Australian politics, society & culture

Hard Times

Life after the Intervention

Police officer Gwen Brown watches over the community in Ali Currung, Northern Territory, 2007. © Chris Crerar / Newspix / News Limited
Police officer Gwen Brown watches over the community in Ali Currung, Northern Territory, 2007. © Chris Crerar / Newspix / News Limited

Paul Toohey

Long read6800 words
 

Barry Driver is not a spokesman for his community, let alone his people, but he had, through an intermediary, agreed to speak to me. When I get to Tennant Creek, after a 13-hour Greyhound bus trip from Darwin, he comes out of the house where he’s temporarily staying, at the Blueberry Hill camp, looking shaky from a big night. He’s scratching his head and clearly reluctant. It looks to me as though he’s been warned off. It’s a common enough feature of remote Aboriginal community life: if you poke your head up, expect to watch it roll off. Best to stay low; be a nobody.

March 2011
Julian Assange
Robert Manne
Peter Weir’s 'The Way Back' and Leon Ford’s 'Griff the Invisible'
Helen Garner
Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz
Christian Democratic Party member Peter J Madden
Jack Marx
Channel 7’s 'My Kitchen Rules'
Gay Bilson
Rupert Murdoch’s Populist Creations
Guy Rundle
Life after the Intervention
Paul Toohey
A Chapter in the Life of a Ballet Legend, Margaret Scott
Peter Robb
Food Technology and the Manufacture of Flavours
Anna Krien
NSW Labor
Mark Aarons

My interest in Driver came from a story that appeared some weeks before in the Tennant & District Times, the local paper, on 19 November. Driver’s only son, aged 29, had been killed while walking on the Stuart Highway outside Wycliffe Well, a fuel and grog stop for the nearby community of Ali Curung, where both Driver and his son lived, and which lies 170 kilometres south of Tennant Creek.

Two white women – tourists, heading north – were in the car that struck and killed Kumanjayi Driver. It wasn’t the driver’s fault. Barry Driver – a traditional Aboriginal man, whose father earned his surname driving trucks north to the town of Elliott during World War II to help with the defence of Darwin – had approached the local newspaper, both to pay tribute to the son he loved and to request that payback actions for the death, which were occurring in Ali Curung and Tennant Creek, cease.

The payback was messy in the case of Kumanjayi. According to tradition, someone must be held responsible for a death. There is no such thing as a natural cause, no such thing as an accidental death. There were some reprisals among those who’d been with Kumanjayi on the day he died, but there was no one who could realistically be held to blame. The woman driving the car was cleared of responsibility by police and, besides, as a white person, she was not subject to payback. There was a blame vacuum. Angry relatives were looking to take the matter further, which meant dealing out more punishment. Barry Driver, the person most affected by the death, saw clearly what some of his countrymen could not: the death did not warrant traditional payback.

At the time, leading up to Christmas, feelings were running high around many of the Northern Territory’s Aboriginal communities. There were heavy tribal payback issues in Yuendumu, causing an exodus; weapons were being seized in several large Arnhem Land communities; Groote Eylandt, an island in the Gulf of Carpentaria, was typically uneasy. It was seasonal, to a point, as the communities shut down for the rainy season and people got a little too close, their tempers getting uneven.

December is also the time in Central Australia when the boys – some as young as 12 – are literally grabbed up off the streets and taken bush to be put through circumcision ceremonies. The boys enter the ceremonies frightened; they exit full of relief – although during Tennant Creek’s last ceremony season, several young boys required treatment after they were mutilated by what some believed were inebriated masters of ceremony. Told they are now instant men, they’re full of attitude. There begins the hinterland equivalent of schoolies’ week. Everyone is edgy and, to make matters worse, it is hell hot.

Driver had moved up to Tennant Creek to grieve. His decision to approach the local newspaper was of itself unusual. Bush Aborigines don’t use the media if they can avoid it. Photos and stories about the local football team are welcome, and news about policy that may affect their lives is followed closely. But Aboriginal business is no one else’s. When people do speak, they like to do it as a quorum of senior people. This offers weight of numbers if there is an adverse reaction.

