Aboriginal Leaders respond to the Forrest Review

1 October 2014

“Indigenous man Ray Peters slumps against a hot tin wall at a Kununurra carpark, at the exact spot his granddaughter was stabbed to death a few months ago.

His legs point to the blackened blood stains where the young woman fell; the life punctured from her body by a knife to the chest.

Sometimes he sits under the commemorative flowers to remember the girl whose name may never be spoken, according to tribal law. Sometimes he drinks to forget.

“I am an alcoholic,” the 67-year-old said matter-of-factly.

On the other side of the Kimberley town, Daniel McAdams, 7, looks happy and healthy as he plays football with his sisters.

Elder sister Kenya, a final year high school student, eschews drugs and alcohol. She dreams of a job on the mines and holds family dear.

“I love being with my siblings. It’s all I need,” she said.

The two examples are polar aspects of Aboriginal life in Kununurra, which has emerged as the first town in Australia to give widespread public support to the Forrest review into indigenous welfare, health and education.

And the extremes speak to the review’s central notion that the disparity experienced between Aboriginals and mainstream society has nothing to do with indigenality and everything to do with the general lack of opportunity and support.

While some politicians have distanced themselves from key aspects of the review, indigenous leaders in the East Kimberley and the local shire have boldly called for the introduction of most of its 27 recommendations.

The leaders are desperate for change to stem the substance abuse, crime, mental health problems and foetal alcohol spectrum disorder in the area.

A few years ago a spate of suicides prompted an inquiry by the WA coroner. While the rate has dropped, a 12-year-old Wyndham girl committed suicide last year and children as young as eight are engaging in self-harm.

Alcohol and marijuana are the main drugs in use but methamphetamine, or ice, is a worrying addition to the local drug market.

Crime is an ongoing problem, with a 13-year-old boy in Kununurra racking up more than 65 convictions so far. Kununurra deli owner Joe Tosun has lost count of how many times he has been robbed and vandalised.

Ian Trust, chairman of the Wunan Foundation, said the Kununurra-based corporation, and eight others under the Empowered Communities banner, was philosophically aligned to the Forrest review.

Mr Trust, WA’s 2013 indigenous person of the year, supported the controversial recommendation for the so-called Healthy Welfare Card.

The card would prohibit all welfare recipients except pensioners and veterans from buying alcohol and, as a cashless EFTPOS system, make it hard to buy drugs.

“We see this Forrest review as a good opportunity to empower our people and one of the first things you’ve got to do is break that reliance on welfare,” he said.

“Welfare is meant to be a safety net but it can become a trap because it affects people’s self-esteem and they never move on from that.”

Des Hill, chairman of the MG Corporation, also supported the review and welfare restrictions, claiming a Healthy Welfare Card would reduce alcohol abuse but would not be foolproof.

“The card will make no difference unless individuals want to make a change but, for those who do, it will be a stepping stone out of a rut.”

Ken Riddiford, chief executive of Ngnowar Aerwah from nearby Wyndham, was broadly supportive of the Forrest review but not entirely behind the “punitive” welfare card.

Mr Riddiford said he preferred to focus on incentive-based change, such as the review’s recommendation for a social-housing model that gives priority to those in employment and who send their children to school.

The indigenous leaders agreed the current model which provides social housing to the unemployed was a systemic disincentive to employment.

The Forrest recommendation seems to draw on Wunan’s transitional housing initiative, which Mr Trust estimates had reduced truancy by 20 per cent by linking eligibility to school attendance.

The review is critical of mainstream job providers, calling the system a “cash barbecue” and proposing a new system based on the VTEC funding model which is paid by job placements lasting at least 26 weeks.

Jeremy Donovan, chief executive of Mr Forrest’s GenerationOne, was scathing of mainstream job providers, which have relatively little funding tied to long-term placements. In Kununurra this week , Mr Donovan said mainstream training programs often failed to meet the needs of employers and the unemployed.

“These Registered Training Organisations come up and run fishing programs for our mob but we’ve been fishing for thousands of years.” Shire president John Moulden said almost all recommendations in the review had strong council support. He rejected allegations of paternalism in the review, and said the town enjoyed good race relations.

He believed only 15 families in Kununurra were responsible for the bulk of the problems.

Rita Boombi is one of the many local indigenous people living by her traditional culture, teaching 200 schoolchildren how to speak the traditional Miriwoong language through the local language centre.

She believes it helps to connect young people to their traditions.

“Mostly they feel no one cares for them, that they don’t really belong anywhere, but if they focus (on their roots) they can live happily.”

The Walk Free Foundation paid the reporter’s flights to and from Kununurra

The West Australian September 14, 2014

Topic: Wunan