Aurukun Diary 2006

In 2006 while traveling up the Queensland coast with my family I was engaged by the then director-general of the Department of Education Ken Smith to work as a government liaison worker in the Cape York community of Aurukun.  I lived in Aurukun for approximately 5 months and this is a diary of my thoughts, feelings and outrage.


Malcolm Price


July 4th 2006

Yesterday a house was confirmed for us in Aurukun and we are aiming at going there in two weeks, the 19th of July, the contract will initially be till November 30th and then we will head South for Christmas.

Something Jacky said to me has had a real resonance with me about Aboriginal culture, essential characteristics developed within a hunter gatherer context.  As with any broad statement it probably should not be taken out of context.  Aboriginal culture imbues a strong tactical sense but a weak strategic sense.  So Aboriginal people tend to have remarkable ability to function in the here and now, they have remarkable spatial sense, knowing what is happening around them, and they can therefore adapt quickly and to the outsider with remarkable ingenuity to things that come up.  The example often posed is the car that breaks down, can be fixed in order to get to the destination, however if you want to maintain the car, something that requires planning they are less inclined to this way of thinking.  So they are weak in exactly what so much of Western culture is saying is important.  “You must plan for your future.”  What for?  For us in a sense it has become self fulfilling prophecy.  We have this imbued fear that if we don’t plan for our retirement nobody will.  So we need the superannuation and ten houses, there is no longer an assumption that our family or even the government will take care of us.  I don’t believe questions like this even occur to most Aboriginal people, they seem to have an underlying sense that things will work themselves out.  What seems to make this toxic in a sense is that there is this whole mainstream society is telling them that their culture has no or little value except for maybe the odd painting and the bit of understanding of the bush they have.  So but their temporal sense particularly in making plans is weak.  When I looked at the way these Aboriginal kids played with my kids, I saw this extraordinary ability to play, accommodate others in the play, to adapt and innovate the play, to make the play exciting spatially and physically, to see from moment to moment new collaborations, where cooperation worked far better as a way to refine, and redefine the play.  It is the same thing we see in so many Aboriginal football players, yet except for these elite sporting and cultural expressions our wider society does not know how to harness it let alone even explain it to ourselves.  Which leads me to another linking thought,  I have been around a way of thinking about community development theory for a while that says we should work with the strengths of people not the weaknesses.  It is a sentiment that I completely agree with, telling someone or a community that they have problems, they are underprivileged, they are disadvantaged has only very limited value.  However how are we to describe these strengths, I don’t know how many times I have heard myself describing almost defending some of the “disadvantaged” communities I have worked in as being “such rich communities”.  So much of the language around communalism, communism and cooperation has been caste into the waste bin of current history.  How do we fight back and rebuild the language in ways that resonate widely.  I want to be able to advocate far more effectively the strengths and values of the culture of the Aboriginal people I am working with rather then having to revert to describing the deficit side of a culture or people.

As I am now going to send this journal entry to you David I have other more practical questions to ask.  I figure I will start my own conversation with the Aurukun community using a community mapping methodology, creating a series of story maps of the township.  I don’t know what will come up, but one aspect I would like to approach is a sense of what clans are custodians of what parts, where are the ceremonial grounds etc.  A friend of mine Shaneen Fantin did her Phd on Aboriginal architecture and she developed this series of map of Galiwin’ku including showing a whole range of “invisible” ceremonial sites.  It gives logic to the siting of a range of houses and I believe is the minimum needed to properly begin a sensible planning of the community.  Now David does any of your work do this?

I have thrown these out part as questions, part as rhetorical questions, so I don’t expect immediate answers, but as you have been so helpful to date I thought I would seek your views.

Finally if it isn’t impertinent are you doing any current work related to Aurukun and if so what is it?

First Days

July 22nd 2006

We arrived in Aurukun 3 days ago. Upon arriving I was due to attend an interagency meeting organised for Ken Smith to attend. Ken Smith is the director general of the Department of Education and the Arts and also the Queensland government champion of Aurukun, also technically my boss. However first before I felt comfortable to attend this meeting I wanted to get Rita and the boys into our new house. So we front up to the medical centre to get keys. The reason we need to get keys there is that the house we will be living in is a Department of Health house, there weren’t any appropriate Ed Queensland houses (I officially work for them). The wires have been crossed, the people at the health centre think we are to be arriving in the middle of August, and they want to be able to strip the Health furniture out so Ed Q can furnish the house with their stuff. Just a wee fuck up has occurred, I need to see Pete Fenton about it, and it turns out he is at the meeting I am supposed to be at. So we all head off there for the interagency meeting, I arrive late and try to slide into the room only to be pointed out by the DG. They are discussing housing issues, mainly worker housing and the profound lack of it. Ironic!

Now some of you may know that the possibility of us moving to and my working at Aurukun first arose about 3 months ago when we were packing up house in Brisbane. I had sent an email to all and sundry saying we were leaving Brisbane and initially travelling North before expecting to turn South at some point after the middle of the year. Anyway in response to that email my ex boss at Community Renewal Michelle sent a curious response asking how far North we intended going, I asked why and the possibility of working in Aurukun was proposed. Since then we have had a variety of email discussions and we got to visit Aurukun to see if we wanted to come and we also tried to define and refine what the role I would be doing. I didn’t take this too seriously because I knew that once I arrived on the ground the role would be redefined again. Which brings us back to the interagency meeting.

Within five minutes of my arriving Ken Smith the DG was volunteering me to take on housing issues as a major focus of my work. Very ironic, Breathtaking that it only took five minutes, faster then I thought it would take. Welcome to Aurukun.

Still that was okay, I half expected housing to become a key issue for me and second Pete Fenton being the very reasonable man he is resolved our personal family housing issue immediately without any further complication. Happily he and Polly who I had met earlier at the medical centre are our neighbours, lovely genuine people. It only resolving the wider issue of housing were easy too.

So Aurukun what are my first thoughts?
It is a place of so much light and shade and it exists in a bubble that is of another time and place. In the ways that we in mainstream western civilisation define disfunction, it is very disfunctional, I am amazed given the obstacles that it functions at all. Nothing is maintained, often including the people and workers, and so many things and people and continuing to break down but that stuff doesn’t seem to matter as much. When we first went to the guest house there were five new looking fridges and only one worked, it is just too expensive to fly someone in to fix them, while at the same time a silent decree floats above saying its such and suchs responsibility to fix, usually Council yet they, yet Council’s means to even respond are to the limit, so everything deteriates so much faster. Workers also arrive and it is either sink or swim and many sink, however those that swim seem to have a profound loyalty to Aurukun and Aurukun people. It is a type of civilisation that decreed by the bureaucracy on the frontier, and which is failing nearly all bureacratic tests. The whole structure of these people living 10-15 people to a house, in houses that are poorly sited, poorly planned, inappropriately designed, each house existing in its own cyclone fence compound on a completely contrived town grid with 6 traditional clans forced to coexist. Its crazy, yet, despite too many of the old people dying and too much of the traditional knowledge dying with them, despite all of the terrible problems associated with poverty and the post colonial experience such alcohol, DV and child abuse, little real employment, poor health, despite all of this there is a strength and vitality about the people that I can’t as yet define. We went to a series of house openings this afternoon. For those who don’t know this is related to the renewing the use of a house associated with someone who has died. Usually houses remain unused for up to 12 months, although sometimes people are pragmatic and make the time shorter. At a house opening there is dancing and a ceremonial smoking of the house so that it can again used. It felt connected to a system or world view that has depth, feels more real, not caught in relativism like so much in our western society. Yet they do need to sort of technical skills and strategic thinking I can bring. I think I will like working here. I think I will learn more then I suspect. Rita has already made a good connection with a women who weaves baskets, we have also made a connection with a women Phylis who will teach us some Wik Mungkan language. It should be interesting, I can’t help feeling that this will not be an easy place to walk away from when the time comes.

