February 16, 2000


Two senior ALP politicians in the NT differ over moves to scrap mandatory sentencing laws which last week obtained national notoriety with the death in custody of a 15-year-old Aboriginal youth.According to the NT government he committed suicide while serving a 28 day sentence in Darwin's Don Dale centre, for a minor theft.Warren Snowdon MHR says unless the NT Government brings its criminal code in line with Australia's obligations, he will support "any and all moves" to get rid of mandatory sentencing, and this could include the Territory law being knocked out by the Federal Government.But Stuart MLA Peter Toyne says any change should come from the Territory electorate itself: intervention by Canberra may allow the Country Liberal Party (CLP) to turn the matter into a states' rights brawl, obscuring the major issues.Mr Snowdon says he may give support to Greens Senator Bob Brown who is seeking Federal intervention, sparking a Senate enquiry under way now.Mr Snowdon says he opposed Federal action ultimately disallowing the Territory's voluntary euthanasia laws.But he says this time Canberra should act because the mandatory sentencing laws in the Territory as well as Western Australia are in conflict with international conventions about "the rights of the child" to which Australia is a signatory.He says: "We have, as a nation, a responsibility to uphold the essence of those conventions and treaties."The Commonwealth, under its external affairs powers, must make sure that every state and territory has laws "that are in accordance with Australia's international obligations".Also, he says the laws conflict with the findings of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, whose principal recommendation is that incarceration should be a last resort.Mr Snowdon says the Commonwealth should pass legislation ensuring that all laws in Australia dealing with juveniles are consistent with Australia's obligations under United Nations charters and conventions.Mr Snowdon says he has, until now, been inactive over mandatory sentencing, content to allow the NT Government to explain to the community why it has the laws in force."The laws have now effectively become a death sentence."This isn't just about the law. This is a question of moral standards."This is beyond the euthanasia bill, which was a states rights issue."This is a question of Australia's external affairs powers."He says Prime Minister John Howard recently opposed the introduction of safe injecting rooms for heroin users on the basis of international obligations.Mr Snowdon says there will be a debate within Labor: "People are very conscious of the need for the NT, and any other state or territory jurisdiction, to basically cut its own cloth."But they are also conscious that it is not appropriate for Australia to have these sorts of laws impacting on its community, particularly its younger Australians."These laws are perverse."Mr Snowdon says the NT has not even brought in a moratorium on mandatory sentencing, pending a review of its operation."Whether or not you support mandatory sentencing for property crimes for adults, I am absolutely opposed [to having] mandatory sentencing for juveniles."Mr Toyne says: "I have not got total confidence in the Federal process" to overturn the Territory laws."Ultimately I'll welcome anything that gets rid of the current regime [but] I don't believe the Federal process is trustworthy."My support for what Warren's doing is very qualified."I think there are two problems with Federal processes."I don't have faith in our ability to bring it through the actual politics of Federal Parliament."The conservatives have the majority in House of Reps."The last thing Territory Labor should be doing is down tools and wait for the Federal people to overturn the law."The second thing is, overturning it from the outside will divert the current debate in the NT community away from whether mandatory sentencing is an appropriate policy, to a state rights issue.APPROACHES"If Federal intervention gets rid of the regime, which I would welcome, it doesn't solve the problem in terms of the general approaches to crime and Aboriginal issues that currently prevail in the NT."We've got a job of work to do, getting around to the households to say, look, if you're worried about crime there are a lot of other policy options available."Mandatory sentencing is the one you've supported up to date, but it's not having the desired effect on crime."There are other options that have been shown to reduce crime and that don't involve draconian punishment."The Territory Labor caucus believes mandatory sentencing is best overturned at the Territory level, and with the agreement of the Territory electorate."Mr Toyne says he is confident that public opinion in the NT is turning against mandatory sentencing, and Labor can defeat the CLP at the next elections.Door knocking especially in Darwin has revealed "quite a change" in opinion since the last general elections.Householders are now doubting that mandatory sentencing can achieve its initially stated policy objectives of reducing property crime.Mr Toyne says when recent statistics revealed that mandatory sentencing had little or no impact on the crime rate, the Government had to "re-spin the argument saying they put it there to punish criminals."That approach is mediaeval."Mr Toyne says there have been signs that Chief Minister Denis Burke himself is keen to get rid of mandatory sentencing, but " has been pulled into line" by his party machine".STATES' RIGHTSMr Toyne says Federal scrapping of mandatory sentencing would aid the CLP in two ways: firstly, it would remove a regime "that they aren't particularly comfortable with any more", and secondly, "they can then turn the next election into a state rights election on that issue."Mr Toyne says this would divert public attention from what needs to be done about crime in the Territory."If the Territory electorate go through that process and come up with a new position on it, which abandons mandatory sentencing, and picks up other alternatives, then we've actually moved forward as an electorate. What we get into with Federal intervention is a states' rights debate which goes nowhere."


