Going walkabout with Alice

By Hone Harawira
Maori Party Member of Parliament, Tai Tokerau
( also available on www.tokerau.co.nz )

Last Wednesday, 8 August 2007, I flew in to Alice Springs to be met by a big-smiling Maori guy, Gerry Lyons, who owned an SUV with the killer number plate HIKOI. He would be my guide for the next couple of days. I had a chat to an Aboriginal singer heading down south to make some money in the big smoke, then pop pop pop! Cameras flashing, cameras rolling and microphones jammed in my face. What are you doing here? Do you stand by your comments about John Howard? Who do you hope to see?

And from then on it was 100 miles-an-hour.

First stop the CENTRAL AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINAL MEDIA ASSOCIATION to meet with some of the media types who would be following me on my visit. CAAMA is the central hub from where they run Aboriginal TV, CAAMA Radio and Imparja TV, all beaming up to the Optus 2 satellite and out to communities all over Australia. I did a pre-recorded radio interview and met the local mayor too.

Then it was round the corner for a meeting with the local tribe, the LHERE ARETEPE. The big chief came in from the bush just to meet me and we talked about economic development, poverty, alcoholism and a whole bunch of other stuff. After our korero was over, he gave me 2 beautifully hand-painted boomerangs – the big killing ones that don't come back, not the flash little symmetrical ones you see in the shops. Awesome guy and I was humbled by his gift.

Then out west for a 150 kms to see one of the main elders in the little community of HERMANNBURG. A gentle soul like a lot of our own kaumätua, but with a backbone of steel. Apparently when the government called a community meeting, he told his people they were only to speak their own language so the government agents got a taste of what it was like not to understand what was going on. Ouch!

He said neither Howard nor Brough, their Indigenous Affairs Minister, had consulted with any of the community leaders before Howard announced his intervention plans and that he only managed to keep up with things by watching the news on TV, or hearing back from the Central Aboriginal Land Council.

We finished the day with a big munch with some of the locals and then slow-cruised it back to town in the dark, in case we hit kangaroos jumping out on the road.


Next morning I was welcomed to the TANGENTYERE COUNCIL by the founding president, Geoff Shaw OAM. He'd been to Malaya and done two tours of Vietnam, but was considering handing back his medals because of his anger at what his government was doing to his people. He's a fine old gentleman, but clearly, his missus was the boss.

As soon as the formalities were over, her and her daughter Barbara dragged me round their Council base, showing me their bank, post office (where they held mail for everyone living in the town camps around Alice Springs), food voucher system, mobile child support programme, housing project, elders support services and their medical health office. Bloody awesome stuff really. EXACTLY the kind of dedicated community programmes that the people needed, but you think John "Wayne" Howard bothers to talk to them or look around the place? Not even. Doesn't suit his purpose.

Then we went out for a tour of the TOWN CAMPS. Now Alice Springs is smack dab in the middle of Australia and has been a gathering place for thousands of years. Since the white folks got there though, there's two gathering places. There's the township, where all the good white folks and a smattering of indigenous folk live and there's 21 town camps scattered all round Alice Springs. Originally used as stopovers for Aboriginals coming into town from the Outback when the only places to stay were 'humpis' (bark huts), they now host concrete block homes, with electricity, water and not a lot else.

And dare I say it, in a country known as the golden land, they look like something out of Soweto, South Africa. In a land that trumpets it's success in every other endeavour, the town camps are proof that the 'golden ones' have chosen not to include the indigenous people in the nations drive for wealth and success.

It was tough seeing the conditions some of them were living in and yet they were trying desperately hard to live with dignity and hope. I stopped for lunch with one family, where kangaroo tail was the main dish and the mum showed me through her home. It was nothing flash but it was clean and she had great hopes for her kids [that's them and their cousins in the photo]. I met a couple of old ladies who had been living there for more than 40 years and were proud of the changes that had happened.

And yet for all the good feelings I had for them, still I cried. For them, their children, their grandchildren and for the generations yet to come, because Howard's plan is not one of development and growth. It's not a plan to help people lift themselves out of despair. It's a plan to take over thousands of square miles of Aboriginal land, to strangle what little funding and work they have now, to control every aspect of their lives and to turn them into docile little robots. And if you think that's going to fix child abuse and alcoholism, then you're the one who needs help.

Then it was back into a meeting of the COMBINED ABORIGINAL ORGANISATIONS, including reps from about 12 different groups – iwi groups, community groups, medical associations, media groups, social service groups – the lot. And the discussions? Fiery, heated, vigorous, robust, all the emotions and energy I can recall from my activist days. They were absolutely and passionately against Howard's plans and were planning a long campaign of opposition, steps to save their own community programmes from being slashed and challenging one another to improve their own success rates.