I hope to write again soon, especially when I know better what I am doing. I hope you are well.


White Ants

July 25th 2006

Today I started to get a feel for the real obstacles I will face in making any real progress of working effectively in Aurukun.  I began the day with Jacky warning me to be careful because if I am in any way threatening to people, particularly if I am looking to make processes transparent then people will white ant me, either consciously or unconsciously.  And while I respect Jacky and like him I must try to see beyond his views on some things, it is working out what is legitimate and what falls into areas of his personal aggravation.  So far the positive thing is that he seems to comfortable with being confronted on this stuff.

I came in contact with Linda in the council again today, a woman with a seriously power I think.  I do not like her, but if I am to get anywhere 5 will probably have to get on her good side.  She is the spider in the middle of the web, it will be interesting to see whether she is the black widow.  Jane Karyuka suggested going along to help out at her Monday or Thursday kids club or failing that attending mass on Sunday.

Happily Jane gave me quite a few good tips, and fortunately she seems to have a good understanding of what I am here to do and understands what community development is about.   My initial response in relation to her and Jacky has played out reasonably accurately so far.

Jane also has delivered me a couple of simple practical tasks, in relation to design of housing.

History Repeats

July 29, 2006

It is now close to two weeks since we arrived in Aurukun. The issues, weaknesses and the strengths of Aurukun are so complex and if the adage “that if you do not understand your history then you are bound to repeat its mistakes” is true of anywhere then it is true here. I feel that we have arrived here in a small window of opportunity for positive change, but that the opportunity could close down again next month, next year or in 5 years, the current apparent stability is fragile. Of course getting a concensus on what should be done is a large part of the problem. There has been a lot of wrong headed thinking, a lot of miss allocation of resources, a lot of injustice and inequity, entrenched negative vested interests and mismanagement, but there has also been a lot of really good ideas and practice, but in such a fragile government policy environment it is almost impossible to get agreement for long enough to maintain consistently good practice in any one direction, particularly as awareness of remote Aboriginal communities is only ever momentary and is usually out of sight and therefore out of mind, most of the time. Most constructive steps require experimental approaches all of which involve risks, and rarely has there been sufficient resources or political will to create properly managed processes for long enough to know whether the impact will be positive. Defining what is positive change is problematical in itself. Unfortunately despite the rhetoric the predominant view is still strongly assimilationist, although I doubt you would find many who would admit to this. “they will be better off if only they are more like us”. So there is constant tension about what to do next, and the ability to maintain any direction that is difficult or goes to strongly against the status quo. I think it is not too dramatic to describe the people here as being in a form of post traumatic stress syndrome similar to what you might find in a people who have experienced a war or even a holocaust like the Jews or Gypsies after WW2. The ten years preceding the introduction of an alcohol management plan in 2003 were a savage and horrific time in Aurukun, Aurukun was not unique but for some reason because the nature of the Aurukun people it seems to have been worse here then most other communities. Aurukun the town is made up of 6 main clans groups, mostly Wik people whose inter-clanal animosities stretch back millennia. During the 90’s the community became out of control, there were on average 15 murders a year, in a population of 1000-1200 people and between 50-100 traumatic injuries dealt with at the primary health centre every week. There were ongoing savage street fights between large groups of local people usually along clan lines, the weapons of choice seem to have been star pickets and iron bars, mostly this was done under an alcoholic haze. Anybody visiting the community during this period used metaphors often ascribed to war zones. The implementation of the Alcohol Management Plan in 2003, and the introduction Opal fuel (petrol that can not be used as an inhalant) that restricted alcohol use and stopped petrol sniffing has returned a sort of stability. The Matron of the medical clinic says that as a result of these measures, incidences of traumatic injury at the clinic have dropped by 90-95%. What is now evident is the extraordinary damage that has been done to the fabric of Aurukun society. The young and old people seem to have suffered a disproportionate amount of this damage. It is a common story by many that there was a quite extraordinary generation of older people in Aurukun in the early 1990’s, 10-15 years later this generation have been devastated by neglect related to alcohol abuse. In the same time there was minimal transmission of traditional knowledge, often because of the breakdown of respect for elders. So the most devastating effect of the last 10-15 years has been the loss of traditional knowledge.

Old Blokes

August 3rd 2006,

Yesterday I talked to two strong defiant old blokes, Uncle Silas Wolmby and Uncle Rowan Pootchamunka who are 2 of 5 really old blokes left, I am not sure how many old women are left.  These are people in their 70’s and 80’s now.  It is only really people of this generation who have some experience of life before the mission completely absorbed the lives of the people here.   Uncle Silas and Uncle Rowan are clear about what they think about the mission times, they gave me story after story about the cruelty of this time, particularly the earlier Mission period.  Where as many in the next younger generation look upon this time with a certain nostalgia, I suspect the deeply paternal nature of the mission time gave them certainty and the late mission period seems  to have been better managed then anything that has followed.  The time since has been marked by a lack of certainty, inconsistent approaches, poor management and the impact of alcohol, drugs and other volatile substances.  The loss of this older generation without a transmission of the knowledge that underlay their traditional culture is an immense loss.  All cultures are dynamic but unfortunately many of the influences that have filled the vacuum are not all positive.  It would be good if at least there were a truthful story or stories of what has gone before so that younger people have a base onto which to rebuild their culture.  I often think attempting to give the young people a political education would be of more value then anything else.

What’s Working?

August 4th 2006

Increasingly I have noticed those projects, enterprises or workplaces that seem to be the most successful are those that have a relatively flat team based management structure, are relatively closed and work on a strong capacity building and case management model, (with limited case loads of no greater then about 15 individuals).  The most successful work and training units appear to be:

  • Koolhan, which Jane Karyuka has developed slowly and carefully managed.  I believe there is a strong case to give Jane a free hand to extend her methods and domain to the early years of primary school.
  • The Nursery, although relatively new and having had a lot of problems with vandalism seems to be really humming now.  Shane has established a really good relationship with his workers, and he has established a strong team spirit within the 8-10 workers he has.  He has also been particularly strong not to let outside projects or influences erode his core work.  He has refused to supervise Community Services Orders, which I can see if really smart.
  • Jacky’s Outstation program similarly has a good core of workers who are loyal to Jacky, and although Jacky’s management style can be abrasive, his passion drives the project.

The council and school are generally less successful in managing good outcomes.  In the case of the council, they have had to manage a complex financial mess, that was largely turned around through good financial administration, but the combination of being expected to do everything with limited resources and the lack of human resource skills internally has made retention of key staff difficult, consequently there has been insufficient delegation of responsibility and therefore poor management of programs.  Added to this council is always having to relate to a volatile local political situation so its problems of management are logical although they probably need to change.  The school seems to be a slightly different case, it has pressures for certain types of outcomes from above, but this does not explain the generally conservative approach, the incredibly high turn over of staff and the affect this has on educational outcomes. The strengths of the Aurukun Campus are the Transition program and the Pre-School.  The transition program in particular has had remarkable recent success at sustaining students at boarding school, the key reasons I believe are because of the good individualised case management approach and a good understanding of the family and community context of the students.  Ty who runs this program will be leaving at the end of the year and I have grave fears this program will collapse when he leaves.  Getting good staff is an obvious problem, however there is some evidence of good staff with necessary skills being pushed out. The issues around the management of the school I do not believe should be attributed to staff on the ground in Aurukun.

Buying Spears

August 10th 2006

Today I discovered that I had purchased a spear that was stolen property. I purchased it for $50, despite knowing it was worth more then that. I purchased it for $50 because that was all I had in my pocket and I wanted to stop the young bloke Lenford from hassling me further . He came back trying to sell the spear on four different occasions, on the last occasion I had said I might be interested if the paintwork was cleaned up a bit. I thought this might be enough to get him off my back, however he was back 20minutes later with a spear, paint touched up and dry and finally I felt I had no more excuses. Well I did of course.