The demolition of Lizzie Milnes' house at 48 Bath Street last week marked a sad day for Alice Springs heritage, and served to demonstrate once again the low value which the Northern Territory Government places on matters of heritage and the lack of protection which its Heritage Conservation Act (1991) provides for its preservation.The house, built in the 1940s and occupied continuously by a member of one of central Australia's earliest pastoral families, represented one of the last examples of an inhabited residence in this town's central business district and, with its numerous outbuildings and its spacious and leafy garden surrounds, was the only one of its type in demonstrating a "way of life" that was once typical of our town. These features, and others, gave the place its heritage value and made the place worth keeping to help us, and future generations, to better understand an earlier phase in the development of Alice Springs.I see no value in apportioning any blame for the building's destruction to any previous or current owners of the property for wanting to maximise the monetary value of the place, nor to the real estate agents and the demolition contractors who are " only doing their job", and certainly not to the largely apathetic citizenry of this town that is either "just passing through" or chasing that elusive "quick buck" . I believe the blame for the sure and steady loss of our heritage lies within the structure of our so-called Heritage Conservation Act (1991), which essentially gives the Minister the ultimate power over whether a property is heritage listed, and therefore preserved for future generations, or not.Under the Act, the Minister is able to override even the strongest of recommendations that his Heritage Advisory Council (HAC) may present to him, citing, for example, "economic considerations".My contention has and always will be that "a place is either of heritage value, or it is not". Economics should not be considered at all, for they serve only to place all of our heritage buildings under threat. Could anyone in this town argue for the demolition of Adelaide House, The Residency or the Old Court House, on the grounds that the land on which they are built is worth much more if re- developed? I don't think so.I believe that this Territory's Heritage Act is simply not good enough and should be amended to better reflect and achieve its stated principal objective, that is, "... the identification, assessment, recording, conservation and protection of places ... of historical (and) social value... of the Northern Territory." Unfortunately, given this NT government's past performance, I have also come to believe that this will not ever happen without a change of government.Perhaps the saddest commentary on the destruction of Lizzie Milnes' house came from the so-called "persons on the street" interviewed on local radio who, whilst lamenting the demolition, said that it was justifiable in the name of "progress"!I ask of them: "What progress?". Can the destruction of that last remaining little "oasis of green" that was Lizzie Milnes' house, to make way for yet another carpark or inappropriately designed building, be called "progress" ? And how long will that lot remain as a dustbowl before any built development is seen as "economically viable", in a town with an over-supply of office and retail space ? Overseas and interstate visitors to our town continually fail to understand the low value we place on the little that remains of our built heritage, and they regret our lack of sensitivity and sophistication, returning instead to their own countries and hometowns with a reinforced impression of the "red-neck" Territorian.In my opinion, we are certainly past the time to begin to stem the tide of so-called "progress" in this town, if only as a mark of respect for the resolute Lizzie Milnes, whose steadfast stand against selling her property to the developers of the K-mart site served as a fine example of putting the longer term interests of Alice Springs above that of short term financial gain.
