November 30, 2005. This page contains all major reports and comment pieces in the current edition.


CLP Senator Nigel Scullion says a push by Alice Springs aldermen to suspend the process of transferring national parks to Aboriginal ownership "may well be the trigger to do something" about the issue.
"Let's work out how to best achieve it."
Senator Scullion says Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Amanda Vanstone had "inherited" a deal between her predecessor, Philip Ruddock, and NT Chief Minister Clare Martin, for a change to the Federal Land Rights Act so the handover could go ahead.
"The agreement was made on the understanding that there is consensus in the Territory on this issue," says Senator Scullion.
"There is no consensus and so there would be no breach of undertaking" if the deal were called off.
The Alice alderman spearheading the push, Melanie van Haaren, went to Canberra on Monday hoping to see Senator Vanstone.
It's understood Ald van Haaren will seek a change to the Land Rights Act plugging a loophole which may allow Aboriginal land claims over the parks, mainly in Central Australia and including the West MacDonnells, the "crown jewels" of the tourism industry (see special reports starting on page 9).
Meanwhile Ald Murray Stewart - one of six aldermen calling for a moratorium on the process, says there "was never any meaningful consultation about it. There is no other option than to hold the process until the Federal Government conducts its own formal consultation."
He says the process is relying on Federal legislation and Canberra should not relinquish control over how it is used.
"It's an intricate process that needs to be fully understood by public."
The Commonwealth "needs to be totally across possible intended and unintended consequences of any handover," says Ald Stewart.


The future of Territory national parks will soon be decided in Federal Parliament, where Aboriginal Affairs Minister Amanda Vanstone has - at least - two options.
One is to grant the wish of NT Chief Minister Clare Martin who wants an amendment the Land Rights Act, so that her government can hand ownership of all national parks in Central Australia, including the West MacDonnells, to Aboriginal people.
The second option is that the Senator introduces amendments guaranteeing the parks remain in public ownership.
She would need to do this by closing an inadvertently created legal loophole which may expose the parks to Aboriginal land claims, with the possible result that the parks cease to exist.
Option two wouldn't please Ms Martin, but neither did Federal legislation a few weeks ago prohibiting any Territory action to frustrate the setting up of a nuclear waste dump.
Judging by what's being said by a big majority of local town council aldermen, and all of the Country Liberal Party Opposition, locals want to keep owning their parks.
Is the Commonwealth going to make two decisions in a row that fly in the face of Central Australia's people?
The problem started when the High Court, in the Ward Decision in 2002, judged the declaration of the Keep River National Park to have been invalid. That meant that the declaration of 48 other parks may have been invalid as well.
The Territory Country Liberal Party government created the Conservation Land Corporation to become the owner, in 1984, of the Territory's national parks.
Under NT law the corporation could not own land to which anyone other than the Territory, or the corporation itself, held a "right, title or interest".
At the time the parks were transferred to the new corporation, there was no official knowledge about Aboriginal native title rights.
They were recognised much later in the 1992 Mabo High Court decision.
However, native title rights, now acknowledged to have always existed, could influence land management actions before Mabo, if they occurred after the enactment of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.
In logic the layman may find difficult to understand, the accepted legal view now is that the creation of the Racial Discrimination Act should have made it obvious to all of us that native title rights existed and would be recognised by the High Court 17 years later.
And this is at the nub of the parks problems: because of native title - still unknown at the time - the Territory and the Conservation Land Corporation may not have been the only ones to have an interest in the parks.
A native title holder may also have had an interest, and that would made void the declaration of the park in question.
It would then revert to vacant Crown Land and as such become available for a land rights claim.
All things being equal, the Ward Decision would have mattered little to the present fate of the parks, because land claims under the Land Rights Act had a 1996 sunset clause.
However, a former Central Land Council lawyer, acting on a hunch just days before the sunset deadline, placed land claims on 11 parks in The Centre, including the West Macs, Emily and Jessie Gaps, Arltunga, N'dhala, Trephina and Finke Gorge - the crown jewels of Central Australia's tourism industry.
These claims have not been heard by the Aboriginal Land Commissioner because until the Ward Decision, the parks were believed to have been declared properly and as such immune from claims.
The commissioner has no power to strike out these claims - so they've been in limbo ever since.
But now the lawyer's extraordinary legal foresight has become the crux of the parks wrangle: wherever native title interests could be proven the way may become clear for hearing the land claims he was responsible for lodging.
If granted the park in question would become Aboriginal freehold, and the Aboriginal owners would have the right to deny access.
End of the park.

The parks transfer of ownership with a 99 year lease-back wouldn't be the end of the world, says a well informed observer who wished to remain anonymous.
In effect the NT will have ownership of the parks for 99 years, albeit with joint management.
There is a guarantee that public access will remain free of fees and permits.
The observer says three quarters of London's CBD is under 99 year leases, a form of title which in Australia, too, is seen as de facto freehold.
The only problem is that at the end of the 99 years, according to the proposed parks legislation, "the parties to the lease must negotiate in good faith for the renewal of the lease". That's pretty meaningless.
The proposed land title will be a "registered title", much stronger than a commercial lease.
It will be on the title of land register, and that can be changed only with the consent of the Territory.
On the other hand, in Hong Kong the lessor (the People's Republic of China) called in the lease.
Could it happen here? Who knows.
If the policy is implemented the parks master plan will have the weight of law, and it contains safeguards against "maniacs on the board of management", says the observer.
He thinks threats to the public enjoyment of the parks are more likely to come from environmental zealots, than from Aborigines because they may develop a growing interest in making money from concessions.
In fact, the NT Parks and Reserves (Framework for the Future) Act says "the lessee [that's the NT Government] must give preference to the participation of the traditional Aboriginal owners of the park or reserve in any commercial activities conducted under the lease".
Whatever the case, 99 years is a long time and significant changes are inevitable.

Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Amanda Vanstone has said she will be guided by the elected government in the NT in her actions dealing with the parks issues.
She has also said she's been assured by the Martin Government that its decisions are based on "extensive consultation".
As the latter is complete fabrication, judging by the opinion of the majority of the Alice Town Council, and plenty of other evidence, the former is a risky business.
The council asked for information on the parks policies and got a briefing on the parks master plan.
This is a nifty pea and thimble trick: the master plan is based on the prior decision to hand over the parks, rather than embarking on the legislative opportunities making the handover unnecessary.
And that is a decision about which the Martin government isn't answering any questions.
This newspaper has ample evidence of that.
Since August, when the parks issues were heading into the end game stage, we've asked dozens of questions and got no replies.
We were the only medium to attend a press briefing on the master plan. Same deal: when we asked about the underlying policies we were told these questions needed to be addressed to the politicians. But they weren't talking and still aren't.
Defenders of the policies will says a pamphlet was circulated to all households about two years ago.
People I asked can't remember getting that pamphlet, let alone reading it.
NT Government minders and Native Title Tribunal staff constantly refer to the "frequently asked questions" on the NT Government web site.
It's a classic example of consultation, Clare Martin style: these are the questions you can ask, these are the answers, and now go to your room.
Ms Martin and parks minister Marion Scrymgour have declined requests from the Alice News to be interviewed on the matters requiring explanation.
This brick wall of silence has trapped the hapless Opposition in a Catch 22 situation before the June election: because the government wasn't talking to the media about the parks, the media were by and large silent on the subject.
And so, in true style of shooting the messenger, the Opposition is blaming the media for the issue "not getting up".
That the Opposition was at the same time running full page adverts about a harebrained electricity scheme seems to be overlooked.
All the doomed Denis Burke said during the campaign was that he didn't want to have a brawl with Aborigines.
Last week the government replied in a four page letter to questions from Alderman Melanie van Haaren.
But the reply hardly goes beyond the blurbs on the net.
For example: Who are the claimants and what are they claiming?
Answer: They are "Aboriginals claiming to be traditional Aboriginal owners".
The claims were made 10 years ago. Are the claimants still alive? Could they possibly have changed their minds? Has the government spoken to them to see if a deal can be struck? No answers.
If the original claimants are no longer available, would that be the end of the claim? Can claims be "inherited"?
Remember, the sunset clause of the Land Rights Act prevents new claims.
Which native title rights have been extinguished in the parks? Only a general answer.
The blurbs frequently refer to excessive cost of land rights and native title litigation ("the costs of resolving all these issues through the courts would be prohibitively expensive for Territory taxpayers") - but never give figures.
Why can't we place the cost of providing proof of who owns what on the claimants, and let the Native Title Tribunal be the judge in the matter?

While legal measures apparently can't protect public ownership of national parks, political ones certainly can, and there are several arguments for such a course of action.
Thirty years ago the Commonwealth introduced in the Territory the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act 1976.
As with the nuclear dump this year, Canberra didn't have the bottle to impose Land Rights legislation on any of the states: for example, the Commonwealth quickly chickened out in WA when the mining industry rattled its sabres.
It wasn't until the advent of native title that Aboriginal rights could be pursued on an equal footing across the nation.
Before the sun set on the right to claim land in the Territory, more than half its land mass had come under Aboriginal ownership.
Successive conservative Country Liberal Party (CLP) governments in the Territory spent many millions fighting the claims in the courts, mostly without success.
The community was polarised: supporters of Land Rights saw it as a major strategy to end poverty and disadvantage, to right old wrongs.
Opponents urged the CLP to stem the "black tide".
The Conservation Land Corporation and the NT Land Corporation were two devices to remove land from black claims.
But by the time the current parks wrangle erupted, 30 years after Land Rights became law, we had learned many lessons.
For example, Aboriginal land ownership, at least in its present form, has not delivered the promised and desperately needed improvements to the lives of Indigenous people.
Why should handing over the parks, as proposed by the Martin government, make a difference?
The Central Land Council (CLC) has become increasingly opaque, incapable of generating any meaningful economic development on Aboriginal land, failing to end the heart-wrenching misery in the bush, while amassing vast assets in a private company, funded by oil, gas and mining royalties.
The CLC would have substantial powers under the parks regime proposed by the government.
Where is the track record suggesting that this may be a good thing?
Claims that Aboriginal parks management is successful are usually based on Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge).
There are no examples in The Centre: the massive Ayers Rock resort has no black workers among its 1500-odd employees, neither have King's Canyon (part-owned by Aborigines) nor Glen Helen (fully-owned).
In 2001 sick of a quarter of a century of Country Liberal Party arrogance and secrecy, the people of the NT had voted in a Labor government campaigning on transparency and openness.
Yet that same Labor government is proceeding with its parks policies in almost total secrecy.
What's more, Ms Martin's government fared badly in Alice Springs in the June election, failing to change the composition of seats, and bombing out with its high profile candidate in Greatorex, Mayor Fran Kilgariff, despite an unprecedented effort to promote her.
On the other hand, Labor is in debt to Aboriginal interests for the party's strong showing in the bush.
Alice Springs would be the principal victim of the parks handover scheme because most of the affected parks, the mainstay of the town's economy, are in The Centre, not the Top End.
Over the past 30 years there have been countless attempts by Territory governments to bring about improvements to the federal Land Rights Act.
These attempts were foiled, either because a Labor government was in power in Canberra, or a conservative government couldn't get changes through the Senate - a fact constantly used by coalition governments as an excuse for doing nothing at all.
Now, of course, the Howard government has control over both houses of Parliament and land rights reforms are finally under way.
There would be an easy case to make that any attempt by the land councils to exploit the legal loophole uncovered by the Ward Decision would be a cynical, exceedingly hostile move, flying in the face of overwhelming public desire to keep the parks in the hands of the public which, of course, includes Aboriginal people.
Matters of grave public interest must be the trigger to political action - or our democracy is worth nothing. Most do argue that Senator Vanstone should move to close the loophole.

