The Derogation of Indigenous Rights in Australia

April 11, 2016

I had a call from Rosalie Kunoth-Monks the other day. Rosalie is an elder of the Arrernte-Alyawarra people, who lives in Utopia, a vast and remote region in the “red heart” of Australia. The nearest town is Alice Springs, more than 200 miles across an ancient landscape of spinifex and swirling skeins of red dust. The first Europeans who came here, perhaps demented by the heat, imagined a white utopia that was not theirs to imagine; for this is a sacred place, the homeland of the oldest, most continuous human presence on earth.

Rosalie was distressed, defiant and eloquent. Her distinction as one unafraid to speak up in a society so often deaf to the cries and anguish of its first people, its singular uniqueness, is well earned. She appears in my 2013 film, Utopia, with a searing description of a discarded people: “We are not wanted in our own country.” She has described the legacies of a genocide: a word political Australia loathes and fears.

A week ago, Rosalie and her daughter Ngarla put out an alert that people were starving in Utopia. They said that elderly Indigenous  people in the homelands had received no food from an aged care program funded by the Australian Government and administered by the regional Council.

“One elderly man with end-stage Parkinson’s received two small packets of  mincemeat and white bread,” said Ngarla, “the elderly woman living nearby received nothing.” In calling for food drops, Rosalie said, “The whole community including children and the elderly go without food, often on a daily basis.” She and Ngarla and their community have cooked and distributed food as best they can.

This is not unusual. Four years ago, I drove into the red heart and met Dr. Janelle Trees. A general practitioner whose indigenous patients live within a few miles of $1,000-a-night tourist resorts serving Uluru (Ayers Rock), she said, “Malnutrition is common.

I wanted to give a patient an anti-inflammatory for an infection that would have been preventable if living conditions were better, but I couldn’t treat her because she didn’t have enough food to eat and couldn’t ingest the tablets. I feel sometimes as if I’m dealing with similar conditions as the English working class at the beginning of the industrial revolution.

“There’s asbestos in many Aboriginal homes, and when somebody gets a fibre of asbestos in their lungs and develops mesothelioma, [the government] doesn’t care. When the kids have chronic infections and end up adding to these incredible statistics of indigenous people dying of renal disease, and vulnerable to world record rates of rheumatic heart disease, nothing is done. I ask myself: why not?”

When Rosalie phoned me from Utopia, she said,

“It’s not so much the physical starvation as the traumatising of my people, of whole communities We are duped all the time. White Australia sets up organisations and structures that offer the pretence of helping us, but it’s a pretence, no more. If we oppose it, it’s a crime. Simply belonging is a crime. Suicides are everywhere. (She gave me details of the suffering in her own family). They’re out to kill our values, to break down our traditional life until there’s nothing there anymore.”

Barkly Regional Council says its aged care packages get through and protests that the council is “the poorest of the three tiers of government and is very much dependent on [Northern] Territory and [Federal] governments for funds to provide such services to the bush. Barbara Shaw, the council’s president, agreed that it was “totally unacceptable that people should be starving in a rich and well-developed country like Australia” and that “it is disgusting and wrong that Indigenous people experience deep poverty such as this.”

The starvation and poverty and the division often sewn among Indigenous people themselves as they try to identify those responsible stem in large part from an extraordinary episode known as “the Intervention”. This is Australia’s dirty secret.

In 2007, the then Prime Minister, John Howard, sent the army into Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory to “rescue children” who, claimed his minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mal Brough, were being abused by paedophile gangs in “unthinkable numbers”.

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