Domenico Pecorari
Architect, Alice Springs


Of 18 Employment National offices in northern Australia, the Alice Springs office is among the top three in terms of performance, according to North Australia Regional Manager Chris Chappell.While the Commonwealth owned company has been forced to contract nationally following the loss of many contracts during the recent round of tenders for Job Network providers, the Alice office's "excellent record" in Job Matching saw its contract in this area renewed.Mr Chappell says the office matched 400 people to jobs in the last six months, and proof that they did it well is that employers continue to pay for the services they offer.These are both "standard" – in the case of unskilled work, putting the employer in touch with the first three comers – and "premium", where they use their resources as a national company to find candidates, screen them, check references and so on, before presenting the employer with a short list."It saves employers time and money, and gives them access to candidates from all over Australia," says Mr Chappell. The most sought-after employees in Alice are skilled tradespeople, with good chefs, refrigeration mechanics and motor mechanics topping the list."Tradespeople in these three areas are virtually guaranteed immediate employment if they are willing to come to Alice," says Mr Chappell.Do staff have to "sell" Alice, as well as the job?Mr Chappell says not."If work is assured, and accommodation available, then things like heat and distance are not major issues. "If someone is at the point of expressing an interest in a job in the area, they've usually already thought through those things."In the previous round of Job Network tenders the Alice office also won an Intensive Assistance contract, providing individual help to the long-term unemployed.Mr Chappell says the Alice office was effective in this area, " but obviously not effective enough to win the tender again". (These contracts are now held by Tangentyere Job Shop, a new- comer in the field, and Centrecare.)Employment National placed 100 long-term unemployed people in work over the last six months, while during the same period they offered Intensive Assistance to 150. There is not a direct correlation in terms of individuals, as some of the people who found work may have registered for Intensive Assistance at an earlier date.Approximately 30 per cent of those placed in jobs remained in them for at least six months. Mr Chappell says he has no access to national data to assess the relative success of the Alice office in this area, but in the northern Australian context the office performed well.With only a Job Matching contract for the next three years, the office will now have smaller client group and less Aboriginal clients."A high proportion of long-term unemployed people in Alice are Aboriginal, whereas they do not make up a high proportion of the short-term unemployed who we are dealing with now."With Job Matching there are no issues specific to Aboriginal people. "If they are able and willing to work, there are plenty of jobs for them."In particular, the tourism and hospitality area has a lot of opportunities for Aboriginal employees," says Mr Chappell.
The Central Land Council is credited with success in putting Aboriginal people into jobs in the mining industry.Agreements with the Granites and the Tanami Gold Mines have led to Indigenous employees making up nearly nine per cent and seven per cent of their workforces, respectively.Russell Clark, general manager at the Granites, says his company has a "very active program of trying to encourage Indigenous workers to this site, on both our own workforce and our contractors's".However, the 40 Indigenous workers currently on site are not necessarily from Central Australia."We deal with the CLC and try to attract people they have identified," says Mr Clark.He says his company is looking at running training programs at Yuendumu and Lajamanu in order to increase the employment prospects of local people.They also want to develop, in collaboration with Warlpiri Media based at Yuendumu, videos which on the one hand explain to Indigenous people what mining is all about, and on the other hand, explain Indigenous culture to the rest of the mine's workforce.As the mine seems to be a willing employer, why are not more local Aboriginal people applying for jobs?Says Mr Clark: "This is a heavy industrial operation with a lot of the work happening underground."It's difficult to attract Indigenous employees to this type of work."We have to try to fit jobs in the industry to the people and their culture, find jobs that will work for them."Mr Clark says increasing the company's Indigenous workforce is " one of the obligations that comes with working on traditional lands", one that is important to fulfil if they want "to work elsewhere in this area".At the Tanami mine, the story is similar. While there are 10 Indigenous workers out of some 200, as well as five trainees, not many of them are local people, according to acting general manager, Charles Hastie."Our policy is to employ Aboriginal people," says Mr Hastie, "but they've got to have the skills."Low levels of literacy and numeracy constitute a considerable barrier."Even our samplers, who are basically picking up rocks on the ground, have to be able to number bags, put them in the right order and submit forms."However, if a prospective employee's literacy and numeracy is just below what is required, the company has employed and will employ a teacher to bring them up to speed."We put great emphasis on encouraging Aboriginal employment," says Mr Hastie."Earlier we had a lot of people come here, but they didn't like it."Working two weeks on, one week off means spending a lot of time away from home and a number of the local people became very homesick. Indigenous people from other states have stayed longer, some for up to two and three years."A success story has been the letting of a hole capping contract to three workers from Yuendumu. The holes are left over from past exploration, some up to 20 years old. They are only 150mm wide but 100 metres deep and are an environmental hazard, particularly to animals."The contractors supply their own truck and we pay them per hole. They've been very efficient and have made a fair amount of money from the contract," says Mr Hastie.


