A “protest house” built at the walk-off camp established by the Alyawarr people, is set to be opened on February 14. It will coincide with national demonstrations against the NT Intervention.
Many Alyawarr walked off their community at Ampilatwatja, 350kms northeast of Alice Springs, in July last year. They set up camp outside the boundaries of the “prescribed area” established by the Intervention.
The strong stand at Ampilatwatja has become an important focal point for the national campaign. A solidarity brigade, of representatives from the CFMEU, AMWU, AWU, LHMU and Unions NT, started work on the “protest house” on February 2.
The solidarity brigade, working with young Alyawarr, will complete the house within two weeks.
Yet, after two years, the $680 million Intervention housing program (SIHIP) has only completed two houses. They’re both in the Top End community of Wadeye, where residents were forced to sign a 99-year lease over their land.
SIHIP will only build houses in 20 designated “hub towns”. Despite critical overcrowding, there will be nothing for communities like Ampilatwatja. The government wants these places shut down.
The $1.5 billion Intervention has been used to install government managers and bloated bureaucracies to control Aboriginal lives. In Ampilatwatja services have been cut back. “They are leaving us to rot”, says walk-off leader Richard Downs.
The walk-off started when raw sewage flowed out onto the streets of Ampilatwatja. NT housing, after using Intervention powers to take control of the housing stock in remote communities, failed to have the sewage pumped or to fix deteriorating pipes.
Alongside the Intervention, “local government reform” in the NT has seen the abolition of local Aboriginal community councils in favour of six mega-Shires.
These Shires have taken over all community assets and choked local initiative. Ampilatwatja has only had one rubbish collection in the previous two months.
Two years on from the apology, Rudd and Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin are attempting to sell changes to the racist Intervention laws. They are an attempt to entrench this kind of neglect.
Working for rations
Many of the workers providing municipal and community services in Ampilatwatja under the local council had been employed through the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP).
Changes in July last year mean that CDEP “workers” are now paid through Centrelink, rather than local organisations. Fifty per cent of all “payments” are Income Managed. So like all other welfare recipients under the Intervention, CDEP workers have a Basics Card that can only buy a limited range of items at designated shops.
Only a handful of staff at the Shires are paid proper wages. For jobs like cleaning, gardening, construction and maintenance work, they rely on people working for the Basics Card.
Long lists of Centrelink recipients are posted up around Ampilatwatja, instructing people to report for work or face a payment cut. This system will remain under Macklin’s proposed changes.
Liam O’Hearn, a CFMEU Victoria apprenticeships officer, said that building the protest house had been a great opportunity to learn about the struggle and build solidarity: “These people are human beings, they just shouldn’t be treated like this. The young fellas were so inspiring. We need more programs like this to educate the young people and skill them up—and there should be jobs to follow”.
Dave Noonan, National Secretary of the CFMEU, will attend the house opening, along with a host of union and Aboriginal leaders from around Australia. Local leaders from Central Australia have begun to talk about the prospect of more walk-offs to try and break the Intervention.
A documentary about the Gurindji walk-off from Wave Hill station in 1966 was shown at the camp one night after work. Gurindji stockmen went on strike against being paid only in rations, demanded rights to their land and sought support from trade unions nationally both to survive and take the political fight forward.This kind of unity is crucial in the fight back against the Intervention. After watching the film, Senior Alyawarr leader Banjo Morton said, “we’ve got to get on board with this union mob. Black and white together!”
Macklin’s proposal to widen welfare quarantine laws, to potentially hit everyone on welfare, gives the campaign an opportunity to build black and white unity to fight against the Intervention. The quarantine will still hit Aboriginal people the hardest, but welfare groups like ACOSS are now speaking out against the new laws (see here).
By Paddy Gibson