Today I find out that said spear was stolen from Charlie Street’s place two days earlier, Charlie is the bloke who runs the art centre, ironic. We would be far better off buying through the art centre, in fact that is what Charlie recommends, and I have learnt a lesson. (Of course I was technically receiving stolen goods, and if this wasn’t an everyday occurrence here I may have been a spot of bother, it is easily resolved I end up $50 down for my stupidity.)

But it is interesting to delve below the surface a little. Lenford is a defiant obviously intelligent young man, who has returned from Cleveland Youth Detention Centre recently. He has a strong physical presence and a smooth cat like agility to his movements that is impressive. But the lack of any substantial support structure upon his return is seeing him slide quite logically back into a pattern of life where to relieve boredom he drinks alcohol, smokes a lot of marijuana, and does crimes to raise money, there isn’t much else for him here. Yet he looks you in the eye. Even today as I walked along the road with Charlie talking about my stupidity, Lenford on his pushbike road straight between us, didn’t put his head down in shame, didn’t miss a beat. Now I have never been a “Lenford”, I am not that physically brave, yet I have always held a certain admiration for his sort of off track intelligent rogue, because in many ways they are the ones who respond to the circumstances of their lives in the most logical way. I can not imagine what he has seen, and because of his obvious intelligence he has probably in his short life understood too much of what he has seen or experienced. He grew up during a period of horrendous violence, neglect etc. And he has survived and he has attitude. But the odds are stacked heavily against Lenford not being beaten down by this, he is already on the back foot and there is every likelihood he will return to Cleveland soon and probably then graduate to the Lotusglen “the big house”, which so many of the young men here now regard as a sort of “rite of passage”.

Which leads me to the illogicality of the Juvenile Justice system he is now operating in. I was informed today that for every client placed within the Cleveland Youth Detention Centre there are something like 8 adults, this may be an exaggeration, what is certain is that there is an incredible amount of resources placed in this part of the system, while when they return, or if they are serving various types of orders in the community the resources pitiful. Recently the one dedicated resource within Aurukun, a Juvenile Justice worker had his contract terminated after a single year. The work of this officer was regarded very highly by large parts of the community, although there was some criticism, particularly from the school. I do not know the specifics of the criticism but I suspect he may have been lacking with some of the paperwork. When his contract was suddenly terminated he had a caseload of 29 young people, with whom he had established strong relationships he had also established a great working relationship with a local man, who was so disgusted by the sudden termination that he has left the community as well. If as seems likely this position was only meant to be short term then the decision to proceed with it in the first place was incompetent, the decision to revoke it is a small disaster, effectively leaving the community at a greater loss then if it had never been there in the first place. The final part of the equation is that there is another Department of Communities worker now working in Aurukun, he was employed in a developmental role, around developing and better coordinating intensive family support services. Unfortunately he has now been drawn in to try and fill the service gap left by the JJ worker and it is evident this is already compromising his core work. Lenford is one of 29 clients. The other part of the equation is that the school does not even see it is part of their business to engage these young people and I do not blame them, it should not be there role. But to not meaningfully engage and support these young people once they leave a highly resourced and stimulating environment like Cleveland or prevent others like them from going there is really neglectful and it would seem economically and socially stupid.

The final irony is that the Art Centre, supervises a large number of Youth Justice Orders, mostly by Charlie Street himself. This is done on a voluntary basis and it would appear to get generally good results, yet he gets no additional resources to do this. Consequently it erodes his time to develop the Art Centre into a viable self-sustaining entity for the wider community.

Finally I come back to Lenford who has ripped me off, but whom I have admitted to have a grudging respect for, what now is my responsible to help him personally? It way well be the Lenford’s of the world are far more important in shaping the future of Aurukun then the “good kids” who are going off to the expensive boarding schools, but the way they shape it’s future is more likely to be negative then positive, unless sufficient resources are placed to provide meaningful activity to relieve boredom, opportunity to engage in improving themselves, work and hope in a better future. Who knows? Some of these individuals will create impressive lives despite their background, most probably won’t.

Fix-it-up Chappie’s

August 15 -20th 2006

It is close to one in the morning I have been lying in bed disturbing Rita with my thoughts about this place, contemplating how it works.  I can’t sleep so here I am, Aurukun is quiet outside, I can hear the noise of something with a soft whirring hum, probably the air conditioning from the police barracks across the road and just the occasional barking noise of a dog or dogs but they are a fair way off. Work seems to be slowing down as the complexity of the issues faced by a remote community like this start to become more evident.  My initial certainty is starting to recede and the confidence to have and propose solutions is waning.

We have been here now for a month and I am starting to understand how power is exercised here.  It reminds me of a Dr Suess story called “The Sneetches”.  But before I write about this metaphor I would like to try and describe to you a “house opening” here in Aurukun, we have now been to two of these events.  There was one of these on Saturday, which I managed to catch quite a bit of between having to carry a sleeping boy home.  In Aboriginal culture in this part of the world, when a person dies their house is not used for a long period of time, this I gather is normally about 12 months, although it is a shorter period sometimes.  When a house is reopened it is a cause for a “house opening” ceremony, celebration, and in Aurukun this is a significant event that brings together most of the clan groups.  Often more then one house is opened on a selected day and these days normally on a Saturday the tavern will not be opened so there is no conflicting event/recreation happening.  At each “house opening” there are a series of dances by different groups of dancers along clan lines.  In Aurukun there are approximately 6 significant clan groups and around 13 family groups.  Aurukun like most Aboriginal communities in Queensland was formed by the bringing together of a whole range of tribal clans that may have been in conflict with each other for millenia.  It was only on Saturday that I started to realise how different these clans are culturally and physically.  I will illustrate by describing the dances of two families, the Pootchamunka’s and the Yunckaporta’s, because they seem to be the families I have come in contact with the most so far, yet seem to very different.  The Pootchamunka’s, are very dark, almost black, they are generally stocky solidly built people and generally shorter then average.  Their dancing is deeply rhythmic, with a low centre of balance, it is controlled and ordered, and the singing is beautiful and quite moving.  Whereas the Yunkaportas, tend to have lighter skin colouring, they are taller and individually more graceful, their dance also is less controlled, and in the case of a dance I saw quite exuberant and having a greater sense of fun.  The Yunckaporta’s and Pootchamunka’s also have different backgrounds, the Yunkaporta’s are coastal people, while the Pootchamunka’s are inland people and they also fill different levels of the social stratum of Aurukun, the Pootchamunka’s are numerically the largest group in Aurukun yet traditionally have also been one of the poorest and least educated of the family groups, while the Yunkaporta’s tend to be at the other end of the spectrum.  I have heard that Yunkaporta’s will often make disparaging comments about Pootchamunkas.  For me watching these “house opening” dances it dramatically illustrated how wrong it is of us in the Australia mainstream to view Aboriginal people as monolithic when in reality they can be so different even within 100km of each other.  The main thing in 40,000 years or so they share is a common colonial experience which in the case of these people goes back about 100 years, not long in the scheme of things.  The unfortunate thing is that there is clearly being played out a new colonial period.

Which brings me back to “The Sneetches”.

“Now , the Star-Belly Sneetches

had bellies with stars.

The Plain-Belly Sneetches

Had none upon thars.

Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small

You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.

But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches

Would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.”

With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort

“We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort””

Into this world came a new type of colonist….

“”My name is Sylvester McMonkey McBean.

And I’ve heard of your troubles.  I’ve heard you’re unhappy.

But I can fix that. I’m the Fix-it-up Chappie.

I’ve come here to help”

There are a range of fix-it-up chappies in and around the world of Aurukun.

Politics and power seem to be exercised at five levels in this community.