The NT Government has already passed the Parks and Reserves (Framework for the Future) Act.
This was done in anticipation of the Commonwealth passing amendments to the Land Rights Act for the new scheme to go ahead, including the handover of parks ownership to Aborigines.
These are some of the provisions:-
The [Park Land] Trust may grant, transfer or surrender an estate or interest in the land to any person for any purpose, but only at the written direction of the Land Council for the Trust. (This gives the land councils a significant role.)
The lease must not extinguish native title rights or interests.
The lease must permit the grant ... of part of the land ... for the purposes of an Aboriginal community living area in accordance with the joint management agreement for the park or reserve. (How many living areas? Where?)
The Chief Minister needs to arrange "compensation for the effect of the declaration ... and use of those parks and reserves on native title rights and interests". (How much compensation?)


Central Australia's pastoral industry has had one of its quietest years in decades because of the lack of rainfall.
Experts believe the industry suffered a 15 to 20 per cent drop in numbers of cattle, and will take 18 months to two years to recover.
The cattle yard sales at Roe Creek which usually happen up to six times a year were all cancelled, as were the cattle and bull sales at the Alice Springs Show (for only the second time in the history of the show).
But stations say it won't affect them long-term because they are well used to this sort of ebb and flow in their industry. This is because most stations in the region are family-owned and pastoralists take a long-term approach to business by allowing for the unstable weather of Central Australia.
"The turnoff [slaughtering] of cattle during the first six or eight months of the year because of lack of rain has slowed us down," explains Doc Cunningham, who has been in the industry for 35 years. He's currently a cattle buyer for Murray Bridge-based company T & R Pastoral.
"We didn't have the opening rains in December and January and February and had a sort of mini drought really. Pastoralists had to hold out. They might have moved a few store cattle but it was fairly quiet.
"There have been a few cattle moving in the last couple of months because of the rains which came in September but most pastoralists will hold off until early next year to move on trucking cattle.
"We'll have a fairly quiet Christmas and new year.
"But our producers will breed back up again. It won't damage the industry long-term.
"They're here for the long haul, it's part and parcel of living in Central Australia."
The cattle industry is Central Australia's third largest - a 20th of the size of mining and tourism, and worth between $50 and $60m a year to Alice Springs. Up until 20 years ago it was Alice's biggest industry - in fact, the town was built around that industry.
These days, even though its economic value is lower, Mr Cunningham say it still makes a vital contribution both economically and socially.
"It's a well-regarded industry and always will be. There have always been good relationships between pastoralists and the town.
"The bush sports day that was held last month is a good move. The town people really enjoy that and it will bring people even closer and can only be good for the industry."
Mr Cunningham forecasts a bright future for the cattle growers in Central Australia. "We're in a healthy position for the next three to five years.
"I can't see it dying away. The pastoralists are very committed to moving in one direction - forward. And we have a very strong cattle lobby group, the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association, which is doing a fantastic job of pushing the industry in the Northern Territory and in Australia as a whole.
"We're seeing a wave of the new generation of pastoralists on a lot of properties. An eagerness of skilled young people of around 25 and 30 years born and bred on stations to take over."
He says unlike in the south of Australia where younger people are turning away from farming, there's a pride and keenness within younger members of the family to take over properties here, with more women becoming more hands-on in the fields over the past 30 years.
"Most station women are the accountants but they're also out in the paddocks helping. They've got to - there are less people wanting to work out there."
Recruitment for general station hands is a difficulty, as recruitment is for most businesses in town.
"It's an issue plaguing everybody and something we have to look hard at," says Mr Cunningham.
"Kids can go into town [Alice Springs] and earn twice as much money for doing the same hours.
"We need to promote ourselves through the cattle industry Australia-wide to attract more workers into the pastoral areas of the Territory."
An award wage is set for station hands, and Mr Cunningham says most stations will meet the award wage or pay above it.
He gets regular telephone calls from people interstate with sons who are keen to find work in Central Australia. He helps place up to 10 people a year on a station according to their skills (training, carried out at Roe Creek cattle yards, can also be done through Charles Darwin University). But it's not enough to keep up with the demand.
"We need to advertise through the industry or interstate to help attract more people up here.
"If you've got the right attitude, you'll always find a job on a station. Country people are usually more successful at staying out here, city people find it harder to adapt. You have to love the lifestyle."
Mr Cunningham explains that station owners are being forced to adapt to not having enough staff - neighbours are helping each other out more, and stations are constructing paddocks and laneways between bores to make moving cattle easier with less labour.
The biggest change in the industry over the last two or three years has been the market demand for younger cattle, says Mr Cunningham.
"Traditionally Central Australia was a bullock growing area [full-grown steers] but now pastoralists are marketing their younger cattle [zero and two teeth cattle - cattle are sold on how many teeth they have rather than their type] into southern and eastern feed lots. Processing companies [like Coles, Woolworths and Safeway] are paying more cents per kilo for younger cattle to go into feed lots.
"It's resulted in a financial increase for the farmers."
At the feed lots cattle are fed grain for 100 to 120 days until they're a certain weight before they're sold. Japan, Korea and US demand a certain weight of animals for export - those which don't make this weight are sold to the domestic market.


