Well, the survey team representing the government's 'intervention' came and went yesterday.
Firstly, the communication about the whole thing was poor. There were no announcements about them coming. The local council had to chase up the information themselves about when and what they were doing. Even yesterday, no one knew for sure if there would be a community meeting or if discussions would be 'behind closed doors' so to speak.
But they arrived. Norforce came first and just before lunch a team of public servants came. They first met with the local council and then held a public community meeting.
The meeting started with a representative from Darwin's FACSIA office running through the main points of the intervention: non-compulsory health checks, increased police, tying centrelink payments to school attendance, the wind-up of CDEP, removal of the permit system for the town area and emphasised that this was all in the name of protecting children and keeping them safe. This was all in English and not very plain English. An interpreter came with them but was not utilised.
After that, each public servant introduced themselves and told us what department they represented. The Norforce rep was the stand out - he spoke well and clearly said that their only role was for logistics support - to arrange travel and accommodation.
After that, it was opened up for Ngukurr residents to ask questions. There were some really good questions and points made and some a bit rambly and unfocused. Some people spoke really well. Highlights were:
Former council president DD spoke very strongly about overcrowded housing and how it needs to change and this has been an issue that has been well known for a long time and spoken about many times.
Local teacher RR spoke very strongly about the school. About the need for more facilities. About overcrowded classrooms and that if there was 100% attendance the school just was not equipped to handle it.
GD expressed her concerns about the health checks and said there was a lot of confusion - how some people thought that if children were found to be sexually active (which many teenagers are) they would be placed in foster care. She asked for a clear answer about this and this was about the only clear answer that was forthcoming from the government reps - health checks would be carried out in the same way they are carried out by the local clinic with the same processes.
These community meetings are intense affairs where everyone's deep seated concerns get a chance to bubble to the surface. And I was no different. I am deeply concerned about the changes to the permit system and was ready to pluck up the courage to say something too, but not being sure if I should, being a whitefella and all. But council president KR said it was fine so I got up to say my bit. Approaching the mic, the govt. rep looked at me apprehensively and asked 'where are you from?'. "I'm from here", i said and took the mic.
Facing 100 black faces with mic in hand was daunting, and so I uttered 'gardi!' (means 'goodness' or 'crikey') quietly and there was laughter from the Ngukurr mob who know me well. Anyway, I addressed the crowd in Kriol. In Kriol, I said i wanted to talk about permits. I said there was a review into the permit system last year and JJ from language centre made a submission with 200 signatures all saying they didn't want the permit system to change. I said the rangers also made a submission. I said, "ai nomo sabi eni blekbala la dis komyunidi hu wandim det permit system bla tjeinj" (I don't know any Aboriginal ppl in this community who want the permit system to change) and I said that there was never any report from the permit review and the government is going ahead and changing the law anyway, so that any whitefella can come to Ngukurr without a permit. Then I turned to the govt rep and said in English, "So my question to you is why is the government going ahead and changing the permit system when I don't know any Aboriginal people who want it to change?". And then I got a nice round of applause from the crowd and a wishy washy answer about there being pros and cons about changing the permit system and that was about as much as they said. One govt rep did try to say that by removing the permit system then it would be possible for a high school to be built in Ngukurr (which RR had said was badly needed) - something about service providers being able to come and do the work. This was met with a few cries of 'that's bullshit'.
The local principal (a Maori woman who has been here for 7 or so years) also spoke well, saying that the communication about their arrival was poor. That they need to inform people about what's happening much better. That this shows them respect and that if they do that then people will respect you and be more likely to support what you're trying to do. She also said that people struggle enough to look after children on centrelink payments so instead of punishing ppl whose children aren't attending, how about rewarding ppl whose children are good attenders.
As the meeting was winding up, GD (I think) asked a good question about what's going to happen from here. The answer to which was another wishy-washy one: the health survey team would be coming sometime soon but apart from that there was no information about what would happen next.
Other people spoke too and eventually the meeting wound up. After that, the public servants broke up to have smaller meeting with groups relevant to their dept. I sat in with the local people who are involved in Education who spoke to the DEET rep. He listened well to all the issues that people brought up, again discussing lack of facilities, lack of teacher housing, overcrowded classrooms, lack of training for assistant teachers. By that time it was 4 pm and by 5pm the govt people had all gone.
JJ, who I work closely with, commented that it was a good meeting, but it's a familiar story. The issues that were discussed are issues that have been around for a long time and Ngukurr ppl have brought them up again and again in similiar meetings with similar sorts of public servants. The mood from Ngukurr ppl afterwards seemed to be that they wait in sceptical hope that maybe something will come out of all of this.
Meanwhile, my adrenhalin was still pumping after having my first go at speaking at a public meeting and at public-speaking in Kriol. I was still a bit concerned at the appropriateness of me doing so, but I was thanked and praised by a number of Ngukurr people, black and white. Apparently I made the public servants 'ai kamat' (lit: eyes come out). And I hope that I showed them that it's not just a given that white people only speak English and that you can, if you try, learn to communicate in a way that makes Aboriginal ppl feel comfortable, happy and proud.