The editor of the newspaper, Jasmin Afianos, was surprised to find Driver seeking her out. She asked him whether he held any resentment for the white women in that car. “On the contrary,” Driver told her. “My heart goes out to those poor ladies and I cry for them, too. It was just a fateful night.” Driver talked about his son, making him much more than another road statistic. “Every morning, he would wake me up and say ‘Come on old man, let’s get to work.’ I feel so alone now, like I’ve lost a part of myself.”

On payback, Driver called for calm. “There are some people who are using this tragedy as a leverage to gain traditional ascendancy and I don’t want any part of that.” It was a compelling statement because power plays in community life happen in a quite secretive world of kinship and family, not public campaigning or elections. Aboriginal people do not necessarily enjoy the same assumed free-speech protections as white Australians, yet here was a man talking of misuse of power among his own people.

Besides that, he sounded interesting. Driver’s language was more Noel Pearson than a traditional bush bloke from Ali Curung. It seemed he must have been the product of some mission-era elocutionist mentor, but it did not turn out that way. He had learned his language in the times of early Territory self-government and national self-determination – from 1974 on – when things had for a moment looked so full of possibility. There were more than 1000 people in Ali Curung back then. Now the population has dwindled to a couple of hundred. School attendance is at best sporadic. A government business manager, or GBM, appointed under the federal intervention to live in the community to oversee the arrival of the new beginning, resides behind a barbed-wire compound. Locals say she doesn’t engage with the community. Ali Curung has been earmarked as a ‘Territory Growth Town’, supposedly part of a township normalisation process, but there’s no evidence of it.

Driver knocked me back. No interview. He indicated he’d attracted some negative comments after the story had appeared in the local paper. It seems he was suspected of self-interest, political motivation and grandstanding – even though Driver’s comments were reflective, warm and clearly designed to stop people from getting hurt.

With Driver lost to me, I set about speaking to other people in Tennant Creek and Ali Curung. The following evening, while at dinner at a friend’s house, the phone rang. It was Driver. He wanted to talk, now. He’d been drinking but said strong coffee would fix him up. He said he was at Blue Skies, a shabby three-storey apartment block on the south side of Tennant Creek. A friend drove me to see him. I said to Driver that now was not the time. I pointed out that he’d been drinking. I pointed out that I’d been drinking. “Obviously,” said Driver, with genial contempt.

We arranged to meet the following morning. My guess was that the alcohol had given him the bravado to make the call. My guess was that tomorrow, he’d be a no-show.

*

Charlie Poulson’s left leg and the toes on his right foot have been lost to diabetes. He pulls up his shirt to show the scars from a recent heart operation. He’s an elderly man, in Aboriginal terms, and says he’s probably 66. He gets around on a shiny red electric four-wheeler. His wife, Martha, brings out a photo of him being presented with an Aussie Rules medal when he was a young man; he played in Territory rep sides with legendary Aboriginal footballer David Kantilla. Poulson talks through gravel and is hard to understand, but his point is clear: those were the days.

Now he watches the intervention from his electric chair on his verandah in Ali Curung. He says the intervention has done nothing for his community, except to take control of the local shop. “We don’t own it anymore,” he says. Profits used to go towards paying for funerals and bush trips with the kids. Not any more. Now, the local council office – once the political centrepiece of the community – has a skeleton staff whose main work revolves around lawn mowing. The grass is high.

Remote community councils were gutted after the Territory moved towards super shires, centralising power in the bigger towns. Poulson feels his people no longer have any say in their community. “Used to be young people working in this community, but not now. We used to build our own houses. Not now. White people got the jobs. We got no motor cars, nothing. We used to have people go to college, train and come back and teach our people. Not any more.”