A Justice Department officer denies having attempted to persuade Steven Hanley, the estranged husband of MacDonnell MLA Alison Anderson, to make untrue statements about alleged election bribes.
Tom Anderson, Solicitor for the NT, has written to the Alice Springs News saying the officer, Allan van Zyl, was earlier this year investigating dealings of the Papunya store, whose manager at the time was Mr Hanley, including purchases and sales of second-hand goods.
Mr Hanley later alleged he had, upon request from Ms Anderson, given as gifts goods to people in the community, in the run-up to the Territory elections in June.
Ms Anderson, a leading figure in Papunya, was the Labor candidate for MacDonnell, a seat held at that time by the CLP's John Elferink.
Mr Hanley claimed he was later being pressured to make a statement saying all the goods had been sold by the store, and none had been given away (Alice News, Nov 23).
Mr Anderson says in his letter to the News: "As at 1 September 2005, Mr van Zyl was unaware of Mr Hanley's allegations concerning gifts allegedly made on behalf of his wife.
"Mr van Zyl has had no contact with Mr Hanley since their discussion of 24 August 2005 [about the sale of second-hand goods].
"Mr van Zyl did not draft the type written document published by you [the Alice Springs News] on 23 November 2005.
"He believes it was written by or on behalf of Mr Hanley."
Mr Anderson says Mr van Zyl had "ascertained" that Mr Hanley "was often assisted by a close friend, Mr Scott O'Connell," the former CEO of the neighboring Haasts Bluff Community Council.
Mr Anderson's letter says: "On 1 September 2005 ... Mr O'Connell informed Mr van Zyl that Mr Hanley wanted to finalise the matter of his request for written confirmation of the disposal of the second hand goods that day."
Mr O'Connell told Mr van Zyl he had emailed him "Mr Hanley's written confirmation" saying "these items were sold on behalf of the Papunya Social Club".
The letter forwarded by Mr O'Connell ended "Steve Hanley, Manager, Papunya Social Club" but did not carry Mr Hanley's signature.
UNTRUE Mr Hanley says he didn't sign the note because statements in it were untrue.
The Alice News has now put the following questions to Mr van Zyl:-
Why did he not deal direct with Mr Hanley, who is dyslexic but has excellent oral communication skills, rather than through Mr O'Connell?
Was Mr van Zyl, dealing with allegations that draw into question the fitness for office of a Member of Parliament, relying on hearsay and second-hand information?
Why did Mr van Zyl, who is Darwin-based, but no doubt has access to a number of NT public servants in Alice Springs, deal through an outside intermediary?
Given that the statements in the letter obtained by Mr van Zyl are described as untrue by its supposed author, Mr Hanley, where does that leave Mr van Zyl's investigation of the alleged election bribes?
Mr O'Connell did not respond to a request for comment.


Arriving in Alice Springs in 1997, Maggie Kanaan had left behind war-torn Albania where she'd lived for eight years with her husband, Egyptian-born Said Kanaan, and their children.
She has also lived in Greece and Wales but grew up in Tasmania.
She has worked in a variety of occupations, including special education, and is currently studying for a Master of Letters with Macquarie University.
With her fiction writing she says she's a "late starter", but her first piece, "Bread for the Devil", set in Albania, was a runner up in the 2004 Hal Porter Short Story Contest.

