A slippery reality

Driving out to remote communities is always an adventurous experience, particularly after a good dose of rain. Last week was no exception as a friend, her sister and I got into a hired 4WD ute and raced out to Ampilatwatja, a 320km trip up the Sandover Highway from Mparntwe/Alice Springs. Bad music; bogs, puddles, mud flying everywhere; slipping and sliding across the red sand – the trip had it all.

We drove out with a video camera to film events taking place the following day. One was a meeting that was happening in the community, the other was evidence that the Barkly Shire Council had dumped 3000 litres of raw sewage in the tip. Sewage that was still, almost a week later, sitting there exposed to the sun and the rain. Sitting there for the dogs to play and roll around in. Sitting there for people to get sick, just like a contractor the Barkly Shire Council hired had become.

The sad thing is that this was not the first time that sewage had become a problem at Ampilatwatja. Around this time last year, it was brought to the attention of the media that septic tanks were leaking throughout the community and some people were walking through sewage in their houses.

In fact it was in part the inactivity of the Government – all three tiers of it, Barkly Shire, NT Government, Federal – to do something about this that inspired and lead to the walk-off by members of the community and the establishment of the protest camp at Honeymoon Bore, just outside the community. The camp has gotten much attention in the last few months because they built a house there with the help of some of the unions.

It was there that we stopped that night and caught up with Richard Downs and the colleague who’d contacted me. After recounting our stories of bogs and terrible roads, the two of them filled us in on what had happened over the past few days. The sewage was still uncovered at the tip; dogs had been rolling in it and then returning to the community.

I mentioned the article about the dumping on ABC online. They said they’d seen it and were a little upset that neither Richard’s nor Mark’s – the local works manager and whistleblower – interviews were quoted from. Instead, the only voice being heard online was that of the Barkly Shire Council.

We chatted about the meeting the next day. About how there were at least 30 jobs that needed to be created in the community and another 30 traineeships to run beside those jobs. They informed us of how people on CDEP were working for the money on the Basics Card, and that the Barkly Shire Councils had hired a contractor from Tennant Creek to whipper snip the grass around the community. It was a job that workers from the community could easily have done. It was pointed out that in spite of what the Shire is saying to people in the community about there being no money for jobs, there is plenty of money out there.

That night I went to sleep thinking of the gap between radio and online media and became increasingly annoyed that Richard’s and Mark’s accounts of the events were cut out – annoyed that the only ‘on the record’ story is that of the Shire and not the voices from the community, as transcriptions of the radio interviews are not available on the ABC website.

The next morning we went into Ampilatwatja to film the dump. It didn’t smell as much as I’d expected, but it was a week later and by then it had dried out. But you could see it: patches of white and brown gunk caked to the red soil. When it occurred, it would have looked horrible.

As we drove into the community to interview Mark, we heard an ABC Radio interview with the acting CEO of the Barkly Shire Council. He said ‘he was 99.99% certain that the sewerage problem had been dealt with last Friday and he was just waiting for confirmation.’ The four of us in the car rolled our eyes.

The interview had finished by the time we found Mark but we filled him in. He called through to ABC in Alice Springs and was told that they would call him back. We left Mark and headed to the community store to help with the meeting. Later, when I caught up with Mark, he said that the ABC never called back.

At the meeting, speaker after speaker stood, all of them passionate, all of them talking strongly in Alwayarr. As one old man puts it: ‘those whitefellas are getting big money. They come here and get $1000 a week. Young fellas here get paid on that green card’.

Mark informed the gathered crowd of how much outside contractors were getting paid and the story of the whipper snipper got told again.

The Government Business Manager (GBM), the person installed in the community as part of the Intervention to report back to the Government, sat nervously on the ground. When Richard addressed him personally, telling him that he must know that things were not right around there, that nothing was being done, his shoulders sank further.

Richard’s whole speech was passionate. He talked about the need for proper paid jobs on the community, the fear that the younger generation will leave to Tennant Creek or Alice Springs, the disgust that when a shelter and stand was built around the basketball court not one local person was working – the fact that working for Basic Card feels like the old ration days. At one point he kicked up the ground with his boot emphasising that it was that that they can’t lose, which was met with nods and shouts of agreement.

Later, I saw the GBM take a photo of the list of jobs the community wants created and I wondered if Richard had, in part, moved him into action.

After the meeting, we drove back to Alice. As the car slipped and slid down the road, my mind was hopeful, filled with the resilience and self-determination of the community of Ampilatwatja.

Scott Foyster

Scott Foyster lives in Mpartnwe/Alice Springs where he writes and collects stories to share. He is one of the editors of Wai, an independent quarterly national newspaper on social jusice and environmental issues around the country/region, and is also one half of Black Kite Press, an independent press that is currently working on it's first publication.

More by Scott Foyster ›

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  1. Thanks for the article. No one would ever dream of dumping sewerage at our local tip up here in the Yarra Valley and if they did the outrage would be all over ABC talk-back and on the front page of the Age. The situation you describe is appalling. Good luck to the community of Ampilatwatja – and let’s hope the GBM has the guts and fortitude to go against the grain.

  2. Great piece Scott, and good to see the story getting out beyond the disappointing ABC, where I first heard it. It’s a tragic situation and the fact that contractors are bought in to do basic jobs and getting paid heaps while locals do ‘other work’ for pretty much their basic card is bullshit. I have heard similar stories around other communities in the NT, whitefellas coming in and getting big $ for doing simple jobs while the locals get little or the most menial of jobs. Apparently that’s been one of the problems with some of the SIHIP houses-anyway it’s all remeniscent of the days when indigenous people were paid in flour and tea for their work, only now it includes wilting vegetables and cans of spam. Same old bullshit it brand new drag.

  3. thanks rohan and clare for your comments.

    your point clare is spot on. this wouldn’t happen in a city or even a small country town.

    rohan, yeah i’ve been hearing the same thing. as many people speaking about the basic cards mention it feels like lining up for rations again, only this time it’s the 21st version of it. its particularly offensive for those who were born into the ration days, fought and got there land back and now they are placed back onto a ration card.

    just visited katherine, beswick, barunga, ti-tree this week and stories are the same. people in the communities working for the dole, waiting years for a job yet the shire councils are hiring contractors from the larger towns to come out and do work that community members are experienced in.

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