Recommended Resources – The Stringer – Independent News, Investigative Journalism

From Secret Country to Forgotten Peoples

March 19th, 2013

WA has the nation’s highest median income – per capita it is the richest State in the Commonwealth of Australia yet it has the highest homelessness rate in the nation. Its poorest people – most of them Aboriginal – have not benefited from the mining boom. More and more Western Australians are stepping up and speaking out about the stark contrast between those benefiting from mining and those whom the mining boom has left behind.

Critics are saying that chronically impoverished Aboriginal peoples are missing out on a once in a lifetime opportunity to rise out of poverty.

Makeshift dwelling at Kalgoorlie-Boulder's Ninga Mia

Makeshift dwelling at Kalgoorlie-Boulder’s Ninga Mia

Even resource companies are slamming each other claiming some give more than others and that there are no cross-industry standards. Some resource companies are slamming the State and Federal Governments for not doing enough to wipe out an abject poverty that should not belong in a first word nation.

These are little steps – talking is one thing and action is another matter. So far it has only been a handful of researchers and rights advocates who have been pointing out the bleeding obvious.

Pilbara Meta Maya Regional Aboriginal Corporation CEO Rachael Denney said remote Aboriginal communities were not benefitting from the mining boom. She said the mining boom had generated some very damaging, negative effects. She argued rents are so outrageously disproportionately high that they have become a crippling stressor in terms of budgets. The high rents are wiping out support agencies, effectively shutting them down. Agencies that do struggle on with high rents have made staff redundant and are inadvertently short-changing the people who depend on them.

According to the Chamber of Minerals and Energy Aboriginal peoples make up nine percent of mining jobs and apprenticeships. But various organisations in the Pilbara including The Salvation Army, The Smith Family and Mission Australia are describing third-world conditions. The descriptions of third-world condition are not limited to remote and semi-remote communities but are also being levelled at communities within major towns like Hedland, Roebourne and Onslow.

The descriptions of third-world conditions are nothing new. The late Dr Archie Kalokerinos spent his working life in the remote with Aboriginal peoples and during the seventies described their living conditions as third-world. Dr Kalokerinos dedicated himself to reducing the prevalence of glaucoma among Aboriginal peoples. He banged his head against brick walls trying to get the Commonwealth of Australia to address the impoverishment of Aboriginal communities – almost to the point that he was effectively ostracised. In recent years the Secretary-General of Amnesty International Shalil Shetty visited Australia and in particular the Northern Territory – he travelled to Utopia, north of Alice Springs. He described the conditions in Utopia as third-world. The UN’s Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay has described the Commonwealth’s ongoing neglect of Aboriginal peoples as racism.

Ongoing third-world living conditions in Australian communities were manifested from generations of apartheid, racism and hence stubborn neglect. Many who see the dire circumstances blame the victims. They are blaming those who take their lives, those who are homeless –blaming them for the conditions they were born into. Many who have been trying to help the victims have also been blaming them – this cannot be understated. This pernicious belief system invasively underwrote the Federal Government’s Emergency Response in the Northern Territory – the majority of the Intervention’s Government workers believed they were helping the helpless, and with this type of belief system therefore blaming them.

Families are described as dysfunctional. Their stories are divested to the rest of the nation and then regurgitated. Stories of domestic violence and of substance abuse are retold again and again by Government workers until we start believing that it is every Aboriginal family affected. Then it is told to the nation by our Governments and by the news media. We hear of alcoholism, drugs and abuse of solvents – the petrol sniffing, aerosol sniffing, chroming. But according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics proportion to total populations less Aboriginal peoples drink alcohol and gamble than do non-Aboriginal Australians. But the news media far too often sells stereotypes, shoving bullshit down our throats – in turn pouring salt into the wounds of impoverished Aboriginal communities.

Many people buy the messages and the mantras. They begin to think that the solving the abject poverty of impoverished Aboriginal communities is one for the too-hard-basket.

The resource companies argue they are dropping millions of dollars into Aboriginal communities. Some resource companies believe they are doing the work of the State and Federal Governments. They believe it is the duty of State and Federal Governments to graft into these communities the requisite infrastructure and services.

It is true Governments have abysmally failed chronically impoverished Aboriginal communities.

It is true many resource companies return less than one percent of their total revenue to Aboriginal communities – pittance.

The Stringer recently visited a number of the Pilbara’s Aboriginal communities. The Pilbara is the engine room of Australia’s mining boom – and super towns for the fly-ins have been built out of seemingly nowhere in places such as Karratha, Port Samson, Newman and so on. So the question begs; why not build towns like these for Aboriginal peoples and end the abject poverty?

Parliamentarians know the deal out there but few of them speak up.

The Pilbara’s Aboriginal Elders accept mining companies have helped individual Aboriginal operators improve their lives and those of their families but that they have not improved the lives of the majority of the people. Claims by mining companies that they are changing the landscape for Aboriginal peoples are scoffed at by many Elders. They say the claims are plainly rubbish and media spin.

In coming editions of The Stringer we will also put the spotlight on the Aboriginal Corporations. These organisations have been set up to help advance their peoples. Many are doing this and many are not. The inconsistency has to be addressed.