"Could I call this alien world home or should I call it quits?" wonders the speaker in one of our winning stories.
This theme, with variations, is a common thread to many entries in this year's competition, particularly among the short stories.
For this speaker, as for many of the others, the answer comes from the land. As in last year's competition, the land is often far more than a setting for our poets and fiction writers; it becomes an actor in the lives and events they evoke.
Last year there was often an association of the land with suffering or threat. This year, although that association is sometimes present, there is also frequently a strong association with the land as nurturer. In this group sometimes the speakers have moved away and come back, realising that here in Central Australia is where they want to be: they come 'home'.
Far more rare among the entries - and welcome - is the assertion of belonging, where there is no pull from another place, no ambivalence, where this place is "my place".
The Alice Springs News hopes to bring readers a range of this writing in our summer editions, but for now let us turn to the "best of the best".
Winner of the short story competition and of $1000 from the Alice News is Maggie Kanaan for "Digging to China", which we publish in this issue. The themes mentioned are recognizable here but take second place to vivid story-telling. Particularly commendable is Kanaan's deft evocation of another era.
Peta Miller is in second place with "Salt", and it's her character quoted above. She finds a compelling way to answer her character's question. We'll bring you this story next week. She wins dining and fine wining at The Lane to the value of $720.
Third place goes to Meg Mooney known to many in the Centre for her poetry and nature writing, several samples of which have been published in the Alice News. This year she has also published a volume of poetry "For the dry country" in collaboration with artist Sally Mumford. With her story "Getting out of the darkroom" she is in familiar terrain, on a bush community, telling a story of cross-cultural misunderstanding. It will be published in our issue of December 14, winning Mooney a cash prize from Asprint of $250.
New to the competition this year, "best poem with a Central Australian theme" has been awarded to Leni Shilton for "Utopia", a lovely example of the land as nurturer theme. It will be published next week. Shilton won third place in last year's competition for her story "Sista". For "Utopia" she wins books from Dymocks Booksellers to the value of $360.
The Alice News thanks our judges, longtime Alice resident and fantasy author Jennifer Fallon and head of English at St Philip's College Al Strangeways, for their time and expertise. Some of their comments on the entries are reproduced below.
The News also thanks our sponsors, The Lane, Asprint, and Dymocks Booksellers, for making possible additional awards in the competition.
And finally, we warmly congratulate our winners.
Jennifer Fallon sums up the qualities of the winning short story entries:-
The winning story, "Digging to China", was a standout entry, and easily the unanimous choice of the judges.
Well written, well plotted and engrossing, it conjures a vision of an Alice Springs long gone, capturing a time in history when childhood innocence was something to be celebrated, even when it ultimately leads to tragedy. In a story that could easily have turned maudlin, the author manages to convey both the joy and the tragedy of a pivotal event in the lives of an Alice Springs family.
The second place winner, "Salt", suggests a very different mood, telling the story of a hunter through the eyes and the imagination of the narrator as he takes a "short cut" across the Tanami. Although a little verbose at times, the story is tight, well told and evocative, linking the traveller in his 4WD with the imagined hunter who has left nothing but his tracks in the salt plans to bear witness to his tale.
Third place was awarded to the story, "Getting out of the darkroom". This tale tells of the relationship between a rather disillusioned school assistant and her Aboriginal offsider on a remote community. The story is told with a raw honesty that highlights the inability of the character to connect with the people on the community. Even at the very end, when she leaves to head back into town, she is still unable to think of anything to say to her co-worker of several years, Patrick. As its title says, the story brings out of the darkroom, the dark underbelly of a relationship where neither side ever truly understands the other, or ironically, even realises that they don't understand. Al Strangeways, head of English at St Philip's College, gives the following general advice:-
Many of the stories would have shone more strongly with more rigorous editing.
While most [in the short-list] opened very strongly, a number were weakened by endings that explicitly hammered home the 'meaning' of the story, suggesting a lack of confidence by the author in the key idea conveyed.
Some of the stories would also have benefited from more rigorous cutting of passages within the text, to strengthen the focus and direction of the story:
Cutting for consistency in style: Some seemed to be trying to be several different kinds of stories all at the same time (part travelogue, part vivid evocation of an individual's conflicts, for example). While this sort of thing can work in a longer text, the nature of short story is its single-mindedness; there is simply not the space to develop more than one main 'thing'.
Cutting inessential characters: some would have benefited from the removal of characters not essential to the thrust of the story, the moment of realization, recognition or change that is the climax. Perhaps looking at the text more as if it were a prose poem, with all a poem's strictness of exclusion, rather than a short novel, might help here.
Cutting inessential incidents: the third kind of cutting involves the cutting of minor incidents, either in the story itself or the description of background 'information', that detract from the forward thrust of the narrative and don't directly contribute something to the reader's engagement with the central character and the situation in which they find themselves.
To conclude, anticlimactically and perhaps tritely, less is most definitely more: just as in a pencil drawing, the blank spaces of things that haven't been included are as meaningful as the lines.

