April 21, 1999


Denial of Centenary of Federation funding for the proposed Outback Highway is "a setback but not the end" of the project, says Alice Springs Mayor Andy McNeill.Promoters of the east-west road link through The Centre in the NT, Queensland and WA will meet soon to "regroup" and formulate a new push for a Canberra contribution.They are seeking a dollar-for-dollar match of the already pledged funding from the three states, including $25m from WA and $24m from Queensland (the majority of the Territory section is already sealed).Meanwhile MLA for MacDonnell John Elferink, a keen advocate of the project, says he is pleased that the "Alice In 10" discussion paper lists the highway as its first road project."I will certainly continue to press the NT Government to get behind the project, and spend some infrastructure money in the Alice Springs area," says Mr Elferink.A spokesman for NT Trasnport Minister Barry Coulter says the NT is supportive of the principle, but the highway is a national project and needs Federal funding.The NT has not allocated money at this stage becase there is still no Federal commitment.Mr McNeill says: "The Outback Highway will give the Aboriginal communities along that road a start to make some money, to become part of the tourist industry."Mr McNeill says: "It's going to give the Aboriginal communities along that road a start to make some money, to become part of the tourist industry."For example, the Harts Range community on the Plenty River road has already asked ATSIC for funding to realise opportunities from "passing trade" – currently an average of just 20 vehicles a day.The proposed highway, from Winton in Queensland via Alice Springs to Laverton in WA, along its full length has a "catchment area" of 105,000 people, says Mr McNeill.A report last year, commissioned by the transport departments in the three states, says the highway would have some strategic significance and be of use to the mining and pastoral industries, but by far its main benefit would be to tourism and to development of remote Aboriginal areas.The report says the road "would make a contribution towards removing the inequities in levels of health, education, housing and employment in the local communities it serves."The current standards in some of the communities could best be described as Third World: 43 per cent of Aborigines in rural Australia are not living in dwellings which meet their needs; 91 per cent of Central Australian Aborigines have not attained any form of qualification, including basic vocational qualification."No Aboriginal person from the Central Desert Area of WA has completed any secondary education."Opening up this "pristine" region would also "improve cultural and racial understanding and harmony in Australia", states the report.Mr McNeill says there is wide support from both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal residents."Alice Springs can only benefit," he says."If the Alice to Darwin railway should come to fruition we would lose our depot and end-of-the line status."He says the east west highway could be "a bit of a saviour for us" as the local trucking industry would lose an estimated $40m a year in revenue because of the rail link, after a short-term gain during construction.The report says the total cost of upgrading existing roads to all-weather unsealed highway would be $117m ($58.5m from Laverton to the NT border; $13.3m to Ayers Rock; $25.7m for the Plenty Highway and $20m for the Tobermorey to Boulia section). Sealing the road would cost a further $171.5m.It is likely that the highway would need to be rerouted around the Ayers Rock (Uluru) National Park because its traditional owners are "worried about the road going through Ayers Rock and the Olgas," says Mr McNeill, but this is "a minor problem in the whole context".Mr Elferink says he agrees with Mr McNeill that there will be major economic opportunities for Aboriginal people – possibly similar, he says, to the boom times for small towns in America's mid west when the railways first came through.