As a young man, Poulson travelled far and wide across Australia, long trips on slow dirt roads, as far as Shepparton, Victoria, doing seasonal labour. These days, the closest the kids of Ali Curung get to the big smoke is Alice Springs, 380 kilometres south-west. The local training centre, where young people went to learn to make artefacts, has been closed. Kids can’t speak proper English, says Poulson, but they need it if they’re going to make it. “We don’t talk or make friends with white people these days.” As for the intervention’s resident GBM, he says: “I don’t know what she does. We don’t see her.”

*

Gwen Brown and Savannah Long are two senior Ali Curung women. Brown is an Aboriginal community police officer, who was recently reinstated after losing her job. Her nephew, Patrick, had removed the battery from her private vehicle and put it in his own car so he could go to Tennant Creek on a grog run. Upon his return, Brown took to Patrick with a stick and broke his arm. Patrick went to the clinic, which reported the injury to police. Gwen Brown ended up in court with a six-month good behaviour bond. And then the police sacked her. Her job was providing the conduit between the police and the community – then that link was severed. And she was humiliated.

Brown lives in a community where adults are routinely accused of failing to discipline children and teenagers. When Brown did act, in the Aboriginal way, she lost her job. She appealed her case and eventually got her job back, but the experience damaged her perception of the white justice system she has helped serve.

Brown and Long both believe the intervention has failed Ali Curung, with the exception that Long believes income management – whereby 50% of welfare payments are quarantined for essential items, such as food and clothing – has worked. Long says the kids of Ali Curung are always on the hunt for food. She makes sure she’s always got damper and tinned meat for the children who routinely turn up at her door. But she can’t feed the whole town.

“Kids get married at 13, 14 and they’re having children already,” says Long. “They should be at school. No one works and no one controls them. And the houses get full because they [the federal government] didn’t want to give Ali Curung money to build new houses.”

“I feel we’re on the edge,” says Brown, referring to the survival of the community itself. Still, ask them if they’d live anywhere else and they shake their heads. This is home, in sickness or health, for better or worse.

*

Driving back to Tennant Creek, I have two passengers, whom I’ll call Jamie and Samantha. Jamie has a black arc where his front teeth used to be. I ask him what happened. “I was full drunk,” he says. “Passed out. When I was asleep, they poked me in the face and in my mouth with a screwdriver. I woke with blood all over my face. My teeth all got loose – I had to pull them all out.” He says he doesn’t know why they did this. I ask him if he’s considered seeing a dentist. He shrugs.

Samantha, sitting in the back seat, is in her mid twenties. In December, she gave birth to her third child. It was her first to Jamie, whom she calls her husband. She says the baby was taken from her when it was less than a month old and has now, like her other two, become a welfare baby. She offers no explanation for this, but alcohol is the likely reason. She tells me the baby is in temporary foster care with a white family in Alice Springs and that she’s not allowed to visit. She adds something half-hearted about seeking legal aid, and getting her baby back, but you can tell it’s not a priority.

*

The aftermath of a New Year’s Eve car crash in Elliott, 250 kilometres north of Tennant Creek, is still being felt months after the event. The Aboriginal people of Elliott, Tennant Creek and Ali Curung are closely interrelated; there are tribal distinctions but they are from the same group of families. Also closely related are the white police, ambulance, clinic, fire brigade and emergency service people who attended this small apocalypse. Megan Rowe, Tennant Creek’s police superintendent, says many who helped out at the site needed counselling.

A local boy, aged 13, got the keys to his mum’s powerful Fairlane. He collected a group of friends – eight of them, all Aboriginal boys – for a drive to Longreach Waterhole, north of town. When they turned off the highway, one of the kids, who didn’t trust the way the 13-year-old was driving, got out. The rest kept going. The car rolled several times, at speed, about 10 kilometres down the track. None of the kids were wearing seatbelts and all were thrown from the car. A five-year-old boy died immediately and a 14 year old was close to death when help arrived. Those two had been sharing the front passenger seat.

