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The Australian has been criticised by award-winning Journalist Brian Johnstone in a column for Tracker magazine, for what he called the “media frenzy” surrounding their reporting of alleged starvation of children on South Australia’s Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands. As Johnstone states, a significant amount of facts and voices have yet to be reported on in the mainstream media’s version of events.

On the 2nd of September of this year, The Australian published an article entitled Aborigines ‘starving’, which reported on the Red Cross delivering food aid to “impoverished people living in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in South Australia’s far north”. This was an “exclusive” report quoting “two of the nation’s most respected Aboriginal leaders,” Noel Pearson and Mick Gooda, demanding a “dramatic federal government intervention to quarantine welfare payments and allow families to buy food in troubled remote communities in South Australia.”

On the 10th of September The Australian ran a larger story named Children Should Not Go Hungry which claimed the “revelations of social dislocation and children going hungry,” in the APY Lands are “disturbing and require urgent attention”. It noted that some commentators were “calling for Intervention-style measures to ensure families’ incomes are managed so that enough money is kept aside to feed the children. A stand-off between federal and state governments is not good enough. Action is needed now”.

Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands

Since then, 67 related articles have been published in The Australian (in print and online), that have many similar themes with those stories published prior to, and during, the Northern Territory Intervention. That is, a preoccupation with the welfare of children, a disproportionately large amount of sources in favour of Government intervention, a lack of engagement with Indigenous people living in the communities in question, and a willingness to support the notion of an ‘emergency situation’ in which the Government must intervene, prior to consultation with Aboriginal communities.

Because of its status as the nation’s legitimised national newspaper, The Australian’s continual reporting on the APY Lands story serves as a valuable case study in a wider investigation of news frames that, when viewed as a whole, seem to value the characteristics of a ‘moral panic’ involving children, and thus support the notion of a ‘obligation’ to intervene, practically and symbolically, into the lives of (almost entirely un-quoted) Aboriginal Australians.

By gathering all news stories on the APY Lands produced in the last few months by The Australian, one can immediately see a number of reoccurring themes. The concept of a ‘moral emergency’; a concern for the welfare of children; a willingness to ‘intervene’, whether it be in terms of what local Indigenous people should eat, where they should shop and how their welfare money should be quarantined (rather than if it should be quarantined); the failure of the S.A Labour Government to stop this hunger, and by extension the call for Government staff to resign; the recited opinion of a few Indigenous public figures who are usually supporters of Government intervention and income management; and lastly, the opinion of state and federal opposition members like Tony Abbott, who are calling for the immediate compulsory quarantining of all welfare payments, as well as supporting the Government’s proposal of docking the welfare payments for all parents whose children don’t turn up to school.

The lack of consultation with Indigenous peoples actually from this area, or ‘on the ground’, is significantly minimal.

South Australia Aboriginal Affairs Minister Grace Portolesi

As Johnstone’s analysis reveals, while this “disaster” was being heavily reported on, the Nganampa Health Council, a health organisation owned and operated by the local Anangu people of the APY region, issued a press release headed Facts wrong on APY food problems. It said “The statements from various NGOs, some Aboriginal spokespersons and national media organisations claiming widespread severe malnutrition amongst children on the APY Lands are simply wrong,” said Mr John Singer, Director of Nganampa Health Council. “Certainly poverty is a major problem on the APY Lands but it is complex and uneven in its effects. This does mean that some parents have problems in consistently providing healthy food for their families, but our health service data shows that despite this poverty there has been marked improvement in the growth and nutrition of children on the Lands.”

“An emergency response to poverty is not what is needed. What is needed are sustainable ways to reduce poverty” he added. Two days later, the Aboriginal Health Council of South Australia issued their own media statement, supporting the facts and views expressed by the Nganampa Health Council.

Both statements have to date, been completely ignored by The Australian, when reporting on the APY Lands story. In fact, the Nganampa Health Council were so desperate to get their side of the story out, that they ended up taking out a paid advertisement, at their own expense, in The Australian and the Murdoch-owned Adelaide Advertiser, to run their press release in full.

