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Postcard from the Kimberley

If there was a picture on the front of this postcard it would be of a wide green expanse, dotted with purple wildflowers. Front and centre is tanned stockman on a rearing horse, to the left a small herd of angry cattle, to the right three indigenous teenagers clinging to the front of their saddles, the whites of their eyes matching their stackhats as they watch their teacher at work.

The picture was taken on April 16, 2009, at Spring Creek Station, in the East Kimberley. The stockman is Billy Atkins, a trainer with East Kimberley Community Development Employment Project, and the boys, David Dunn, Des Butcher and Lionel Rogers, were trainees on the EK CDEP payroll. Now they’re junior stockmen working on stations collecting real wages for the season.

The Spring Creek stock camp is a school of hard knocks. The classroom is an old drover’s shed. A concrete slab with corrugated iron walls painted minty green but covered in cobwebs and dust. The folding chairs and trestle tables in the shed aren’t used much though. They only come into play on the days that TAFE trainer Brendan Wolff is at the camp to talk them through his power points. Most of the learning takes place down the track a little at the cattle yards. It’s here that the boys learn to catch and saddle a horse. Many have never been up close to a horse before their 10 day stock camp experience so they’re understandably nervous.

The trainers are full of blokey encouragement though and before long everyone’s on horseback and there’s a swagger in their steps as they head back to camp at the end of each day for several helpings of hearty meat-n-veg dinners whipped up in a battered caravan/kitchen by the old drover/camp cook.

Venturing opinions about North-west politics in the national press is a risky business. It’s a zone where the dream of political ideology collides with the shadow of unforgiving complexities of history, geography and the wilder side of human nature. This essay isn’t pushing a barrow. I went to Spring Creek as an observer. I asked questions and told the trainers and trainees that I’d write down what they said. They sat back, rolled smokes and talked.

Kim Griffiths and Thomas Gilboy are both in their early 20s. They’re working on TAFE Certificate Two and have ongoing positions with the EK CDEP. The organisation hopes to get them through to TAFE Certificate Four so they can become trainers. We sat in the shade with the stockman/trainer Billy Atkins and his dad Will Atkins, the camp cook.

I asked all four what they thought about the NT Intervention. I expected some kind of reaction because Spring Creek is very close to the NT border, I thought it would be a hot topic. It wasn’t though. “What was that again?”, “Oh yeah it was that thing a few years back.” I found myself explaining Mal Brough, John Howard, The ABC documentaries and the way it drew Canberra’s attention to the fact that CDEP earnings can’t be quarantined because they’re technically wages.

They listened but were soon making jokes about how people in Canberra have no idea about life up here. It was Billy who said: “What would they know? They don’t have a clue. They fly up here, spend 20 minutes walking around, get back in their planes and go back to Canberra to write their policies.”

There were nods of agreement. A cry from a distant bush turkey rippled through the still afternoon air and Canberra seemed a million miles away.

Next question: If they gave the job to you and asked you to write the policy what would you write? What would you say/do?

There was silence while they thought about it. Then Thomas said: “This is good: Stock camp and the training to get people ready to work (with a nod to the shed where Brendan was talking to the younger boys). The only problem is that most of them don’t want to work anyway.”

Straight up he’d named the elephant. The Rudd Government’s Closing the Gap report includes a $228.8 million National Partnership on Indigenous Economic Participation that aims to get 13,000 indigenous Australians into sustainable jobs by 2013. Most of these will result from CDEP jobs being converted into “waged market jobs”.

The cynical view is that people unwilling to work can be sacked from these jobs, and moved onto the dole which can be quarantined to force compliance with children’s school attendance etc. The changes that Closing the Gap is bringing to the operation of CDEPs will start kicking in on July 1, 2009, with CDEPs in remote locations, like the East Kimberley, likely to continue operating until March 2010 but unsure of their futures beyond that. No matter how good stock camp is, no one knows if it will still be running this time next year.

Back to the conversation under the tree though. Kim agreed with Thomas and said: “Yeah and we also need something to keep the young fellas off the street. It’s good to get them away from town, away from their families. Their families stuff ’em up heaps but they’ve gotta help themselves, if you don’t try to help yourself, no one else can help you.”

Families? Breaking them up? I chipped in that it would take a brave politician to suggest that, given the whole Stolen Generation thing. I asked how there could be intervention in something as personal as family life and child-raising without it interfering with traditional culture, which is surely worth protecting.