Sergeant Michael Kent of the Elliott police station tells me what he saw that day: “When I approached the scene, the first thing I could see was all these white people walking around, which seemed odd because I’d been told the crash involved Aboriginal children. They were ringers who’d been swimming down at the lake and had come to help. I couldn’t see the children at first. I then walked [over] and could see these young Aboriginal children scattered over a large area. The ringers were covering them with towels. The scene was quiet. I could hear whimpering but no one was screaming.

“I did an appraisal and noted that the five year old was deceased. The ringers were doing CPR on the child, even though it was clear the child was deceased. We kept this going, so the other kids who were coming into consciousness would think this child was alright. That is something I don’t want to have to do again – CPR on a deceased child.

“The clinic staff were working on the 14-year-old boy. They were having trouble. He was drifting in and out of consciousness. They put him on oxygen, but this was a remote ambulance, very rudimentary. After 40 minutes the child crashed and they could not bring him back. The clinic staff know all of these children. They see them all the time. It really knocked them about. The tough ringers were starting to choke up.”

Three planes were deployed to airlift the injured boys, variously to Adelaide, Darwin and Alice Springs. For once, the pub emptied out. No one even bought takeaway alcohol. “People were really quiet, sitting in groups in the camps. Grog sales stopped – that was voluntary.” Elliott, a town of 600 or so, had only begun piecing itself back together after a white paedophile had ransacked a number of its young Aboriginal girls. The same question asked in that case was now being asked again, in both Elliott and Tennant Creek: Where were the parents?

The question is only partly rhetorical. Tennant Creek is the largest town in Australia with a majority Aboriginal population, and Elliott, while smaller, also has an Aboriginal majority. In both towns there is a strong visible presence of listless welfare people whose main motivation is sourcing alcohol and the temporary amnesia it administers. Some have the wherewithal to anticipate the dangerous places alcohol will take them. It was due to this foresight that a 30-year-old woman named Noelene sought out Leigh Swift, the station officer at the Tennant Creek Fire Station.

Swift and his wife (a government employee who cannot be named) live across the road from Noelene, who has a baby girl named Michaela. When Michaela was six months old, Noelene started asking them to babysit Michaela when she went out drinking. These sessions are not a few drinks at the local: they are a premeditated wipe-out, drinking cartons of VB in the backstreets or at friends’ houses in the alcohol-free town camps. Sometimes, when the stars align and there is welfare money about, they’ll buy ‘Four Corners’ – Bundaberg Rum, which comes in a square bottle and guarantees oblivion.

Swift and his wife believe Noelene was exercising a strange sort of parental responsibility in seeking their help with Michaela while she got legless. Noelene’s two older children, aged about seven and 12, had already been taken from her and were living with relatives. Swift and his wife began looking after Michaela one night per week. Noelene’s husband was a drinker, and Swift and his wife realised Michaela had become a kind of breathing ransom note, to be used as bargaining power in vicious arguments. The baby was, perhaps, the only thing of value either possessed. One night, when Michaela was about 12 months old, her father was running up and down the street holding her, saying that Noelene had stabbed him. He flung the baby at Swift’s wife and collapsed in the driveway. The story that later emerged was that Michaela’s father had asked Noelene to hold the baby while he went to the toilet. Noelene didn’t like it. She stabbed him.

Swift and his wife began looking after Michaela more often. The baby’s father went to Alice Springs Correctional Centre on domestic violence matters and Noelene ended up losing Michaela after Family and Community Services (FACS) intervened. Swift and his wife were interested in becoming Michaela’s foster carers, but FACS has a policy of placing Aboriginal babies with relatives wherever possible. From the remove of a big city this policy makes sense but the reality is that children are often shunted back into conditions identical to those from which they were extricated. Michaela was placed in the custody of her aunt, already struggling to cope caring for her blind mother.

Late last year, the aunt rang Swift and his wife from Alice Springs, saying she needed them to come and take Michaela. When they arrived, they found the house where Michaela was staying cordoned off by crime-scene tape. There had been a killing in the house the night before. Since then, Swift and his wife have not heard from Michaela’s aunt. They have full-time care of Michaela, whose general health and alertness have visibly improved. Noelene still visits, regularly, although Swift says Michaela recoils from her mother when she has been drinking.

