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In a closed meeting on the outskirts of Alice Springs, Aboriginal leaders look for a solution away from the political and media frenzy of the past month. By Ben Abbatangelo.

How to solve the real problems in Alice Springs

Mparntwe/Alice Springs under a red sky.
Mparntwe/Alice Springs.
Credit: Horizon International Images / Alamy

In Mparntwe/Alice Springs, under an awakening, baby-blue sky, a gentle breeze caresses the spinifex, kissing the red dust as it whisks across the countryside. Shadows shift along the face of the majestic Tjoritja/MacDonnell Ranges. Language and laughter light up the streets. Arrernte Country is alive.

Over the past month, all roads, algorithms and search engines have led to Mparntwe/Alice Springs. It’s not the first time this town in the middle of the continent has captured the mainstream imagination – or been captured by it. History is alive and it’s likely this won’t be the last time central desert communities are taken hostage by the white gaze.

Analysed through the all-too-familiar prism of difference and otherness, this desert town has been depicted as a war zone and its people as alien-like problems that need to be solved. Everyone’s an expert, including out-of-town cosmetic nurses pretending to be outback health workers. Those who know the least have been provided with megaphones to say the most, which is why fiction continues to pass as fact and facts as fables.

“The negative media coverage towards our people hasn’t been helpful,” says Arranta woman and community organiser Que Nakamarra Kenny, as she reflects on the last few weeks from her home in Ntaria/Hermannsburg. “Most of the people who are talking about us, without us, haven’t even been to Alice Springs before. They don’t know us or our people.”

Outsiders gazing in have repeatedly framed the distress as an “alcohol-fuelled crime wave” and “a town taken hostage by rampant and out-of-control youth”. This framing and the sensationalist nature in which it’s being presented has further entrenched the idea that the current affliction is a culmination of individual choices instead of the ongoing wave of violence induced by colonisation.

Not only has it covered over the decades of segregative domination, exacerbated by the Northern Territory Intervention, but it has intentionally laid the foundations for a policy response that further expands control over the lives of First Nations communities instead of restoring self-governance and all that sustains them.

Major parties have used the region and its people as a political football in an attempt to outflank each other and set up their positions for the upcoming referendum on the Voice. Despite year-on-year cuts to front-line services in Central Australia and 15 years of race-based controls through the Northern Territory Intervention, Peter Dutton continues to invoke the language of “protecting Indigenous women and children” to wedge Anthony Albanese into a rash response.

Dutton and his colleagues have also attempted to pin the rise in crime and violence on the removal of the cashless debit card, forcing Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth to concede that her government didn’t abolish the cashless welfare scheme in 2022 but instead reformed it back to its racist roots – making income management an exclusive instrument for more than 20,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the Northern Territory.

The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, and the minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, have sought to use this moment to re-emphasise the importance of establishing a Voice to Parliament, claiming that the current crisis would have been avoided if something like the Voice was established. It’s a long bow to draw, especially considering that voices from Central Australia have been consistently censored, manipulated or blatantly ignored as incompatible with the political agendas of the day.

“What’s clear is that no one cares more about Aboriginal people than Aboriginal people themselves,” Nakamarra emphasises. “We’re at the tail end of the Northern Territory Intervention and these children are a product of that. They are the children of the Intervention who have grown up watching their parents be demonised and rejected.”

Dispossession and displacement lives within each of these kids. Most adolescents at the centre of the firestorm are also the grandchildren of the Stolen Generations and the great-grandchildren of those who were herded onto missions or massacred.

Echoing Nakamarra’s reflections is Arrernte man, author and community organiser Declan Furber Gillick, who is the son of veteran Stolen Generations campaigner and Arrernte leader Kwementyaye H. Furber.

“The kids who are causing havoc, a lot of them have grown up in an era where the capacity for their families and communities to have control over their own lives was dramatically reduced,” he says.

“A lot of these kids aren’t deeply in touch or enculturated with traditional ways but at the same time feel like the settler colonial apparatus and white Australian way of life also doesn’t want them. So, they’re in a no-man’s-land where they’re not living a meaningful traditional existence but they’re also not supported or welcomed, or necessarily even wanting to be absorbed into mainstream society.

“We also know that alcohol opens up channels for incredibly marginalised and disenfranchised people to express their volatile and repressed emotions. Sure, reimposing alcohol restrictions might ‘get things back to normal and under control’, but the fact is that those ‘things’ that are ‘under control’ are human beings. ‘Back to normal’ is when these human beings are under control, not in control and self-determining our own lives and futures towards a world that we want to create.”

After an inflammatory town meeting led by local business owners and a snap visit from the prime minister, all aided and abetted by a frenzied media, community organisers triggered a rich coming together of grassroots communities for a closed forum. I was there along with a small number of other Indigenous reporters, granted special access to observe.

The forum was held on the outskirts of Mparntwe/Alice Springs, at the Desert Knowledge centre, with Arrernte, Aranda, Luritja, Anmatyerre, Warlpiri, Pintupi, Warramunga and Pitjantjatjara people all in attendance. At its peak, the event space was overflowing, with estimates of close to 300 people present, many of whom had travelled hundreds of kilometres.

“One of the really promising things to come out of recent meetings is the groundswell of rejection to the pro-business fear-mongering event held at the [Alice Springs] Convention Centre. People have said, ‘No, that’s not what this town is about. That’s not who we are or the future that we want,’” says Furber Gillick.

“We want to create new possibility, an integrative methodology with a cultural integrity rooted in First Peoples’ sovereignty and our primary connection to this Country. Anything other than that is meaningless.”

Grounded in culturally safe and tribally sensitive design principles, the energy within the room was measured and calm. With an 11-point agenda, beginning with the theme “Our Kids”, attendees were given five minutes to share their perspective and analysis.

The flow of communication was rhythmic from the outset, highlighting the region’s interconnectedness and shared aspirations. Each time speakers concluded their message, the room broke out in a generous and appreciative applause.

Before long, it was evident that the wounds from the Northern Territory Intervention and its breathtaking suite of race-based controls were still suppurating. Several women spoke passionately about the lasting distress of Aboriginal men, who were not only painted as rapists and paedophiles by governments and large factions of the media, but shamed away from fathering their children.

Some questioned where all the money from the Intervention went and wanted to know why the past 15 years of data had been kept secret. Many spoke about how the continued neglect of outstations is driving people off their homelands, away from their kin and into Mparntwe/Alice Springs.

The weight of decades of failed policies was obvious. From the Northern Territory Intervention to the Stronger Futures legislation, and now the $250 million “better, safer future” package. Different titles, similar policies, more of the same mess. Imagine what could have been achieved if politicians committed to building self-governing structures in the Northern Territory instead of eradicating them. It’s from within these ruins that the community is tasked to rebuild.

 

This article was amended on February 21, 2023, to correct the spelling of the name Kwementyaye H. Furber.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 18, 2023 as "Children of the Intervention".

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