The first is what I will call global forces, this exercise of power is not really directed at a place like Aurukun and it isn’t generally interested, unless there is a major resource to be exploited nearby.  Which in Aurukun’s case there is.  There is a large bauxite deposit nearby and negotiations are taking place to resolve how this deposit will be mined and what benefits will flow to the community as a result.  The other way these forces affect Aurukun is in the way various commercial services become less or more affordable to the community depending on wider economic forces.  Unfortunately at present most services are becoming less affordable.  I was just talking to the main builder that council contracts to construct buildings in Aurukun, he has reached the stage where because it is so difficult to get tradesman, particularly good ones he does not think he will continue to work here beyond the end of this year.  The two reasons he cannot get tradesman, is that without putting up his prices considerably he cannot compete with what mining companies can offer workers and the second reason is that tradesman do not want to work on a community where they cannot have a drink after work.

The second level is macro political power, or that power exercised by Commonwealth and State government at a political level. This power manifests in a number of ways.  One at Commonwealth level at present is so called mainstreaming. When ATSIC was dissolved, communities and their councils went from dealing with one agency and one set of contractual arrangements to more then ten.  The administrative burden imposed by the new array of service agreements and reporting structures has substantially lessened the ability of council to access and manage funding.  A second manifestation are new agreements and structures like Alcohol Management Plans and Justice groups, both of which I believe head in the right direction, because they start to establish a demarcation of rights and responsibilities.  The problem lies in whether successive governments are prepared to work at developing them, or whether for ideological reasons they trash them.  It has been the swinging between political and ideological positions that has had the greatest affect on these communities in recent times.

The third level is bureaucratic power; it is the way in which resources at a Commonwealth and State level are made available to the community.  This is where my role comes in.  This level of power does not affect mainstream communities to anywhere near the extent it does a remote Aboriginal community because mainstream communities are not dependent on government to anywhere near the same extent.  Generally I think government at this level has been irresponsible.  The nature of most funding provided is short term, usually at best a single year.  Good community organisations can often get around this by being able to role one set of funding into another.  This type of organisation does not exist in Aurukun, there is only the council, and it is so stretched having to deal with virtually everything, that programs fall away through neglect and poor management.  The result is that programs start and finish with partially fulfilled outcomes and expectations over and over again.  This in the end has a devastating effect on the psyche of a community.   The community and individuals have grown to expect that nothing will endure and nothing will be finished and this I believe has become quite corrosive. On Friday I went to talk to Shane who runs the plant nursery, this was a project created around 12 months ago, as a partnership between TAFE and Cape York Partnerships (Noel Pearson’s mob).  Unfortunately CYP was unable to meet their obligations and left TAFE running the project alone.  After a rocky start this venture looked to be going well, there was a solid team of about 8 local guys, 2 on traineeships and 6 on CDEP working with Shane.  TAFE however decided last week that it cannot continue to carry the burden of the project alone and will be pulling its full time worker out at the end of the year.  I saw Jacob Yunkaporta, one of the trainees on Friday, he was working despite Friday being his RDO, he seemed quite sad because now more than likely he will not finish the traineeship.  This like the Youth Justice worker I mentioned last week is the recurring reality of programs and enterprises in Aurukun.  Rarely has there ever been a commitment to having programs or enterprises succeed.  Government also rarely adequately supports the workers that they put into these communities that has the effect of a high turn over of staff and a lack of continuity.  Finally government has a high level of accountability around its funding, but rarely in these communities does it back up this accountability with appropriate supports, the accountability is largely one sided.

The fourth level of power is that which is applied by local institutions, in the case of Aurukun, by the Aurukun Shire Council, the school, the primary health facility and the police.  This is also the realm of Sylvester McMonkey McBean in his multiple faces.  In the story Sylvester McMonkey McBean offers the Sneetches without stars a way to have stars for a small fee and then when those who originally had stars want to be different again a way to remove the stars for slightly more and on it went.  The way in which power is controlled through the mechanism of council appears very much like this although not as consciously malevolent.  Aurukun at this level is controlled by a number of feudal fiefdoms that are surprisingly rigid and conservative.  What is evident is that there is a disconnection between the power of “white warlords” and the people in the community.  There is little evidence that there has been any real effort to shift power and control of the institutions to local people for a long time.  When I say there is a new colonialism happening this is at the heart of it.  Having said this some of the measures taken by these “white warlords” have taken in the recent past may have been necessary, but I think they have now crossed the line from benevolence to tyranny.  The method of imposition negates any possible positive effect and the measures themselves.

The final level of power is exercised between the families and clans.  I can’t begin to understand the nature of this society or the way power is exercised within it.  I am told there is a hierarchy, a type of class structure but except for the organisation of funerals, grog running, discos, gabbling circles and “house openings” there is little obvious evidence of the community organising itself.

As you see my ideas about this place have become less clear since last I wrote, certainly taking any action is more difficult because in these places the old clique “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” is very true.

Before I go I just want to relate a small story that Ross, the coordinator of the Justice group told me.  The other day a young bloke was caught grog running as he came into town, the police actually had to drive him off the road.  Ross told me the same lad with his twin brother and a cousin and pinched a truck as 11-12 years old, where because of the size of the truck they had to synchronise, one on steering wheel, and one on the floor holding the pedals and the thirds on gear stick.  Apparently they were such a good driver that the local police were not able to stop them for several hours.

Different Time Scale

August 25th – September 2nd 2006

This morning Rita was talking to a neighbour, one of her ducks had just been pinched, chances are it became Sunday lunch and a feather flower.  They were also talking about our new digital clock that seems to gain about 15 minutes a day, our neighbour said that nearly all electronic clocks in Aurukun do the same thing, something about the power here.  Just one more reminder of how far away we are from the rest of the world.

In the past six weeks I have entered a new environment.  I have been into Aboriginal communities before particularly Palm Island, but it is new territory for me to live in the community.   Living in the community is so very different from any form of fly in fly out.  I do not pretend I am part of this indigenous community, I never will be. Yet as a worker here I see, hear and smell and think about the problems of this place on a bad day 24 hours a day, there is nowhere else, it is a small town.  I am lucky I have an understanding wife and two gorgeous boys who give me a “normal” home life.  But even Aurukun reality intrudes, yesterday there was a funeral of a baby that died of dehydration from a gastric bug, my two boys had the same bug, Pascal also got quite dehydrated.

The life experience of these people is profoundly different then mine and while I might make connections with individual people I can not imagine yet that I will ever be part of it and nor do I really want to be.  Their lives really have about as much romance as a concentration camp.  As a comparison I am living in a fully furnished house rather old high set house, my children sleep in there own beds, we have a refridgerator, we buy in our food from Cairns each week, which includes fresh vegetables and fruit, our house is relatively spacious although not by average Brisbane or Sydney standards and we have a car to drive. Yet on every element I have just mentioned our life here is different from most of the local Aboriginal people.  Generally the houses are awful, low set concrete block boxes that have little or no furniture, if there is bedding it will be a smelly piece of foam on the floor shared by many including dogs, many just sleep directly on their clothes.  Maybe 1 house in 5 has a fridge, 1 in 20 has a motor vehicle, food at the local shop is expensive and there are generally no fresh fruit and vegetables.  All houses have 6 foot cyclone fences around them, many with babbed wire on top, few have any regard for environmental or physical comfort. My life is not like theirs also because I don’t have to put up with ongoing belittling or outright oppression from white workers, even by the  better workers.  I know in my own case I often talk in preference to a white person over the head or local Aboriginal person, rather then talk directly to the local person. There is systematic disempowerment, not really intentional, much of it has an element of well meaning paternalism.  “These people can’t do this for themself, or they won’t get it done in the timeframe I want it done so I better just do it myself.”  Everyone gets used to that process, it needs to get done I better do it.  This well meaning paternalism is the heart of the so called “welfare dependence”, it is long time since there was much capacity building taking place here.  Welfare dependence in the sense of financial payments, or subsidised housing as a “safety net” payment, I don’t believe is the problem.  What is more the problem is that every structure and most of the processes around these people’s lives removes their power, provides them with few choices and robs them of competency in their world and ours.  Most people talk about how much better it was here during the mission time, there is some nostalgia, but especially in the later mission times it was genuinely better because local people were able to do things for themselves, there cultural practices and connection to land were encouraged.  They had no choice but to live a productive life even if it had strict boundaries, now have little option but to live unproductive lives.  Everything needs a qualified outsider to do or manage.  Who are these qualified outsiders But even this is too kind, because we are putting far too many people into these places who are dangerous.  What is needed are people who know themselves, people who can be self reflective, people who are smart, too many of the workers here are misfits and head cases. Workers are expected to deal with unreal situations

