'Outcast' Aborigines stage red desert walk-out
The Age, February 13, 2010
BANJO Morton forced the owners of the vast Lake Nash cattle station in the Northern Territory to pay him and other Aboriginal stockmen £1 a month when he led a walk-off from there in 1942.
‘We were getting paid only in rations, clothes and boots and we had a good win although we still grumbled it wasn't enough,’ he says.
Sixty-eight years later Mr Morton has led another walk-off, this time from Ampilatwatja, a settlement in central Australia's red desert country, where his Alyawarr people say they have been treated as outcasts and isolated from white man's decision-making under the 2007 federal indigenous intervention.
They are carving a new community from mulga scrub three kilometres from Ampilatwatja - just outside an area prescribed under the intervention - at a place called Honeymoon Bore, 350 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs.
‘We feel free and happy here, away from the all the rules and interference of the intervention,’ says Mr Morton, who is living in a tin hut at the camp, which has no running water and where up to 70 people are living in tents and crude shelters, including the rusty shell of a long-abandoned vehicle.
Mr Morton, 83, and other Alyawarr leaders moved to Honeymoon Bore in July last year to protest against the neglected and overcrowded state of Ampilatwatja, where raw sewage was ankle deep in some houses and overflowing into the street.
They were also upset about the forced takeover of their community store and lack of consultation with white bureaucrats sent to the community under the intervention.
But as the protest - and their plight - fell on deaf ears, they decided to make the walk-off permanent, abandoning Ampilatwatja, where a government-appointed business manager is living in a $500,000 home and office complex and where a sign outside the store names the people who have been ordered to work at the local council or face cuts in their welfare payments.
Mr Morton objects to the intervention's income management, where half of a person's Centrelink payments must be spent on food and other essentials. ‘It's like the ration days all over again,’ he says. ‘We have gone backwards. There's no incentive for my people to work. This makes me feel no good … it's about our pride.’
Mr Morton says the only benefit Ampilatwatja has received from the $1.5 billion intervention is a BMX bicycle track, which is now eroded and unsafe to use and which most residents did not want. Bicycles remain locked in a container.
‘We wanted grass for the football oval,’ Mr Morton says, because the favoured sport is Australian rules football. ‘They shut us out … they didn't ask us what we wanted,’ he says.
Mr Morton says little work has been done to repair houses in Ampilatwatja, some of which are little more than tin shanties.
This week, raw sewage was flowing from an open hole there.
Ampilatwatja, population 450, has not been allocated any houses under a $672 million government housing program under which 700 homes will be built in 20 bigger remote communities across the territory.
But three kilometres away at Honeymoon Bore volunteers this week poured a concrete slab, and a $25,000 kit home donated by an Adelaide company arrived by truck and was expected to be erected in time for a traditional smoking ceremony opening tomorrow.
Richard Downs, another Alyawarr leader, says he envisages up to 100 people will be living at the bore within two years, with wind generators and gardens and work for all in an indigenous ‘utopia’ about 70 kilometres away from a clutch of disadvantaged outstations that are actually called Utopia.
‘Our aim is to show that Aboriginal people can break the cycle of dependency, that we can look after ourselves on our country,’ Mr Downs says.
Plans for Honeymoon Bore include families making 3000 mud bricks.
‘When they are made, everyone will chip in and help build a mud-brick house for the family,’ he says.
‘This will give my people pride in owning homes they built themselves as well and developing building skills and knowledge . . we think with some hard work, sweat and tears we can create a special place.’
Mr Downs, 56, says his people's stand has attracted support from around Australia, including most trade unions, while no federal or NT government MP or minister has visited to listen to their complaints. Protest letters have gone unanswered.
The Age asked federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin about the walk-off and complaints from Ampilatwatja residents.
A spokeswoman replied that decades of successive government failure meant infrastructure in many indigenous communities like Ampilatwatja, was in serious disrepair.
The spokeswoman said work on a significant number of houses in Ampilatwatja was expected to begin in late April.
Speaking with the laconic drawl of a man who has spent all his life in the bush, much of it on the back of a horse, Banjo Morton, says living in Ampilatwatja under the intervention was like being cattle in a yard.
‘We were being prodded and pushed around,’ he says.
‘We needed to get away from there, to build our own community and live the way we want to, on our country.’
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