Saturday, June 21, 2008


June 21, 2008, smh

Some goals of the intervention seem closer, others less so, writes Jo Chandler in Mutitjulu.

IT IS a year since a cavalcade of four-wheel-drives and army trucks followed a police car past the oblivious crowds of tourists photographing Uluru and turned down the no-go road into Mutitjulu.

This is where John Howard's emergency intervention into remote Northern Territory Aboriginal communities, to rescue children at risk of abuse and neglect, began. So one year on, what has the intervention has brought to Mutitjulu?

"Lots of Toyotas," an elder, Bob Randall, dryly observes as he drives home past the traffic delivering the day's quota of bureaucrats.

Some changes are starkly apparent. Others take longer to see. And much is as it always was.

The community office, decked stridently in the colours of the Aboriginal nation, and the buzzing epicentre of the action a year ago, is locked shut. Its funding has dried up, muting the voice of the fiery community activists who tackled governments, administrators and media over their conceptions and depictions of troubled Mutitjulu.

Next door, by contrast, the then-dormant child-care centre, locked for two years, is open.

Behind a tall fence 11 children squeal and play, chasing each other around a dust track on tricycles.

According to Mutitjulu women young and old, their most vulnerable children are better off for the intervention. They have full bellies, courtesy of the quarantining of welfare payments into household accounts, which started here last September. Weekly deductions of $35 put money into delivered school lunches, and women have "money to spend on food and clothes, instead of it going on grog and ganja," says the community chairwoman, Judy Trigger.

While a few begrudge the blunt instrument of blanket income management catching up careful parents along with delinquents and drinkers, the grandmothers left with children when their parents head "into town" for a drinking session embrace it.

Now they can access children's welfare through accounts at the store, which has extended its inventory to meet demand. The check-out register immediately accesses and debits 300 welfare accounts, and the new manager, Todd Brown, says a good number of them are accruing savings.

Outside the store children who should be in school still congregate. Between six and a dozen was the count taken by the Herald on each of three days in town this week.

The roll call at the Mutitjulu school shows a 10 per cent increase in attendance, to 80 per cent, in the past year. More astonishing is the enrolment, up by 10 to 30 students.

This follows a dive in numbers a couple of years ago, when a series of crises - petrol sniffing; allegations of violence, pedophilia and sexual abuse; questions over the community's management put Mutitjulu on the map for all the wrong reasons, sending people away in droves.

Another casualty of those bleak times was the health clinic, losing programs and its doctor. Now the doctor is back. But outreach work, preventive programs, substance and alcohol programs are virtually non-existent.

Perhaps most surprising, given the child health priority of the intervention mandate, is the claim by the health worker and local intervention critic, Mario Guiseppe, that since the early round of health checks, there has been no reappearance by outside health workers, and no follow-up for children with things such as chronic ear, nose and throat problems. Emergency response headquarters say services are expected next school term.

Another cornerstone was to rebuild the slum housing. Half a dozen of the community's 40 homes remain uninhabitable, and some of those occupied shouldn't be, though they have all had a safety sweep to fix things such as dodgy plumbing and dangerous wiring, and to secure external doors.

In the next weeks, with money that must be spent before the end of the financial year, some will get new whitegoods and other improvements. Big repairs must wait until the next phase.
Senior Constable John Fuller cruises by, a long way from his old Hawthorn beat. He's been here two weeks, the latest occupant of the showpiece new police station. It's dealt with just over 70 reports, 20 arrests and 30 summons in its first year of business.

Speaking on the intervention, an elder, Donald Fraser, said: "It was a good thing, a bit of a shake-up, right across the Territory." But it had lost momentum since the change of government.

"It's very disappointing to people, to be back where they had been, struggling."