Despair in shadow of riches

Nowhere in Australia is the growing divide between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals more evident than five minutes out of Kalgoorlie-Boulder, where a ramshackle camp of propped-up tin and rubbish sits next to a hole that produces 850,000 ounces – $1.2 billion worth – of gold each year.

“Welcome home,” says the sign painted on one of the tin shelters in this grim patch of third-world misery which sits in the shadow of a mammoth mound of tailings from the Superpit, the biggest open cut mine in the country.

The camp is mostly ignored by locals, as are the Aboriginals who stagger drunk through town – temporary visitors who come here via Laverton from the area known as the Lands and camp around the city.

“It’s genocide,” said Pastor Geoffrey Stokes, a big mountain of a man who isn’t prone to understatement. “Look at these conditions they let us live in.”

You just have to drive through the dingy camps around this rich Goldfields city and north to places like Laverton, where children are dumped by their parents and domestic abuse is rife, to realise that regardless of everything that has been done by successive governments, the plight of WA’s Aboriginal population is now worse than it’s ever been.

Years ago, several towns fell into an unofficial and unacknowledged form of apartheid – Aboriginals in one bar, white workers in the other – and there is a culture of resignation and acceptance about the massive levels of alcoholism and sexual abuse that is robbing a generation of Aboriginal children from any kind of decent future.

This week, Regional Development Minister Brendon Grylls brought some refreshing honesty to a debate shackled by years of what talkback hosts would call “political correctness”: “I don’t know what the answer is, mate. If you’re there, I’m hoping you can come up with it.”

For years, successive WA governments have handled the indigenous crisis with a clumsy juggling of ideology and pragmatism, throwing money at problems when they became public.

When The West Australian highlighted the Halls Creek crisis five years ago, millions of dollars were pumped into the town within weeks. When the paper published a leaked report last Saturday which revealed that children were being abandoned in Laverton, Child Protection Minister Robyn McSweeney swooped into town with funding for extra services.

The reactions have been necessary but, like everything with indigenous affairs, they have been knee-jerk and temporary.

Any bigger attempt to address what Pastor Stokes calls “genocide” is often met with hand-wringing resignation, an admission that the task is staggeringly complex and the commissioning of a report to see what can be done – such as the one which has sat on Indigenous Affairs Minister Peter Collier’s desk since February.

Its author, former WA governor Lt-Gen. John Sanderson was paid $200,000 over two years to chair the Indigenous Implementation Board and consult with the Aboriginal community on its issues.

Mr Collier says the report will be tabled in Parliament “very soon”.

It’s not that there isn’t the political will to do something about this issue.

Mr Collier, a former Kalgoorlie boy, asked for the indigenous affairs portfolio and Mrs McSweeney’s passion for the welfare of children is well-known since her days in Opposition.

“She’s looked me in the eye a few times and given me a few home truths about child neglect which has changed the course of discussion,” Mr Grylls admits.

It’s just that no-one knows how to solve the problem or, more importantly, how to engage an Aboriginal community which is crippled by despair, negativity and alcoholism.

There is a bigger debate that is needed but few politicians want to risk dipping their toes into those risky waters. The sad fact is that there are very few votes in the powder keg that is the state of WA’s Aboriginal population.

Mr Collier said yesterday that he agrees with Mr Grylls’ admission that the Government doesn’t know how to solve the crisis.

“A lot of the stuff that’s been done over generations is, quite frankly, like putting a band-aid on a broken arm… there’s been a bit of tokenism, an enormous amount of duplication (and) a massive amount of wastage of resources which are not necessarily directed at the right areas,” he said.

Part of that was on show last Friday, when, without warning, a convoy of trucks came thundering down the dirt track towards the group of tin huts which for years had been refuge to itinerant Aboriginals travelling through Kalgoorlie-Boulder.

Within hours, they had levelled every structure in the camp, ironically known as Silver City, which was originally built by the Federal and State governments in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“They just came past me,” Terry Smith said of the demolition as he drank a beer on the outskirts of Kalgoorlie and questioned where his people would camp now.

“They didn’t even look at me. Why are they doing this?”

The Department of Indigenous Affairs said the site was levelled because the structures were unsafe.

It said people who stayed there could take advantage of new short-term accommodation nearby. But that won’t be ready for at least a year and the demolition came without warning and in the midst of winter rains and freezing cold nights.

It was a bizarre, confrontational act which was understandably seen by Aboriginals from the Lands as an attack.

Up the road, in this boom city with the third-world ring around its edges, Independent Kalgoorlie MP John Bowler selected his words carefully when asked what the solution was.

In the face of years of failed policy, he said a new approach was needed to lift an Aboriginal community which had become impotent by a generation of welfare dependency.

He said he expected a backlash over his suggestion that the Government should consider withdrawing benefits as a way of forcing people to lift themselves out of cycle of despair.

“I shouldn’t have that fear. Are people who are in the mainstream of politics scared of saying what I’m saying because of that?” he said. “The people who are going to send that crap (criticism) … surely they must think what is the long-term answer?”

~ By Steve Pennells, The West Australian, 11 June 2011


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