Moonscape, outside Yuendumu, 2009
Moonscape, west of Yuendumu, 2009

I’ve been loath to comment on the recent situation at Yuendumu – and beyond – for several reasons.

Firstly I wasn’t there when the so-called “riots” happened a few weeks back; secondly there has been more than enough prattle and ill-informed comment about the unfortunate events then and since to warrant anything from me. For an informed point of view of one long-term local see this assessment from Yuendumu resident Frank Baarda in an earlier post here.

A couple of weeks ago just over one hundred people – apparently all from one side of the dispute at Yuendumu – removed themselves to Adelaide. What I want to do here is look at the reaction of the South Australian and Northern Territory governments to that decision.

Because I spent the past ten days or so in Geelong at the UCI Road World Cycling Championships (see my posts here, here and here) I missed a fair bit of the local commentary about the so-called “exodus” to Adelaide. Now I’m in Bali having a few days off after attending the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival – so I’m even further away from any “action.

Not long after the group left Yuendumu, and subsequently Alice Springs, the aforementioned Frank Baarda made the following comments in the latest of his irregular and often pointed and humorous missives issued under the header of “Musical Dispatch from the Front“:

Nobody these days claims Aborigines are not human. Aboriginal men are widely believed to be lazy, violent, depraved, uneducated, alcoholic and inferior, but human none the less. So often is this stereotype reinforced by political opportunists and others with vested interests in the failure of remote Aboriginal society, that it becomes a self-fulfilling reality. Warlpiri people are not slaves, yet many in ‘mainstream’ society persist in claiming some sort of ‘ownership’ of Aborigines. They arrogantly have opinions as to what Aborigines should or shouldn’t do, and believe they have some sort of right in deciding what is best for them. Warlpiri have no power over their destiny. No say in their future. No say in how they should run their lives.

Frank’s words got me thinking about some of the more intemperate comments by leaders of the NT and South Australian governments in the course of what developed into an unseemly spat over responsibility for the 100 or so people from Yuendumu that fled to Adelaide.

I agree with Frank that there is a undercurrent in their comments of “ownership” of those who fled to Adelaide that is, or should be, surprising in this day and age.

Of course it is entirely appropriate that Governments exercise responsibility for the people of Yuendumu traumatised by events there, on both sides of the dispute.

But whether the people of Yuendumu can have much faith in the capacity of their government’s, at all levels, to treat them as little more than the subjects of direction and order and control is another matter.

Many Aboriginal people, at Yuendumu and beyond, that I have spoken to over the last few years have expressed a fundamental loss of faith and confidence in their governments, at all levels, as service providers of choice, quality or impartiality.

Rather they tell me that they view governments and their minions as little more than the agents of state punishment and control over the minutiae of their daily lives.

And the recent Federal election surely provides ample proof of this disaffection among Aboriginal people in the NT, with big swings against Federal Labor members in the NT. This was particularly noticeable in the seat of Lingiari, where Warren Snowdon’s substantial majority was whittled away by The Greens, and to a lesser extent, the Country Liberal Party candidate Leo Abbott.

As Frank Baarda notes above, at Yuendumu people have little freedom over many aspects of their daily lives. Since the Mal Brough/John Howard Intervention in the NT in September 2007 their income has been micro-managed, they have been told where to shop and what they can buy and their movements are restricted in a manner that no other Australians, individually or as a group, would or should consider acceptable.

They are almost universally damned by the media, their governments and an ill-informed public as drunken and depraved wastrels – if you are a man – or as the hapless victims of an outdated and predatory traditional culture that inflicts only horror and despair – if you are a woman or child.

And that characterisation isn’t just restricted to Yuendumu – this is the externally perceived reality if the other 72 communities prescribed by the NT Intervention that has been so enthusiastically adopted by Brough’s successor, Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin and almost without exception been presented as the status quo by a complacent and lazy media.

What I want to have a closer look at are the various statements of the South Australian and Northern Territory governments in response to the remarkable decision by the Yuendumu group to seek refuge in Adelaide.

What is particularly interesting to me in all of this is the almost total absence of any acceptance by any of the government representatives that the decision to go to Adelaide may have been made independently of governments and was in fact an exercise of collective agency and free will. Rather, all governments seem to consider that the decision was made and facilitated by mysterious “others“.

After the Yuendumu group arrived in Adelaide on 22 September ABC News in Alice Springs reported NT Chief Minister Paul Henderson as expressing his extreme disappointment that someone had independently organised the group’s travel to Adelaide, which he said was a “direct contradiction to Police advice.

“…all of a sudden a number of key people disappeared overnight on a bus. Whoever has done this has not consulted with police, has done so independently and needs to have a good hard look at themselves.”

