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Grass roots

Hidden on a rugged stretch of coastline between Darwin and Broome, Wadeye is acknowledged as one of the most dysfunctional of the remote Aboriginal communities. Rather than languishing in the bad publicity the people of Wadeye ­(formerly Port Keats) have radically restructured their local government. In remote communities local government effectively dominates every facet of community life, from the delivery of services to ­housing and even food. The people of Wadeye refer to their new traditionally structured council as Thamarrurr.

Thamarrurr is unique in that it is designed according to Aboriginal cultural governance protocols. This means the decision-making process and leadership structure are appropriate for the community. This isn’t the first time Aboriginal people have had control of the local government, but it is the first time the locals have decided how the council is to be structured.

The first step has been to acknowledge the complex clan system that dominates life in Wadeye. Wadeye is located in country traditionally owned by the Diminin clan. The centralisation of services in the town has led to the destabilisation of former local government structures, as decisions of the Diminin mob have ultimately held sway. This has increased the influence of the Diminin mob, but also absolved other clans from assuming responsibility for problems that they regard as occurring in ‘other people’s country’.

Thamarrurr is an attempt to acknowledge such realities by ensuring equal ­representation on the Council between the clans and using community governance protocols that were already in place before the arrival of missionaries in the 1930s. According to Bill Ivory, the NT Government’s Project Officer liaising with Thamarrurr Council, this ­decentralisation of power among the clans represents a major shift:
‘For some of the outer clans, the only decisions they’ve been able to make for the last 40 or 50 years are where the next feed is coming from and other mostly internal matters.’

Gordon Chula is a leader of the Yedder Clan, one of the smallest and most marginalised of the 20 clans. He believes that, ‘Thamarrurr will have ears big enough to hear everyone, the big people, and the little people.’ Theodora Nandu, a senior woman of the Nangu Clan, also sees Thamarrurr as a chance for all the clans to be counted—‘people are now standing up and talking for themselves’.

As a collective voice Thamarrurr will have increased authority among the community, particularly in the town where the vast majority of problems are focused. As an illustration, the average number of people per house in Wadeye is 17.5, with some dilapidated three-room houses known to hold up to 34 family members. By ­improving service delivery to the satellite communities that surround Wadeye, residents will be able to spend more time there, easing the pressure on town services.

Cautiously optimistic, local clan ­leaders know there is a long and difficult road ahead. When questioned on the ability of Thamarrurr to handle the allocation of financial resources among the clans, one of the senior leaders in the community stood, excused himself, and left the room, rather than answer the question.

Gordon Chula has high hopes for Thamarrurr but when asked what this new model might offer his people he replied, ‘we just have to wait and see, there’s only been one step on that road’. 

Lachlan Harris is the legal correspondent for the Koori Mail Newspaper.



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