Indigenous leaders suspect remote NT communities will be closed

Arnhem land's Milingimbi community has sent petition to federal and Northern Territory ministers outlining concerns about 'threat to our homelands'

Elders and senior people in Milingimbi met to discuss their concerns about the future of remote communities
Elders and senior people in Milingimbi met to discuss their concerns about the future of remote communities.
(Photograph: Trevor van Weeren)

Helen Davidson The Guardian 2 June 2015

Despite repeated assurances that no Northern Territory remote homelands would be closed, a lack of government communication has left leaders in the Arnhem land community of Milingimbi believing it to be inevitable.

Residents' concerns have been outlined in a petition sent to the chief minister, Adam Giles, the local government and community services minister, Bess Price, and the federal Indigenous affairs minister, Nigel Scullion, and signed by 135 elders and senior people.

"We have concerns about the threats to our homelands," it says.

"We see all sorts of news on the television and that makes us worry. We want to be part of the dialogue about homelands and sustainability."

There has been rising concern among remote Indigenous communities in the territory that they could face the same threat of closure as those over the border in Western Australia.

Giles has indicated that the government is likely to accept an offer of $155m from the federal government to take responsibility for municipal and essential services. It is the same deal given to WA which sparked the talk of closures.

However, Giles has said many times that no such consequence would befall the NT.

On Monday he repeated his assurance, and said the government was committed to wearing the cost of providing the services, which he estimates was about $20m a year, once the federal payment had run out.

However, Giles's promise rings hollow in Milingimbi, an elder and spokesman, Nakarrma Mark Guyula, told Guardian Australia.

"We believe that's going to happen the same way in Western Australia," he said.

"We need to see him, for a start. We need to have a talk with him, for a start. He needs to actually listen to us on the grounds here and see if he can solve some of these problems."

Guyula said if the problem lay in educating communities, Giles should be the one to come and speak to them.

"I haven't seen him here walking around with people since he's been the chief minister.

"If there's people in the government making decisions about our children, we need to be consulted; we need to be together."

Giles told media on Tuesday he had not seen the petition yet, but had visited Milingimbi after the two recent cyclones, and recalled a "very good dialogue" with people in a jobs program.

He said the NT government had been speaking with the regional council, local authorities and service providers and was continuing to work towards decentralisation.

The petition also outlines a number of other concerns, including education, jobs, domestic violence, and a fractious community relationship with police.

"We are looking for basic control over our community, to be able to discipline our kids with confidence and to work closer with police," it says.

"We are seeking an ongoing dialogue with ministers and authorities at the highest level to work with us on these issues together."

At the centre of the grievances is a perception that there has been little consultation with the community, Guluya said.

"Everything here since the intervention and the taking over of the shire, people have just been put away in these communities like here and are virtually being forgotten about," he said.

Conditions became worse under the Stronger Futures legislation.

The current relationship with police could be more collaborative, he said, particularly around entry on to sacred and ceremonial grounds. The petition called for greater cross-cultural awareness and officer training.

"The police keep coming and saying, ‘We are the law here and we can go where we want to,' " he said. "We need to talk about this and we need to look at working together on this. There are areas you can't go beyond because it is prohibitive for those who are unauthorised.

"We are not saying strictly no but if the people in upper levels of law and order can come together we can sit down together and have a diplomatic talk."

Noise complaints made to police about funerals and ceremonies had also caused tension, but the group said it stood ready to work with police to keep drugs away from the community.

Also on Monday, Giles said the government was pushing towards local authorities taking on more responsibility and having a greater say on health, education and administration.