Some Aboriginal corporations have become quite wealthy while at the same time many of their peoples remain impoverished. Are some Aboriginal corporations following the model of some of the resource companies – the organisation first, stakeholders next, and community last?

The Gumula Aboriginal Corporation is the seventh richest Aboriginal Corporation in Australia but many of their communities’ children have otitis media (glue ear). Remote communities are without mobile health clinics. Why?

The Stringer’s coverage will not be limited to the Pilbara – there are more than 400 Aboriginal Corporations nationwide and we will look at a number of them, mostly the richest ones – Noel Pearson’s Cape York, the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, Gumala and a dozen more. We will also be looking at the Office of the Registrar of Aboriginal Corporations (ORIC) – the national body which oversees these organisations.

We have also asked some fledgling organisations, beneficiaries of Native Title compensation how they intend to invest and disburse funds. Have they learned from the mistakes of others? What will their business model be? Will they invest in people first or invest in building their organisation up and return benefits to the people by dividends? What works? What doesn’t?

The Stringer has also asked the effectively fledgling Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation what their plans are? How will they help their predominately impoverished peoples? They have fought a long battle to maintain the legal right to represent their people and they have pretty much finally won it. They have just secured a Federal Court win which secures for them long overdue financial benefits.

In the last year The Stringer travelled five times to Roebourne, where most Yindjibarndi people live – and we have seen how tough many of them do it. We have spoken to one-twentieth of the entire Yindjibarndi population.

It is important to have a good look at everyone and every instrument and to leave no stone unturned. But nobody can achieve much if the well is empty. If the Government is not filling the well then it is the duty of the resource companies to do so – they are accessing Aboriginal Country in order to mine it. Therefore any watchful eye cannot leave out of its sight the resource companies.

In the meantime claims by resource companies that they are providing significant benefits to Aboriginal peoples from the greatest mining boom on record are hotly disputed.

In the resource-rich Pilbara big companies like Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton, Fortescue Metals and Chevron are spinning out press releases claiming they are investing in the region’s Aboriginal communities and that they are working hard to employ as many Aboriginal people as they can. However homelessness in the Pilbara is at record levels, with more than 170 per 10,000 people homeless. Only the Kimberley region has a worse homelessness rate, ten times the national average and just about all of the homeless are Aboriginal peoples.

The Pilbara’s Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation Chief Executive, Michael Woodley said mining companies have so far not returned anything of significance in terms of infrastructure and services to local Aboriginal communities.

The Pilbara Association of Non-Government Organisations chairman Bob Neville said the WA mining boom – with the Pilbara the engine room – had let down the locals.

“Western Australia is in the middle of the biggest resources boom we have ever seen and locals have nothing to show for it,” said Mr Neville.

Mr Neville is calling for a parliamentary inquiry into why the mining boom has failed the local communities. Mr Neville goes as far as saying the boom has crippled many of these communities.

“They say they are dropping millions into Indigenous communities but where and to whom?” Mr Woodley asked. “When they make claims of Indigenous people benefiting from the mining boom well they should show us the evidence of it.”

“They should be able to say, ‘Look here, in this community we’ve just built 50 houses and a medical centre in this one and training programs we’ve funded over here’, but that’s not the case.”

“Our people are still doing it tough despite the claims by the miners,” Mr Woodley said.

“Rio Tinto has done some good work alongside some Indigenous communities but the other mining companies have given nothing back and they are just taking everything they can from the resource-rich Pilbara.”

Pilbara Elders said the mining boom was not benefiting their people. Elders Thomas Jacobs, Middleton Cheedy, Pansy Sambo and Tootsie Daniels lamented the mining boom had bypassed their people and their youth.

Mr Jacobs said mining companies return very little to Aboriginal communities and despair had been reached in expecting these companies to fund adequate community programs and infrastructure.

“It is one thing for mining companies to say they are employing more Aboriginal people than before but that is not investing in the Pilbara’s Indigenous communities,” Mr Jacobs said.

“Just employing people who work for them to do a job for them and then making a big deal about it is not bringing on change.”

Every Elder said some pro-social employment policies were not the equivalent of Aboriginal communities benefiting from the mining boom.

“If they don’t invest in our communities soon the opportunity to help our youth and the generation to come will be a missed chance when the mining boom will be finished,” Mr Cheedy said.

Rio Tinto said in the 1990s less than a half a percent of their workforce was Aboriginal however it has now become Australia’s largest employer of Aboriginal people. In Western Australia, 11 percent of its workforce is Aboriginal which equates to 1,100 Aboriginal people.

BHP Billiton employs 10,000 people in the Pilbara with nearly 1,000 Aboriginal workers. Fortescue has increased its Aboriginal workforce to 412.

Mr Woodley said employing someone should not be seen as the equivalent of investing in that person’s community. Some Aboriginal operators have benefited however the region’s Aboriginal communities as a whole continue to languish in cycles of despair, he said.

Ngarda’s Ricky Osborne said his group has employed more than 2,000 Aboriginal people from the Pilbara and from other regions of Western Australia.

