Much training, no jobs - Much planning, no action - Much consulting, no empowerment - Much money, no houses

At the heart of the Elcho Island crisis is infrastructure, or the lack and decay of it. The housing stock is possibly the worst in all remote Australia, yet no new houses for locals have been built since the intervention. Across the whole island, including outstations, the building occupancy rate is 4.1 people per room.

Nicolas Rothwell The Australian May 08, 2010

Richard Gandhuwuy
Clan leader Richard Gandhuwuy was reared in mission times, gaining trade skills and business instincts, and he felt self-management was a realistic goal.
Picture: Vanessa Hunter
Source: The Australian

The neglect of Elcho Island, off the coast of Arnhem Land, is beyond easy repair and almost amounts to destruction.

In Middle Camp, at the crowded heart of Galiwinku community, stands a clutch of dilapidated, tumbledown houses. The families living there, 15 people to a bedroom, are doomed by their circumstances: disease, violence, noise and tension form the constant backdrop to their lives. Their homes are the worst dwellings in the most spectacularly neglected, disadvantaged large community in the Northern Territory, but Middle Camp's devastated condition is almost matched by the rest of the housing stock in this township, the main centre for tropical Elcho Island, just off the coast of northeast Arnhem Land.

About 3000 Aborigines, members of the Yolngu clan groups, speaking a variety of local languages, live here in an idyllic-seeming landscape, presided over by a small contingent of mainstream administrators and helpers. Galiwinku is the biggest and the most densely populated indigenous community in the Top End, but few senior bureaucrats or politicians linger long on their fly-in visits. The island is just too far off the beaten track, and its problems are too intractable.

Yet Elcho, starved of resources, with its crumbling infrastructure and its social anomie, represents the looming future for many remote communities unless some drastic way of transforming Aboriginal life in the bush can be quickly found. The populations of the Territory's main indigenous centres are expanding at breakneck speed, and official policies are designed to concentrate people increasingly into the so-called "growth towns" of the north.

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Galiwin'ku Arial View
Galiwin'ku is the major community on Elcho Island 550 kilometres northeast of Darwin and 150km north west of Nhulunbuy. Elcho Island is part of the Wessel Island group located in the East Arnhem Region of the Northern Territory.

is fast becoming the Top End's first bush metropolis. It is an island of frustrations and unintended outcomes. The locals see the pattern. Much training, no jobs. Much planning, no action. Much consulting, no empowerment.

How, then, in such circumstances, do people live their lives? Inquirer's recent, extended visit revealed a society under extreme stress. It is not so much the jammed-in residential pattern but the bizarre age pyramid that defines the structure of everyday experience. More than 1000 people at Galiwinku are under 15; 600 of them are under six: the policies of the past few years, with extensive family payments and baby bonuses looming large in the subsistence economy, have helped spawn this state of affairs: Elcho is a child-dominated world.

School, though, is a low priority. There should be at least 800 pupils at the local school, where the headmaster presides over 42 teachers and a total of 80 staff. One recent week, there was a strong turnout of 335 pupils in attendance: 300 is the more usual figure and these are not the same students each day, receiving continuity of education. Regular attendance is no guarantee of good outcomes; it is normal for assiduous class-going nine-year-olds, in Year 5, to remain totally illiterate.

Many have other worries.

The medical profile of Yolngu children in Galiwinku has long been poor, but in recent years a new factor has emerged to take centre stage: sexual abuse, doubtless partly triggered by overcrowding. Discreet sexual coupling outdoors between teenagers by night is a feature of life, as is negotiated short-term borrowing of particular rooms in houses for an unofficial couple to spend precious minutes together alone. Some men lend their wives for cash to others in the community, a sign of gravely frayed moral codes in a world as strait-laced as this former Christian mission. Much of the strange social climate relates to sexual tensions caused by the close living environment. The large, sprawling clinic is viewed by some men as a "sexy place" and attacked with rocks because women are exposed to the eyes of strangers there. Jealousy runs hot and causes domestic violence on an epic scale. The same clinic sees cases of family violence daily and hears disturbing testimony: "She's looking at him the wrong way" or "He won't let me out of the room."

But the rooms, and houses, are part of the problem. Under Australian law, it is illegal for children to view any sexual acts. On Elcho, there are probably few children who do not view them regularly and regard them as part of their normal home life. A four-year-old girl was raped recently at a Galiwinku camp: her mother was completely unmoved by the event when she brought the child to hospital. As it happens, the authorities have just begun to pick up the first firm evidence of a sexual abuse plague under way on Elcho. It has almost certainly been seething for years, but the recent fad for unsupervised dance-music parties in the community seems to have provided an inviting backdrop for a larger scale of predation.

School Children at Governors visit
Traditional welcome ceremony
An official visit to Galiwinku by the Governor-General and Mrs Jeffery in 2007.

The traditional welcome ceremony (Yukulul) performed by members of the Mallarra Clan, Ngaymil Clan and Liya-Guwurrmirr Clan.

A series of investigations of suspects has begun but, in such a small, interwoven place, securing the testimony needed to prove abuse can be challenging. The newest cases were all detected on the basis of medical screenings of children or underage women for sexually transmitted infections. Detecting STIs -- which, of course, are not the only indicator of sexual abuse, though they are fairly incontrovertible -- was unusual on Elcho until a year ago, for the simple reason that tests are not routine. "Only a small number of screenings has been done," says one clinic staff member. "Almost all come through positive."

