Northern Territory MP Bess Price. Image - www.couriermail.com.au

Northern Territory MP Bess Price. Image – www.couriermail.com.au

The Northern Territory is awash with wealth and has the highest median wages in the world despite nearly one quarter of its population living impoverished. That one quarter is made up predominately of First Peoples, many of them lost in official and unofficial town camps that have the stench of the town camps that corralled people during South Africa’s apartheid. There is little difference between the Northern Territory’s Walpiri and Irrkelantye town camps and of any Africa’s apartheid born town camps such as Kwandebele. There are thousands of impoverished town camps in South Africa. There are thousands of town camps and shanty towns in South Africa to this day but Australia, one of the world’s wealthiest nations languishes many First Peoples in the indignity of hundreds of impoverished town camps that are barely known to most Australians.

The camps are scars of the great racial divide and the racism that haunts the Northern Territory and Australia, as they did and continue to do in South Africa.

But how is it possible that the Northern Territory languishes so many First Peoples in impoverishment – racialized impoverishment? The Northern Territory has a total population of only a quarter million, with one-third First Peoples. The Northern Territory is gaining international attention not only for its impoverished First Peoples but also as a resources-laden mining Eden.

The Fraser Institute’s annual survey of mining and exploration companies reports that the Northern Territory is on the brink of the mining boom. But if the Western Australian mining boom and the two decade long native title debacle are any guide, the fast coming Northern Territory mining will not make one iota of difference to the lives of impoverished First Nations people – except for expected loss of more of their Country.

Territory Minister for mines and energy, Willem Westra van Holthe said that the Territory “topped Australia in the geographical database category which ranks the quality and ease of access of Government geoscience.”

The Fraser Institute’s investment Attractiveness Index ranked the Territory second in Australia.

“Globally, we were ranked 6th out of 112 provinces in the Current Practices Mineral Potential Index which is based on the mineral potential under the current policy environment,” said Mr van Holthe.

Many believe that there has been an agenda to prepare the Northern Territory as a mining boom engine-room. First Peoples and human rights organisations such as Amnesty have long argued that First Peoples are being forced off their Country and corralled into town camps so that access to mining will not be delayed.

But how is this possible when the Northern Territory has the strongest representation of First Peoples in its parliament? How is this possible when the Chief Minister of the Territory is a First Nations man? Maybe we should look no further than the Territory’s Minister for Community Services, Bess Price.

Minister Price’s comments during the last year and a half have been disturbing and despite Ms Price, a First Nations woman, her pitch is one of assimilation.

In February, 2013, the Territory’s Legislative Assembly passed mandatory sentencing laws for violent offenders. The Bill got up but raised alarm bells to many advocates who argued that the Territory’s prison population was at a record high, jailing people at the nation’s highest rate – 1 in 120 of all Territorians jailed – one of the world’s highest rates. 86 per cent of the Territory prison population is comprised of Aboriginal peoples and 98 per cent of the Territory’s juvenile detention population is Aboriginal youth.

In supporting the mandatory sentencing, Minister Price told Parliament that incarceration was a beneficial lesson and opportunity.

“While they are being imprisoned, they don’t get to drink, they don’t get into trouble, they are fed three times a day.”

“They are in there with their family members,” said Minister Price.

“They sleep in their language groups and they all come out of prison much healthier.”

This is not my experience as a long-time custodial systems researcher and visitor to prisons and as someone who has worked with people post-release. It is my experience that people come out of prison worse than they went in. The post-release suicide rates speak loudly, sadly.

I am not alone in my criticism of Minister Price’s comments.

At the time, the Northern Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency’s Jonathon Hunyor said ABC journalist Penny Timms that Minister Price’s comments were “a very sad indictment of where our system is.”

Mr Hunyor said that if the best a Government Minister can offer is to suggest prison is “where people can dry out” or that they are “a safe environment” then the Government has a long way to go to get its act together.

Ms Hunyor said that the living conditions of many people “are very bad but the solution isn’t sending people to prison.”

“The millions of dollars we spend on locking people up, we should be spending on improving the lives of Aboriginal people.”

And more recently, Minister Price, who for many was elected as a voice and advocate for First Peoples, made some disturbing comments. The small community of Irrkelantye – also known as Whitegate – only 3.5kms east of Alice Springs had its water supply cut off. Without clean water illnesses are born, including the spread of trachoma. Wherever clean or chlorinated water has been introduced subsequently infections and diseases reduce within the local populations.

Irrkelantye is one of Alice Springs 17 town camps but the local government does not service it because it has not been issued a Special Purposes Lease.

When news media first approached Minister Price she refused to comment. Later in the afternoon Minister Price issued a statement. In her statement she washed her hands of Irrkelantye and passed the buck to the representative native title body, Lhere Artepe. But as a Minister she should have brought Lhere Artepe to account if they had been singularly responsible for the cutting off the water supply. Minister Price stated that she was instead focused on “a major sub division” happening near Irrkelantye.

The most disturbing statement by Minister Price was that “Whitegate is on vacant crown land.” One moment she is passing the buck to Lhere Artepe and arguing them as the region’s native title representative and in the same statement she pitches the bizarre statement of ‘vacant crown land’.”

And then, Minister Price argues that the Irrkelantye is an unofficial town camp and therefore its residents are not the responsibility of the Territory Government. Wow, what an advocate for First Peoples Minister Price is!

The Territory’s Opposition Labor leader, Delia Lawrie said Minister Price was risking the health and wellbeing of Irrkelantye families.

“Minister Price is directly responsible for the supply of water to Whitegate residents. She and the Government should not pretend they didn’t cut off the water. This is disgraceful. Where else in Australia has this occurred?”

“Minister Price should set aside her other issues with Whitegate and ensure that they have water as they have had for many years,” said Ms Lawrie.

Minister Price’s statements are not rogue comments but the policy of the Territory Government. There are systemic patterns born of Government policies right throughout the Territory. Look at Utopia.

The Government will not even tip $35,000 for a new bore for Utopia’s Urapuntja Health Service Aboriginal Corporation. The existing bore has broken down. The Health Service has been without its bore water for 100 days. You would think there would have been urgent repair organised by the Barkly Shire or the Territory Government. But there has not been.

Arrernte Elder, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks said, “The Barkly Shire is in chaos.”

“The $35,000 to repair the bore is pittance. Those affected are without adequate levels of water. Clean water is needed for good health and there has been an outbreak of scabies because of the lack of clean water and lack of showers.”

“We stepped in to argue for the water to be reconnected to Whitegate. Now we need the bore repaired at Utopia.”

Other media had reported that the 16 outstations on the homelands around Utopia were without water but this is not true. They have bores of their own. But for nearly 100 days water has been trucked in from Tennant Creek to the Urapuntja Health Service.

“This bore supplied water to the clinic and to the primary school.”

“This is about the well-being about our people, the people of Utopia. What is happening is that everybody has washed their hands of doing something about the bore, about repairing it, and in this day and age, this is criminal,” said Ms Kunoth-Monks.

“The Government needs to be exposed for what it is not doing.”

It took a social media campaign and the intervention of Elders such as Ms Kunoth-Monks to have the water supply reconnected at Irrkelantye. It may take another social media campaign to push the Territory Government to do the right thing and repair the water supply at Utopia.

In the meantime residents of Utopia are having to minimise their water use, save on water, and they are doing it by not washing clothes, not showering – this leads to illnesses.

Where are Minister Price and the Territory Government on all this? No comment thus far.