As the Nganampa Health Council media release states, Indigenous disadvantage on the APY Lands has been an issue for decades, as it has been all over Australia. As Johnstone’s piece highlights however, there is something disconcerting about our national newspaper publishing 67 articles in the last 61 days, on an issue that they’ve largely ignored up until now, and all while barely consulting anyone living on the region in question.

As Brian Johnstone stated “The media furor over starvation in the APY Lands neglected the Aboriginal people who have been dealing with the problem for decades’.

For Eva Cox’s recent “The Media Release Jenny Macklin Should’ve Written on the N.T Intervention“, which coincides with the release of the Government’s “Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory” report, click: here.

A recent protest held in Bankstown demanded an end to next year’s nation-wide trial of compulsory income management, which will see $4500 spent on each individual per annum, under the Northern Territory-style system.

The Not in Bankstown, Not Anywhere coalition of Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups organised the rally of over 100 local figures and supporters, in order to send a clear message to Federal Government, that income management will stigmatise already vulnerable members of the community by quarantining 50-70 percent of their welfare payments on the BasicsCard.

Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon on income management in Bankstown

Bankstown is one of five trial sites that are set to receive income management, in which recipients, mostly migrant and refugee groups, must shop for food and other ‘necessary items’, using a separate queue at Government-approved stores, namely Woolworths and Coles.

Speaking at the rally was Alice Springs Campaigner Barbara Shaw, who has lived under the Intervention since its inception. “The thing that I hate about going shopping with my BasicsCard, and I see it on everyone else’s faces too, is the treatment and attitudes of the shop assistants and other customers” said Shaw, “I’ve witnessed shop keepers putting away food that might be vital for a family, without asking, if customers don’t have enough on their BasicsCard. It’s shameful the way we have to put up with that. But if we respond, they just get rude.”

Barbara Shaw on living under the Intervention.

Members of the Not in Bankstown, Not Anywhere coalition fear that this kind of treatment will spread from being targeted solely at Indigenous communities under the Northern Territory Emergency Response, to the 20,000 new Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who are deemed socially disadvantaged by the Government. As some commentators have noted however, Bankstown is statistically less disadvantaged then many nearby areas.

Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon, who also spoke to the crowd in Paul Keating Park, labelled the continuation and spread of the Intervention’s policy of income management “the rottenest policy that this government has come up with” adding that the $117.5 million scheme is “money that should be going on creating jobs and creating social services that are so badly needed in this area.”

Protesters against compulsory income management in Bankstown. Photo: Tamara Dean.

Bankstown Elder Aunty Carol Carter expressed her anger over the continued Intervention into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, saying “They’re removing people from their country where they’re comfortable and pushing them into communities in town, where they’ve got problems with alcohol. If they want to see drunken violence, they should go to Kings Cross and they’ll see that every Friday and Saturday night.”

Aunty Carol was one of many people at the protest who voiced opposition to the Government plan, stating it was discriminatory and demeaning. “How dare they tell us what food stuffs to buy” she said, “The Government should be absolutely ashamed of themselves. They started it, and it will stop here in Bankstown.”

Paddy Gibson on the effects of the Basicscard.

Executive Director of the Arab Council of Australia and Bankstown resident Randa Kattan, will travel back to Alice Springs with local Barbara Shaw, to support Indigenous leaders in opposing income management and to speak to residents about the effects of being on the BasicsCard.

For a related in-depth article on the protest in Bankstown, click: here.

The Federal Government’s proposal to roll-out income management in Bankstown was protested outside the office of MP Tanya Plibersek on the 26th August, with Indigenous spokespeople, activist groups and union representatives gathering to demand an end to the Northern Territory Intervention, as well as the expansion of income management nation-wide.

