Effectiveness of state, territory and Commonwealth government policies on regional and remote Indigenous communities
Database Senate Committees
Date 22-05-2009
Source Senate
Parl No. 42
Page 2
Place Darwin
Questioner CHAIR
Senator ADAMS
Reference Effectiveness of state, territory and Commonwealth government policies on regional and remote Indigenous communities
Responder Mr Guyula
Mr Greatorex
Status Final
System Id committees/commsen/12000/0001

SELECT COMMITTEE ON REGIONAL AND REMOTE INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES - 22/05/2009 - Effectiveness of state, territory and Commonwealth government policies on regional and remote Indigenous communities

CHAIR —I welcome Mr John Greatorex and Mr Yingiya Guyula.

Mr Guyula —I was born and raised on the edge of the Arafura swamp at a place called Mirrngatja. I lived my life in the bush before I even went into school at Galiwinku. I have worked at various places, including on airplanes. I gained my private pilot licence and I am now working as a lecturer at Charles Darwin University. I am here as a representative—a senior man—of my people, Liya-dhalinymirr-Djambbarrpuyngu, of the north-east Arnhem Land around Gapuwiyak and the homelands that I just spoke about—Mapuru, Mirrngatja and Donydji. These are very remote areas away from remote communities like Milingimbi, Galiwinku and Gapuwiyak. I will also talk about places like Gapuwiyak and how the intervention has affected our area. Later I would like to pass on my concerns to the Senate.

Mr Greatorex —I am appearing before the Senate committee in my private capacity.

CHAIR —Thank you. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. The committee has before it your submission. I now invite you to make a short opening statement. At the conclusion of your remarks I will ask members of the committee to put questions to you.

Mr Greatorex —First, I would like to say that I am conscious that I am a white male. I feel that many people in north-east Arnhem who need to be here are the women whom I cannot represent. I come into daily contact with people in north-east Arnhem Land. After having spent about 30 years living in north-east Arnhem Land I feel I have a responsibility to present things that have come to me through contact with adoptive families in north-east Arnhem Land. The Northern Territory emergency response has had a major impact on north-east Arnhem Land. It is mentioned in the submission that people have been, for want of a better word, bad-mouthed in the eyes of all Australians.

Every time we read articles in a newspaper or see programs on television there have been negative stories. This has had an immense impact on the spiritual and emotional health of people. Recently, I was speaking to one old man in Arnhem Land. I came back from Arnhem Land a day ago. This old man said, ‘What has happened to us is like riding a horse. I am on this horse and the horse is galloping. It is galloping through the forest, these blinkers on, cannot see exactly where it is going, but the horse is swerving. The problem is that I do not have control of the reins; someone else is controlling it.’ He said, ‘That is what my life is like. Sometimes I am terrified that the horse is going to run into a tree and I will be knocked off by a bough but I have no control of where I am going or what I am doing.’ Those were his words, not mine.

I also wanted briefly to discuss how north-east Arnhem—and I assume the rest of Australia—is made up of first nations of people. The government and white Australia have very little knowledge of the governance structures. If governments and people do not recognise and work with those peoples using political systems and governance structures that work for them and that always have, we will continue to run into problems. The government is saying, ‘We will now pour more money into these larger centres and build up Gapuwiyak, Milingimbi, Ramingining, Yirrkala and other centres’, but that will create more problems because we will be pulling people from surrounding homelands into country that is not theirs.

I would not want to call any of those places a refugee camp, but the sentiment is there. The Government will be putting people into country where they do not have a say; where they have no authority to be because they have their county elsewhere. It is like bringing British people over to France and saying, ‘You can live over here but you are not citizens of France.’ I am trying to say that centralising policies are not working in the best interests of the people. The NTER was brought about through the Little children are sacred report. The first and strongest recommendation in that report is that we need to negotiate. Governments need to find ways in which to negotiate meaningfully and respectfully. That has not been done.

We are continuing to move in a direction that I believe is ideologically motivated and against the evidence on the ground. In the future that will cause greater dysfunction in those places, it will alienate people even more and that will require greater policing. That problem could be overcome. However, it is not for me to talk about that now. We can do one thing. I would like to table two documents—one is shorter version of the other—that contain ways of improving the capacity of the public service to interact and engage with first nations peoples. The first report asks about the success of the NTER. Not long after the NTER had been announced I remember it being said that there was widespread pornography, alcohol and child abuse in Indigenous communities—none of the things that I had witnessed in my 30 years experience of Arnhem Land.

