Solidarity spoke to Mark Fordham, until recently the works manager for the Barkly Shire Council who service Ampilatwatja, a “prescribed community” under the NT Intervention, about the failure in providing basic services there—and the failure to employ any Aboriginal people to provide them. Alongside the Intervention, mega-Shires like the BSC have taken over from locally run Aboriginal community councils, acquiring all of their assets and laying off staff.
On April 9, a temporary Barkly Shire Services Manager appointed to Ampilatwatja ordered workers to dump raw sewage at the local tip, approximately 800m from the school.
Mark refused to co-operate with this order and spoke out publicly when the Shire brought in contractors to do the job. Mark has been persecuted for speaking out. After he challenged a BSC decision to refuse him annual leave, Shire management sent police to evict Mark and his two young sons from their house at Ampilatwatja. He was issued with a dismissal notice, arrested for threatening Shire management and banned from all communities in the Barkly region.
The following interview was completed two days before Mark’s arrest. Here he speaks about the incredible difficulties faced by Aboriginal workers are who trying to deliver basic services in the community under the regime of the Intervention. He also discusses the new Shires and the NT Government’s “hub towns” policy that means no new resources to Ampilatwatja and the majority of communities in the NT.
Mark is one of more than 80 Central Australian Aboriginal workers who have joined unions over the past month, predominantly the LHMU who represent Shire workers. This is part of a campaign initiated by unions and the Intervention Rollback Action Group in Alice Springs to demand investment in “Jobs with Justice” instead of the racist Intervention.
In your time here, what has been organised by the Government Business Manager (GBM) who has been installed through the Intervention?
The only thing I have seen in the last eight to ten months is a big shelter over the Basketball court. But the funding was approved for that years ago, the GBM just got the money to a contractor.
What’s the attitude to the local Aboriginal workforce when these projects happen?
It’s a very sad story. No Aboriginal person on the community was employed to help build the Basketball stadium. The contractors have brought in entirely their own work crew and gang. Every contractor that comes out does exactly the same thing. They don’t hire any of the local guys. Plenty of people here have training—but they are not willing to pay anyone a proper wage.
You’ve had experience working with the Shire. What is the attitude of the Shire to dealing with the serious lack of services here, or getting local Aboriginal people into work?
It’s a complete joke. There are positions that are badly needed on this community but the Barkly Shire refuses to put people on. With my position I was forced to do half a dozen jobs in a day—and the next day five or six others. That’s happening right across the region. We need proper positions so people can work on basic things like rubbish, sewage and maintenance everyday if we’re going to keep up with the problems.
So as a result, you get the sewage overflows, the garbage everywhere?
You get to a crisis stage where you have five or six houses that have got sewage problems. Then we need to drop what we are doing as our daily or weekly job to scramble and try and stop a sewage overflow.
Do the Barkly Shire often use contract labour from outside the community?
They get contractors for basically everything. Pump out septic tank and dispose of it any way they can, the whipper-snipping, lawn mowing, hanging doors and windows. All these jobs that Aboriginal people can and should be doing.
What about the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) run through the Shire, where people are now working for their Centrelink payments that are quarantined on the BasicsCard?
When I started here, we had no other full-time workers on. But I had 15 blokes coming in every day (for CDEP) and I probably would have got eight of them wanting to work full days. But the Barkly Shire was only willing to run them for their Centrelink payments, which is 16 hours a week. Some guys would work full days, even though they weren’t being paid for it. They just wanted to work.
Through Centrelink people only get $100 or something cash a week and the rest on the BasicsCard. So a lot of those guys have just dropped out and walked away. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel. Forever and a day just work CDEP for the BasicsCard. Why are we not paying them wages?
What sort of work were people doing for the BasicsCard?
All municipal work. Before we had the rubbish truck, they were actually picking it up by hand. Mowing the lawns, painting, housing maintenance, pumping the septic tanks, fixing the airstrip, slashing the grass and fixing fences.
Have you ever encountered racism from the Barkly Shire managers?
It exists, but these people in these positions have the experience to be nice about being racist. For example, I suggested for them to put in for a grater, or some heavy earth moving equipment to maintain the roads—invest in some equipment for the whole region. But as an Aboriginal person, I get the feeling that they don’t take me seriously. It’s not because of my lack of experience or education, it’s because of the colour of my skin. I haven’t seen any Aboriginal people in senior Shire positions. All of them are taken up by whitefellas really.
Can you take us through step by step about what happened with the dumping of the sewage?
When I first started here, one of the main issues was that a lot of septic tanks were overflowing. The guys were being instructed by the Shire to just take it out bush and dump it on the ground. I said that this was an illegal practice and I didn’t want to have any part in it. So the previous Shire Services Manager got a licensed truck out from Alice Springs, to travel back and dispose of it in the proper manner. But since that manager has left and the temporary manager has come in—who happens to be the Regional Housing Manager for the Barkly Shire—we’ve just gone back to the Middle Ages so to speak. He just ordered we go out and dump it out on the flat at the tip.
The local guys refused. But they brought in two contractors who pumped out over 3000 litres, then went to the rubbish dump, just let the hose out and drove round and round in circles until all the sewage had drained out.
So now we’ve got approximately 3000 litres of raw sewage sitting out at the rubbish dump. It’s rained for a couple of days, all muddy for the dogs to come back here. That afternoon one of the contractors was flown out to hospital. Just by watching those guys work I could tell they had no training. They drove around the whole community with it on the truck, dripping raw sewage out the back!