Indigenous communities finding a voice

The Federal Government's Northern Territory Emergency Intervention Plan is now well under way.


But since the NT National Emergency Response Bill was passed in Federal Parliament,

VO1 A group called Combined Aboriginal Organisations feel the silencing of Indigenous voices is now more evident in the wake of the Northern Territory/Federal Government's emergency intervention plan.

EILEEN CUMMINGS: They want to take over our territory and our issues when our people have been dealing with them. In recent months, this group has been gathering support throughout the Northern Territory.

EILEEN CUMMINGS: As a group we're trying to put up our own views in how this should be dealt with in the Northern Territory because at the moment we feel that the Aboriginal voice is being left out of all discussions and consultations.

WESLEY AIRD: The intervention was kicked off quite quickly and I can understand that. I think it's important that, knowing the abuse and the neglect that was going on, it was important to get in and act very quickly.

VO2: But it's not just Aboriginal groups meeting. Made up of prominent Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, Women for Wik was formed in 1997 to show their support for native title. 10 years later they feel it's time to reunite.

EILEEN CUMMINGS: We're hoping through that forum, we can start talking about some of the intervention action plans that we'd love to see in our communities.

V03: Olga Havnen, coordinator of Darwin-based Combined Aboriginal Organisations, says there are many flaws with the Federal Government Emergency Intervention legislation.

OLGA HAVNEN – CO-ORDINATOR OF DARWIN BASED ABL COMBINED ORGS: All of the legislation that's been passed is quite simply one of the Minister taking absolute control over the people as individuals – over their financial affairs, over community organisations and community assets. There was absolutely nothing in there that went to the heart of child protection or family services or the kinds of initiatives that would do anything to improve the wellbeing of children. Listen, people, everybody say – in a nice voice say, “Hello, Mr Howard.” CHILDREN: Hello, Mr Howard! Hello, children.

VO4: In his recent trip to the Northern Territory, Prime Minister John Howard stood firm on his intervention policy.

PRIME MINISTER JOHN HOWARD: Unless they can get a share of the bounty of this great and prosperous country, their future will be bleak. And the motivation behind the intervention is to ensure that that happens.

V05 Wesley Aird, member of the Howard Government's handpicked National Indigenous Council, welcomes the plan.

WESLEY AIRD: It really is time to take drastic measures and I encourage the Minister in trying to fix it.

VO6 But he agreed more consultation is needed.

WESLEY AIRD: I think it's important that communities are empowered, that their capacity is improved and that they are able to work very closely with Government, so it's a partnership, and I think that's a challenge for the Government at the moment.

KARLA GRANT: Angela Bates with that report. Well, one person who has been vocal on the Federal Government's recent plans, and instrumental in gathering support for the new coalition of NT Combined Aboriginal Organisations is one of its members, and CEO of NITV, Pat Turner.

KARLA GRANT: Pat, welcome to the program. Thank you, Karla.

KARLA GRANT: Well, first of all, what are your main criticisms of the NT emergency intervention?

PAT TURNER: Well, I would prefer to refer to it as an invasion, and it's an absolute invasion of our people's privacy, their rights. They're not being treated as citizens. There has been no collaboration with Aboriginal people, let alone any level of reasonable negotiation. So the way the Federal Government has gone about this is absolutely, totally unacceptable, and the way they are treating Aboriginal people is totally unacceptable.

KARLA GRANT: Well, doesn't the Government's actions demonstrate that they are serious about addressing this issue? The fact that they are increasing policing, they're looking at better health outcomes for Aboriginal people, doesn't that signal that they are serious?

PAT TURNER: They are not serious at all. And if they were, they would have done it in full collaboration with Aboriginal people, and they would have done it in collaboration with the Northern Territory Government. That was the first recommendation of the Wild-Anderson report, and they have totally ignored it. There has been no collaboration with our people. What is happening is that the invasion is imposing what the Government thinks is right. The Prime Minister is saying that Aboriginal people have to become part of the broader society and community, in other words we have to be assimilated. That is not what we want. Our people have 60,000 years of living heritage and we don't have to give that up just because of the Prime Minister and a misguided Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mal Brough.

KARLA GRANT: Well, you along with other Indigenous leaders, are now planning to form a new independent national representative body. How do you plan to do this?

PAT TURNER: First of all, we're having a meeting in Alice Springs – starts next Wednesday, through to Friday. It is a national meeting. We want the CEOs and chairs of Aboriginal organisations from throughout the country to get themselves there. We have a lot of work to do. We will be, of course, briefing on the NT invasion and the complete and utter waste of Commonwealth resources in the way that they're handling this. They have created jobs, you know, for 700 new bureaucrats. Centrelink alone is getting a $88 million for the first year to quarantine 50% of any Centrelink payments of the Aboriginal people living in the affected areas. It is an absolute outrage. And you know what, Karla, not one program for children, not one safe house, not one rehabilitation service. The majority of the money is going towards the payment of bureaucrats who have been brought in from interstate, and that is not counting the police or the army. It is disgraceful.