Kim from Kununurra shook his head at me: “Most of it’s not traditional anyway. People live in town and its all about alcohol and drugs. They don’t know the traditions. Up until they changed that baby bonus things some of ’em were just having babies for the money. That was a good thing, changing to the baby bonus basic card.”

By now the others were sniggering, there was clearly either a back story or an old joke here. Trying to keep the conversation on track I asked: “Was that really happening? Girls getting knocked up just for the cash?”

Thomas nodded along as Kim said: “Yes, definitely! But that card changed it.”

I hadn’t given it much thought previously but it was clearly a big relief to the single young men of the community. I ventured another question: So what do you think about not paying the dole and giving people a food voucher card instead?

Thomas answered: “It’s a better idea. They can’t get grog and cigs with it.”

Will was skeptical: “But I saw a ten-year-old kid walking around town the other night with a packet of cigarettes. They need to pick up those kids and take ’em home.”

But what if the parents aren’t home or don’t do anything to control them? Will answered: “They should sue the parents, or fine ’em.”

Thomas shook his head and said: “That wouldn’t work.”

Kim agreed: “It wouldn’t work because the parents are always drinkin’. They should tell the parents to stop drinkin’ and if they don’t then put them in jail.”

Will countered with: “Or do like they used to. Pick all them kids up in the cop car and drive ’em 20kms out of town and turf ’em out and drive back slowly. The kids are so scared they don’t want to let the lights of the car out of their sight so they run all the way back to town and then they’re tired out. They don’t want to smash things and run amok, they just go home to bed.”

It’s hard to know whether to believe tales like this, but we laughed at his re-enactment of the little kids running behind the car and I wrote it down, thinking that it expressed a sentiment at least.

Could the kids be taught better ways of living in schools?

Kim said: “But they don’t go to school. They need a grandpa like mine. He used to say ‘if you don’t go to school, the boomerang will come out’, and BANG! If he had to walk us to school to get us to go he would.”

Although he moved around between Kununurra, Halls Creek, Darwin and Perth, Kim stayed in school to the end of year 11 and he considers himself to be one of the lucky ones.

Thomas admitted that he used to wag school to go fishing. More of his learning has happened through contact with the CDEP programs, their TAFE connections and time spent in a variety of jobs.

The conversation soon turns to the Youth Centre in town. Sounding like an old man, Kim said: “These days those kids are spoilt, they’ve got everything and free food as well. When we were kids we had nothin’ except a couple of push bikes, and we’d use them to go for a ride and go fishin’.”

Billy chimed in with: “Now they just steal a car and don’t even go fishin’. It’s the alcohol and drugs that fuck everything up.” No one argued.

What drugs can the kids get up here?

The answer is everything. They rattle off the list: ecstasy, hash, speed, ganja, pills, whatever you can get in Perth. Any heroin up here? They’re not sure. Probably not much anymore. Thomas added that someone offered to sell him a Mitsubishi pill the other day, “I said no way, fuck you, this beer is the only drug I’m taking.”

By this time our shade had moved and it was time to get the horses into the yard, ready for the afternoon ride. Billy, Kim and Thomas headed off laughing at Thomas’ impression of a drug dealer.

Brendan and the younger boys emerged from the shed and nurturing mother-duck Will lovingly called them young mongrels, promised them a good meal and ordered them off after the others.

They seemed happy enough, and I voiced my observation. Will, who has spent his life droving and labouring across the top end dropped his gruff fa├žade for long enough to explain. “It might sound like we’re insulting them but it’s not like that. It’s what they’re used to. At home their parents call ’em filthy mongrel bastards and smack ’em around the ears. Poor kids, half of them can’t even get a feed at home. They have to jump the fence and run off just to survive.”

Why can’t they eat at home? Is lack of money the problem?

“No. There’s one woman from Halls Creek just got a royalty payment of $300,000. She doesn’t pay tax on that and she’s still on CDEP. You’ve just got to look around and you see brand new cars and the little kids driving around these fancy new little electric car things, and the parents drunk as skunks. But it can’t carry on like that. The gravy train is going to run out.”

Do they know that?

“These kids? No. Their parents tell them they don’t have to work. The parents say ‘we get sit down money’ and they think they have a right to it.”

Sit down money? Is that what they still call it? “Yes.”

It’s a term I first read in an unedited version of Seraphim Sanz’ Memoirs of Spanish Missionary Monk.