Aurukun needs new ideas, it needs more intellectual content and real debate around those ideas, the present process is anti-intellectual and people who propose new ideas are often targeted, oppressed and victimised.  The way forward is generally determined by ad hoc stumbling and pragmatic but not necessarily sensible decisions at a local level.  There are ideas good and bad that come from outside, from the state and commonwealth bureaucracies, but they are never backed up by appropriate support or sufficient resources, so they fail through lack of continuing support before they have a chance to succeed.  The dilemma here is that outside people, even fly in fly out people do not understand the practicalities on the ground, so good ideas founder and then history records them as failed ideas.  I have heard the statement “we tried that and it failed” so many times.  Rarely is anything evaluated at a community level, The evaluation that does occur asks people who had a vested interest in the project or program to failing. History records it as failure never to be repeated.  Probably the most contentious idea being trialed in the Cape at present is the education transition program, its core element is to send high school age young people to boarding schools. Giving young people from Aurukun choices and opportunities to be able to leave the community and to have rich lives outside in the same way that young people anywhere do is an incredibly important.  At present this program is too narrowly focused on just boarding schools, it has inappropriate types of resourcing using teachers to resource it where a case work social worker model would probably be more appropriate and there is not enough resourcing to provide a program with greater breadth of options or sufficient support to sustain the young people out in the wider world.  And because of this the program starts to look like a continuation of “stolen generations”, young people being sent away to quite alienating environments, and set up to fail.  I do not say this in order to be critical of those running the program, because it is done with the best of intentions and it is an incredible achievement within government to get the resources to set up a program of even of this scale, but the danger of it collapsing at present seems to be great, and while it probably needs to take a more radical leap of faith, risk of failure may push it to be more conservative, which I believe will ensure its failure.  It too then is at risk of being consigned to the scrapbook of history, “the we tried it. It failed” category.  There needs to be a different approach, ideally an approach that works slowly at empowering local people, this needs different types of workers then are often employed in these places.

I had an interesting afternoon, I went out at 5 to help two other guys put on a film night.  It was a film night of local stuff, an hour of unedited film of a “house opening”, a local bushfood  film (part of the Traditional Knowledge Recording Project), a film about water and river conservation on Cape York, and a small presentation of old B&W photos.  We had the film night at Woyan Min place, which is a park in the middle of town, it is also the traditional fighting ground of the community.  Another important fact is that the tavern is opening between 12 and 4 on a Saturday, so between 5 and 6 there are a lot of drunk and angry people floating around.  Just as I arrived at about quarter past five, an older woman told me we should cancel the film night because there had just been a big fight in the park.  We conferred and Daniel who is married to a local women thought that things should have settled down by the time we started.  Because we didn’t have enough extension cords to Daniel and Darwin had to go in search and they left me to hold the fort.  In the following hour I saw a lot more drunk people drifting home and two more fights at the corners of the park.  One was with women protagonists, their fist fights are pretty physical and look more brutal then men fighting.  In fact it seems to be the woman who have most of the fights, and all the time they are fighting they are talking to each other, there is often genuine resolution of the issues behind the fight taking place.  Without being told about this I would never know, it is part of the substantial cultural difference.  The nature of this film night with local content was a rare rare thing, it was so long ago that anything similar had happened, yet it was so easy to set up.  And about 150 people turned up to watch and sat on the ground and stayed for a couple of hours.  There is such a lack meaningful activity, even distracting harmless meaningless activity here, no wonder people gamble and drink.

Swimming in Mud

September 7th 2006

Working in Aurukun can be very frustrating, slowly I think I might be connecting to processes that might allow some way forward, but then I wonder where forward is, generally it feels like blind people in a dead end tunnel.  And when I refer to blind people I am generally referring to the white workers, because the local people seem to be able to see everything, only they have been rendered mute.   This might sound like a damning comment on the quality of workers here but it is not.  Workers here largely have to make decisions in a vacuum, there is little sense of a direction or vision of a way forward.  So when there is contention it is often completely mismatched, people talking at completely different levels of a problem.  There is no common reference point and the community has been rendered largely mute.

I have been talking to a young woman Gina Castelain a lot over the past couple of days, she is the daughter of Norma Chevithan and Jacky Castelain. Norma was an important traditional owner of the Wik Waya people and Jacky is a passionate anachist intellectual Frenchman.  We have started to talk about the “vision thing” quite a bit.  There seems to be two strong forces pulling this society, the older people have a nostalgia for the time of the mission, a time that can not be returned to, while the young people want to leave.  The problem for them leaving is the places they go to are quite rascist and they have few resources that are useful to engage in the wider society with, particularly no education or money.  So those that do go out often come back.  There is now a small group of people like Gina and Jacky who think that there is a need to deconstruct Aurukun as we currently know it, remove its central place in Wik society and replace it with something else.  Part of the problem is that there are a range of institutions no matter what their rhetoric is, that have a vested interest in the status quo.  There is strong momentum to pour certain types of social welfare resources in to this community, and it is clear that they are needed, but for whatever reason these type of resources when applied in the past, have failed to improve conditions.  Now I have had a brief look at some past processes and it is clear that: processes often were not sustained for long enough; the wrong people were often employed; even if they were the right people they didn’t stay long enough; processes were not managed effectively; processes were white anted either from within the community or by outside bureaucracies; there are many reasons.  There is a part of me that thinks there is a solution to everything if only all the appropriate parts can be designated in appropriate way…..

But slowly I have had to admit to myself that for this very remote Aboriginal Community at the beginning of the twenty first century, under these conditions we are unlikely to be able design and manage any programs that can sustain meaningful effective change within the current paradigm.  Something radical needs to change, the “old missions” like Aurukun are anachronisms, they may have worked as missions, but they certainly don’t work now and even with an open chequebook they still probably wouldn’t work.  So what then is the alternative or alternatives, it is often cried support the “outstations”, (for those who don’t know these are places with varying levels of infrastructure including some housing that are located on particular people’s country). In the 1970’s and 80’s I am told there were up to 600 people living out on the outstations. There was even an outstation educational program that was reasonably effective for a time.  There are few people now who go out to their outstations.   There is a whole generation of kids who have had little or no contact with their traditional country, which is a tragedy.  A link to country is still deeply aspired to but neither do people’s actions or resources match this aspiration in the current way people live.  Living on country, living a semi-traditional life is now a romantic notion whose time has probably passed except for a minority, apart from anything else there aren’t enough old people left to pass on the traditional culture in the traditional way.  (This is not to say that the outstations don’t have an important role but probably not as a permanent living place for large numbers of people.)

So where does this leave the people of Aurukun or so many other remote Aboriginal communities.  What is immutable and which even a flawed part of Australian law now says, is that these people are the traditional owners, custodians of this land.  So the need now to stay continually connected to the land in the legal sense is no longer needed in order for them to maintain their claim of “ownership”.

How within this modern world can people leave and pursue a better life elsewhere, yet retain a vibrant connection with their country?