People from Elcho Island with whom I live and call relatives rang me and said ‘Attempted youth suicides have just hit the roof. We continually have to move from where we are living to different places that are outside Arnhem Land to go back and be with the younger members of our families.’ They were distraught about these images depicting the occurrence of child abuse and pornography. People had been labelled, which has had an enormous and negative impact right across Australia but most profoundly on Indigenous and first nations peoples in the Northern Territory.

I do not want to go on for too long. There are issues relating to law and order and the spiritual health of people has been detrimentally affected. I would like to give you a couple of examples of law and order issues that I have witnessed firsthand. Not long ago I received a phone call from a federal police officer asking for assistance. She wanted to know how she could do her job better. The first question I asked was, ‘How long are you there?’ She said, ‘I am leaving next week.’ How can people engage if they know nothing about the people that they are meant to be supporting?

When I was last at Galiwinku on Elcho Island another thing happened. The police decided to conduct a community relations exercise. A football match was halfway through being played and they brought out stun guns and demonstrated stun guns. People interpreted that as intimidation. It had the reverse effect. Those stun guns were not something that people were happy to see, but the police generally thought that it was a good thing to do.

CHAIR —When was this Mr Greatorex?

Mr Greatorex —Last year.

CHAIR —Can you remember where that football game that was being played?

Mr Greatorex —I have pictures of it.

CHAIR —If you could supply those it would be very useful for us.

Mr Greatorex —We have just come back from Arnhem Land. While we were out there a little incident occurred. Two young fellas were having a bit of an altercation. I was thinking that the police could easily have become involved in that altercation. However, one of their family members went up and spoke to them and drew their attention to how important it was for them to realise that they were connected to each other because of their history. The incident dissipated within hours.

If the police had seen that altercation they would have gone along and maybe locked up one of the fellas. There was no alcohol or anything because there is no alcohol out in these places. If the police had been there they might have pulled those fellas apart, taken them away, questioned them and maybe pressed charges—who knows? But it would have made the situation worse. In north-east Arnhem Land at the moment it is often my experience that a police presence makes things worse because they do not understand how the community can better solve its own problems. Police are not experienced, they do not have any language and they do not have any cultural background. In many ways they are compounding the issues out in north-east Arnhem Land.

I refer, next, to schooling and education. We need to be careful when we use those two words. Schooling has not changed other than that there seem to be more resources going into the urban settlements—those places that we call communities—but it has not increased attendance. In fact, I would think that attendance has probably gone backwards because more and more people are feeling under personal threat.

CHAIR —Do you have any insight into why attendance is down? Do they not want to attend their schools because they are frightened of the schools? Is that right, or are they frightened of something at the schools?

Mr Greatorex —Thank you, Mr Chair, for asking that question. There are a number of things. Let me give you some background. I worked as a teacher, an educator and an assistant principal at Shepparton for close on 30 years. During that time the homelands had 100 per cent participation. Every kid at that homeland would go to school every day. But at the major centre, Galiwinku, their attendance was very poor. This did not relate only to attendance. Something in which the Department of Education has not been particularly interested is participation.

Over the period that I was there up to 600 to 700 children could have been attending school. Rarely, if ever, did that participation rate get above 350, so half the children did not even get on the rolls. In the homelands every child was on the roll book and every child attended every day. For a couple of years I counted the assemblies at Elcho Island. Not once did I see more than 90 students at any assembly at any one time. What we get on the roll books does not necessarily reflect the state of play on the ground. Why do those kids not go to school? It is simple: many of the parents may not want to be at that place. They have been forced by policies onto land that is not their own and where they do not have authority to talk. It is not their country and it never can be.

If the parents believe that they have no authority and no way in which to move forward with their lives that is what the children will believe. Things have got dramatically worse. In the early 1970s, when I first visited Elcho Island, the houses were built by local building teams and supervised by a local Yolngu builder who had trained in Darwin. All the houses were built by local people but now virtually none are. If there is not an opportunity to live a productive life, why go to school? Let me give you another example. Last year I was at Elcho Island and a contracting team from Townsville was doing paving outside the council office.

I believe local people want to work but the government does not know how to assist them. Contractors are not interested in engaging people meaningfully and respectfully. That is why I gave you those two reports earlier because I think that is a way forward. Does that answer your question?