Sanz was a politically contentious figure in the 1980s on account of his opposition to the closing of the Kalumburu mission, which was close to his heart as he’d lived and worked there for 43 years. He wrote his memoirs when he was 80 reflecting on his long and adventurous life in WA’s northernmost community.

In explaining why the Kalumburu Crocodile Farm failed to launch in the late 1970s, Sanz had written: “Another [reason] was because the Aborigines, except for their own dogs, have no love for animals and less for responsible constant work. This last point became more so when the Government gave them what they call ‘sit down money’, that is: Unemployment Benefits” (pg 207).

I was struck by the irony of a Labor government coming up with rhetoric like ‘Economic Participation’ after the way Sanz was treated for suggesting that unwillingness to work might be the problem.

It prompted me to flick through his book again and I found this: “The Aborigines themselves are too happy with the ‘sit down money’, and other superfluous things, to put into practice my often repeated advice to them: ‘To go up two things are needed - education and hard work’, to which I added: ‘To go down two things are enough - drink and gambling’. For the present the Kalumburu Aborigines in general follow the easier way, downhill” (pg 255).

Sometimes life’s a gamble

I’ve had a few conversations about gambling in the Kimberley. From these conversations I’ve learnt that there’s always a game going on somewhere in town and in most of the communities too. What kind of gambling? Mainly card games. The amount of money on the table follows the ebbs and flows of benefit days and royalty payments. I’ve also heard from a couple of sources that, given that children come with guardian allowances attached, they sometimes get put on the table and that accounts for some of the mysterious transit of children between the houses of various relatives. The story is heresay, I have no evidence to back it up, but it seems negligent (as a journalist) not to mention it.

Another disturbing story about gambling that I do have a reputable source for is about a game called, in some communities ‘holey holey’, and in others just ‘holey’ (pronounced holly).

It’s a game that children play. The rules are simple. You dig a fist-sized hole in the ground and about a metre and a half away from it you draw a line in the sand. Children stand behind the line and throw coins towards the hole. Most miss and land around it. The first coin to go into the hole wins its thrower all of the coins on the ground.

In Kununurra, school teacher Roger Berry, who has worked in remote community schools in WA and the NT, told me that the game is an ongoing issue for remote school principals who routinely ban it from school grounds. Routinely, because it re-emerges as an issue on a regular basis.

Berry said: “It’s hard to stamp it out completely because they play it outside school all the time. Despite the fact that they get morning tea and lunch given to them at school we still have little kids coming to school with so many coins in their pockets that it’s a wonder their pants stay up. There’s nothing to do with that money except play ‘holey’.

“We ban it because we don’t think it’s appropriate to gamble at school, but to them it’s normal. It’s what they see at home.”

I gotta get outta this place

Conversations with the younger boys at the stock camp were trickier than talking to the trainers and Kim and Thomas. They’re masters of the one word answer and that answer is usually ‘yes’, but Brendan had warned me not to take compliant responses too seriously.

“It’s their way of avoiding conflict,” he’d said. “They’ll mumble, look at the ground and say ‘yes’ to anything, but if they don’t want to do whatever they’ve just agreed to, they’ll just take off and you’ll be left wondering what happened.”

On our last day at Spring Creek I asked David, Des and Lionel what they thought of the stock camp and they nodded “It’s good” and fell silent.

I asked what they wanted to do? Were they thinking of travelling around with their work or did they want to stay the Kimberley on their own land?

David spoke and the others nodded in agreement and echoed the sentiment: “No way. I just wanna get to outta here.”

The youthful urge to leave the home town and see the word is fairly universal, but I still asked why: Is there a reason why you don’t want to stay in the Kimberley?

Sounding confident, like he’d given it some thought he said: “There’s too much drinkin’ and fightin’. I wanna work and get out.”

David was feeling good about himself that day because the owner of Nelson Springs, a nearby station, had specifically asked for him to come and work for the season. David spent a few months last year at the same station and so this invitation was perhaps a sign of things to come. Being a valued worker could be his ticket out. He was wearing clean clothes and smiling.

Last year the EK CDEP stock camps placed 78 young men into seasonal work. The idea is that they do ten days of training and then go out and use what they’ve learnt for a few months. At the end of the season they come back to CDEP and do the next layer of learning, picking up a few more skills and out they go again. It’s a slow process and John Vos, manager of EK CDEP, expects each kid to take three or four runs through the process until they’re ready to stay out in the workforce. It’s a long, labour-intensive process but what’s the alternative?