FACS knows about the informal arrangement, and knows there are other such informal arrangements in Tennant Creek. How many is uncertain. I know of one family in the town who were handballed a tiny baby girl in almost identical conditions. That child, about the same age as Michaela, had dropped from her birth weight when her hard-drinking teenage town-camp mother knocked on the door of a white woman she trusted, asking her to care for her baby. The child is now thriving, and the child’s mother (the father, a teenager, has never been interested) has any access she desires. She has since had another baby.

This mother, 17 years old, moves between drinking binges in Tennant Creek and Elliott. She has been known to “lose” her youngest baby during these sessions, unable to explain the child’s whereabouts. This has caused search parties to be raised among white locals, who will not, as first instinct, call the cops. They’re long-time residents, they know the various hiding holes, know the local Aboriginal people and, while they get angry about the neglect, they share with Aboriginal parents a fear of what could become of children if they are turned into government-care babies.

Swift believes informal caring is an increasing phenomenon, as committed drinkers seek to keep their children out of the hands of FACS – which, in the Northern Territory, has its own terrible, well-documented record of bureaucratic child neglect. There is a quiet, emerging undercurrent of thought that sees the cultural imperative of handing at-risk Aboriginal children to Aboriginal relatives as well-intentioned stupidity. The informal carers expect that soon they’ll be branded as having created the second Stolen Generation. But to Swift and his wife, it is simply about the welfare of the child.

The real problem for the Swifts is that they have fallen in love with Michaela. In the next 18 months, Leigh Swift’s time as Tennant Creek’s station officer will be up, and he and his wife will have to move to either Alice Springs or Darwin. A world of pain awaits them. They would happily take on Michaela’s custody but it won’t be easy. Noelene has told them she would accept them keeping Michaela if they move to Alice – only 500 kilometres south of Tennant Creek, and in easy range for bus trips; but she would not accept them taking Michaela to Darwin, which is too far north. Noelene is kidding herself: she has been told by FACS that she cannot have Michaela back until she completes an alcohol rehabilitation course and, so far, she’s refused.

Leigh Swift and his wife are wise enough not to think of themselves as Michaela’s saviours; they recognise that Michaela enriches their lives as well. But she no longer has scabies or ringworm. She eats whenever she needs and sleeps in clean bedding. On Christmas Day, Noelene turned up to visit Michaela with her two older children, for whom she had custody on that day. Michaela’s older sister, at seven years old, arrived in the Swift house with her head shaven bald – the lice treatment her relatives had given her. She was wearing oversized clothes and smelled of urine. She started crying when she saw her little sister had Christmas presents. Her mother had given her none. Swift and his wife found a present under the tree, a doll meant for another child. They sneaked about, changed the tag and gave it to Michaela’s sister. Swift’s wife finds this story upsetting.

When Swift and his wife are shopping in the local food barn, Aboriginal people ask after Michaela. It’s not a challenge; they like to know their own people and place them within the kinship system. They say they’ve not copped any resentment, even though the issue of black babies in white care is never far from the memory this town holds. Phillip Creek, just north of Tennant Creek, was once Stolen Generation–central.

“We’re trying to better her life,” says Swift. “She’s a beautiful little girl. How much scarring is already there, we don’t know. There’s no yelling and screaming in the home environment she’s now in. But she needs to know she’s still got a mum. Noelene comes over – but she’s not responsible with Michaela when she’s in a drunk state. And she knows it.” What would happen if Michaela was sent back to where she came from? “We’d be devastated,” says Swift.

They believe they have seen a potential future for Michaela through getting to know a teenage Aboriginal girl we’ll call Tiffany. Tiffany’s mother was in prison for manslaughter, her father deceased. Tiffany, at the age of 14, approached Swift’s wife asking how she could get her Implanon implant changed. (Implanon is a slow-release contraceptive placed under the skin of the upper arm, which has a three-year efficacy.) Tiffany believed her implant was approaching its use-by date, which means she’d been fitted by health authorities when she was about 11.