CHAIR —Indeed, thank you.

Mr Greatorex —Are we running out of time?

CHAIR —We are already well over time but that is because some of the senators were unavoidably detained this morning and I apologise for that. If Mr Guyula wanted to comment on any aspect he could do so, but I think we should ask some short questions so we can try to get through the morning.

Mr Greatorex —Could I make one short point before Yingiya Guyula makes any comment? Recently we put together some statistics. Paragraph 4 of the NTER asks about employment and enterprise opportunities. Last night I went through some calculations and I drew a comparison between one homeland and the major centre at Elcho Island where non-attached non-government money is coming to them. On Elcho Island the average is about $60 per annum per person. At this one homeland I think the average income, non-attached, not related to funding or to government, is about $4,000 per annum per head. People in the homelands have ability and an enterprise that we are not harnessing, that we are not looking at, and that we are not recognising.

Mr Guyula —Thank you for letting me come here. I am glad to be able to talk to the Senate committee as I have always wanted to pass on a message about how I and my people feel. I am talking from a background where at the moment we have been put under the spotlight as a result of the intervention. There have been complaints and we have been upset and angry at times about the way it has been introduced to us.

I would like to talk to you all day but, unfortunately, I cannot. I would like to make a few points about the intervention. One day I conducted a survey of the communities in town camps around Alice Springs, Katherine and Nhulunbuy. As a result I worked out how income management could be introduced. They had never been out to Arnhem Land let alone to the remote communities.

When I am talking about remote communities I am referring to small communities such as Mapuru, Mirrngatja and even Yirrkala. Yesterday there were some people here from Laynhapuy who spoke to you. These are the places that we are talking about. Income management with the BasicsCard and the quarantining of Centrelink funds just will not work out there. For example, from Mapuru people have to fly in to Elcho Island, which costs about $500 a charter return.

By the time the Centrelink funds have gone through quarantine income management they only have about $200 of spending money and the rest of the money is in the BasicsCard that they cannot use because they have to fly to a community that has shops where the BasicsCard can be used. At Mapuru there is a shop that is willing to operate the BasicsCard facilities but somehow they will not let it. So people have to fly in and it costs $500 return on a charter flight. There is no regular passenger transport or RPT run: they have to pay $250 to fly in and $250 to fly back. Then they probably buy $150 worth of food and stuff.

CHAIR —Would only one person charter an aircraft to go shopping by himself or herself, or would the charter take a number of people from the community at the same time? Are you giving me the statistics for one person going shopping in a four-seater aircraft, which is probably the smallest one that runs there?

Mr Guyula —Yes.

CHAIR —Would they go by themselves?

Mr Guyula —Sometimes they would go by themselves and sometimes people want to get a free ride over with someone else paying for the whole charter. At times a group of people get together and sometimes there are only one or two people who want to go into town and they just cannot afford it.

CHAIR —So there is no other way apart from flying?

Mr Guyula —A boat could probably be run but, then again, it is moored right up the river and the river is about 30 kilometres away.

CHAIR —I have taken the boat trip a number of times. I just wanted to get that on the record.

Mr Guyula —A vehicle is a problem too from where the boat is normally moored.

Mr Greatorex —And there are tides.

Mr Guyula —And there are tides. That costs money for petrol to be able to go there and back.

CHAIR —The point you are making, Mr Guyula, refers to the reason why you have to travel out of the community. You have a store there but because the BasicsCard prevents you from accessing food in that store you are forced to travel elsewhere. You cannot support the store in your own community and you have to pay ridiculous amounts of money for air charter and other things to get to the other store?

Mr Guyula —Yes.

CHAIR —This afternoon we are speaking to someone from the government who is responsible for the allocation of those stores, so we will certainly put that question to him.

Mr Guyula —The other thing I wanted to talk about relating to the BasicsCard or to the quarantining of Centrelink funds is that it would be better if it was optional. In some communities there might be gambling and other stuff and people spend money carelessly in towns, but out in the homelands there is no drinking or card games on which people might spend money. The quarantining of Centrelink funds does not work for people in the remote areas which I come from. This has had an impact on our people. I think the quarantining of Centrelink funds should be optional for most people who look after the funds fairly; it should not apply to people out there.