Kumanjayi's Country
By Bill Williams,
CQU Press (Outback Books), 250pp
A kaleidoscopic story of events over a hot weekend which touch many of the inhabitants of an Aboriginal community in the Gibson Desert: a daunting undertaking convincingly pulled off by Bill Williams, whose day job as a doctor has taken him into the western desert region of Central Australia over much of the last decade.It was with a sigh of relief that I realised that Williams' novel, Kumanjayi's Country, is not about a whitefeller "finding himself" through his introduction to Aboriginal culture. Indeed, it takes a satirical poke at the more ludicrous of such endeavours.The aptly named community of Lake Vertigo is imaginary, but Williams' imagination is unmistakably fed by relevant rich personal experience, and here, a second sigh of relief: the novel isn't a sensational, warts and all with an emphasis on the warts, account; nor, on the other hand, does it attempt to idealise Aboriginal people.The novel is driven by its story-telling, in the process becoming a vivid, often hilarious and at times shocking as well as moving portrait of a community which is predominantly Aboriginal and on Aboriginal land, but where non-Aboriginal people too are living a life. The story Williams has to tell takes him into possibly controversial territory, as he fictionalises a "Dreaming" landscape and seeks to evoke it subjectively, as seen and felt by the beholder, in a number of beautifully written passages.On this Williams told the Alice News: "I don't think there is a problem with this as long as you make it clear that you are telling a made up story."I'm not revealing any sacred knowledge or knowledge that is not in the public domain, that you can read in books in libraries."I'm conscious that I'm yet another whitefeller writing about an Aboriginal community, but if I can't do that, that creates a huge ‘no go' zone in Australian literature, and I think it's better to build bridges, rather than walls."Williams says he talked about his novel to Aboriginal friends and acquaintances, and taped parts of it for them to listen to, but ultimately he's not asking for anyone's authorisation for his work."I'm owning it, and if there's something wrong, inaccurate or even insensitive, it's mine."The novel opens with the 14 year old Kumanjayi's escapade on an ill-trained camel, with friends Eliza and Miranda on board. They are the daughters of the white storekeepers and town clerk respectively.The camel dumps the girls a long way from Vertigo and makes off, with their food and much of their water still in the saddle bag.It's high summer in desert country. The landscape, dramatically alive, is described from the vantage point of Ikuluku (eagle). He remains in the sky, high above the girls, "sailing on the warm, swirling updraughts", as their dire predicament unfolds.All this is set up in two short chapters, and then we're in Vertigo where the girls' early morning exit has been observed by Harry Jakamarra.Here's how Vertigo is introduced."Even by the standards of Lake Vertigo, it had been a mad, bad night. The temperature had hardly dropped at all. And though old Harry Jakamarra could cope with the harsh climate, his pesky camp dogs had outdone themselves, accompanying a band of petrol- sniffers carousing in an abandoned laundry block nearby. A well- directed rock would usually discourage the dogs, but the sniffers were better left to their own devices."Straight away Williams has touched on a dramatic "dysfunction" that plagues many Aboriginal communities, but his approach remains matter of fact and he moves right along. (We don't come across sniffers again for quite some pages, although we do meet plenty of dogs, in particular two shrewd little numbers, Jojij and Whitey.) Williams' interest is in his characters and his story, in drawing the reader into its ordinary and not-so-ordinary human drama. The novel is not at all concerned with "problems and solutions".Kumanjayi is a strong and endearing character in a large ensemble. Likable others to stand off