Dark and Light

September 17th 2006

Just sitting at the front of the house, watching as the people pass by……

The people passing by are kids on bicycles, parents walking with prams, whole families, grey haired singles old beyond their years, ancient old Bob with his walking stick that he never uses but always carries, a constant parade of mangy dogs.  Our house is towards one edge of town on Kang Kang Road, the main road into town from Weipa to the East and connecting the airport at the other end to the West, where we live.

This morning a Sunday, a wailing began at about 9AM, a single male voice initially; it was not far from us maybe 3 houses up on the opposite side of the street.  Then it was joined by other wailing, mostly woman’s voices.  The ambulance was there briefly, it must be another death, so many deaths, there are whole clan groups that have died out in the last 20 years, names have become extinct, knowledge disappeared, but more then any of this is the sadness and pain, constant sadness and pain.  These people survive and will continue to survive but at what cost, who do they become as so much of their communal life and productivity surrounds the processes of death and a dying culture.

There is a large level of frustration in working in an Aboriginal community and I doubt there is anyone who works that does not experience this, particularly outside workers like myself.  There is a sense that no matter how much you do, how many metaphorical holes you dig, most will be filled in by the latest crisis and that there is no real change to the lives of people here.  In the past fortnight because of some sort of bureaucratic oversight, nobody will take the blame for, petrol sniffing has reappeared.  In ten days there were 8 attempted suicides by young people, and there were large fights. On Monday last week when we went to walk down to the town there were around 200 people in the centre of town involved in or just spectators to fighting.  Department of Child Safety workers panicked and left town, creating a bit of hyperbole that had some media phoning the community asking whether there was a riot.  More cars are stolen, an increase in violence and anti-social behaviour, increased stress on the social work, health and police systems and attendance at school plummeted.  This without taking into account the direct effects of petrol sniffing has on the individual sniffers and their families.   But at another level it creates a sense of excitement, something happening, some real life theatre.  All this because there is nothing better to do, people get bored.  Yet …..

In the children in particular there is a marvelous shining intelligence, an innate confidence within their physicality and an extraordinary perception of where they are in relation to other people or objects in space and time.  This gives rise to precisely the skills we admire in aboriginal sportspeople, artists, dancers and musicians.  But when they play it is normally just an unrestrained joy, just playing in the moment, lots of kids are good at this but these kids seem much happier in their play then my own Pascal who like myself thinks about things too much, probably even more then I do.  But as they get older this the world of Aurukun becomes small and this type of play is not enough.  This is a problem everywhere for young people, but when access to your country is largely cut off, when there is little that is organised as either recreation or diversion, then logically some will try both anti-social and self destructive activities.

There is a level in which I can’t even imagine the intelligence and resilience to survive and for some to thrive within the social conditions of most Wik people’s lives here.  There are few of us thrust into the same positions that would be able to cope as well as these people do.  No wonder that they use alcohol or sniff or smoke to such an extent; it is the only emotional release valve in many of their lives. They are tightly contained in lives within a small community, with all encompassing families often with dysfunctional members in close confines and increasingly they don’t or can’t go out into their country.  I love my family but I could not imagine what it would be like to physically live with my whole extended family all the time.  Yet I constantly struggle to make sense of it.

The Logic of a Concentration Camp

September 20th 2006

Today I ventured for the first time right out into country South of the Archer River, to Wathaniin, Blue Lagoon and Kendall River Station and for the first time I start to realise what a tragedy that so many peoples lives have largely narrowed down to living in Aurukun.  And I realise that if the metaphor of the concentration camp is really true then I like most of the white workers are trapped here too if only psychologically.  This is not to say that you can’t have good relationships with people in a place like Aurukun or that there is laughter, love and joy, but it is only a minute part of who and what Wik people are and this is only understandable by traveling across and seeing this vaste beautiful country.

Not on Country

September 22nd 2006

I can hear the noises of a Friday night after the tavern has closed.  The tavern was closed all week this week and the town was peaceful. Apparently there were quite a number of people who drove to Weipa to go to the pub.  It is part of the reality of living here, the cycle of drink, drink to excess, stagger home, and then often the logical repercussions.  But it not just the logic of drinking that creates the domestic violence.  Ross the Justice Group coordinator who had previously been employed by the Cape York legal service told me a story of a couple who he has represented at least three times each on various charges of assault or grevious bodily harm on each other, all when they are drunk.  Bash, stab, bash, stab with a bottle etc.  Yet despite it all they are apparently a loving couple when sober.  The issues of jealously and partners playing up is a constant issue in any small community.  The changed complexity here seems to be that women tend to be the sexual aggressors.  I was told the other day that men don’t tend to want to go out to country for extended periods because they worry about what their partners might be up to in town.  There are also up to 80 men at any given time located at Lotus Glen prison wondering what their partners are up to.  Then when the men return to town because they are STD free they generally become quite popular for a while.  So the issues of sexual politics and jealously in a small Aboriginal town obviously have a bearing on the way the cycle of alcohol consumption and violence plays out.  Added to that there are the incredibly complex interrelations within families, between families, between clans who are inter married to a certain extent, but who still have loyalties to particular clans or families.  Over time some of the real implications of these loyalties have changed and probably diluted without the people really understanding this.  In particular the younger people no longer understand their connection to a particular country, many in the younger generation have never even been to their country.  Many older people are no longer interested to pass on traditional knowledge.

This week I got a chance to go out South of the river, to travel first by tinnie across the delta of the massive river system that converges near the coast at Aurukun for half an hour.  Then to drive South for about an hour to Wathaniin, which was an outstation that was then used by the Community Corrections for transition of prisoners back into the community before it was defunded about 3 years ago (I gather because of razor gang).  It is a great facility that sits on a rise about 100m by 100m in the midst of a wetland (dry at the moment).  It should be used for school camps, taking groups of students bush as part of the curriculum, having training, job readiness run there, but it has sat slowly disintegrating until a recent effort to start cleaning it up again.  We then travelled another hour to “Blue Lagoon”, this is a purpose built facility conference centre/ research centre / ecotourism centre etc that is built near a beautiful lagoon system, which at times is cobalt blue, although not when I was there.  After Blue Lagoon we went further west to visit Kendal River Station to talk to the manager there who is interested to set up a cattle industry partnership with Aurukun.  In travelling across the river there was also the sense of crossing the Rubicon for me, because suddenly I was aware that to judge these people by the town of Aurukun is really unfair, once you start travelling across the country most of which is South of the river you realise that Wik people are intricately linked with their country.  The unfortunate thing is that government people fly into Aurukun, some fly in fly out, some stay for 2 years and move on but so many never realise that Wik people are any more then the urban experience of the small rather dysfunctional township of Aurukun.  The implications of this are that the resources of government tend to be put into reinforcing the township rather then building who the people are.

There are psychological issues for white people in dealing with country.  For me there are issues in particular, one is the sense of the invader, how do I have the right to travel out into this country, especially when local people often aren’t getting these opportunities.  Yet at the same time it is only by people like me emphasising with the value and meaning of country that the resources can start to be redirected.  The second issue is the fear with which I face untracked country, I feel completely safe going with local people or someone like Jacky who knows it really well but to venture there by myself I lack the courage.  This is not a bad thing, but it is also part of my middle class identity, an identity that will feel more comfortable near the main road, the roadhouse or the urban centre.  This is a problem for Aboriginal people because there was a generation that championed the outstation movement in the 1970’s and 80’s but the new generation doesn’t feel comfortable with these places unless they are at the end of a bitumen road.

