eight homes using steel frames, full perimeter verandahs, external ablution blocks, elevated rainwater tanks and ventilated pit latrines. ATSIC called a moratorium on outstations in 1996 after reports many were being abandoned or trashed. In Doomadgee some had done better than others with Merv Peter incorporating Gumhole Aboriginal Corporation opening an avenue to government funding. With the help of ATSIC Moran helped deliver an outstation plan and an outstation committee but it was never put to practise as funds dried up.

Outstations became a front in the ideological battle. In 2005 Howard demolished ATSIC without developing a proper replacement. Indigenous Affairs minister Amanda Vanstone called remote communities “cultural museums“. Before the 2007 NT Intervention crown prosecutor Nanette Rogers said outstations were “highly dangerous places for women and children because they are unable to escape any of the violence.” The free-market Centre for Independent Studies’ Helen Hughes called them a form of apartheid and a “socialist utopia”. Fellow right winger Gary Johns said Aboriginal people needed to live in towns to escape from humbugging though Moran argues the need to escape that was the impetus for the outstations in the first place. But he admits that while there was evidence of improved health outcomes of living on outstations, there were problems with providing an education in such a remote environment.

Anthropologist Diane Austin-Broos defended the outstations saying they eased the pressure on larger communities. Despite the lack of jobs and schooling, people could paint, care for their country and generally enjoy well-being. She also said they were less worried about their comparative disadvantage than outsiders. “Clothing (often second hand), shelter (often makeshift) and food (a mix of foraged and store bought)…might look second rate to the outsider but…this mattered less to remote Aboriginal people,” she said. Moran said people moved to Doomadgee outstations for many reasons: culture,history, subsistence, autonomy, wellbeing and safety but they also expected similar housing, infrastructure and services they got in town and that proved to be beyond the funding they had or could source from governments.

The Commonwealth government restricted funding in 2007. Outstations could still get money but only if they were running a business on site. CDEP jobs were harder to get and the Doomadgee CDEP corporation remained the only outstation resource agency in the area. With ATSIC gone there was competitive tendering for contracts and in 2009 they lost the contract to an external employment services company, Mount Isa Skills. Moran says the result was Doomadgee lost its last lifeline to the outstations.

Under a new Labor government, Doomadgee was named as one of 29 “remote hub settlements” where services would be concentrated on larger communities. Each hub would have a Local Implementation plan and Doomadgee’s LIP made no mention of the outstations. Most outstation residents were forced back into the quarter-acre social housing blocks in town. When Moran returned again in 2014 Merv Peter’s Gumhole was the only permanently occupied outstation left though Merv had sadly died after a long illness. Rodeo champion turned mayor, Jason Ned, founded another at Spoon Creek as money flowed into the town via nearby Century Mine. Moran met Tom O’Keefe, then in his eighties, who was still at Six Mile which he described as his life achievement. “Built my outstation and now there are four mango trees,” O’Keefe told Moran.

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