THE WINNING STORY: "Digging to China"
I always remember the summer Petey said he was going to China. That year Petey said lots of things which meant nothing: one day he would run away from home and join the carnival; he'd burn down old Mr Proctor's chook pen and sacrifice the hens; when his hands got bigger he would learn guitar and become a famous rock and roll singer. Petey also said he would dig a hole; he would dig his hole all the way to China.
Petey was ten in 1958, two years older than me, Toby, his brother. I idolised Petey; we did everything together. Mum said we should have been twins.
"Yeh, twin trouble makers more like it," Dad added. But he regularly sided with us when push came to shove. "Aw, lay off the boys Phyllis. They're only young once."
Dad worked out bush somewhere near Alice Springs, repairing railway tracks, coming home every second weekend, and Mum said, "What a blessing because he only turns up to get drunk anyway and then give me hell."
When Dad was home, Petey and I bet marbles on who would sleep on the old brown sofa in the lounge, drunken Dad or angry Mum. It usually depended on how belligerent Dad got, where he passed out, or if Mum managed to manoeuvre his shoes off and get him comfy on the couch first. They argued a lot as we were growing up. I rarely saw them hug or laugh together, but there must have been moments of closeness because Glenda came along four years after me.
I liked lots of things about my Dad: the way he hefted me on his shoulders and ran hooting around the yard; fantastical stories from out bush that made us shriek with laughter; his whiskery, ginger beard before he shaved and yes, the shaving also, a soapy ritual of lather and scrape which I attempted to emulate in the little cracked mirror in the wash house.
But it was Mum who held my heart: all curves and softness with a halo of blonde, curly, shimmering hair, as if sunshine itself lodged among the troughs and ridges. Long months of the same sunshine had also abraded away her creamy English complexion, depositing a map of tiny lines meandering through golden freckles, and frequent smiles had become dry furrows fanning out from the corners of her eyes, because there was no money back then for Nivea cream or face-shading raffia hats. Poor Mum, a hard outback life had walked her smack up against a closed door where dreams and frivolities could only be glimpsed through a narrow keyhole. But with Mum it was the whole canvas of her being you saw, not individual brush strokes or colours. She was my angel!
I guess it was the lantern that started it, this China thing. Petey and I scraped up every penny to buy that paper lantern and excitedly presented it to our angel on Mother's Day.
"Oh beautiful! A real Chinese lantern. Just what I always wanted."
Mum hung it over the kitchen table where it caught the light and any breeze which accidentally manifested itself through the screen door.
It had been by sheer chance we discovered that lantern. Several times a year, rattling and tooting its way into the Alice, came a magical treasure truck presided over by itinerant Chinese pedlar Harry Ah Lee.
"Don't buy from that thieving bugger, Phyllis," Dad warned Mum, "he'll rob you blind. I'll send to Adelaide for stuff you need."
Just another of his empty promises. So Mum kept queuing with the other wives also waiting to be robbed blind.
Once when Harry was busy measuring off lengths of meretricious cotton fabric, we snuck into his truck, scrambling among boxes of gaudy red banners and bundles of exotic joss sticks that smelt like the Catholic Church and made my nose itch. What's that? My breath whistled out with a soft "aaah". It dazzled from the truck roof with red and gold splendour, its tiny applied mirrors glinting and reflecting an aura of colours, a hanging woven tassel completing the exotic vision. I had to have it.
"That lantern costing you boy two shilling."
"It would take forever to save that much, mister."
"I come back in two month; maybe you save all pennies till then."
Bang! The truck door swung shut on my lantern.
"Miserable old cuss," Petey moaned, but we saved "all pennies", Mum got her lantern and Petey got his crazy idea.
Ideas always flowed best for us in the chook pen where lengthy planning afternoons were spent in company of leghorn chooks that clucked and scratched around us, releasing waves of fetid odours from rotting straw and manure. Petey would sit for hours poking sticks at red back spiders, tormenting them until their bodies' pulsed orange and they scuttled behind the laying boxes.
"Hey Petey, Dad said if you leave a chook alone it can live for 30 years."
Holding a length of wire like a spear, Petey impaled a fat black cockroach, laughing as its spindly legs and feelers waved helplessly in mid-air.
"Shut up Toby, I'm thinking."
His thinking often involved grabbing the closest squawking chook, holding its head flat on the ground and drawing his finger slowly away from its eyes until the poor unfortunate creature lay mesmerised amongst the droppings and potato peels. We called that hypnotism; Mum called it cruelty and clipped us around the ears.
"I think we should go to China. If we dig straight down I reckon we should get there in about three weeks."
A hypnotised chook lay beside me as a silent witness.
"My geography teacher said it's on the other side of the world. You can't dig there."
"That's a damn lie!"
"Mum's going to soap your mouth for that word."
"Shut up Toby!"

A natural deep depression under huge boulders on the hill near home was chosen for the entrance, well out of sight from any busybodies who might report back to Mum. Scraping away at the compacted dry earth with sticks and wire proved pretty futile; we needed something stronger, more suited to the task of reaching China. Old Mr Proctor next door had a shed full of tools so we figured he might like to lend us a few odds and ends.
"Get to buggery you young hooligans. You just leave those tools where they are."
A locked door couldn't stop us. One, two, and three we counted, then with a mighty shove the door flew back and we were in.
"Grab a shovel and pick and the metal bucket, Toby."
"Why does it always have to be me?"
We lugged the tools home and hid them under the verandah.
If Mum had found out what we were up to she would have killed us. Lots of places around town were out of bounds: Mr Proctor's chook pen, the pub on Friday afternoon, my sister's toys and any place with rocks or dirt. She sniffed danger out for us, spoiling any chance of adventure.
The tools were smuggled to the hole one night and hidden under branches and leaves. After school we dug, skinny arms working like pistons with pick and shovel, red dust filling our nostrils, stinging our eyes and frosting our bodies. We spat gritty, red saliva at each other, and any sweat produced created snaking lines down our ochre red faces. That's how we returned home every evening, filthy as quarry workers.
"You boys just keep out of the dirt," Mum complained bitterly. "Stop giving me so much washing."
Mum hated dirt. She drank tea with other mothers who also hated things and took turns complaining about the heat, cockroaches, loneliness, the heat, isolation stealing their plans for the future, and the heat.
"It's not so much the heat I hate, it's the insidious dirt; the dust on everything and in everything."
Mum would run fingers over a ledge for confirmation, holding them out for the others to see, to better illustrate her hatred.
She finally gave up insisting we bath every night before bed. Petey gave her a great spiel about water saving and cuts on his legs which stung, so most nights we got to smear the dirt over our bodies with a wet flannel and Velvet soap.
One lunchtime when our teacher was on yard duty, we snuck back into the class room to spin the huge globe of the world, a world which until recently held no interest for us whatsoever.
"Look Toby, here we are," Petey excitedly jabbed his finger at a land mass, "and there's China!"
"Holy cow!" China looked pretty big to me. "Which bit will we land in?"
"Shanghai. Or maybe even under the Great Wall of China," Petey declared with a hint of reverence, pointing it out on the globe.
My interest waned slightly after a few weeks of digging, but Petey's continued. His fervour frightened me as he lived and breathed China, asked questions on China in every lesson, even health. Standing in front of the mirror at home he would pull the corners of his eyes down and to the sides, giving him the appearance of the kids in 'Special Opportunity Class'. His "China eyes" they were called.
He even resorted to reading on his subject, causing some nosy kid to ask one day, "Hey, what ya studying Petey?"
"We're going to China, Shanghai actually," I announced with pride.
Petey hit me with his book. The girl laughed.
"You're stupid Toby! A shanghai is what you shoot yonnies with, every one knows that. Hey Eileen, these dumb boys reckon they're going to China."
"People walk on their heads there," Eileen sneered.
Here was a girl who obviously knew plenty about China, but Petey knew more.
"That's a damn lie. If they did, then their pigtails wouldn't hang straight down."
"Mum's going to soap your mouth for that word."
"Just shut up, Toby."
After weeks of digging, the hole reached quite alarming proportions, becoming more of a tight tunnel, and light fought to illuminate us as, bent forward, we dug and sweated and puffed our way into the bowels of the earth.
"This will take us to Tennant Creek instead of China," I pointed out to my brother. It seemed to be sloping more in than inclining down. "We need to alter the angle."
We altered the angle and piles of dirt altered the landscape around our excavations.