Swift’s wife dealt with the Implanon and also took Tiffany to the dentist because she was complaining of a toothache. The dentist recognised that Tiffany was bright and forthcoming; he offered to train her as a dental assistant. Tiffany moved in with Swift and his wife and began work. On her first afternoon, three older male relatives turned up and stood at the clinic door, asking to see Tiffany. They wanted her pay, so they could go drinking. Tiffany had not, of course, yet been paid. Tiffany worked the first week and during the second took lunch and never came back. Tiffany’s mother is now out of prison and she’s living with her. Swift and his wife see Tiffany sometimes. She’s 16. She’s started drinking. She’s doing what’s expected of a young Aboriginal woman living in Tennant Creek.

Rowe, the police superintendent, has been in Tennant Creek since before the federal intervention began. She cannot see that the intervention has brought improvements, except for income management, which she believes is directing food to children. She says domestic violence is down from about seven reports per day to two, but she attributes that to liquor restrictions in the town that are not intervention-related. The restrictions delay drinking hours.

Rowe’s jurisdiction covers not just Tennant Creek but a vast area of cattle stations, small towns, Aboriginal land and bush communities. She has seen it all, but it’s not the role of police commanders to feel helpless or morose. She says things will change for the better, but only when parents start sending their kids to school. The Territory’s education minister is the only person with the power to prosecute parents for not doing so and, so far, this has not happened in the Territory. It would be an ugly decision to prosecute parents who are already too well acquainted with the criminal courts. And, how can you single out one set of parents for a test case when so many are in the same position? Despite this, Rowe says: “Someone might have to be the first.”

*

Tennant Creek’s overcrowded town camps were promised new housing at the time of the federal intervention, but the money ran short and they got refurbishments instead. Repainting a house does not solve overcrowding. At the Karguru camp, on the east side of Tennant Creek, Beazley Anderson and his wife Barbara give me a tour of the scum-hole house they’ve occupied for 15 years. There is an exposed light fitting that zaps random live electricity. The toilet is cracked and leaking. The shower leaks. The walls are filthy. The fridge? “Fridge is fucked,” says Beazley. The stove? “Stove is fucked.”

They reckon they’ve been asking the local Aboriginal council to fix it up for years. I don’t know the reasons it hasn’t happened. All I know is the place is a health hazard. Two seriously ill people reside in the house. You wouldn’t let your dog set foot in the place – not if you liked your dog. They say they mop the floors and try to keep it clean but they can’t win the battle. Some of the houses in Karguru camp have been refurbished, but not this one. Karguru is currently the scene of major works. Excavators and trucks are moving about building drains, sewerage and roads. “They’re fixing the roads, not the houses,” says Beazley Anderson, with a seen-it-all smile.

A couple of hundred metres away an old man is sitting by himself in one of the old tin constructions that used to pass for homes in Tennant Creek’s town camps. He says his name is Paulie Corbett. He still lives in a shack that has no tap, no power. You don’t have a light? “No, I got light,” he says, pointing to the nearby street lamp. Apart from that, he doesn’t seem to make much sense. He’s in some other zone. He stares into an unknowable distance and says, over and over: “My father gone.”

These people live in worse conditions and have poorer health than the people of Papua New Guinea, East Timor and Indonesia. The small island–trapped people of Nauru have similar problems with diabetes, but their overall health is better. Those regional neighbours of ours could easily embarrass us, politically, if they wished, by pointing out this country’s shortcomings with its own first people. They don’t do this, of course. They are major aid recipients.