An afternoon in the shed with Brendan and the three boys made it clear why the process took so long. The content of TAFE Certificate One is startlingly basic. “You have a right to a safe workplace, free of discrimination. You have the responsibility to dress appropriately for work.”

Brendan had explained as we drove out to the station that his job was made more difficult by the fact that not everyone he taught could read and write.

He was scathing about what he called the “tick and flick mentality of many of the teachers up here” saying: “They don’t want to fail them in primary school because it might hurt their self-esteem but how do you get to year eleven and not be able to read and write? Don’t-ya think that sentencing them to a lifetime of illiteracy might hurt their self-esteem just a little! Don’t-ya?”

I asked what he thought of the Closing the Gap report and the talk about “Economic Participation”. He said that work and money were tricky issues up here. Independent of the other conversations I’d had on the subject, he told me that royalty money wasn’t always declared to Centrelink and so there were people getting $80,000 cheques, still queuing for the dole and asking for $10 every time they saw you in town. This kind of reality messes with the idea of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.

But he added: “The elders hate it, the ones who can remember what it was like before.”

Then he launched into a story that he’d heard an elder telling some kids. It was about a boy who found a fish living in a waterhole and he’d fed the fish some meat. The next day he came back with some more meat and he waited for the fish to come and he fed the fish again. He did this everyday until the fish would always be there waiting for him. Then he got busy with some other stuff and didn’t go there for a while and when he went back the fish was dead because it had forgotten how to feed itself.

Big people for a big place

The easiest thing to forget about the Kimberley when you’re not there is how big it is. It’s something you can know from a distance in a conceptual way but it’s only when you’re there, confronted with its timeless vastness, that its gigantic stubbornness really hits you.

There’s talk of the revolving door of agency work up here. Government employees come and go, by the time they’ve figured out what it is they’re meant to be doing, they’re planning to leave.

Figuring the place out takes time because there are things that you would reasonably expect to work in a civilized world that simply don’t work up here. Telephones frequently don’t, and being able to check up on your workers is a joke, when they’re supposedly doing something four hours’ drive out of town and their Toyota has been mysteriously “lost”.

(“Lost” in this sense usually means suffering from damage sustained in the process of “getting a killa”, a local term for running over a cow with a Toyota for the purpose of eating the cow. It’s how people without gun licences kill cows. The vehicles sustain heavy damage but it doesn’t matter because the government always buys more.)

Sanz wrote: “The government seems to think that money fixes everything while, for those who cannot use it well, it is doing more harm than good.”

Twenty-odd years on money is still being thrown at the problem of indigenous squalor. In 2008 the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) committed $4.6 billion to the task. In an attempt to justify the spend a number of “outcome” measures have been introduced but there’s a shadow side to this too.

Agency workers understand the job security that comes with meeting targets and so the indigenous unemployed sometimes cease to be people and become potential outcomes, ruthlessly poached by agencies from agencies, popped into unsustainable jobs (because it’s the placement that scores the points) and then recycled through the system time and time again. Closing the Gap speaks about improving the way statistics are gathered but whether the new system will be smart enough to spot the difference between training-work-training cycles like the EK CDEP stock camp and more random people shuffling activities is yet to be seen.

Not all the white workers up here are heartless bureaucrats though. The other thing that the vastness of this country does is call out big characters. People not scared of wild elements, cyclones, flooded rivers, crocodiles, king browns and intractable problems.

While some of these big characters are the perpetrators of the corruption that runs rife; the sexual abuse; and the trafficking in drugs, porn and grog. There are good guys up here too - outrageously big hearted people, who love the place, understand the problems and aren’t flinching in the face of the enormity of the task ahead.

While Canberra is a million miles away and policy comes and policy goes, these people, are slowly and patiently doing what needs to be done, and they seem committed to staying and continuing to do what they can, whether Canberra backs them or not.

These people are national treasures. Each one has a story that deserves to be told, if only it was politically correct to give their stories the context they need in order to make sense.

It’s the context that it’s hard to talk about though. I even worry that in reporting these conversations here, in this forum, that I’ve given voice to the unspeakable.

Like all postcards, this missive won’t say much that’s new to people who have spent time in the top end. It may also offend people who know people unlike the guys I spoke to. I’m sorry. It is not my intention to say everyone is like these guys or the people these guys were talking about. But, in a pre-emptive strike against my critics, I’d just like to say that their voices deserve to be heard as much as anyone’s do.

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