“We’ve now come to a situation where there is a good deal of demand for Aboriginal employees and we’re actually finding that companies are competing for available Indigenous labour,” Mr Osborne said.

“Mr Osborne said high employment numbers of Aboriginal people “has reduced a lot of the social and health problems for a lot of Aboriginal communities.”

But the statistics do not corroborate these claims. In fact homelessness and youth unemployment rates amongst the Pilbara’s Aboriginal peoples have not dropped and poor health, especially among the Pilbara’s Aboriginal children, continues at the same rates.

WA’s Telethon Speech and Hearing Centre confirmed the prevalence of middle ear diseases with Aboriginal children was at crisis levels in Western Australia and particularly the Pilbara region.

Their screening data tragically describes more than 50 per cent of WA’s Aboriginal children under the age of 12 as unable to pass a simple hearing test.

In Roebourne, at the heart of the Pilbara region, more than 80 per cent of Aboriginal children could not pass the test and had middle ear diseases.

The Telethon’s Speech and Hearing Centre spokesman Paul Higginbotham said the issue of middle ear infection “was a health disaster and it must be addressed.”

Mr Woodley said Aboriginal disadvantage cannot be addressed without funds directly invested in Aboriginal health facilities and care.

The Pilbara’s Gumala Aboriginal Corporation is Australia’s seventh wealthiest Aboriginal body due in part to commercial agreements it has with Rio Tinto.

However, aside from their investments in some mobile health clinics, overall the investment in its eastern Pilbara communities appears moderate.

Critics say the Gumala corporation is wealthy however far too many of the communities within its care languish in abject poverty.

The State Minister for Health, Dr Kim Hames has acknowledged not enough has been returned to Aboriginal communities from the mining boom and even his Government’s $22 million investment in Aboriginal rural and regional health in particular to upgrade remote Aboriginal health clinics over the next year is only a drop in the bucket.

Mr Woodley said all mining companies have as part of their governance a social responsibility to Aboriginal peoples and this included providing jobs and training opportunities. It also required mining companies to provide equity to communities in education, health and housing.

“In the end real change for our people will occur when some of the mining operations are in the hands of our people and we manage the mining and return the dividends to our communities and not just to the mining companies, their boards and to individual operators and contractors,” Mr Woodley said.

Mr Woodley acknowledged there had been some good work done by some mining companies in directing business to scores more of Indigenous operators than in the past.

However he said this was not the equivalent to real changes for Aboriginal communities.

“That will happen when our communities have the money spent on them in terms of housing, community institutions and other developments and when money is spent on enterprises that everyone benefits from and not from which only some people benefit,” he said.

“Profit-streams that go to individual operators, which is a positive in one way does not mean they flow on to communities. When the statistics on the Pilbara’s homeless rates and unemployment rates change, when our children’s literacy rates improve and when the gap on health closes, when our children can hear, then the mining companies and government will have something to rightly boast about.”

Many Aboriginal peoples do live with poor nutrition and do sleep on a dirt floor despite being within close proximity to the mining boom. Yet just about everyone in State Government is not speaking to this. Others sell the damaging messages that Aboriginal peoples are often not able to manage monies or advance themselves and then images of abject poverty and incidences of domestic violence and substance abuses are packaged with these messages and sold to the rest of the nation.

In 1983 world-renowned investigative journalist and documentary maker John Pilger produced ‘The Secret Country.’ In 1985 he said, “The secret history of Australia is a historical conspiracy of silence. Written history has long applied selectivity to what it records, largely ignoring the shameful way that the Aborigines were, and continue to be, treated.” In 2013 we do not continue to have a Secret Country as much as we have Forgotten Peoples. This is not an imputation as much as it is an indictment of our Governments.

In Hedland there are families sleeping under corrugated iron. There are families in homes so dilapidated that they are beyond repair. It is hard to believe this is Australia. It is not limited to Hedland. Kalgoorlie-Boulder’s Ninga Mia is a shocker with families there too in the most deplorable conditions. They have been there for ages, under the nose of the Department of Housing which does next to nothing. They live under corrugated iron and cardboard, within sight of mining prosperity. Kalgoorlie’s Wongi Pastor Geoffrey Stokes could talk endlessly about the ongoing neglect of his peoples by State and Federal Governments. The tragedy is just as bad in many parts of the Goldfields. It is also the case in the Kimberley – a shocker in the otherwise much visited tourist mecca – where homelessness rates are more than ten times the national average – once again, most of the homeless are Aboriginal.are we just rubbish

Interventionist programs and support agencies help but for the most part they are band aid responses – healing may come only with the elimination of abject poverty. The money is there; Australia is the world’s 13th most powerful economy. Western Australia accounts for 46 percent of the nation’s mining exports. In Hedland, according to the Department of Housing, 338 people (mostly Aboriginal) are on the waiting list but with an average wait of four years. Hundreds of others are not on any waiting lists, they do it dirt-poor. Nearby Hedland’s abjectly poverty stricken Aboriginal communities is the Port Hedland delta, Australia’s busiest port, exporting high grade iron ore to China and the rest of the world.

We should not remain arguably innocent bystanders.

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