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Two Australias


Two Australias

Harold Nelson at Arlparra

TX Al Jazeera English September 2010 - watch the film

Out There News investigates for Al Jazeera's People and Power why a massive Australian government programme to tackle poverty, alcoholism and violence in Aboriginal communities has provoked anger and despair among the people it is designed to help.

Aboriginal society in Australia is in crisis. In overcrowded, broken-down houses and tin shacks on the edge of isolated towns such as Alice Springs and in tiny remote communities, many of Australia’s half-million Aboriginal people live in desperate poverty, disconnected from the modern economy except as recipients of welfare payments. Alcoholism and substance abuse such as petrol sniffing are rife, violence between drunken men and within families is common, and a large proportion of children fail to go to school. One of the richest countries in the world hides a subculture of third-world deprivation: on average, Aboriginal men die 11.5 years younger than non-Aboriginals; the life expectancy gap for women is 9.7 years.

Four years ago, a media storm about cases of child sexual abuse in remote communities in the Northern Territory, the vast area stretching from the deserts around Alice Springs in central Australia to the tropical coast in the north, provoked drastic action by the then right-wing government to try to turn Aboriginal society around.

Under the “NT Intervention”, as it was called, half a billion dollars were allocated to build and repair housing; alcohol and pornography were banned in many communities; and welfare payments were ‘quarantined’ to ensure that money would be spent on food rather than drink or drugs – people were given a “Basic Card” to use only in approved stores, rather than cash.

The NT Intervention has now been built into an even bigger Australia-wide programme, called “Closing the Gap”, to bring Aboriginal standards of health, education and employment up to those of the mainstream of Australia by 2018. Federal and state governments have committed $5 billion to housing, schools, health services and job creation over the next several years.

However, Aboriginal people and many non-Aboriginals who work with remote communities say the Intervention has been at best ineffective and at worst a disaster.

In Alice Springs, controversy has raged over a $135 million “Transformation Plan” to clear years’ worth of trash from 18 Aboriginal shanty areas and to build and repair houses and provide social services.

The scheme is designed to improve life for the 1,800 Aboriginal people living in the squalid “town camps” but for the people themselves, the government action feels like a brutal defeat. The Transformation Plan has suspended Aboriginal rights over land and gutted the power of the Aboriginal-run town camps council. Aboriginal people negotiated and fought in the courts for nearly a year but in the end, they lost much of the control over their own lives which they struggled for decades to win.

In community after community across the vast, isolated north, people repeat the same complaint: government programmes, almost all run by non-Aboriginal Australians with little knowledge of Aboriginal language or society, have taken power away from Aboriginal communities and left people feeling humiliated and marginalised, their wishes ignored and the very survival of their culture threatened.

This People and Power film investigates the realities behind the claim and counter-claim about the Intervention. It explores what is going wrong, both in Aboriginal society and in the government response, but also identifies signs of hope.