A recent alleged bludgeoning to death of an Aboriginal man in Alice Springs has mobilised not just one, but two initiatives to punish the alleged killer.One is a secret process of Aboriginal payback that, according to an informant acquainted with the family of the victim for many years, will result in another man's death.The informant's claims that the payback is being prepared have been confirmed by a second independent source.These preparations are being conducted secretly in the creek beds, town lease areas and on the fringes of the town, under the noses of the town's non-Aboriginal population, but entirely without its knowledge.The other process is set to unfold in the Supreme Court, open to the public.Both systems of justice require that no more is said at this time.As charges have been laid in the "white" court, and as the matter has not yet been heard and decided, disclosure of details may lead to contempt proceedings.And the "black" system of justice forbids, under pain of serious physical punishment or even death, the passing of knowledge to anyone not directly involved.This latest tragedy raises again the question of how we are dealing with the staggering number of violent deaths in our community.According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, the national homicide rate is about two per 100,000 people, while the Territory rate is still around three times greater, despite a significant drop in recent years.Central Australia – the part of the Territory south of Tennant Creek (and not including it) – has, according to police figures, a rate of 18 homicides per 100,000 people, nine times the national average.Meanwhile, police have to juggle a range of serious considerations: to what degree is it proper to interfere with Aboriginal culture?How useful is payback in settling disputes and preventing them from becoming long-running?What – if any – is an acceptable level of violence used in payback?As there is usually no complaint made about payback – the "victim" often regards it as inevitable, even necessary – should and can police become involved?While it is usually known that payback will follow certain events, should there be a strategy of intelligence-gathering to prevent it – and how could that be done without causing offence to traditional beliefs?Fundamentally, to what a degree should the parallel systems of justice be tolerated or even encouraged?Police Superintendent Gary Smith, who has spent many years in Alice Springs and is now based in Darwin, says "certainly between 60 and 80 per cent" of homicides involve Aborigines, but how many are the result of payback is "a very, very difficult question".Mr Smith says: "Whilst payback may be a motive for homicide or a murder, it's very difficult for us to prove that it's a payback."I can only remember a couple of occasions [in Arnhemland] where somebody [has killed someone] directly as the result of a payback and has admitted to doing so."We often hear the rumour that [a crime] has been the result of a payback, but when you go and try to find out about the payback you get absolutely nowhere."... you hear the innuendo ... that somebody had a responsibility to pay back that person [for] something that might have happened 40, 50 years ago."The payback system is handed down generation after generation."On strategies for dealing with payback, Mr Smith says: "Whenever we apprehend or charge somebody for the death of another person, we look at the circumstances, and normally we're told by relatives or by friends, look, if he's let back into this community he's going to face payback, he's going to be killed."Those things are very important to us especially where he might apply for bail."Nine times out of ten we'll say if he's allowed back into his community we've received advice that he's likely to get payback and that he's either going to be severely injured or perhaps killed."There's no way we can ever condone payback or condone violence whatsoever."It might be part of customary beliefs for people who actually believe in this style of punishment."We just can't condone it in any way whatsoever."How can police prevent payback?"Each individual case is dealt with on its own merits," says Mr Smith."If you know an offender comes from any particular community, you've got to visit that community to get the background of the alleged offender, and that's where you'll be told that he's going to be subject to payback."It's up to us to tell the courts that it's in the interest of the alleged offender to stay in custody rather than be released on bail, and go back and possibly end up dead."Payback can be inflicted on any member of the family."There is not a lot we can do, apart from warn the parties."On several occasions we've warned the groups involved that we don't condone payback, and if something happens, they're just as likely to be charged."Whether that's effective or not I just don't know."Obvious payback does happen and they take no notice of us."We'd like to think that every now and again, some of the groups do take notice of us and don't do it, and leave it up to the courts to sort it out."Mr Smith agrees that although payback is happening under our noses, even within the town of Alice Springs, practically nothing is known about it by the white society."The general public know very little about it. "I'd say police have a very, very good and close knowledge of what's going on, right across the Territory."Especially officers in remote community police stations are in a very unique situation to be accepted into the culture, and very privy to some of the elders, the law makers, and some of the things that go on."The law makers have tremendous power, they are the people who order payback or in a lot of circumstances, are responsible for ensuring a payback is carried out."There is a basic affiliation between the white police and the tribal law makers - they are both there to make sure that the laws and the customs are upheld."So how come we can't lower the excessive homicide rate? Mr Smith says some significant inroads have been made. (The Australian Institute of Criminology graph shows the number of homicide per 100,000 people, for the nine years since 1989/90 to 1997/89, as approximately 12, 16, 10, 10, 14, 11, 