Nothing Happens

October 2nd 2006

Another day in Aurukun.  Dragging myself out of bed this morning I was wondering how I can connect to anyone that is going to allow the progression of anything (Although there were a couple of things I specifically wanted to progress).  After working on some minutes for about an hour at home I walked down to the town centre to see if I could find some of the people I needed in order to progress the big meeting I am supposed to be organising for next week. There were not many people in the streets as I walked, very quiet.  I dropped in to see Jane Karyuka, to drop off a brochure of a business course in Weipa.  She told me there was a funeral on today, so there may as well have been a holiday after all, everything closes down in Aurukun for funerals.  I showed Jane the Employment and Training work I had been doing and we got talking about the psychology of engaging Aurukun people.  Aurukun people are incredibly pragmatic about what they get out of engaging with white people, this can probably be traced to relationships developed in the mission, ways of acting as hunter gatherer, it doesn’t really matter any more.  There is also a long long experience of not expecting to get anything to not be given any real control over their lives, but the need to ask just in case.  Which makes me wonder how to engage……

An Awful History

October 6 2006

I woke this morning I did not want to work, I did not want to think about what I need to do today, I did not want to think about the monumental task of chipping away at improving the lives and bringing social justice to these people.  Living in this community, working in the way I do it becomes a 24 hour process, not necessarily productive work, but thinking about the issues, trying to creatively think around the blockages, talking to people, emotionally raging against the injustice, sitting at times with a binding paralysis, waiting to meet with someone, sometimes for days.  There is a level at which you want to be able to trust people, to work with them, but you learn quickly that you have to choose very carefully.  Everyone has a slightly different agenda and there are so many inappropriate people here who aren’t trustworthy.  It can be an emotionally corrosive experience, especially when you look at the effect trying to work within this context has had on other people.  There is little fairness or justice.

I watched a documentary about the take over of the old mission by the state in 1978 the other night, it is compulsive viewing and really sad.  To understand the present predicament of Aurukun it is fundamental to understand the devastating impact of this event and the processes that led to it and which happened soon after.  In 1975 the Queensland government introduced the Aurukun Associates Agreement Act into the Queensland Parliament, this act gave a consortium led a French company Pechiney the right to mine bauxite on a significant part of Aurukun land, including land close to the mission itself.  The deal proposed that 3% of net profits would go to the Aboriginal Welfare Fund (A general Queensland Government fund that was supposedly for the development of Aboriginal people in Queensland but which in reality was used for general government business.)  There were no commitments to employment, train or any form of social development of Wik or Aboriginal people.  Wik Waya people who were the main traditional owners of the lease completely opposed the act, the deal and mining of any sort on their land.

With the help of the church and support of the Commonwealth Government the Wik people took the Queensland Government to court, claiming this act was an abrogation of the Directors (DEIA, the Queensland department that administered Aboriginal Affairs) duty of care to the Reserve.

The Wik people won the case in the Australian High Court, but the case was lost on appeal in the Privy Council  (The British equivalent of the present Australian High Court, but which was Australia’s highest court at the time.)

Also running parallel to this was a legal case called Koowarta v Bjelke-Petersen where John Koowarta lacking any direct land rights to his ancestral country wanted to buy the lease that was for sale.

n 1976 the Queensland Government, acting under the Land Act 1962 (Qld), refused permission for the transfer of the Archer River Pastoral Holding to the Aboriginal Land Fund Commission. The Commission had sought to purchase the leasehold for use by the Winychanam Aboriginal people of Aurukun. The Government’s refusal was explained by reference to a 1972 Cabinet policy which opposes acquisition of large areas of land ‘for development by Aborigines or Aboriginal groups in isolation’. Koowarta, a member of the Winychanam people, brought action in the Queensland Supreme Court seeking declarations, and an injunction and damages. He argued that the Government’s refusal was in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth), especially sections 9 and 12. The Queensland Government, in response, argued, inter alia, that the plaintiff was not a ‘person aggrieved’ under the Act so as to be entitled to sue, and that the Racial Discrimination Act was invalid. The case was removed into the High Court for determination of those issues. In a separate action against the Commonwealth, Queensland sought a declaration that the Act was invalid. The High Court, in giving judgment in both proceedings, confined its decision to sections 9 and 12 of the Racial Discrimination Act and related provisions. The Commonwealth intervened in Koowarta’s case to argue that the Act was valid; Victoria and Western Australia intervened in both actions to argue that the Act was invalid.

Despite the then Queensland government not wanting to allow this sale because it was supposedly a good wood chipping resource they eventually turned this lease into a national park.  It wasn’t until the early 1990’s and a change of government that this land was eventually handed back to the traditional owners.  The law surrounding this case was later pivotal role in the high court decision that became known as the Wik decision.

Back to 1978.  For 8 months leading up to the March 31st 1978 the Queensland Government had said they would be coming into Aurukun to take over the running of the reserve, this was opposed by the community and the Uniting Church.  The Commonwealth after consulting with the community also opposed this take over and promised to introduce federal legislation to block it.  The context of the community at the time despite being administered by the Uniting Church was that the Uniting Church was a very benign administrator, they had actively supported the movement known as the “outstation movement” which began in 1975 and which began building infrastructure for people to live out on their country.  It was from all reports quite a self reliant stable community, neither grog nor welfare were particularly prevalent at this time.

On April 7th The Queensland Government by an act of Parliament declared that the Aboriginal reserves (missions) of Mornington Island and Aurukun would become Shires and thus subject to the Queensland Government Local Government Act.  The Queensland Government thus took over the running of Aurukun from the Uniting Church.

The Aurukun community had been unanimous that it wanted to be administered by the Uniting Church and not the State, in this the Commonwealth government had been supporting it until in a meeting on April 6th between Malcolm Fraser (The prime Minister of Australia) and Joh Bjelki-Peterson (Premier of Queensland), without further consultation with the community the Commonwealth Government caved and control of the then reserve passed to the Queensland government as Aurukun Shire.  This was probably the singularly most devastating moment in modern history for Wik people because it proved they had no control over their lives or land.  Subsequently in the early 1980’s, the government decided that a worker has a right to have a drink after work (referring to white workers, not black workers) and they turned an Adult training college into a tavern.  Till this point the community had largely resisted grog coming into the community.  It was also in this time that welfare started to become prevalent.  Now I think that the welfare state was possibly the greatest social innovation of the twentieth century, however like all universal systems there are edges where it does not work.  Where I believe it doesn’t work is where it becomes the predominant economic and social force rather then safety net.  About 90% of Aurukun people live on predominantly on welfare payments.  Living on sit down money and drinking grog slowly became the two dominant aspects of Aurukun life.  The psychology of both is complex, I think initially those proud powerful old people who fought the Queensland government drank to forget, and they took up welfare because after state intervention the wider society and economy changed and work options narrowed, but now I think they do it because they simply don’t know anything else.  And sadly nearly all of those marvellous old people have died.

Ironically the mining lease ML7032 that was the subject of the original Aurukun Associates Agreement Act was recinded in 2004 and the preferred new tenderer a Chinese company Chalco has just been announced and this coming week the community working group meets the Chinese for the first time since the announcement.  The community this time see mining as almost their only hope, sadly there are not many  educated strong people left, in fact much of their hopes ride on a 22 year old intelligent young women, whose father is French and whose mother was the traditional owner of the Wik Waya people.

Also somewhat ironically the Welfare Reform project which Aurukun is one of the four Cape and Australian pilot communities will begin its consultation phase in Aurukun in the next couple of weeks.  What scares me about it is that you get the impression that they may have already largely decided the process of how Welfare Reform will go and that the consultation with the community is largely window dressing.  It will be a top down approach once again proving to people that they largely have no control over their lives.  To me the reason these people began to sit down in the first place was because they lost any sense of real control.

Any chance of real positive change is wrapped up in these processes, but it is so tenuous and I know this, but I don’t know if I have the personal strength to ride the waves of emotional battering.

What is culture?

October 23rd 2006

We have been here now for just over three months and we are here for only another five weeks, having talked, listened and observed for such a short period it seems arrogant to think I could have any answers and in reality I have none, only suggestions and observations.