Mr Proctor discovered the busted shed door, then his missing tools. Mum tackled us.
"What were the tools for? What are you boys up to?"
"Why always blame me?" Petey assumed a hurt, self-righteous expression. "I bet it was some gardener bloke or an escaped convict or something."
Extra vigilance was obviously called for on the way to the hole so we took to retracing our steps or making a big show of collecting things from the ground, but one afternoon a voice came to us from the entrance.
"Whatcha doing in there, Toby?"
Whiney, snotty-nosed little Wendy who lived three doors down was peering at us.
"This is a hole to China."
"Just shut up, Toby!"
"I want to help." Whine. Grizzle. "Let me help."
"Buzz off or I'll send the Chinaman after you." Whack! Petey gave her a hard slap on the arm and told her to go play with our sister.
News spreads pretty fast when there isn't much of it. You couldn't take your secrets out of the boundaries of town; Alice Springs was a microcosm. Pretty soon we had an audience which grew daily and our dig resembled a school picnic. Eileen Evans strutted round giving explanations to late comers as they sat crunching Salada biscuits and marvelling at how close China must be getting, and sometimes a muffled voice would come to us through the gloom.
"Can ya see it yet?"
"Can youse breathe in there?"
Occasional showers of dislodged stones, followed by clouds of dust, sent us scurrying backwards for the entrance where drinks of water would be proffered by those kids anxious to be invited on the journey.
Every evening we presented our tired, dusty bodies to Mum who grew increasingly suspicious; she knew mischief stalked us; she knew we could find trouble where none had ever existed. The wooden spoon soon made its inevitable appearance. Eileen had blabbed to her Mum who went and blabbed to ours. We really copped it!
"What the hell were you thinking of?" Crack! Crack! "You've been told to keep away from," crack! "rocks and dirt."
I cried. Mum cried. My little sister cried. Petey ran outside and moaned his hurt and troubles to our cat until Mum called us for tea.
"I'm still damn well going!" my brother hissed in my ear at the table. "You can't waste a bloody marvellous hole like that."
Mum became our gaoler and really laid down the law: home straight after school; stay in the yard; help with dishes; play with Glenda and do homework until I wished I'd never heard of China. Petey just sulked in our room, practising his China eyes.
Wendy with her snotty nose strolled into our kitchen one afternoon and stood watching and sniffing as Mum mixed a concoction in a large Pyrex bowl. Shlop, shlop, shlop.
"What's in the bowl?" Sniffle. Sniffle.
"Go play with Glenda outside, dear."
Wendy stared at the wooden spoon beating its rhythm.
"Can't. The China mens took Glenda." Shlop, scrape, shlop.
"That's nice, dear."
"Then they shut up the door, and Glenda can't come out of the hole."
As if in slow motion the bowl and spoon fell to the floor. I stared transfixed at my mother's mouth forming a huge silent O in her freckled, sun-desiccated face. Then came the screaming. And the cat was lapping up the spilt pudding. The screaming went on and on but far away, like the radio playing next door. And the cat kept licking. I watched the cat and howled.

A large terracotta doll, that's what the paper said she looked like when she was released from the earth, a terracotta doll, caked all over with red dirt like that. They wrote how grown men wept, they described the bunches of white marguerites children placed by the barricade the men erected around the hole, but they didn't know to write about Petey burning the paper lantern or me wetting the bed every night for weeks.
We moved to East Gippsland that winter when Dad got work at a logging mill in Swifts Creek and Mum knitted us warm Fair Isle sweaters and complained non-stop about the cold and dirt. Dad and Mum cuddled each other and us two boys a lot, and I sometimes heard my Dad crying in the night. Well, I think it was him.
I'm back in Alice now and always think about that summer Petey said he was going to China. I can't remember who cleaned up the mess on the floor of our kitchen, but I still hear the screaming and the cat lapping, lapping.

LETTER: Dismay over Araluen's Sunday closure.

Sir,- It was with dismay and disappointment that I read the article "Budget starved Araluen forced to close Sundays" (Alice News, Nov 16).
Dismay that such a decision had to be taken and disappointment with the apparent inactiveness of NT Government Art Minister, Marion Scrymgour.
On August 4 I was one of a small group of "Friends" and concerned art-lovers who met with Minister Scrymgour to discuss our concerns over the static funding situation, and the problems that this was creating for Araluen - one of which was the possibility of having to close the centre on Sundays.
The Minister listened closely and seemed to take on board our concerns, assuring us that the matter would be looked into fully.
However, three months later, it has been announced that the centre will be forced to close on Sundays.
The Araluen Centre plays an incredibly important role in the cultural life of Alice Springs.
I believe any downgrading of its operations in terms of programs, hours or staffing etc will be viewed very seriously by the community.
The Martin government has acknowledged the importance of the Araluen Centre on many occasions and I sincerely hope that it backs these words with the commitment needed to maintain the Araluen Centre at least at its present level.
Iain Campbell
Alice Springs

Non-interacting backpackers. COLUMN by STEVE FISHER.