13, nine and six, respectively.)Says Mr Smith: "A recent example is that Aboriginal women are finally speaking out against domestic violence."They say it is absolute rubbish that it is customary for an Aboriginal male to bash an Aboriginal woman."That used to be an excuse Aboriginal men used for years and years, saying that's part of our tradition, if she plays up I'm allowed to belt her."All we can do is try to keep on with the preventative methods, try to educate in relation to the abuse of alcohol."That really starts out in the community."It's essential for a community police officer to have a very good relationship with the local custom and the local elders."Mr Smith says the viability and occurrence of payback are closely linked to the degree of acceptance of it."When a person expects to receive payback ... it's going to depend on how strong his beliefs are in his customs," says Mr Smith."Today you might get some young Aboriginal children who have got no idea what payback is about, and will never have a fear of it because to them, it doesn't exist, because they haven't grown up with it and it's not taught to them any more."I can name one community where you could never put a spell on a clan or a person because it just wouldn't work, purely and simply because they don't know what it means. "They have no understanding of it any more, it's disappeared from their culture."So is the best way to stop payback and reduce our homicide rate to modify the culture?"I don't know whether it's a modification of the culture itself. "I thinks it's more of an understanding of the violence, and what violence will eventually cause."There are a lot of people who have a strong belief ... we even say in our own bible, an eye for an eye."Probably the only way around it is education."Payback is part of the Aboriginal culture, they were brought up with this, but they were brought up with a lot of things that we just can't condone in today's age."We can't condone somebody being speared in the thigh because he played up with someone else's wife, we can't condone somebody being killed because of a remote chance that he might have had something to do with the death of someone in a motor vehicle accident."These are the myths and the beliefs they actually believe in. "We can't say they are wrong for believing in it, but the actions they take because of their beliefs are certainly wrong."Detective Senior Sergeant Don Fry, who heads up the police Criminal Investigations Branch in Alice Springs, and has been based here for a total of six years since 1990, says: "I don't particularly have any records of information to suggest that anybody in this area has actually suffered any grievous bodily harm as a result of payback."I am aware that from time to time there are incidents where payback is dealt out but we haven't necessarily followed up any particular incidence as an assault that I can remember. "That's not to say that it hasn't occurred."Whilst we may hear about meetings or paybacks, whilst we may hear in general terms about things that are going to happen, it doesn't necessarily say that we fully understand or are fully aware of the what, where, how and why."Quite a lot of these things are, in a European sense, not particularly discussed with us and it's really their secret Aboriginal business, anyway," says Mr Fry."Grievous harm and death are certainly investigated by us."He says there are Aboriginal police officers both out bush and in town who will inform about "any likelihood of events, if they are aware of them themselves, and if they are in a position to tell us about those things."If someone seeks our assistance we act on that, very directly and very specifically. We've got to act on complaints."If we had information that a person is going to be seriously harmed or killed, we would act on it, to try and prevent that.However, Mr Fry says: "Being speared in a traditional Aboriginal sense, where nobody else receives any serious harm, is not necessarily a matter for police to act on if there is no complaint."In his six years in The Centre "we would have very infrequent dealings in that matter, maybe three to four times a year," not including rural communities.Mr Fry says: "It is often very difficult for us to determine which is a breach of the peace and disturbance and which is a payback sanctioned by the community affected."I have no information on Aboriginal communities in payback seeking to kill or seriously injure anybody. "My understanding of payback is it doesn't extend that far, and if [serious injury or death] ever do happen, it is quite unintentional and is certainly not sanctioned by the law."In my six years in Alice Springs, I can't remember actually investigating an episode of payback where somebody was grievously harmed or killed that we've had specific knowledge about in advance."There are deaths that occur where sometimes the reason may be difficult to absolutely ascertain."David Bamber, the principal legal officer with the Aboriginal Legal Aid Service in Alice Springs, mirrors Mr Fry's views that payback can be – to the parties involved – an acceptable method of conflict resolution: In fact, he frequently makes submissions to the court to that effect."Sometimes the issue of payback is raised by the police in the context of bail applications."Police may oppose bail when they believe payback would occur."On the other hand, defendants sometimes want bail to get payback to have the matter settled."Mr Bamber says when payback has occurred, this can be brought up on a plea for mitigation, in other words, an application for a lower penalty because the defendant has already been punished by his community."Courts don't sanction payback but they will take it into account in sentencing. We need to distinguish between payback which is revenge and payback that is agreed to and done under the control of elders."Mr Bamber says he is not an anthropologist, but his understanding as a lawyer is that proper payback is "a controlled spearing or beating", sanctioned by the elders, agreed upon in advance by the families involved, and precluding "extreme violence".Killings happen only when the process gets out of control."Properly done with consent of the parties, payback ends the matter," says Mr Bamber.


