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Alice Springs is still a contested space


The Northern Territory News and the ABC reported this month that the Central Australian Affordable Housing Company (CAAHC) had been unsuccessful in its tender for continuing tenancy services to the Town Camps of Alice Springs. As I read I felt two powerful emotions — outrage followed by impotence.

Aboriginal people of Alice Springs forlorn among floodwatersThe Northern Territory government has accepted a lower price tender from Zodiac, a for-profit accountancy business with little experience in managing Aboriginal affordable housing.

The government would save $300,000 by accepting the lower priced tender, so why was I so upset? Surely $300,000 saved for a simple tenancy management service would provide more funds for other essential services to Aboriginal people in Alice like recreation, education and child protection services.

It's all about the Intervention really. John Howard's Mal Brough-inspired Emergency Response to the child abuse crisis in the Northern Territory in 2007-8 led to a military style action across the NT which removed effective responsibility by Indigenous people for their housing services, and inserted imposed control by government business managers in remote communities.

In February 2015 former Northern Territory Chief Minister Clare Martin interviewed Miriam Rose Ungunmerr in Nauiyu (Daly River) for The Saturday Paper. Martin acknowledged Miriam Rose's distress at the disintegration of the life of her community following the Intervention and the simultaneous amalgamation of local community government councils into Shires by the Martin Government.

The Intervention and the amalgamations effectively diluted Aboriginal decision-making, leading to alienation and ennui. According to Miriam Rose, children at Nauiyu were not attending school, with the result that traditional culture was being lost even as whitefella schooling was failing badly.

Alice Springs Town Camps are actually remote communities locked within the town of Alice Springs (Mpwarntwe); white administrative settlements firmly established on Arrernte land.

In the 1970s Tangentyere Council was formed to service the camps, and 18 housing associations, based on parcels of land with connection both to the Arrernte owners of Mpwarntwe and with other language groups from the north, south, east and west, were established.

The housing associations and Tangentyere were funded by the Federal government, which let the NT government off the hook for funding essential services and led to gross inequality in living standards between Aboriginal Town Campers and other residents.

A 'Rates Case' run by Tangentyere in the early 1990s found that there was no effective delivery of services to Town Camp residents for the rates they paid. This led to the development of operational agreements between the Alice Springs Town Council and Tangentyere, and the gradual integration of municipal services in the Camps at a commensurate level across the town.

Then came the Intervention and allegations of failure by Tangentyere. Tangentyere was backed into a corner; it resisted, fought, argued and eventually succumbed, being forced to hand over the houses on the Special Purpose Leases to the Commonwealth government for 40 years.

Housing management services were transferred to an independent body, CAAHC, to continue a culturally appropriate service to Town Camp residents.

The new body has worked hard to retain a measure of cultural sensitivity in the delivery of housing services to marginalised Aboriginal people in a contested space. Its 2014 annual report indicates the progress made by the company and the issues of cultural sensitivity that it faces. 

It seems the government has read the annual report and decided it does not like the direction CAAHC was indicating. Despite being a product of the Intervention, CAAHC had developed a powerful model of community housing and had the support of both the Central Land Council and the wider Aboriginal community. It appears that these are not attributes the NT government admires.

The invasion of Mpwarntwe began with explorer John McDouall Stuart followed by a telegraph line, and Spencer and Gillen, who filmed Arrernte ceremonies. Soon followed prospectors, miners, missionaries, a railway line and pastoralists. 

When the headquarters of the Australian Defence Forces were established in Alice Springs during the Second World War, the Arrernte were shipped off to a deserted gold mining settlement at Arltunga, 100 km east of Alice Springs.

More recently, ATSIC came and went, and the Indigenous Housing Authority briefly controlled the funding and decision-making relating to Aboriginal housing before also being dissolved.

Then the Intervention.

Throughout this timeline, Arrernte people particularly and Aboriginal people generally have been like flotsam and jetsam carried before the invading non-Indigenous tide which, like the periodic floods of the Todd River, washes everything away in a moment.

My sense of impotence is derived from a recognition that the emergence of Malcolm Turnbull with his justification for 'disruption' and his sponsorship of laissez faire, free-wheeling liberalism means that the Arrernte, when they look at the past, can clearly see the future mapped out for them.

