Thursday, November 23, 2006

Wadeye in the storm

The ALP’s spokesman on Indigenous affairs, Senator Chris Evans, has criticised a failure of governance to deliver services to an Aboriginal township. In a speech to the National Press Club, Senator Evans said the trial in Wadeye in the NT has cost three years' worth of wasted resources. The trial model of administration was an initiative of the Council of Australian Government (COAG) which has replaced ATSIC (Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Commission) which was abolished by the Howard government in 2005.

A senate estimates committee heard on 2 November that the COAG trial had exactly the opposite affect as was intended and where as previously Wadeye had to deal with 60 government agencies for funding, it now must deal with 90. The damning conclusion that the trial was failing was reached by Bill Gray who did an independent evaluation. His report has not yet been officially released but has been leaked to prominent politicians including Senator Evans and the Government Senator Bill Heffernan.

Wadeye, a town of 2,200 people, suffered major riots between rival gangs earlier this year and Senator Heffernan has blamed the riots on the facts that the youths of Wadeye were “bored shitless”. Heffernan concluded that the agreement between the three parties involved (the federal government, the NT government and the local Thamarrurr council) had failed to deliver the services it promised. Heffernan In April and May this year, the Wadeye community suffered through weeks of tension and violence in which 53 people were arrested and more police were stationed in the area. Heffernan believes more police are required but also points the finger at education.

The only school in Wadeye is a Catholic school, the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. There are 600 primary school age children in Wadeye but only room for 300 at the school. There is no secondary school in the town at all. Average Attendance rate at school is under 50 % and only 13% of those aged 12 attend. Only 2% of the adult population have attained year 12. The school co-principal Tobias Ngambe met with Sydney Cardinal George Pell in the last few days to seek additional funding for the disadvantaged school. Pell does not have responsibility for the NT, which is under the jurisdiction of Darwin Bishop Ted Collins, but he gave the delegation a sympathetic hearing.

Wadeye is almost completely cut-off except by air during the wet season. The road into town is impassable for about six months of each year. The town is approximately 420 kilometres south-west of Darwin, at the mouth of the Fitzmaurice River, near the coast of the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf. It is the sixth largest town, by population, in the Northern Territory with the largest Aboriginal community. There are seven different language groupings of which the most common language is Murrin Patha, although this may be the second or third language of many residents. English is not widely spoken.

Wadeye (pronounced wad-air or wad-ay-yah) was home to an Aboriginal population for thousands of years prior to European settlement. Locals traded sea slugs with Macassans from the Sulawesi (Celebes) island of Indonesia. In 1935, the local government invited a Western Australian priest, Father Richard Docherty from the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, to establish a mission in Port Keats. In 1941 some nuns arrived to start the school. Although Father Docherty eventually retired to Perth, when he died in 1979 he was buried in Wadeye.

The area was governed by the Kardu Numida Council which collapsed in 1994. The new council was renamed Thamarrurr in 2003. The word described a regional forum that pre-dated European incursion whereby senior people of the clan groups in the region would meet periodically to preside over issues of ceremony, use of natural resources, economic transactions and minor law and justice matters. As well as the education crisis, the council has to deal with serious shortfalls in housing, employment and health. Aboriginal death rates in Wadeye are 4 times higher than for non-Aboriginals in the NT. The median age at death is between 45 and 54 years, compared to 78 years for non-Aboriginal people in Australia.

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