Nurses believe sexual abuse of children runs at 10 per cent to 20 per cent of the underage population. The risk factors are pretty clear: the housing crisis, the lack of jobs and social services, and the lack of referral pathways form the perfect scenario for abuse to thrive. The investigators from the Territory's troubled Families and Community Services Department are viewed by Elcho staff as useless. Their visits from their regional base on the mainland at Gove for assessments of at-risk children or for case management come once in a blue moon.

Sexual abuse reports, when they are made, trigger a different level of intervention. The Sexual Assault Referral Centre swings into action and dispatches a police strike force on dawn raids. These can backfire and not only because evidence fails to stick. Rumours and suspicions fly. One young man, at the centre of tales of sexual abuse after he slipped into a bed that contained a female relative, packed up his belongings and his cherished mobile, wrote a brief note to his family, then walked down through the school grounds to the trees near the fuel stop, where he hung himself.

Suicides, and attempts, are common in this environment, where depression is widespread and paranoia, fed by marijuana and kava intoxication, taints the mood of daily life. Men use violent means, women choose pills.

The broad psychological profile of the island is troubled, despite the presence of a pioneering local-managed mental health service. Its head, Joan Dhamarrandji, cares for 30 seriously afflicted patients and is constantly being summoned out for emergencies. "Cannabis is certainly the cause of most of the cases," she says: "We see everything here, but heavy cannabis use is always triggering psychosis when there's a relationship problem people won't deal with: that's the big pattern."

How does this play out in a family context? Consider Middle Camp again, that epicentre of chaos, where 24-hour gambling sessions bring together scores of adults, while dogs and babies mill around the fringes of the card games. Indoors, children watch television. They are among the 15 per cent of Galiwinku children who suffer from "failure to thrive".

At this level on the statistical index , the World Health Organisation would place a sovereign country on its emergency list.

The bedrooms, in houses of this kind, are dark and fetid: the sacred clan emblems each family treasures are stored under half-rotted floor mattresses. Cockroaches and rats swarm about; indeed, patients with rat scratches are common and one diabetic woman appeared at the clinic recently with several of her toes gnawed off.

Government bureaucrats and managers vaguely know all this, but from the statistical side rather than from the lived experience. A diverting "community assessment" of Galiwinku has just been done by "representatives from a number of departments".

It has a brisk hilarity: "Dog faeces contaminate the environment, lack of privacy or non-functional health hardware forces people to leave their own home to shower or bathe their children. Extremely poor level of actual and perceived personal and property safety, high rates of property crime and violence. Vermin damage housing infrastructure including electrical wiring."

Government will grind on with its project to build -- eventually -- an insufficient number of new houses, and is already paying large sums for the renovation of unrestorably wrecked homes and dwellings. But the locals, unsurprisingly, discern a deeper, political aspect to their plight. They feel authority and control has been taken from them.

Here is Richard Gandhuwuy, one of the clan leaders, who best articulates the long sweep of policy as seen from the Yolngu standpoint. He explored his perspective in a detailed conversation recently at his haven of Dhambala, a homeland south of Galiwinku. What he sees are strong threats to his culture and language, and a set of ill-considered interventions that have sapped local initiative.

He would prefer a new pathway that combines local priorities and a new economic broom: he would welcome co-operative social and business development ventures. Instead, he sees a hysteria of empty consultations and unco-ordinated schemes: "Hundreds of programs, constantly changing. No more Yolngu thinking, our way now, sorry, bad luck, goodbye."

Like others of his senior generation, Gandhuwuy was reared in mission times and gained both trade skills and business instincts, and felt self-management was a realistic goal. He registers the poor results of welfare, and the tides of substance abuse brought from the outside world, and the resultant destruction of traditional authority. And there his analysis comes to its close.

"I simply don't know where the governments want to go and I don't think they know," Gandhuwuy says. "We should be approaching the world together. Instead, they decided for themselves. If they were the ones who put the intervention in here, in our community, it's their responsibility to fix it, make it work. Or is it all just a waste of time?"

Such leaders want both autonomy and help, and feel they are receiving neither.

One long-time medical worker on Elcho believes the society on the island has spiralled, almost unnoticed, into a dark space. As is true across much of the Yolngu realm of northeast Arnhem Land, overall health figures are disquieting, and the vast cohort of the youngest children -- the future -- are the ones showing the poorest wellbeing, which will translate into bad medical outcomes.

The most obvious cause is clear: much of the region is badly under-resourced and its main centres are close to cracking from the strain. This is not the standard wisdom, which looks at the gleaming cultural surface of the Yolngu world, as displayed at the yearly Garma Festival each August, and assumes that all is well. But the culture's flash and air of strength merely masks the poor, dispirited state of its outlying communities.

At the heart of this crisis is infrastructure, or the lack and decay of it. The housing stock on Elcho is possibly the worst in all remote Australia, yet no new houses for locals have been built since the intervention. Across the whole island, including outstations, the building occupancy rate is 4.1 people per room.

By strong convention it is customary to end newspaper articles like this one with a little glimmer of hope, and at least a designation of the right new policy mix to adopt. But in this case that is not possible. The physical neglect of the community, which amounts almost to destruction, is beyond easy repair and entails a dysfunctional social domain. The trap, in short, is sprung.

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