Image courtesy of Giramondo Publishing
It was always an exciting time for me, during my time in the role of Art Centre Manager at Titjikala, to escort Aboriginal artists from central Australia to their art exhibitions and forums in Adelaide. On one occasion were two senior Pitjantjatjara / Luritja artists from Titjikala, and they were accompanied by their granddaughters. My granddaughter had joined the group in Port Augusta. And so we were in Adelaide when the news was announced.
The next day, after the exhibition, and on the front page of the Weekend Australian, a large photo showed army soldiers playing football with children in the community we had just left. One of the elder artists lay down on the floor. I lay beside her and asked what was wrong. She said she was ‘waiting for a heart attack,’ as she did not believe that the other children she had left behind would still be in the community upon our return. She was sure the Army would steal them. Why else would they have invaded her home? I held her in my arms and reassured her that everything would be alright. I kept my voice strong. But my mind was addled with confusion and doubt. What was the Army doing in the remote Simpson Desert of central Australia?
In August 2007, The Australian Federal Government, under the leadership of Prime Minister John Howard and the Minister for Indigenous Affairs Mal Brough, rolled out a policy titled the Northern Territory Emergency Response, which has become more infamously known as The Intervention. Howard based his argument on the findings of the Little Children Are Sacred Report that claimed paedophilia rings and child sexual abuse cases were rampant in Aboriginal communities with the Northern Territory. This report also pleaded for locally based action, education and resources.
A total of seventy-three Aboriginal communities and town camps were targeted. Operation Outreach involved about six hundred soldiers from the Australian Defence Forces, led by Major-General David Chalmers. Many Aboriginal soldiers from NorForce were deployed to ‘protect’ the bureaucrats to deliver the new policies. It was a strange and mixed message.
I was living with my kinship family at Titjikala, on the edge of the Simpson Desert. I witnessed firsthand intimidation methods to implement the following strictures, justification for the extreme wages paid to ‘interventionists’: alcohol restrictions (these have been in place for many years, and ineffectively monitored due to lack of police); mandatory ‘sex checks’ on all children residing in the communities, overriding the regular health checks in the local community clinic (doctors from interstate were paid $5000 per week including benefits, due to their perilous task); Welfare quarantining of money, for all families and Aboriginal residents, including high standing community leaders and long-term employed; Changes to land tenures, what became five-year leases evolved to 40 to 90-year lease holds by the federal government in return for essential services; Suspension of the Land Councils permit system controlling access to Aboriginal communities; and the abolition of the Community Development Employment Project (CDEP), often the only employment strategy in these remote communities. I was there the day all the staff got sacked!
The loss of the international tourist venture at Titjikala was a result from the CDEP’s elinimation. Here was a community that had worked in partnership with Macquarie Bank and the Indigenous Land Council, to build an authentic cultural enterprise and showcase their community and history. Many overseas visitors arrived to stay for short residencies at Gunya Titjikala, a series of deluxe safari tents boasting polished floor boards, private en suites with claw baths and eco-toilets, and exceptional views of the Simpson desert and the night skies. Guests were treated to bush tucker catered by locals. Entertainment provided and reciprocated at night was a true example of the friendships I had imagined might exist in a mature Australia.
It was terrifying to watch the effect of the loss of livelihood upon the men of Titjikala. The confusion and constant changes to their lives made them nervous to speak out. Respectfully, I wrote the poem ‘Intervention Pay Back’ in support of the men, who I knew as kind, hard-working, fun-loving and strong husbands, fathers and sons. These men are my family and also my friends.
Intervention Pay Back I love my wife she right skin for me pretty one my wife young one found her in the next community over across the hills little bit long way not far And from there she give me good kids funny kids mine we always laughing all together and that wife she real good mother make our wali real nice flowers and grass patch and chickens I like staying home with my kids And from there I build cubby house yard for the horse see I make them things from the left overs from the dump all the left overs from fixing the houses and all the left overs I make cubby house and chicken house And in the house we teach the kids don’t make mess go to school learn good so you can work round here later good job good life and the government will leave you alone And from there tjamu and nana bin tell us the story when the government was worse rations government make up all the rules but don’t know culture cant sit in the sand oh tjamu and nana they got the best story we always laughing us mob And from there night time when we all aslepp all together on the grass patch dog and cat and kids my wife and me them kids they ask really good questions about them olden days about today them real ninti them kids they gunna be right And from there come intervention John Howard he make up new rules he never even come to see us how good we was doing already Mal Brough he come with the army we got real frightened true thought he was gunna take the kids away just like tjamu and nana bin tell us I run my kids in the sand hills took my rifle up there and sat but they was all just lying changing their words all the time wanting meeting today and meeting tomorrow we was getting sick of looking at them so everyone put their eyes down and some even shut their ears And from there I didn’t care too much just kept working fixing the housing being happy working hard kids go to school wife working hard too didn’t care too much we was right we always laughing us mob all together But then my wife she come home crying says her money in quarantine but I didn’t know why they do that we was happy not drinking and fighting why they do that we ask the council to stop the drinking and protect the children hey you know me ya bloody mongrel I don’t drink and I look after my kids I bloody well fight ya you say that again hey settle down we not saying that Mal Brough he saying that don’t you watch the television he making the rules for all the mobs every place Northern Territory he real cheeky whitefella but he’s the boss we gotta do it And from there I tell my wife she gets paid half half in hand half in the store her money in the store now half and half me too all us building mob but I cant buy tobacco or work boots you only get the meat and bread just like the mission days just like tjamu and nana bin tell us And from there I went to the store to get meat for our supper but the store run out only tin food left so I asked for some bullets I’ll go shoot my own meat but sorry they said you gotta buy food that night I slept by hungry and I slept by myself thinking about it And from there the government told us our job was finish the government bin give us the sack we couldn’t believe it we bin working CDEP for years slow way park the truck at the shed just waiting for something for someone with tobacco The other mens reckon fuck this drive to town for the grog but I stayed with my kids started watching the television trying to laugh not to worry just to be like yesterday And from there the politician man says I’ll give you real job tells me to work again but different only half time sixteen hours but I couldn’t understand it was the same job as before but more little less pay and my kids can’t understand when they come home from school why I can’t buy the lolly for them like I used to before I don’t want to tell them I get less money for us now And from there they say my wife gets too much money I gunna miss out again I’m getting sick of it don’t worry she says I’ll look after you but I know that’s not right way I’m getting shame my brother he gets shame too he goes to town for drinking leaves his wife behind leaves his kids And from there I drive round to see tjamu he says his money in the store too poor bloke he can’t even walk that far and I don’t smile I look at the old man he lost his smile too but nana she cooking the damper and the roo tail she trying to smile she always like that And from there when I get home my wife gone to town with the sister in law she gone look for my brother he might be stupid on the grog he not used to it she gotta find him might find him with another woman make him bleed drag him home And from there my wife come back she real quiet true tells me she went to casino them other kungkas took her taught her the machines she lost all her money she lost her laughing And from there all the kids bin watching us quiet way not laughing round so we all go swimming down the creek all the families there together we happy again them boys we take them shooting chasing the malu in the car we real careful with the gun not gunna hurt my kids no way And from there my wife she sorry she back working hard save the money kids gunna get new clothes I gunna get my tobacco and them bullets but she gone change again getting her pay forgetting her family forget yesterday only thinking for town with the sister in law And my wife she got real smart now drive for miles all dressed up going to the casino with them other kungkas for the Wednesday night draw I ready told you I love my kids I only got five two pass away already and I not complaining bout looking after my kids no way but when my wife gets home if she spent all her money not gunna share with me and the kids I might hit her first time