KARLA GRANT: Well, just going back to your representative body that you are looking at forming, how do people become involved? Will it be an elected body or will it be self-appointed?

PAT TURNER: Well, that is up to the meeting to determine exactly what they want. What we need, though, and is long overdue over the last few years, is a national voice for our people. And we have to stand united and stand up against these atrocities such is being perpetrated against our people in the Territory. And not only that, they won't stop at the Territory, they will roll out these measures – for Centrelink payments in particular – in the Kimberleys, in the north-west of South Australia and in western New South Wales, you mark my words.

KARLA GRANT: OK, have the community approached you about forming this representative body? And has there been consultation? I mean, that has been one of the main criticisms of the Federal Government – the lack of consultation, so will you be consulting people?

PAT TURNER: Yes. Well, of course, Aboriginal organisations are constantly in touch with their membership. They service them every day, they have boards who come from communities, they do know exactly what the situation is in their communities. And they need to bring that together and look at things on a national level because we cannot afford any government – it doesn't matter whether it is this current government in power or whether Kevin Rudd wins the next election – Aboriginal people have got to influence the national agenda, and we have to be listened to, so we will be acting responsibly to do that.

KARLA GRANT: Well, you can understand that there could be some scepticism from the community about the formation of this new group. I mean, we have had DAA, ATSIC, NIC. I mean, what makes you think that this body can do anything better and create positive change for Indigenous Australians?

PAT TURNER: Because they're not government creations, as each of those three bodies that you just mentioned have been, in the past. And the NIC of course, still is a government, you know, created body. This is from the community. This is from the people. This is for the people, by the people, about the people. That will be the difference and that's what will make it work.

KARLA GRANT: OK. Well, we do thank you very much for joining us today, Pat.

PAT TURNER: Thank you very much, Karla.

KARLA GRANT: That was Pat Turner, one of the members for the NT Combined Aboriginal Organisations. Still to come on Living Black, we follow a Federal Government health team into the Central Australian community of Yuelamu.

KARLA GRANT: In June this year, the Federal Government announced its national emergency response to protect Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory. As part of that response, a taskforce was set up to oversee the survey and health teams which have been assessing the needs of the 73 communities under the intervention plan. Video journalist Kris Flanders travelled to the community of Yuelamu where he experienced at first-hand a Federal Government health team at work.

MARY KOSTAKIDIS: The Federal Government is planning to override Northern Territory law to implement wide-ranging tough new measures.

JOHN HOWARD: It is interventionist. It does push aside the role of the Territory to some degree, I accept that.

JOURNALIST: The first group of doctors are on the ground. The Government says it's very satisfying progress.

VOICEOVER 1: After the dust had settled on the Federal Government's announcement that compulsory health checks would become voluntary, health teams assembled in Alice Springs for a 2-day orientation.

JIM THURLEY, REGIONAL CLINICAL ADVISOR: We try and give them a background into the health issues and we spend a lot of time going through the actual health checks because that is what they are here for.

SABINA KNIGHT, SENIOR LECTURER NURSING & REMOTE HEALTH PRACTISE: To be honest, I was a bit perplexed because I thought, “Why are we sending in teams to do things which is currently done?” But if this is the way that we collect some good data that will allow the Australian Government to plan and to resource properly remote health services, then so be it. We've been underresourced for a very long time, and underpowered.

VOICEOVER 2: Many of these health professionals had been brought in from all round the country. Some have minimal experience with Indigenous health, but that wasn't the only hurdle for the health teams of doctors and nurses. Maria is a local Aboriginal woman and her role is to advise the teams about cultural awareness and protocols when entering communities.

MARIA PALMER-THOMPSON, ABORIGINAL CULTURAL AWARENESS OFFICER: What we are doing is giving them a glimpse into Aboriginal society here in Central Australia. We start off with a session where we come to the common understanding of culture and then we look at it from an Aboriginal point of view. And then we give them some cultural etiquette and tips, I guess, in terms of how to communicate with Aboriginal people.

VOICEOVER 3: This crash course in cultural awareness will prepare teams for life in the community. It also highlights the serious health problems being experienced by children in Central Australian Aboriginal communities.

VICKI GORDON, REMOTE AREA NURSE: There are a lot of issues really to do with the kids' ears particularly, ears, chest infections, diarrhoea, skin infections, rheumatic heart disease. There's a whole gamut of things that are not commonly seen within other communities in Australia that are very common in the remote Aboriginal context.

VOICEOVER 4: Dr Sue Gordon is chair of the Emergency Response Taskforce. She backs the Government's swift intervention.

DR. SUE GORDON, CHAIR EMERGENCY RESPONSE TASKFORCE: This was an emergency response by government. If you've got an emergency like a cyclone or a tsunami, you go straight in to get something done. This is about – and my total focus is child protection. That's why the Government asked me to do this – because I've been a magistrate for 18 years, dealing every day with child abuse.