The plan to expand the BasicsCard in July 2012 will cost $117.5 million over five years and will see income management introduced to Bankstown and four other trial sites across Australia. Daphne Lake, Aboriginal Elder and Bankstown resident slammed the proposal stating, “We don’t want to go back to those days, the ration days… It’s just going backwards”.

Sue and Daphne Lake speaking at the Gurindji Freedom Day Rally, oustide the office of MP Tanya Plibersek

The rally marked the 45th anniversary of Gurindji Freedom Day, celebrating the Wave Hill Walk-off, with similar demonstrations being held around the country in solidarity with the 1000-strong protest and celebration at Kalkarindji in the Northern Territory, the original site of the 1966 walk-off. But Gurindji spokesman John Leemans says the Intervention has taken away many of the rights his people fought hard to win stating, “We want control of our land back. We want to be able to practice our culture and speak our language. We want jobs created so we can work in our community”. But rather than ‘closing the gap’, Government statistics show that in the last four years Indigenous incarceration rates have risen by almost 30 percent, school attendance is down in many places, and suicide has increased.

Currently in the Northern Territory, Indigenous people have fifty percent of their Centrelink payments quarantined onto the BasicsCard. This card can only be used to purchase goods at Woolworths or Coles in prescribed areas, making it difficult for Indigenous communities to remain living on their traditional homelands.

Many non-Indigenous Bankstown residents have expressed concern that they’ll also be put on the BasicsCard. Sue Gillett, daughter of Daphne Lake and member of the Public Service Association NSW, spoke about the de-racialisation of income management, saying the policy will potentially apply to refugee and migrant groups, “Now they’re looking at us as the big disadvantaged groups, not looking at the factors that might be contributing to disadvantage or the things that people need to help them out of that cycle,” adding that “consultation about this has been very woeful; Bankstown didn’t even know it was coming their way”.

“It’s a band aid effect to a very complex social issue, and managing the income of people is not going to solve anything. All it will do is drive the issues that compound disadvantage underground. People will not report if they’re victims of domestic violence, because that would mean an automatic referral to Centrelink to be on income management. And this will have a flow-on effect to frontline state services”, she said.

The protest was also attended by members of the newly-formed Say No to Government Income Management: Not in Bankstown, Not Anywhere Coalition, a group which has more than forty organisations including faith-based agencies, businesses and peak bodies endorsing their position against income management.

A satirical take on the Basicscard

Speaking on behalf of the Bankstown Coalition, Violet Roumeliotis of the Migrant Resource Centre said, “We are opposed to income management because it epitomises everything that is wrong with the Northern Territory Intervention. It is entrenched in racist assumptions about Aboriginal people. It assumes they’re incapable of managing their own lives and it imposes harsh measures that control, rather than create, opportunities. It demonises the most vulnerable and disempowered in our society”, and this is what the Bankstown Coalition fears will happen locally.

A recent report from the Equality and Rights Alliance, funded by the Government, interviewed hundreds of women on the BasicsCard in the Northern Territory. Most of those interviewed did not know why they had to receive the BasicsCard, stating they felt a lack of respect and a loss of self-dignity. 97 percent of the women felt that they did not need help managing their money. 91 percent said it did not change any circumstances within their lives. 79 percent said that they did not like the BasicsCard and wanted to stop using it now.

A protestor's placard, outside the Gurindji Freedom Day Rally

Organisers of the rally, the Stop the Intervention Collective Sydney, have praised the findings as evidence that the income management system is damaging. Dave Suttle of the Stop the Intervention Collective stated, “This is compulsorily pushed onto women and men in the Northern Territory, purely based on race. The Government thinks it can expand this policy nationally. They talk about ‘evidenced based policy’ but the reports that they are funding are showing the exact opposite of what they’re telling the world.”

John Leemans of Kalkarindji, who met with MP Jenny Macklin the day earlier to demand an end to the Intervention, sent his support to the Sydney protest, saying “We’re in this together, we’re gonna fight it together and we’ll win it together.”

Related articles on Sydney’s Gurindji Freedom Day protest: here and here.

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