The other thing that I wanted to talk about was the policing in the community. The police have not really got to know the people in the community. We would like the police to be able to work alongside our traditional elders. Last year when I was in Ramingining there were some incidents. A sacred men’s business ceremony was passing through and the police thought it was people doing a run to smuggle drugs and stuff. The police ran into the ceremony. It made the people very upset about it because they ran into a sacred ceremony ground simply because there is no communication. There is no communication between the community, the council and the police.

I have lived in Nhulunbuy and Ramingining. Recently I came back from where my home is at Gapuwiyak. I have seen the police and the night patrol which is run by local people there do their own work separately. They do not even get together. They should be working together on crimes and on policing around the community. There is no communication between night patrol and the police, and there is no communication between the police and the senior elders who also do the policing. John referred earlier to a couple of lads that had a bit of an argument over something that was a family matter. I am sure that if the police had come they would have made the situation worse. I stepped in and, acted as a local policeman, and I did it perfectly and with more understanding. The next day those boys were together again and they were happy.

CHAIR —Do you think there is any need for police officers at all there?

Mr Guyula —Maybe the police officers can look after other drug runs, or if there are alcohol-related problems in the communities. I think it would be better if they worked alongside and had close links with the traditional owners, the people in council, or the elders of the clans. Looking at it from my point of view, as a person who is living in the community, I see them as working out of glasshouses. People are very frightened of the police because there is not much communication with people. They should be coming into the ceremonies, joining in, coming into the camps, sitting around and maybe going fishing with people. They should take part in the community.

Senator ADAMS —As elders have you invited them to do that?

Mr Guyula —No, there has not been anything like that. But people are willing to give others a sound knowledge in their culture and teachings, to let them undergo ceremonies, to let them get to know the culture and the language, and then to let them work amongst the people. Last week before I got to Gapuwiyak there was an incident. The police were after one lad and they went around looking for him. They walked into a house where a senior leader of the elders was lying on a mattress on the floor. The police picked up this man but it was the wrong one.

People were very upset about that because he was a well-respected man and that sort of thing. Maybe the police and the community should work together to resolve problems. They should join in one another’s affairs. We see them as doing crime runs around the place instead of being in the community and being active also in other things.

CHAIR —Thank you Mr Guyula. We are now well over time.

Senator SIEWERT —I will put my questions on notice.

Senator ADAMS —Mr Guyula, I listened to what you said earlier. Did the elders and the traditional owners of the community go to the police and say, ‘We want to have a meeting? Let us sit down and talk about all this’? Communication should occur on both sides. I think it would be better, as you are the traditional owners and it is your area, for you say to them, ‘Come and we will teach you.’ You could get them to really understand your culture. I see communication as a two-way thing. As you are the owners perhaps that might be a way forward. I am sure you have tried, but maybe you have to try a little harder. In your submission you state that the local cooperative could not get the income management funds through FaHCSIA. What communication have you had to see whether that store could be looked at again to enable you to use your BasicsCard?

Mr Guyula —I think John would know more about that issue. We have been working together.

Mr Greatorex —The last application went in a few months ago and again it was rejected. The cooperative won a national heart foundation award for what it is doing.

Senator ADAMS —Yes, I know. I am fully aware of that but I just wondered about the reason for the refusal.

CHAIR —As I understand it, the Northern Territory emergency response legislation covered particular centres but specifically excluded from those aspects the homelands, whether or not you were a government business manager. This is a consequence of that. It is important that you brought up this issue. Could you provide the correspondence between FaHCSIA and your organisation? It would be useful to hear their responses. If they just said no we will have something to say about that. However, if they said, ‘No because’ we would be interested to hear why. I ask you to provide that information for us on notice, Mr Greatorex.

Mr Greatorex —Basically, they just said no, but I can provide documentation. I will speak to the general business manager also to see whether he has any details.

Senator SIEWERT —Do you know of any other centres where this has been an issue? We know of at least two or three centres. If you know of others could you let us know when you provide us with the other correspondence as that would be very useful?

Mr Greatorex —Yes, there are others.

Senator SIEWERT —Thank you.

CHAIR —Mr Guyula and Mr Greatorex, I am sorry but we have well and truly run out of time. As this is a standing committee I am sure that members of the committee will have a number of other questions. We will place those questions on notice and find some other way of ensuring that we get answers to those questions. Thank you for your submission and for the evidence that you have provided today.

Mr Guyula —Thank you.

Mr Greatorex —Thank you.

[9.46 am]