*

Driver is waiting at his brother’s house at Blueberry Hill camp at 10 am, as arranged. Tribally, he’s a fully initiated eastern Warlpiri man. His traditional connections run west to Yuendumu. His parents came to Ali Curung – or ‘Warrabri’ as it was then known – as part of the settlement program that placed people of different tribal groupings in one holding pen. Such settlements served the useful purpose of keeping Aboriginal people out of towns such as Tennant Creek and Alice Springs. The Baptist Church was their guardian. People still remember the Warrabri kids turning up for sports carnivals in Tennant Creek, marching down the main road in blinding-white shorts and royal blue T-shirts. Driver remembers this; he also remembers Ali Curung as a pretty town, with market gardens and a bakery.

But Driver, 52, does not look to this time with nostalgia. He instead remembers that the mission’s grip was broken as the outstation movement began. People started returning to their traditional lands, living in smaller groups. For the first time they had choice. For the majority who stayed behind in Ali Curung, in the era of self-determination, there was a powerful will among the people to get themselves and their children educated.

Back then, there were 13 white teachers at Ali Curung’s local school, assisted by 10 full-time Aboriginal teaching aides. One of them was Barry Driver, who worked in the role for 14 years. He had been to Yirara College in Alice Springs for his schooling, and to Batchelor College, just south of Darwin, for his tertiary education. He has been a constant reader and follower of national issues. Why? Because he feels it is his right as an Australian citizen to keep informed. When the intervention was announced in June 2007, Driver had his eyes wide open.

“When it started, an analogy came to my mind. John Howard and his cronies went on a punitive expedition, literally, riding down roughshod on a group of people who didn’t know what the problem was. We got a GBM and it took me back to the welfare days where the welfare government was based in Darwin and the GBM was the local superintendent. Again, an analogy.”

But you said things were pretty good when you were a kid? “Yes, it was the start of self-government in the Territory and there were huge expectations. I was happy with how things were back then. Now, the GBM lives in an enclosed compound on the outskirts of the community. We’ve had three or four of these GBMs. They’re not effective at all. They have community meetings with the leaders. They are present at the meetings but they never convey to the community who they represent, what they’re on about, what the federal government is doing to the Aboriginal people. They never spoke to the people at large. They were on the sidelines and we had to figure everything out for ourselves, as far as the intervention was concerned.

“I was the local housing officer at Ali Curung. With the advent of the SIHIP [Strategic Indigenous Housing Infrastructure Program], they made a huge mistake. There was no consultation. They just came in, spoke to the shire board, and said: ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ They refurbished all the houses, but Ali Curung did not get new houses. One of the main points of the intervention was child abuse. Now, all they did to the houses was to refurbish living areas, cooking areas and bathroom areas. But you still have ten people living in two-bedroom houses. How would this prevent child abuse, if child abuse was going to happen?”

I put it to Driver that people will say – that is, people do say – “taxpayers build you new houses and you guys trash them.” “From the outside they might perceive it that way,” he responds. “But I say again, if there are ten people living in a two-bedroom house, sure, it will be trashed.”

Younger people around Ali Curung and Tennant Creek lack Driver’s education and don’t seem to see themselves as having a place in the nation; only in Ali Curung, or Tennant Creek. “Parents don’t tell them to go to school,” says Driver. “In the early ’80s, it was a huge thing. People wanted to get educated, people wanted to work at the schools. Now, we don’t have that sort of engagement, or the willingness to do these things. There came an attitude that said, ‘I can’t do that. I’ll get someone else to do it for me.’”

I put this to Driver: I live in a nice suburb in Darwin. If a member of my society kills someone, or badly injures them, the mark of the plague is on their door. You’ll remember what that person did. When I meet an Aboriginal man in this part of the world, there’s a fair chance he has been to prison and it’s almost a certainty that he will have participated in or experienced serious violence. But here, violence is accepted: people live with it and have a high tolerance for it.

“I grew up in a society where violence was rife,” he says. “Men bash their wives – to me, it was a normal thing; that was my perception of what was going on. I think things are turning around a bit, but we’ve got the housing problem and the alcohol problem making these things happen.”