The ABC’s Stateline had Henderson quoted as saying that:

“What sort of reckless idiot would encourage 109 people – elderly people, people with illnesses, children – to get on buses and go to Adelaide without any consultation with the South Australian authorities yo accommodate those people. No plan to return those people.”

By the morning of 23 September South Australian Premier Mike Rann was looking for an arse to kick.

The ABC’s Darwin-based correspondent Sara Everingham reported that Rann was:

“…particularly unhappy Federal public servants working in the Northern Territory did not give him more notice…We’ve got to find healthcare, we’ve got to find accommodation. We’ll sort out the bureaucrats later and I think a few of them need a good kick up the butt.”

And in the NT the blame game was forming up along predictable lines, with NT Deputy Chief Minister Delia Lawrie blaming a local Country Liberal Party (CLP) Opposition member, a claim that CLP leader Terry Mills rejected.

Local Alice Springs CLP member Adam Giles told Sara Everingham that:

“Staff from the [NT] Chief Minister’s department and Jenny Macklin’s department were talking to these people on Monday afternoon [30 September] before they travelled.”

Later that morning the ABC’s Adelaide journos were on board with the story and reported a rare note of commonsense from the NT’s Minister for Central Australia Karl Hampton (who has effectively been dealt out of any practical involvement with the issues at Yuendumu because he has family on both sides of the dispute):

“We don’t control borders. People are free to move from South Australia to Northern Territory as they will.”

But, after raising the involvement of Macklin’s FaHCSIA and non-government agencies in the affair he couldn’t help a swipe at them, noting that he was:

“Extremely disappointed with them.”

Over at the NT News Alyssa Betts also picked up on the blame game being played out between the politicians. Premier Rann was “miffed” and said that his government had been given “hardly any notice” by either the NT or the Federal governments and was “puzzled” by the “hands-off approach“, with his government being left to “pick up the pieces.

Meanwhile back in the NT both political parties were “accusing each other of mishandling the situation.”

Earlier that day Tory Shepherd of the Adelaide Advertiser wrote this piece for The Punch, which was a follow-up to a piece in the Advertiser the day before.

It started with a curious pitch:

“Three weeks ago, in a small town on the NSW coast, a man and his mate were both stabbed during a brawl. The man died.”

No such event happened. Shepherd’s piece was for mine a misguided and cynical attempt to inject some cultural relativism into the arrival of the group that travelled to Adelaide by changing the locale and drawing the thinnest of threads that she admitted was:

“…a trite rhetorical device to point out how differently Aboriginal issues are handled…If it had happened elsewhere, somewhere less remote, richer – if it had happened in a place that more Australians could relate to – this would have been the story of the week.”

Despite the rhetorical artifice and the rather confused thesis in Shepherd’s piece she did make one small valid point:

“In Australia, we accept now as a matter of fact that there is this gap…but this is different, a reality gap. A different set of rules, of engagement. So everyone is extra polite, extra careful, and probably extra patronising.”

But it is that last comment by Shepherd, that the Yuendumu group, and other Aboriginal people cast into similar unfortunate circumstances would attract a more patronising response from their governments and the media that I think is borne out by my brief examination of the statements by the various government representatives above.

Perhaps Shepherd and some other journalists and politicians should have taken note of the following reader comment in response to her earlier piece in The Advertiser:

“Amazing how the patriarchal missionary mentality shines through yet again. Comment attacking “whoever sent them here” of course imply that these Aboriginal people couldn’t have decided themselves that staying in the town was unsafe, and that fleeing was the best option. Statements that the police knew better than the people themselves what was best for them betray the racism still at the forefront of attitudes towards Aboriginal people. Did anyone stop to think that maybe the people made an informed, collective decision to flee the town, and maybe they are best placed to make such a decision. But of course the cops and the pollies know what’s best for Aboriginal people.”

As that comment makes plain nowhere in any of the statements by the politicians is there any consideration that the Yuendumu group may have exercised their own free will and made their own decisions about what best suited them in the circumstances.

It wasn’t until the Monday of the following week that the ABC reported that the community-based Aboriginal organisation Waltja Tjutanki Palyapayi had provided assistance to the group:

“…the community-based organisation that police say organised the transport, the Waltja Tjutanki Palyapayi Aboriginal Corporation, says it contacted government agencies as soon as the group made the decision to leave. The organisation says more than 25 government workers came to talk to the families.”

Things went a bit quiet on the political blame game front over the next few days and the whole story then morphed into an undignified discussion of the merits, application and relevance of traditional punishment, also known as “payback.”

That really set the hares running and will be the subject of a follow-up post in the next few days.