While a new atmosphere of optimism has been created by public discussion about a sustainable future for Alice Springs, there is a need to pull the strands together into a longer term strategic vision, says Director of the Alice-based Centre for Appropriate Technology and recent recipient of the prestigious Clunies Ross National Science and Technology Award, Dr Bruce Walker.The fact that people are talking about "vision" – "even though some of them might be a bit sectional in their interest" – is a big step forward on past "doom and gloom", says Dr Walker."The town has come through a period of short-term development vision, during which the population's been pretty static, but we've fooled ourselves into thinking that the town's growing and changing because we've been doing all this building – some of it pretty terrible building. "Now we're coming out of that and asking what's our sense of vision, why do we want to be here and how can we sustain it?"Contributions to the debate are coming from various quarters: MLA John Elferink's "food bowl in the desert", the "Alice in 10" document, the debate over a convention centre, discussion of the need for a political party to represent Central Australia.However, the ideas all need to be positioned against a clear understanding of what makes Alice Springs unique, says Dr Walker."What are the things about this place that no coastal community can ever take from us?" he asks."They are our isolation, our Aboriginal communities and the desert environment. "These are the three guaranteed things we must turn into the basis of a viable economy."There isn't a town like Alice Springs anywhere else in Australia, they're all coastal or if not, like Mt Isa, Kalgoorlie and Tennant Creek, they're mining towns. Alice Springs has really got a broader mix of culture and services."It is primarily a communications and service centre. Tourism, on which so many people pin their hopes, is really only one element in the mix. Tourists fluctuate like gold and silver, they go up and down with world demand."However, if our primary role is as a communications and service centre, we need to review how sustainable that is in the context of what is happening globally with information technology and services."John Flynn many years ago had a vision for the Outback which talked about a ‘mantle of safety' but circumstances are very different now and we need to reshape that vision."This reshaping is the vital role that our civic leaders must take up, says Dr Walker.They need to be levered away from a focus on short term goals:"We will never get a strategic vision of Alice Springs, if we are always focussed on alcohol. "It's a problem that has to be dealt with, but while much of the civic energy gets focussed on that, or on rubbish dumps and recycling, or on tourism and convention centres, we are never going to achieve our full potential."Dr Walker warns against the debate being clouded by political differences:"The markets are too small, the opportunities are too limited to divide the resources and people's energies. "As a community we need a vision that embraces and provides hope for all Central Australians, and that includes Aboriginal people. And we need to find ways for the community to drive it."He hails local initiatives such as the production of table grapes in Ti Tree, Tony Alicastro's tomato growing and processing, the small hydroponics farms, but asks how we can "value add" to these initiatives."How can we get further ahead than everybody else who's trying to grow food?"We have the advantage of being in an arid zone in a ‘first world' country. If we have the kind of creative environment that supports the development of new processes and new systems and we sell those systems back to other arid zones of the world, we would make significantly more money than we could by just selling the pumpkins or the grapes."The evidence is that there are already a lot of skills and resources in Central Australia – at Pine Gap, for instance, and even in less likely quarters, such as Centrebet and Lasseters On-line."But where is the investment in research that builds on a mix of these initiatives, skills and resources?"Dr Walker applies the same kind of argument to a future convention centre: we need to value add."Every major town on the coast has a convention centre and a beach. Sure, we have a desert, but then a convention centre could go in at Ayers Rock and knock us out of the water!"So why would we build one unless we specifically target people who want to share knowledge about the things that are unique to arid environments?"We have to ask what's the strategic benefit in the long term, rather than what's the short term benefit for hotel operators, restaurateurs or whoever."Strategic thinking about a convention centre would see it operating something like a business incubator or a technology park: bringing together people from different backgrounds and of different expertise to generate new ideas.Alice Springs is well positioned to be representative of Australia's arid zone, some 70 per cent of the land mass. However, the sort of potential that is here for a value adding, knowledge-based economy requires greater support than the Northern Territory