I was impressed by the years of effort they had been putting in with minimal support from government and the commitment they had for their people's future. And again, to no-ones surprise, Howard hadn't bothered to talk to any of them either, which raises another question … how come Howard calls it a national emergency but doesn't bother talking to any of the ones affected by his announcement? No prizes for guessing that consultation was never part of his plan.

We managed to get a quick bite to eat, then it was round up the troops and back into town to hook up with the NIGHT PATROL. The Patrol is a division of the Tangentyere Council, funded by government for the vehicles and community funding for some of their wages. They don't get much. They do it more for love than money. They're out every night lookin' out for Aboriginal people either lost or drunk around town and pick them up and take them home to their camps. They also run messages for their health and housing services and tour the camps to make sure there's not too much trouble. They keep proper notes to show their funders and they're often out till 3, 4 in the morning. And they're aboriginal like everyone they pick up and they genuinely care for their own.

Our couple of hours with them was relatively light actually. We picked up one woman (sober) in town and ran her out to her camp. We stopped and offered to pick up another guy (sober) but he was just waiting for a cab. And then we called round to pass on a message for a young girl who had an appointment at the hospital the next day. Everyone at the house was drunk and even the Night Patrol could make no sense of what they were saying, so we left the message and jumped back in our truck. It was a quiet night actually and nothing like the picture Howard had been painting, except for one incident …

Our TVNZ camera crew got a bit carried away. I'd told them to stay in their truck, but lights, cameras, action - they were out there filming away in the dark, spooking everyone with their krieg lights and just managed to get back into their truck when crack! a rock goes through their back window. Big wheelie and they were outta there!

But the alcoholism was mind-blowing - widespread and hugely, hugely depressing. I could see how expanding the Tangentyere's efforts would make a difference. I could see how real work programmes, respect and education would improve their self-esteem and lower the alcoholism. But I wondered why Howard didn't think to shut down all the liquor outlets in Alice Springs, all owned of course by the nice white folks, but then I guess that was never going to happen. And for the life of me, I just can't see how taking Aboriginal land for 99 years will make any difference except further alienate a people already alienated in their own land.


Friday was just a blur of thank yous, press calls, a rush to the airport and 12 hours later, I was back in Aotearoa at 1.30pm, tired but pleased to be home.


OK, so here's some of the questions you really want to ask:

Was it worth it? Yes, definitely. By going there, I was able to generate international television exposure for the plight of the Aboriginal people.

What about what you were supposed to be there for? The Justice and Electoral Committee visit was well organised and very intensive. Our committee clerk did an excellent job in putting together a programme looking into electoral matters, victims' rights, electoral finance, legal services and human rights, from both state and federal levels. I spent two full days with the committee before heading north.

Did you tell anyone you were going? Yes. I notified both my Party and the Committee before leaving to go north.

What about the criticism that you broke away from the official visit and should be punished for that? Ridiculous and petty really. I'm not the first MP that left an official trip and I won't be the last. The difference is I paid for all my own costs while I was away, the work that I did was consistent with my role as an MP and my activities were well documented.

Were you disappointed by the criticism from your parliamentary colleagues? Yes, because they were mainly Maori MPs and they ought to know better. Still, life goes on and I want to work with them on our own child abuse issues.

Will you pay any fines if that is what parliament orders? No fuss. It's not the money that matters, it's the principle, BUT, seeing as how it was NZ First that made the complaint, I suggest a deal. What say I pay back the two days I was up in Alice … 5 minutes after NZ First pays back the money they still haven't paid back for their overspending from the last election? … That isn't righteous bluster, huffing and puffing I can hear, is it …?

Shouldn't you have stayed home in the week Nia Glassie was buried? Maori have a saying – na koutou e tangi, na tätou katoa. When you cry, we all cry. It's not necessary that I attend a tangi just because some nasty and malicious soul wants to score points from my absence. There are 365 days in a year and I work for my people on every one of them – including the two days I spent in Alice Springs.

What did you learn from your visit?

I met more Aboriginal leaders from in and around Alice Springs and I visited more of the so-called problem areas, in the 2 days I was there, than John Howard's done in the last 2 years. What makes him an expert?
What about the 'Little Children are Sacred' report that Howard quoted. Wasn't that written by experts? Yes it was. It had 97 recommendations. Howard implemented none of them.
There are genuine problems in the Aboriginal community regarding child abuse and alcoholism. Same same for Maori. Resourcing and supporting those communities to beat it themselves, is far better than stealing their land and cutting their jobs.
If you want to cut alcoholism, start by looking at the sellers of alcohol.
Aboriginal people need a national political presence to help fight their battles.

Do you stand by your criticisms of John Howard? Ae Märika. Yes!

And finally, what does kangaroo tail taste like? It's what you'd call an acquired taste…

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