On the Ross River Highway, before you get to Emily Gap, there is a small blue sign. Written across this sign in white letters is the word Amoonguna. Less than 15 kilometres from Alice Springs, it is the closest Aboriginal Community to Central Australia’s service capital, yet in the rounds of ministerial visits it is often ignored.
Established on 1 October 1960, when ‘the Bungalow’ at the Telegraph station was officially closed, Amoonguna is home to people from the Arrente, Walpiri, and many other nations. It has a school, a sports field, a health service, an arts centre and a small shop. Until the Shire took over, the community had a bus that would do shopping runs into town for $2 each way. That bus now sits there, one of the community assets seized by the MacDonnell Shire.
This brings us to the main story: the impact of the shire amalgamation on one community. To understand this we need to go back to 1 July 2008 when the Supershires came into place. These shires saw all Aboriginal Community Council forced into eight Supershires. For Amoonguna, this meant coming under the wings of the Macdonnell Shire, a shire that extends from Alice Springs to the South Australia border, and from the Queensland to the Western Australia border.
Under this amalgamation the assets that were the community’s – buses, backhoes, vehicles, etc – become the assets of the shire. The shires also now decide when the vehicles can be hired out and at what cost. As it currently stands the Macdonnell Shire has set the cost of hiring a bus to go to a funeral at $500. For the Amoonguna footy team to go to the community sports days, it would cost $3000.
Under shire management, control of communities went from a board of local community members to twelve elected representatives from across the whole region, with the services manager being the main shire person in that community. In Amoonguna, the whole community signed a petition requesting the removal of the position of service manager; as yet, there has been no action taken.
More worryingly are the stories of job losses. Before the Shire took over, Amoonguna had its own construction team that built five or six houses in the community from scratch. This team of a dozen or so men would get up and work, hoping to get their certificates. Since the Shire has taken over, independent contractors from town come out and do the maintenance work, and the construction team has now become a garbage collection team.
At the art centre the stories are similar. Before the shire and Intervention changes to CDEP (the shire changes and the Intervention came into effect in many communities around the same time, and are, in many senses, part of the a move to undermine community power), there were ten or eleven women working as artists in the art centre. Once the Shire took over that went down to just two.
As it stands, the art centre is being threatened with closure by the Macdonnell Shire as it is no longer viable. Though when there’s a sale, the Shire is fine with keeping the 35% from the sale that is supposed to go to the art centre to buy materials. It’s gotten to the point where artists at the art centre have to buy toilet paper out of their family basic cards just so they have some for the tourists who visit.
As the Amoonguna Council President put it:
We deserve better than this. It’s a basic human right to have a real job. We’re the first people of this country, first nation. We deserve … you know. We’re not asking for much. We just wanna be left alone, manage our own community. Self-Determination, yep, bring on all the hurdles we’ll jump them. Every one of them. All we’re asking for is a fair go. A fair go in this so-called lucky country we call home – Australia.