It is easy to view every aspect of the life of Aurukun people as problematic, especially from within the prism of my Caucasian middle class background and government job.  While there is obvious dysfunction within government services, facility and program management and in the social and economic conditions of the community, it is too easy to write off the situation of Wik people as hopeless.  Wik people have a strong history of being fighters, and therefore when a people are attacked and systematically oppressed to the extent they have been in the last thirty years, it is only natural that it might take a generational change and cultural revolution to begin a renewal.  Whether this renewal is yet happening it is hard to say, there are small signs.  The difficulty is to understand what it is I am seeing in a cultural sense.

It is evident that “traditional” Wik cultural expression in an academic anthropological sense is almost gone.  The transmission of stories, ceremony, lore, knowledge of country and songs in the traditional way has been compromised in the last three decades as many significant elders have died before they passed knowledge on to younger generations. Too few people visit or know their own country now.  But the changes and losses in modern Western culture in the past thirty to forty years in relation to how we share food, relate to our place of origin, engage in ceremonies or recreation, relate to technology and generational relationships have been just as profound.  Culture in this sense is dynamic and within the context of the last thirty years it has been extremely dynamic.  Change in some sense was inevitable for Wik people.  This does not minimise the tragedy of what has happened to these people or the extreme trauma caused by the acts of political bastardisation or the subsequent effects of alcohol and passive welfare.

The key psychological point, and by this I mean a sort of collective psychology is whether alcohol and passive welfare are causes of dysfunction or effects?  Is the root cause of the dysfunction, the trauma caused by the loss of self-determination that occurred primarily in the 1970’s and1980’s?  Have people and do people withdrawal their services and drink alcohol etc because they do not perceive that acting productively would progress either them personally or their family/community.  I am currently reading the story of Soviet Gulags and withdrawal of labour was in that context both an act of survival and an act of self-determination. In this context I think Wik people also act in this way although probably in a less conscious way because they think they are not working for themselves but for white people or an undefined system, in the same way people in the Gulags knew they were working for the Soviet Union, a system that was actively oppressing them.  It is obviously more complex then this and the causes and effects have become interrelated over time.  However if we assume that the primary causes of social dysfunction stem from the acts of tyranny such as the Take over in 1978 then as distance grows from this active tyranny there is hope that a new generation will arise that reasserts its self determination and develops new appropriate decision making processes.  The risk is that the words and actions of angry young people that herald this change will often be interpreted by the wider system in a negative way, and other forms of repression may follow.  If this new cultural expression can arise it will likely be very different from the traditional forms of cultural expression.  (However there are bedrock aspects of Wik culture that I am only just starting to perceive that I think probably haven’t changed, these are more intangible aspects such as how people communicate both verbally, and especially non verbally, how people perceive space and time, how people balance the intuitive and the rational.  The most contentious is attachment to country and unfortunately this has become significantly weaker in the past thirty years.) Recently in the school holidays there was a hip-hop, break dance workshop organised for young people, for which a significant portion of young people actively engaged, a CD was produced and there is evidence of new forms of dance that fuse aspects of old and new.  I think this is a key signpost.  Also last week I had a rather disconcerting conversation with a young man James, although maybe not so young probably in his thirties.  On that day I had been out to a place called Blue Lagoon, which is a beautiful place on the middle reaches of the Archer River.  I asked James where his country was and when was the last time he had been there, he told me it was around Blue Lagoon and that he had never been there.  Unfortunately too many Wik people have this lack of experience of their country.

Whether the above analysis is true or not, the significant question is how do we act?  And in the heart of this is whether the actions are directed at reforming what is present or assuming that what is present is not reformable and therefore set out in a completely new direction.  Setting out in a new direction should only really be guided by some sense of a new Wik vision and I perceive there is a different more radical vision slowly emerging.  What must be avoided are actions that reinforce the status quo that does not work.

The keys to this process ……..  the thing is I wrote this over a week ago and I have looked at it several times since.  The next sentence should show some form of commitment to a course of action, but since then someone said something else that brings in a new layer of complexity.  I was talking to Pete Fenton the Matron of the Health Clinic on Sunday about this new generation of kids, about the possibilities if only we could intervene in a way that meant that in the next decade they wouldn’t spend it stoned, high, dodging in and out of detention and prison, but…. And here is another of those sad buts, in many cases they are already damaged physically in ways that will substantially impact on their lives and compromise their futures.  There are so many young children with skin infections that get serious to the point of kidney infections, unfortunately a kidney infection at a young age more or less guarantees renal failure or serious problems down the track.  And then in early teenage years when they begin to be sexually active there are the STD’s, unfortunately Syphilous is incredible prevalent here.  Syphilous causes an awful undermining of the immune system and an inevitable cascading of medical conditions that result in a seriously reduced life expectancy.  This cycle of chronic disease unfortunately has begun more rapid and is affecting children earlier.

So we work with the next generation and I do think they are the best chance.  So what should the actions be?  Intensive support for first time parents is a beginning but it needs maybe 10 full time workers to really make a sufficient impact.  (Where are the workers going to live?) A commitment to expensive on going intensive work readiness and mentoring for up to 3 or 4 years across at least 40% of the working age people in Aurukun.  (This assumes that the new mine will supply the jobs)  Radical theatrically based youth programs that give young people a social political education that allows them to make real choices.  It ultimately must be about finding a way to give these people sufficient information so that they can choose to act to change the status quo of there society.  The generation I think that is most likely to do this will not be of the habitual drunkards it has to be the young.  This was a traditional society that always took its leadership from its elders and they are nearly gone, now its only option is to look to the young people.  How do these young people develop a vision of a new society?

The Margins of Society

November 5 2006

The other night we had a number of people over for dinner, it was good to have company and good conversation.  Interesting people with a broad understanding of the way things are in remote Aboriginal communities.  One man was a South African who had come to Australia and was amazed at how pernicious racism was here compared with where he had come from.  He had grown up just accepting an order of the world where black people were servants and slowly he had to come to terms with this as being wrong.  He said that in South Africa racism is an open book, people say they are racist and that like an alcoholic only when you admit you have a problem can you begin to solve it.  His impression of Australia was of a country in denial, “I’m not racist some of my best mates are Aboriginal … or Muslim  …”.

Now the thing about remote Aboriginal communities is that they are places on the extreme margin of society and they attract marginal people, unfortunately I would have to include myself in that although I can sometimes do a reasonable chameleon act.  The problem arises that most of the marginal people attracted to these places are not appropriate and in the society they come from they generally have little status, often nobodies, but in these remote communities they have status, they can tell black fellows what to do, they have power and they use it inappropriately.  Generally they are deep seeded racists who slide, normally quickly into attitudes about how hopeless Aboriginal people are.  “they don’t want to help themselves”, and this gives them permission to accrue still more power.  “If they won’t do it for themselves, I will just have to do it for them.”  This is not to say there aren’t some really good people, but inevitably they are the ones who get attacked and run out of town, because they attack layers of feudal power.  It is inevitable within this system, particularly when you don’t have strong people running things that workers will be at each others throats.

But it is too easy to blame the problems of Aboriginal Australia on a few marginal white people.  The problem is far more structural, why are Aboriginal communities so marginal? I believe it is because like the unacknowledged alcoholic we won’t look at the elephant under the bed.  Australia is a profoundly insular and racist country.  We so desperately want to think of ourselves as this wonderfully egalitarian society, where anyone can through their only labours make good.  But this is not true and Aboriginal Australia is the proof.  It is disgraceful that Aboriginal people are so marginalised, that we have continued to allow them to be marginalised.  It is disgraceful that so many of the lies and myths of Aboriginal people getting a disproportionate slice of government money is allowed to be perpetuated.  We are all culpable of letting these lies stand unopposed.