Intervention-style threat for neglected community

Sydney Morning Herald May 7th, 2012

Toomelah, a small community near the New South Wales - Queensland border faces an uncertain future.

A Quarter of a century after Marcus Einfeld wept at the sight of Toomelah's children playing in raw sewage, the community has been told it must accept an intervention-style takeover or face the demolition of the township and relocation of residents.

The former Aboriginal mission just shy of the Queensland border in the state's north-west, which shot to the national spotlight in 1987 when Mr Einfeld's human rights commission inquiry found 500 people were sharing one tap, has reached crisis point again.

The threat of drastic action to tackle poverty, poor health, truancy, rundown infrastructure, alcohol and drug abuse, violence and chronic unemployment was made during a series of meetings between government agencies and residents over the past three weeks.

While the NSW government denies either option is under consideration, it acknowledged previous attempts to address Toomelah's problems had failed and new approaches were being canvassed. "The situation in Toomelah is shocking and heartbreaking," the Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Victor Dominello, said. "It cannot be acceptable to any government or any community leader."

But the prospect of forced removal or government intervention similar to that in the Northern Territory has terrified the fraught township of about 300, where many blame successive government policies for the pitiful state of their home.

One official said Toomelah, serviced by more than 60 government and non-government agencies, was "the most depressing place in the world" and there were few options left. "The place is squalor at the moment," the official said. "It would be better off to relocate everyone because you cannot sustain it. People live like this because they choose to."

When the Herald visited last week, sewage pooled in the open between houses, numerous buildings were gutted by vandals, rubbish littered the streets, and residents talked of multiple suicide attempts each month.

"I drove in there last week and I cried," said an elder, Madeleine McGrady - who moved away a year ago for health reasons. "I've never seen it so bad."

The school, which the Herald was told only half of Toomelah's children attend, was broken into eight times in the Easter holidays, she said.

Others blamed a lack of help from the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, which stopped funding the local land council more than two years ago after it failed to meet its legal responsibilities. But the state body said it has been helping, particularly over the past few years.

"Ultimately, the Toomelah community must be empowered to tackle their own problems and the NSW Aboriginal Land Council will continue to assist in this regard," a spokesman said.

The community now fears it could be one of at least four NSW Aboriginal communities, including Walgett and Wilcannia, facing intervention-style programs. "[We were told] they're going to come in and bulldoze the whole community down, every structure, and the only thing that's going to be left standing is our cemetery," a resident, Glynis McGrady, said.

A spokeswoman for the federal Indigenous Affairs Minister, Jenny Macklin, said the Commonwealth had not proposed "appointing a government manager to the community or relocating the community". She would not say why a senior departmental official, James Christian, attended meetings at Toomelah last week, or when the minister herself last visited the stricken township. Read more: