www.smh.com.au

Reform perhaps, but basics first

Philip Martin
December 7, 2007

The remote far north Queensland Aboriginal community of Aurukun has rioted for the third time this year.

On Monday 200 people armed with spears, knives and sticks fought street battles before being subdued by tactical response police. The riot has been reported in the media as resulting from sly-grog boated in from Weipa on Sunday. Aurukun is one of the four Cape York communities in Noel Pearson's welfare reform program.

Pearson's collaboration with the Howard government to shift the language of public debate on Aborigines from "rights-based" to "responsibility-based" has concealed many of the day-to-day problems that lead communities such as Aurukun to riot.

On July 18 Pearson's plan to alter the conditions of Aboriginal people through a carrot-and-stick approach to welfare was supported by the indigenous affairs minister, Mal Brough, with $48 million in funding. In the same week I wrote in these pages that passive welfare was only one part of a larger problem. The plan Pearson sent to Canberra had omitted evidence that this was the case.

The research I collected over six months living in Aurukun while working for Pearson's Cape York Partnerships showed Aurukun is chronically under-resourced in infrastructure and services. This a source of community frustration and a factor in its social breakdown. My work suggested that a range of issues affecting day-to-day lives would need addressing before a welfare reform program could succeed.

One of these was chronic overcrowding in housing. Often more than 20 family members lived in one broken-down house. I listed many incidents of broken pipes flooding houses, making them uninhabitable. I wrote on children waiting in the mornings for 15 or more people to use the single shower before them, and being late to school or absent and how families could wait for months for plumbers or builders to show up, if at all.

Other essential services are absent in Aurukun. These include:

 - No Centrelink officer charged with supporting people to get "real jobs";

 - No AbStudy representative to respond to questions on education, and few people have phones;

 - No Department of Emergency Services officers;

 - No permanent drug and alcohol counsellor addressing the grog and substance abuse;

 - No permanent doctors; and

 - No dentist.

The food trucked in is of low quality and up to four times as dear as in Cairns. Packs of wild dogs roam the streets. The services that are there - the school, the health clinic, the police - are under-staffed and under-resourced.

Sadly, the Aurukun riots demonstrate the state's free licence in relation to remote Aboriginal communities. After the January 11 riot Aurukun went from having a police force incapable of responding to most call-outs through lack of manpower (the then sergeant-in-charge told me he needed 16 full-time officers, but had only six) to overnight having teams of special forces in troop carriers, in out-of-all-proportion black-body armour, balaclavas and semi-automatics.

By January 13 the Aurukun airstrip went from hosting only the Royal Flying Doctor plane and the eight-seat charter, to police and government jets screaming in (and out). There were counsellors for state-service providers, police ethics inspectors asking questions of the community, and reporters in helicopters.

A week after the January riots there were meetings between Aurukun Shire Council, clan elders, the acting Queensland police minister, Andrew Fraser, and the communities minister, Warren Pitt. Aurukun asked only for a permanent sports and recreation officer, extra community funding and better policing. It was a wretched wish-list from a community used to not getting much. The community was told it would be granted.

Community pacified, job done, the ministers flew out, the papers stopped carrying the story, the public moved on. More than nine months later there is still no sports and recreation officer in Aurukun, the police numbers remain nine below what the former sergeant-in-charge requested, and half the permanent staff at the health clinic have gone. There have been two more riots, on September 19 and on Monday.

The move from rights-based to responsibility-based Aboriginal welfare policy is tying Aurukun's people into ever-tighter relations of financial control, surveillance and regulation through welfare reform, while overlooking federal and state responsibilities to provide essential infrastructure.

People in cities think that controlling Aborigines through welfare will work in their best interests, eventually. Riots such as Monday's seem to justify the need for neo-liberal interventions in Aboriginal communities. In fact they show that welfare reform cannot work without the Government also responding to community pleas for adequate policing and housing, at the least.

Philip Martin worked as a family engagement officer on the Welfare Reform Project in Aurukun for Cape York Partnerships between November 2006 and May 2007.

When news happens: send photos, videos & tip-offs to 0424 SMS SMH (+61 424 767 764), or us.

Did you know you could pay less than $1 a day for a subscription to the Herald? Subscribe today.