No Voice can fix this chaos

People are dying as politicians ignore the real problems afflicting Aboriginal communities

Features Australia

John-Paul Baladi

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John-Paul Baladi

20 May 2023

9:00 AM

Having recently returned ‘down south’ from almost a year spent living and working in the Northern Territory, I could not be more opposed to the proposed Voice to Parliament.

Like many other Sydneysiders, I had previously held tepid support for the idea; influenced by the overpowering messaging by public figures, activists and sections of the media claiming that the ‘voice’ was endorsed by all indigenous Australians, and was the best way to ‘close the gap’.

Having previously helped organise the Country Liberal Party’s campaign in the federal division of Lingiari (a seat which encompasses the entire Northern Territory save Darwin and surrounds), I spent two months travelling across vast stretches of the Outback, learning and understanding the real issues facing the most disadvantaged indigenous communities in the nation.

I was not an onlooker or observer – I was in remote Aboriginal communities speaking alongside our candidates with elders, traditional owners and community leaders about what issues they faced and what solutions they proposed.

Crime and antisocial behaviour, drug and alcohol-fuelled family violence, an extreme undersupply of remote housing and rapidly declining education and literacy rates are but some of the issues plaguing these communities.

In the town of Tennant Creek, I spent an evening sitting with the Jurnkkurakurr Volunteers. This group of local elders, mostly women, have used their cultural authority to discourage and repel the violence and vandalism of the town since their only grocery store was burned down by primary school children in 2020.

I met a school teacher in the community of Wallace Rockhole who looked after the local school of 50 students. That day, only two of those 50 had come to school. Apparently this was the norm.

After spending time with one of the directors of an Indigenous art centre in Wurrumiyanga, I learned that amateur gambling was rife across the region and was one of the root causes of antisocial behaviour on the island. I witnessed countless card games taking place in the streets of the community. It was so bad that a community leader would not accept a gift of drink coasters from me, knowing they would inevitably end up in a punter’s game of some sort.

Driving to Gunbalanya, I learnt of the desperate need for road upgrades on the Arnhem Highway and beyond. Unsealed dirt roads stretching hundreds of kilometres separate communities from their closest neighbours and hinder access to basic needs.

I spoke with a stern school administrator whose role it was to allocate boarding school opportunities to local indigenous students, who was sacked prior to the elevation of his students to their final year of high school. In his absence, not a single member of that cohort attended Year 12.

Then there is the civil war in the Daly River community of Wadeye. So many horrific stories have been front and centre in the local news about the 22 clans fighting each other. In this small community, over one hundred houses have been burnt down, multiple people have been speared to death (yes, you read that correctly) and others have gone missing or have been displaced.

In Yuendumu I witnessed family violence caused by disagreements over royalty money paid out to a traditional owner family. It was not uncommon to hear about large sums of money (in the tens of thousands) essentially disappearing within days of a payout due to various forms of ‘humbug’ and financial illiteracy.

Not a single community leader I spoke with ever voiced support for the ‘Voice to parliament’ or saw it as a real or practical solution to the chaos. From Kakadu to the Tiwi Islands, from Areyonga to Santa Teresa, from Darwin to Katherine, and from Alice Springs to Yulara; the Uluru Statement from the Heart was not even an afterthought in the remedies and solutions articulated by so many indigenous leaders.

For non-indigenous people ‘down south’ to assume that the hundreds of indigenous cultural groups from across our vast nation are in favour of the proposed ‘voice’ is naive.

I have come away from my time in the Territory with an appreciation for the issues and priorities of remote indigenous Australia and particularly how they compare to the priorities and rhetoric of our cultural and political leaders.

Supporters of the Voice to Parliament say it will be about practical measures on the ground. So will Anthony Albanese act on the open letter urging him to reinstate the Stronger Future legislation, signed earlier this year by the leaders of nine influential indigenous organisations? Or will he listen to his Labor member for Lingiari, an Aboriginal woman from a remote community, who has also spoken strongly in favour of reinstating alcohol bans?

It seems as though those most vocally in favour of the Voice to parliament are the least willing to listen to the real voices in remote communities.

Unfortunately this anarchy is not confined to remote communities.

Declan Laverty was working the evening shift at a Darwin BWS when he was brutally stabbed to death. Declan’s death has plagued my mind and shaken my core; it occurred mere metres away from where I worked.

Last week in Darwin, a 23-year-old Bangladeshi student at Charles Darwin University was bludgeoned to death in his apartment by a home-invader.

The student association organised a ‘demonstration against violence’ where the CDU vice-chancellor conceded he could no longer tell prospective students ‘that Darwin was a safe place to live’.

The ongoing ‘anti-crime’ protests in Darwin have attracted thousands upon thousands of residents. They call for the government to act and they mourn the ever growing list of lives lost too soon.

The Northern Territory’s two senators and the member for Lingiari are all indigenous women from remote Aboriginal communities, they account for exactly 75 per cent of its federal representatives. Moreover, in the Territory parliament about one quarter of representatives are indigenous, an almost identical reflection of the electorate.

Excluding the sensible solutions and practical approaches of perspicacious Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, an overrepresentation of indigenous ‘voices’ in parliament has only seen the crime, chaos, and instability get worse.

It seems remote voices are being ignored, the voices of scared and mourning Territorians are being disregarded, and there is little to no action from the Territory’s indigenous parliamentarians.

Not only must we ponder on the efficacy of the Prime Minister’s proposal, but we must ask ourselves what difference it will make to the most vulnerable when so many voices aren’t being heard and those few empowered indigenous leaders sacrifice their convictions in order to toe party lines.

A Voice is not needed to articulate the problems afflicting our indigenous communities, those problems are plain to see, just take a trip to the Territory. Problem gambling, excessive alcohol consumption, family violence, a failing education system, financial illiteracy; these are the problems in our indigenous communities. While proponents of the Voice continue to debate high-brow constitutional provisions, the real issues in these communities will continue to be ignored.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

John-Paul Baladi is the former Territory Director of the Country Liberal Party.

Published by Nelle

I am interested in writing short stories for my pleasure and my family's but although I have published four family books I will not go down that path again but still want what I write out there so I will see how this goes

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