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Issue # 1422      5 August 2009

Fed-up Ampilatwatja people walk out, demanding action

Even if it looked a little like one, the broken-down garbage truck planted for months in the municipal works yard at Ampilatwatja was no white elephant.

Rather than a symbol of good fortune and prosperity, to locals it was an indicator of what little regard governments and service providers had for them.

Mid-month, about 30 Elders and other residents walked off the community 350 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs in protest at losing control over their community store, and poor housing, sanitation and other services provided by the Barkly Shire Council on contract from the federal government.

They set up a make-shift camp several kilometres away, beyond the boundary of a five-year government lease compulsorily acquired over the community under the Northern Territory intervention.

Despite having no proper shelter in single-digit night temperatures and no access to running water, the expanding group say the camp is still better than life in town where anywhere up to 15 people live in each tin shack or besser-block house, sewage regularly overflows from septic systems and on to the floors, and rubbish blows around the streets.

And where, nearly two years after the NT intervention promised them “mainstream” standard services, things have gotten worse.

The protestors had called on federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin to come and see the conditions for herself, and hear what the 400-500 Ampilatwatja residents want.

However, after the Minister ruled out any new housing at Ampilatwatja, they said they weren’t fussed whether she came or not. “Bugger it, we’re going to stay out there,” a spokesperson for the group, Richard Downs, told The Koori Mail newspaper from Alice Springs.

“Whether (the Minister) comes or not, it won’t achieve anything. We’re pushing for an abolishment of the intervention and we would like her to resign.

“On the Labor government’s line about Closing the Gap, it’s starting to show there’s cracks and lies there.”

Late last month, an NT government-contracted plumber travelled to Ampilatwatja to try to fix overflowing septic tanks at a cost of $70,000, but Mr Downs said the issue was bigger than that. “We have seen no progress in our community over the last three years. The place is a mess,” he said.

“Our leaders have no say or involvement in what’s happening on ground... We are an outcast on our own community.”

Ampilatwatja health clinic CEO Kim Morrish told The Koori Mail the issues were multiple and things were getting worse. “The contracts for municipal and housing services have been given to the Barkly Shire and they’re not performing on that contract,” he said bluntly.

Mr Morrish said that since the garbage truck broke down at the beginning of the year, the council’s rubbish collection involved two men manually lifting wheelie bins on to the back of a flatbed truck. While residents waited for the irregular service, donkeys often knocked bins over, joined by dogs in rummaging through the rubbish.

“As a result the place is awash with rubbish and there are problems with communicable diseases,” Mr Morrish said. “We certainly have an increase in gastro-intestinal ailments, especially when the septic systems overflow. 

“And then we get the usual health problems associated with overcrowding in houses – lice, scabies and things like that. People would be up in arms if it happened in an urban area.”

Mr Morrish said the Barkly Shire Council appeared to be relying on locals employed on CDEP (Community Development Employment Projects) wages to prop up its budgets, and the different levels of government didn’t seem to talk to each other.

“The Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) is the funding body and holds the purse strings, but the way they’re spending it is not in consultation with the community,” he said.

“And if Barkly Shire says they have not got enough money to provide the services, why did they take it on? They should have said to FaHCSIA ‘if you want us to do it properly, this is what it will take’.”

A community health worker at the clinic, Eileen Bonney, told The Koori Mail residents were sick and tired of poor services. “It makes the people feel sad. That’s why they walked out but they have no water out there,” she said. “I work here so that’s why I stayed.”

Housing lobby group NT Shelter called on the federal and NT governments to undertake an urgent, full and transparent review of current housing policies and practices.

“The actions by Ampilatwatja residents places serious questions over the ability of government agencies to manage housing for Aboriginal communities and people, including the action to forcibly acquire Alice Springs town camp community housing in favour of management by Territory Housing,” said executive officer Toni Vine Bromley.

NT Opposition spokesman on Indigenous policy Adam Giles said the “snail’s pace” of the roll-out of the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program highlighted the NT government’s inability to fulfil the promises made to Aboriginal people.

“While the Henderson government fiddles, Aboriginal people are walking in ankle deep sewage,” he said in a statement.

The Koori Mail sought an interview with Minister Macklin but received no response. However, the Minister told ABC Radio that, while the government would be upgrading houses, Ampilatwatja was not one of 15 communities earmarked for new housing in the Territory.

“We’re concentrating the new housing in the 15 communities where we have large numbers of people and severe overcrowding and very high population growth,” she said. “It is a hard decision to take to concentrate the housing in this way but it’s really to address the very, very large need in those big communities.”

The Koori Mail

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