VOICEOVER 5: It's early morning in Alice Springs and the health teams are preparing to head out to communities in Kintore, Papunya and Santa Teresa. The health team that I'm following are heading for Yuelamu, and Anna Johnston, a nurse from Queensland, is part of that team.

ANNA JOHNSTON, NURSE: It's really the same as any health check that you would have when you went to your normal GP. It's how tall are you, how much do you weigh. If they're babies, what do they eat. And gathering some social data – who do you live with, do people smoke. Just so we'll look at some issues of overcrowding and things like that. It's basically what you do when you go to your normal GP.

VOICEOVER 6: Head of the Yuelamu health team is Dr Alan Baldam, a GP from Victoria.

DR ALAN BALDAM: We'll be checking and giving immunisations if they are overdue. Any medical problems that are found we are not just reporting them to another agency, we're actually doing some actual health initiatives as well. So if we find a problem – and I think the usual ones that we will find will be ear infections, maybe trachoma, skin infections, that type of thing – then we are part of the treatment as well.

VOICEOVER 7: Yuelamu, also known as Mount Allen, is situated about 300km from Alice Springs and has a population of around 380 people. Yuelamu Council members Ron Hagan and Michael Tommy were initially unhappy with the lack of consultation and information about the Federal Government's plans.

RON HAGAN: Well, we just heard it on the news they were flying around all over the country and I didn't know what to say because we didn't have any choice, you know. I didn't know what's going on. Like they're talking about there's child abuse and all that type of thing. Some of the people who are telling us, there were misunderstandings – maybe come out and take your kids away or something like that. We weren't really sure about it.

VOICEOVER 8: After a meeting with the Yuelamu Council and the Government's survey team, the community now welcomed the health team coming in.

RON HAGAN: I reckon it's a really good idea, like Government was thinking about to check all the kids, whether they might be healthy or something like that.

VOICEOVER 9: The health checks began as a controversial part of the Federal Government's crackdown on child sexual abuse. However many of the health workers agree that it will be very difficult to detect sexual abuse.

JIM THURLEY: These checks are not designed to pick up sexual abuse, they won't pick that up. And that's not just my opinion, that's virtually everybody involved that sexual abuse will not be picked up. And we're not trying to.

VOICEOVER 10: The community at Yuelamu are demanding that real action be taken with the information gathered.

SABINA KNIGHT: There's no identified information kept but the de-identified information goes to Canberra for planning. And as far as we know, that it's on the basis of that data that the health resourcing and planning will occur. And that they already have begun the processes for planning the follow-up, and the initial follow-up that is absolutely critical. There's a saying in remote health – no survey without service, and we think that is absolutely critical.

VOICEOVER 11: Taskforce member Dr Bill Glasson is also committed to making sure that these health checks be acted upon.

DR BILL GLASSON, HEALTH TASKFORCE MEMBER: I will be ensuring with all my might that we are going to follow up on this. This is not just the team comes in, they find these figures and they're never heard of or seen of again. Well, I promise you that we have to ensure that this goes on for the whole of this generation into the next generation.

KARLA GRANT: Let's take a look at what's making news. Traditional owners of the Tiwi Islands have become the first to sign up to the Commonwealth's 99-year land lease agreement. The entire township of Nguiu has been leased for $5 million, which will cover the first 15 years. After eight years of negotiations, the traditional owners of Tennant Creek have finally been recognised as the native title holders to 25 hectares of land in the town. Under the agreement, the Patta Warumungu people will gain freehold title to the Devil's Pebbles as part of the land use deal. This is the first native title determination in the Northern Territory to be reached through negotiations instead of litigation. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy is using this week's APEC summit as a platform to highlight the ongoing issues faced by Indigenous Australians. The group has set up a camp site in Victoria Park, in Sydney, and say they want their voices to be heard by world leaders.

ISABEL COE: Well, we want to let the world know what Johnny Howard has been doing to Aboriginal people, how he has attacked Aboriginal people, he's closed down all of our organisations, all of our infrastructures. Now he has come back to finish the job off, to complete the genocide, and we object.

KARLA GRANT: North Queensland Cowboys captain Jonathan Thurston has been named the Dally M Player of the Year. Thurston was presented the medal by Prime Minister John Howard at a ceremony last night at Sydney's Town Hall. This is Thurston's second Dally M win, having also won the award in 2005.

KARLA GRANT: And that's all for today. On next week's program, video journalist Angela Bates follows a government survey team into the Aboriginal community of Yarralin. That's next week on Living Black. Don't forget, if you'd like to visit our website, you can do that by logging on to, and click on News. This week we hear your views on the Federal Government's intervention in the Northern Territory. Thanks for joining us. I'm KARLA GRANT. Goodnight.

MAN 1: Do I agree with the intervention? Hell, no.

MAN 2: It's probably one of the most racist acts any government in this country has ever attempted.

MAN 3: I suppose, it's hard to say really, like maybe in the long run. But just the way they went in – you know, they went in it seems like all guns blazing.

WOMAN: It's all a scam. They're going back to where they want to take our kids away.