Backpacker tourism may be important to Central Australia but few of us have much interaction with backpackers.
We see them in the street, we wonder for an instant where they come from and then we return to whatever we were doing before, like rushing to the Yeperenye Centre to buy something that, in my case, I have to write on a piece of card because I can't remember what I wanted when I get there.
At times like these I yearn for freedom and adventure in the same way that I yearn for a 24 hour pedicure or a seven-day weekend.
But I know that the experience is better as a wish than it would be in reality.
Backpacking is the practice of dragging a large amount of luggage between accommodation and public transport.
It carries the constant fear that a bored local is about to over-charge you, when they're far too bored to even try. And backpacking requires the intrepid traveller to develop the kind of international accent that everyone you meet has a chance of understanding but makes you sound like a kindergarten teacher from the Planet Ogg.
Most of all, backpacking can become a headlong dash through a host of unconnected experiences. While you are having one of these special moments, you're already thinking about the next one.
During the camel trek to breakfast along the Todd, you start to work out how many days until you get to Uluru. When you reach the Rock, you become preoccupied with Cable Beach and whether the nudists there really are as exhibitionist and well-developed as you heard from those cheerful Dutch folk with the phoney international accents that you met last week. And so the constant fast-forwarding goes on. It isn't just backpacking that promotes a short attention span.
So do 57 channels with a remote control, broadband internet and the dubious benefits of text messages and calls that we somehow think we must answer straight away.
To escape from information overload, I once watched low-cost breakfast television in Sri Lanka. Shorn of the resources for proper reporters, the presenters took to reading aloud from newspapers while the camera peeped over their shoulder at paragraphs they had highlighted earlier using a fluorescent pen.
It was slow but strangely satisfying.
There's plenty of spiritual guidance available for those of us who lack concentration, but ever since someone tried to sell me a book about Christian weight loss, I have been choosey about the advice I accept.
I once had a friend who was a Buddhist.
He spent lots of time valuing the present moment. "Look around," he would say.
"Appreciate the smells, the textures and the experience of the here and now." But I was always too busy thinking about Saturday's football matches. The only time I don't look at my watch is in a cinema, and that's because I can't see the hands in the dark.
For a while, I worked hard to focus on the present. I tried to appreciate the brief time that I spent in Coober Pedy, for example. The pizza was good but the town made Alice Springs seem lush and green, so I hankered for the Alice.
I made an attempt to enjoy Ti Tree but it was late and I needed to go home. I tried to savour the company of an old friend, but was relieved when she left so that I could stop dredging up the past and feigning amusement at jokes from 1989.
Let's face it - if the present moment is uninspiring, then what lies around the corner will always seem more enticing.
If I was a backpacker with the world to choose from, I would probably find fleeting moments of adventure right here in Alice Springs.

Search for presents can frustrate. COLUMN by VIKTORIA CORMACK.

I have spent a lot of time in the last few days looking for the right birthday present for my youngest daughter.
She is at an age when birthdays and birthday parties are very important and everything has to be just so.
Last year I had no trouble at all finding her things and they were all appreciated but this year we've got a list. It makes it more complicated. When I look for gifts for friends and family I find I'm drawn to bookshops. Although, or maybe because, I was brought up in a bookshop I consider books superior presents. When I was a child it was a different story. Instead of hard, flat and square presents I wanted oddly shaped or soft presents.
As an adult I've found I tend to give people the books I would like to read or books that I think might suit them or what they are going through.
Every year I give my husband a book. While he never reads them, I invariably enjoy them very much. My brother once gave our granddad a packet of bicycle valve rubbers for Christmas, not because granddad needed them for himself but so that he would have some in the shed for when my brother needed his bicycle fixed.
In our choice of gifts we may be projecting our own needs and wants on others, but we also want to give something of ourselves and to share our view of the world with those we care about. It is hard not to feel a little bit put out when what you've given is not appreciated, because it is personal, and we want to be accepted and understood.
In many of the choices we make in life it is important that we feel that we've got other people's approval. If you like whatever it may be that you've chosen it should be good enough, but it isn't.
I have noticed how sensitive I am when it comes to discussing my choice to live in Alice Springs. The friends and family I have around the country and the world don't quite understand or approve of this choice and on some levels it hurts.
By contrast appreciation of this place is something I have in common with most people who live here. Not surprisingly I think many people from the Alice are kindred spirits. We have chosen the same thing.
This choice to stay is not an accident even if we ended up in this particular spot by accident. There is something that resonates with who we are in a place that we like and also something which is accepting of us. I like to be close to the ground and the natural elements but at the same time be surrounded by endless sky.
The problem with finding the perfect gift for someone, especially someone who is very important to you, is that the gift has to be a sign of connection, of understanding and a common bond. It makes buying presents a difficult task and we might understandably resort to gift vouchers and other safe options.
In searching for a present for my daughter I'm looking for something that will convey my love for her, show her something of who I am, as well giving her the message that I understand and accept her.
Material things should not be given too much importance but they may provide a symbolic bridge for the things we fail to find other ways of expressing. We just need to know that somebody cares about us, that we are visible and that we matter. Like my mum always says, it is the thought that counts, but try telling that to a six year old!

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