Government alone could provide. More stakeholders need to be involved, argues Dr Walker."We won't be able to effect this just through the ballot box, as there are only a few Federal members who cover most of the arid zone. "It's got to be a people's movement, smartly organised, with a different kind of governance."We can't afford disputes with Aboriginal people, or with political parties, or with other states. It's got to be a really focussed, united effort if it's going to work."We also need to recognise that this won't happen overnight. It requires a significant mass of people who can commit themselves over 20 years to pursuing a strategic vision, and a significant investment in the right areas to support that."This vision should complement Darwin's push into Asia, adding a new dimension to the Territory's economy."It is happening elsewhere in Australia. Keynote speaker at the Clunies Ross award presentations in Melbourne was Queensland Premier Peter Beattie who is positioning his state to be a world player in the fields of microbiology and genetics.Dr Walker, in his acceptance speech at the same presentations, talked about the potential for a mix of science and indigenous interests in remote areas, of a future built on that, rather than a future of hopelessness built around a lack of recognition of anything that happens in the desert."This would then be a place that people would want to live in and to visit, and we could build around that something like an International Centre of Desert Knowledge, where people could come and learn about how you sustain life and habitation in the desert."What we need is a mix of activities and institutions, coming together under one marketing banner. There would be spinoffs from that for every section of the community. "It would be a clever, sustainable and equitable future."


I would like to comment on part of the lead article in the edition of April 7, 1999 under the heading "Unconditional bail for alleged rapist".In the report there is a reference to Magistrate Warren Donald asking "What access do we have to interpreters? Where do we get them from? From IAD?".The Institute for Aboriginal Development has a register of qualified and experienced interpreters in each of the languages of the Central Australian region. IAD is usually able to provide interpreting assistance at short notice, including weekends. This service has been available in Alice Springs for many years.IAD has conducted an interpreter training program for several years to cope with the demand for interpreting services. There is an increasing pool of experienced and qualified interpreters available to undertake a range of interpreting tasks.IAD has long advocated the need for government and other agencies to recognise the right of Aboriginal people to have access to interpreters. It is a basic right of all people to be able to access any service in their first language.The current inquiry by the NT Anti-Discrimination Commissioner into the lack of availability of interpreter services is a vindication of IAD's longstanding concerns.


Placing Alice Springs' image in the international marketplace in the lead up to the Sydney Olympics, won't be the work of locals alone, or even of Australians.Stephane Korb is a French photographer who has just spent a fortnight in Alice Springs as part of an Australian tour, collecting material for a coffee table book to be published this year in France, called Esprit d'Australie (Spirit of Australia).For Mr Korb it was his eighth visit to Alice Springs since 1984, but he left with a feeling of regret for the town of his earlier visits:"When I arrived for the first time I saw Alice Springs as a small town, rather charming."Tourism wasn't very developed, the people were straightforward, down to earth. It was an attractive place where you felt happy and relaxed. The Todd River was in flood, I had never seen a town like it."Mr Korb cherishes two memories in particular of that first visit: a small shop selling boomerangs and paintings, nothing fancy, with a hand-painted peeling sign on a "real red heart", reading Red Heart Centre; and an Aboriginal man, standing by the flooding river, hands upturned, who told him he had lost all his family in the flood:"He said, ‘No worries'. That struck me," says Mr Korb. "How could he express his pain and suffering in a way that appeared so light, but was also so deep? And to a white man like me, who must have in some ways represented much of the unhappiness he was suffering?"Mr Korb says that on subsequent trips, things had probably started to change but "I didn't notice because I was always in situations where I was close to people whom I found to be very genuine". This time, however, things have been different:"My impression is that Alice Springs has lost its soul. There's a mall, everything is regulated, clean and tidy, but where is the life? I ask myself, where is the life?"Before when I arrived in Alice life was there, straight away, no question, life was there."There were Aborigines who were drunk in the town, it was strange but not disturbing. I didn't sense any real aggression, but this time I felt aggression."I don't remember on my first visit finding that they were