Ironically, the very first Arrernte fringe camp in Alice Springs, now one of the 16 Tangentyere Council affiliated Town Camps, was established in the Charles Creek. The Arrernte name for which is Anthelke Ewlpaye: 'the rubbish carried down in a flood'. Flotsam and jetsam in the path of progress.


Mike BowdenMike Bowden has worked as a teacher and community worker in Alice Springs and Aboriginal communities in the Top End.

Topic tags: Mike Bowden, indigenous disadvantage, homelessness, closing the gap, Alice Springs



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Existing comments

Thank you Mike. This government spreads impotence all around and makes me angry too. I have etched in my mind the vision of Rosalie Kunoth-Monks saying in that Q&A session, "I am not the problem. I have never left my country nor have I ceded any part of it. Nobody has entered into a treaty or talked to me about who I am. I am Arrernte Alyawarre female elder from this country. Please remember that. I am not the problem." No, you are right Rosalia, our government is the problem, and the impotence of the citizens of this land unable to change things. It is sad, and it is evil.

Janet | 29 January 2016  

Thank you for your article Mike. Definitely Shakespeare's words from Hamlet can aptly describe this situation: "something is rotten in the state of Denmark".

Maria | 29 January 2016  

Thank you. Mike, for an excellent analysis of the reality of further erosion of First Peoples' involvement in decisions about their own future. The easiest solution to a difficult problem is to blame the victim, in which NT politicians like the Federal Government have excelled themselves.

Doug Hewitt | 29 January 2016  

More the reason for legally binding agreement's with the Original peoples of this land;treaty/ies. The NT Intervention removed basic human rights and fundamental freedoms from First Nations' Peoples, and land & Aboriginal community control has been increasingly stripped across remote & urban NT Aboriginal communities, including Town Camps. In the past few months Bagot (Darwin) has gone into Administration over a water bill! This is 2015-6! Changes to water policy were made and not explained! And now this. Further attacks upon Aboriginal control of town camps in Alice Springs; placed into the hands of bookkeepers ! One is to be further alarmed. In addition, the NT Intervention's ten year extension continues bipartisan Federal Government's imposed racist paternalistic, assimilationist and failing polices 'for' Aboriginal peoples. These are in breech of Australia's UN commitments and guidelines .Then, there is more planned for NT Town Camps and Community living areas (latter spread across the NT), under so-called Intervention Mark II/ ironically named Stronger [Stolen] Futures, I urge you to read "In The Absence of Treaty" at http://www.concernedaustralians.com.au/…/In_The_Absence_of_… . Federal and Territory actions are inherently disempowering, assimilationist & neo-colonial ! Yes, time to 'hear' & heed the calls of the people https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nU_H0oIQy60

George | 29 January 2016  

Thanks for this article It not only broadens my knowledge of the terrible injustices that continue for Australia's first people, it makes me so mad that there is nothing I can do about it all.I am so powerless in these sort of situations . I will light a cancel to try to dispel some darkness and keep my epithets to myself Keep up the good work Mike.

Helen H | 29 January 2016  

Thank you Mike for a very painful read. The cynicism displayed in allocating this housing contract to a for-profit ACCOUNTANCY business is breathtaking. $300,000 is a vanishing small anoint to 'save' in such a context when decisions need to take account of the complexities of determining best value, including social return on investment.Is there no mechanism for public scrutiny and challenge of the tender process?

Maria Duggan | 29 January 2016  

Well done Mike. Just how I feel: outrage and impotence. Taking away Aboriginal control in fields where they threaten to do well. They have to be continually looking over their shoulders. wondering where the next offensive will be.

Gavan | 29 January 2016  

As a former Australian, now living in England for 25 years, I am deeply shocked by Mike Bowden's article. I used to hope that things might get better for the Indigenous peoples, e.g. a few now getting to university, but overall there seems to be little improvement and greed and governments still rule. I am ashamed by the answer I must give to English people when they ask about the treatment of Indigenous people by governments of whatever party.

Meriel Wilmot-Wright | 29 January 2016  

I admire your spirit and effort to explain your take on the need to protect and support indiginous communities, particularly in ways to uphold their dignity and rights. Can this be taken higher?

marie bourke | 30 January 2016  

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