To add to matters, Driver says his people have lost the ability to sort out their own affairs. “Payback relies on the old adage of an eye for an eye,” he says. “It is a form of punishment that allows the victim’s family to make right what is wrong. And it’s done in a controlled manner – I’m talking about true payback. You’ve got the victim’s family and the perpetrator’s family trying to mediate a solution. Now, that is not violence – it is inflicted injury. We come to a dilemma where the judicial system in the Territory doesn’t allow the perpetrator to go back to the community to get just punishment. And when that happens we’ve got problems.

“The victim’s family and the perpetrator’s family are still trying to find a solution, but emotions are running high and you get that regrettable payback violence. It spills into the streets. The traditional system unwittingly incites the violence that spills into the townships.”

I return to my point: people such as Driver live harder, tougher lives than people such as myself, and have developed dangerously high tolerance levels. “Look, I’m not talking any rhetorical bullshit here but it goes back to 1788. From then to 1901, when Australia got its Constitution, nothing happened between white Australia and us. We’ve been alienated since the establishment of Botany Bay. We were alienated and neglected by our fellow Australians. We weren’t even acknowledged to exist in the Constitution. You come to 1967, when white Australia put its hand up and gave us the tick – our citizenship.

“After that, having been castrated from white society, we got the right to drink and everything got even worse. Here were a people given the right to live freely like other Australians, and the real troubles started – all the problems that white Australians whinge about Aboriginal people, the things we are doing to ourselves. We were never cared about enough to be educated about the effects of alcohol. Everything that’s happening now, under the intervention, has a very long history. But I don’t think we are quite as dysfunctional as you think. Families are breaking down Australia-wide. It’s not only an Aboriginal situation.”

Driver rejects my assessment that Ali Curung is a mess. He says there have been heavy rains and people are only starting to come back to work after the Christmas break. The real issue, he says, is that the creation of the super shires means that the local council is no longer run by locals. “It affects us greatly. The older people have no say.” The issue is not litter and high grass, he says, but loss of control.

Driver says I should expect to see big changes soon. “There is no difference at all between Labor and Liberal,” he says. “Governments are governments. We are starting to find some [local] leaders and getting more people involved.” He’s referring in part to an Aboriginal party – the First Nations Political Party – that is forming out of Wave Hill, where the stockman and Aboriginal activist Vincent Lingiari led the walk-off in 1966.

“People have blindly voted Labor for a long time. That is changing. In Tennant Creek and Ali Curung, a lot of Aboriginal people voted for the Greens, the independents and some even voted Liberal at the most recent federal election. Judging by the result [where federal Labor MP Warren Snowdon hung on to his seat of Lingiari after getting a kicking from his mostly Aboriginal electorate], Aboriginal people are getting frustrated with Labor. Even though the Howard government brought in the intervention, Labor didn’t change anything or roll it back.”

To Gillard, Driver says: “Have a true and frank consultation with Aboriginal people. On the one hand you’ve got a government that is naive and bigoted, on the other you’ve got really frustrated people, screaming their heads off. I say that government really needs to consult. They’ve got to speak to us. Their programs are a mess. If they can’t build new houses, then build extensions and turn two bedrooms into three. Overcrowding is the main issue the government hasn’t dealt with properly.”

I press stop on the tape. Driver says: “I’ve researched your work. You’re a cynic, aren’t you?” I tell him he’s right about that.

“No offence, but am I right that you use Aboriginal people to release your frustrations?”

“Personal or professional?” I enquire.

“Both,” he says. I tell him there’s no offence taken. He’s right, sort of. I find it frustrating that he – his people – roll with things I find horrific. I believe Aboriginal people have got to develop less tolerance for violence and bad living conditions.

“Maybe I’m immune,” he says. That’s a big part of the problem, I’d reckon.

Paul Toohey

Paul Toohey is a senior reporter and US correspondent for News Limited. His books include God's Little Acre, Rocky Goes West and The Killer Within. He has won a Walkley Award for magazine feature writing and the Graham Perkin Journalist of the Year Award.
More by Paul Toohey