the pages with her are Ed Harris, senior nurse at the clinic – no saviour in a white uniform, indeed far from perfect, but someone who responds to people, doesn't see them as bodies and statistics. Less prominent but responsible for much of the novel's humour are Ed's off-sider, Jeremiah Jangala, Harry Jakamarra and the two Jungarrayis, Toyota Tom and Leftfoot."Problem solvers" are the target of Williams' sardonic eye: the roads around Vertigo were sealed by the Aboriginal Road System Enhancement and Upgrade Project. Its acronym is ARSEUP. It's a " new Government initiative under the Community Restoration and Planning Process": CRAPP.There's also the BOSS (Bush Operations and Sustainable Services), "the source of various novel lifestyle-aids for the unfortunate Aborigines".The BOSS has a live-in agent in Vertigo, Len McRae, "loved by visiting Consultants and Committees of Inquiry from Town" but " better known locally as a drunk and a bully." McRae is the most repulsive character in the book, and Williams' has great fun giving him his comeuppance.The Town Clerk, Malcolm Pickering, is also fairly repellent. He frankly loathes the community and its people, despite an interest (especially pecuniary) in Aboriginal art, anthropology and "crystals and shamans and Native American spirituality", and emotionally neglects his daughter to boot.This might sound like the white side of the community is stacked with baddies, but they easily meet their match in the vicious Moses Bullwinkle Japangati, who knifes his 17 year old wife in a "jealous fight", or Michael Jungurrayi, the irresponsible father of baby Maxie and bullying husband of Margaret, or the crazy, mixed-up Cassius (Kumanjayi's brother).A shared characteristic of all the "baddies", black and white, is their substance abuse: McRae keeps illegal stashes of grog in and around the community; Pickering is an analgesic addict, whose habit is shared and abetted by the Town Engineer and the Art Co-op manager; Moses and Michael are drunks whenever they can get hold of grog, while Cassius is a petrol-sniffer. There are also ordinarily not so nice and much nicer people on both "sides".Williams is a keen observer of the way people move, gesture and speak (in an irreligious mixture of Aboriginal languages, Aboriginal English and standard English) and of the subtle flow of interactions between them. He is particularly successful in evoking the dynamics of Aboriginal inter-relationship, by, for example, weaving through the novel a sub-story about a purloined axe, length of rope and billycan, which change hands countless times, with eventually only the billycan returning to its original owner.Also, things don't often happen to his Aboriginal characters on their own: there's always a mob (varied in makeup depending on their relationship to the person central to the event). The notable exception is Cassius, isolated by his destructive habit. Williams quite daringly tries to get inside his mind: we see not just "the sniffer" but a complex young man who still occasionally tries to do something good.Everyone survives the weekend in Vertigo: Kumanjayi's knowledge of the bush and Dreaming stories saves the girls; and the clinic staff are more or less effective in doing their job, rehydrating Maxie, and after initial misdiagnosis, saving Lucy, the stabbing victim.It wouldn't have suited the style of the novel to have a less optimistic outcome, but life at Vertigo is evinced as endlessly precarious, while at the same time as a lot more complex and at times rewarding than the mire of squalor and misery of the cliched "third world" images of news reports.Williams has had privileged access to a part of Australian life little known to the vast majority of its inhabitants, and has the writer's skills to picture it richly. (A glossary of Aboriginal terms and a list of characters help overcome one's initial lack of familiarity with the terrain).I for one will look forward to the sequel which, he says, is "bursting to be written".

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