dirty and smelt bad, but now I find that they stink, it's disturbing."This time I've also visited some Aboriginal people in their homes and the houses were extremely dirty. It's disturbing because on the one hand they are people who are very soft, very kind, but on the other hand I have the impression that they are on a kind of descent into hell, a destruction which has no end. "Perhaps it was like that in ‘84 but I didn't pick it up, I didn't see it."Mr Korb is also struck by the change in the built environment of the town. "These buildings you can see anywhere, they express a worldwide uniformity that no one can escape. So, in the middle of an immense continent, in the middle of the desert, you find what one could call the Coca Cola Highway! "That's the big change which shocks me and I ask myself if we can't find authenticity here, where can we find it?"The art galleries also offer an enormous disillusionment. I go in, and wonder if the gallery owner has painted some of the work in front of the television at night. No head nor tail, no colour sense, no content, it's nothing. ANYTHING GOES"I know now, after discussing this with people in the business, that Alice Springs is a centre of "anything goes", where you can find the best of the best and the worst. "That's not good enough. If Alice Springs is going to be the Aboriginal art capital of the world, there should only be the best. Full stop. The rest should not be there. "All the rest is there just for money, and you have the impression that money is the only reference point here. Apart from that there is nothing."The Alice News asked Mr Korb what French people look for when they get on a plane with the centre of Australia as their destination."We are looking for freedom, but you can't find it here. You take three steps, no you can't take a photograph, you want to go somewhere, you have to have a permit, you ask for the permit, it's refused. "You expect to find freedom, but you don't find freedom of movement, that's for sure, and instead you are snatched up by all these touristic things. For me it's disturbing, very disturbing. "What should Alice Springs do about it? I haven't really an answer, but in any case preventing access to land, it's not good. I don't know who's responsible for it. "On this my eighth trip, I haven't found the magic of my previous trips. I've changed, that's probably true, but it's not just that. There's really something that has happened which means that things are not the same, it's not as relaxed, not the same straightforward character, not the magic."Although, after a fortnight, a visitor can only expect to take away impressions, and not a profound understanding, impressions are a large part of what counts in the travel industry, and Mr Korb's impressions will count more than most.


A group of batik artists from Utopia, north east of Alice Springs, recently spent two weeks working with Indonesian batik artists on collaborative silks which will ultimately feature in the Asia Pacific Triennale Exhibition to be held in Brisbane later this year.Pictured are Gloria Angal and Agus Ismoyo scrutinising the latest application of wax to Angal's design. It shows the seeds of a senna plant, which in reality are tiny enough to be collected by ants. Women in turn gather the seeds from the ants' store, and after winnowing them in a coolamon, grind them into a paste or cook them in a cake.The border shows Angal's awely, or designs which in ceremonies are painted across the chest, and on the breasts and upper arms.The design was applied in wax by brush, with the centre of the silk left free for the subsequent application of the Indonesian designs.On other silks the Utopia artists used cantings (small metal pipes) and caps (metal or wooden stamps) to apply the wax. They were introduced to the use of caps, which facilitate the duplication of motifs, during a 1994 visit to the Yogyakarta studio of Ismoyo and his partner Nia Fliam. The Australian women drew their designs on paper and the caps were made up by Indonesian craftsmen.Ismoyo and Fliam brought their own caps using traditional Indonesian designs, "their Dreaming", as Hilda (Cookie) Pwerl said."We've all got to bring the Dreamings that were created for us, " she said."They know about their Dreaming and Law, just as we do." Lena Pwerl said that the caps were "really good", and "they all have stories". "We have Law, and they have Law as well. The same thing. We all have Law," she said.Fliam, an American by birth who has had a 15 year collaboration with Ismoyo, said that working collectively, with both Ismoyo and the Utopia women, "forces us to give and take" and to gain "more than the strengths of one person".She described the project as an artistic "gamble" but said that a "deeper understanding about our work develops when we sit down together in the same place".The project was funded by the Aboriginal Development Unit of the NT Department of Education, the NT Department of Arts and Museums, and the Utopia Community Council.It was coordinated by Jenny Green and Suzy Bryce, both of whom were instrumental in originally introducing Utopia women to batik, in the late 'seventies.

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