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FaHCSIA's Whitewash 'consultation' report - MR by STICS

Working for rations in Tara

Paddy Gibson interviews Aboriginal workers who are painting houses full-time for rations under the NT Intervention.

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Speaking with communities "prescribed" under the NT Intervention, "we are going back to the ration days" is a constant refrain. Feeling an acute loss of autonomy, many older people compare the long lines going out the door in Centrelink for Income Management to the old queues for station rations. Similarly, supermarket 'store-cards' and the new 'basics card' are a reminder of food tokens and 'dog tags' given out by the welfare board.


But for many in the bush, such as the small community of Tara, about 3 hours drive from Alice Springs, the "return to the ration days" is not metaphorical. Under the "bush orders" system, introduced alongside Income Management, boxes of food are being sent out to communities in place of Centrelink entitlements and some people are being forced to work for these rations.


I travelled out to Tara with Barbara Shaw, a strong campaigner against the NT Intervention from Mt Nancy town camp, to investigate stories of hardship we had heard from visitors stopped at her camp. 


We arrived in Tara at the same time as the "bush orders" vehicle, which left as soon as locals had unloaded the boxes. A number of full boxes didn't arrive for people and items were missing from other boxes.


Nathaniel Long explained that this was common, "Sometimes people just miss out, maybe they have to wait like a month or even two months for any to come in. Today they've had to leave for town, a couple of families. They can't wait any more for food. They'll spend the day travelling. Then when they get there, maybe Centrelink says come tomorrow. Then they rely on family in town to stay, to get a feed off."


Kevin Thompson outlined the barriers stopping people accessing their Income Managed funds in town. "Today they'll be battling because they have no ID. They never needed ID to get their money before this Income". He said that people in the community all pull together to deal with the new challenges posed by the system, "we don't have much, but we just share it out when this happens".


There was real disbelief when Barbara explained that Aboriginal Affairs minister Jenny Macklin was telling the rest of Australia Income Management meant more food for bush children.


Kevin said, "its got harder here. We have to get into town more, chasing that Income. We got family coming in, coming to visit and sometimes we don't even have money to give them for fuel to get back". "Its really hard to get food in the community. We don't save money any more. And see long time, until last year, we used to give that other half money to family", said 


Joanne Nakamarra. "We used to give em for Nanna, others, now I don't get it any more with Income. None for sharing. And we got little kids crying. Specially with the kids, they need cold things, cold drinks, but we got no money for that now".


Selma Thompson is really frustrated, "It's so much harder now". She works between 8-12 hours every week sorting out the "bush orders" deliveries and following up mistakes. Her and another worker were initially paid for this, "but the pay stopped on September 16. They don't explain why it stopped, so we are working for nothing".


Stories of unpaid "Intervention work" are too common. In winter the Intervention-installed Government Business Manager from Ali Curung visited Tara to oversee the start of the "community clean up program". This included organising local men to paint the outside of Tara's houses.


Nathaniel was one of the workers. "We worked from 8am to 4pm every weekday for a month and a half. Sometimes on weekends too. They kept telling us we were going to be paid. We filled in time sheets. But we haven't been paid anything".


According to Michael Hayes, a resident who has done lots of work trying to encourage employment programs in Tara, "ten fellas worked doing that painting. And then they just said it was work for the dole. But they never set up contracts, activity agreements that you need for work for the dole".


The pressure is on from Centrelink for more work for the dole projects. "There's things that need to be done in the community, so why can't they pay people properly? Not this Income Management. The young fellas could be doing plumbing, carpentry, ranger work. They're willing, people have filled out so many forms, with Job-find and Centrelink. They promise training courses but it won't happen".


Some young men say Centrelink is threatening to cut them off unless they take work at the local station. But Michael Hayes explains, "the station only pays $50 a day - no one wants to work for $50! That's why these young fellas say no".


"We've gone back 60 years. Working for rations in the new milllenium".