High noon at Aurukun

By: Tony Koch

Next Wednesday Prime Minister John Howard will pay his first visit to remote Queensland Aboriginal community. Tony Koch reports on what he will encounter at Aurukun
FORMER Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam has visited Aurukun twice in the past decade.
He did not go to discuss violence or alcohol-control measures. He went straight to the cemetery to pay his respects at the grave of one of this nation's foremost fighters for justice for his people: Johnny Koowarta.
Koowarta was a Wik stockman who saved his money in the hope that one day he would be able to buy back the land of his birth: Archer River Bend, a sprawling pastoral lease. The land was leased from the Queensland government by an absentee American investor who, when contacted in 1974 by Koowarta, agreed to sell it to him at market rates.
But then Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen labelled the deal ``Aboriginal land rights by the back door'' and refused to allow the Lands Department to transfer the lease.
Koowarta complained to the Human Rights Commission and won. That was ignored, so he went to the High Court, asserting that the Queensland Government's refusal to transfer the lease was made on racial grounds. The High Court found in his favour, agreeing that the Queensland government had contravened the Racial Discrimination Act which had been introduced by the Whitlam government.
But Bjelke-Petersen was not finished. He got Cabinet approval to declare Archer River Bend a national park, thwarting Koowarta's honest and lawful efforts.
Koowarta died, aged 50, on June 29, 1991, without seeing his people back on their land.
Speaking at his graveside, his wife Martha, a respected elder of the Aurukun community, says her husband ``died of a broken heart''.
``It was a mean thing to do. Governments promised when my husband died that the land would be given back to us Wik people, but nobody has done it,'' she says.
``His spirit is there. It is a place sacred to me and our children, and when we visit we have to get permission of the cattle producer who now owns it.''
Martha, a shy, softly spoken woman who now spends her time with her grandchildren, is a member of the community justice group and works voluntarily at the local school, which has 229 students.
As with most community schools, truancy is a problem, but Aurukun has become something of a model in meeting education needs as a platform from which to tackle the bigger social issues of alcoholism and violence.
Much of the credit must go to the school principal of the past four years, Stan Sheppard, who speaks with great passion about the strides forward that the community and the school are achieving.
And the community is backing him -- to the extent of prosecuting parents of persistent truants. Last month, several errant parents were charged in the magistrate's court and each was given a good behaviour bond that insisted they must send their children to school for the next year or face a heavier penalty.
Aurukun was the first Cape community to adopt an alcohol-control plan -- an idea that has been promoted by Aboriginal lawyer Noel Pearson with support of the current Queensland Government.
Four communities have followed suit, but several others have objected strongly to the Pearson remedies, claiming in most cases that it is discriminatory against indigenous people to impose special constraints just on their communities. They claim they have the ``right'' to drink, and will not countenance anybody taking away that right.
Gary Kleidon has been the Aurukun Shire Council CEO for 12 years. That period included the first few months of 2000, when three people were murdered a fortnight apart -- all in alcohol-influenced circumstances.
Aurukun was a violent place. But Kleidon says that since January a complete change has come over the place.
``The alcohol management plan restricted sales from the canteen of only light beer in set hours, with no takeaways. Nobody, black or white, is allowed to bring alcohol into this community,'' he says.
``When people say to me that they have a right to drink, I agree with them. What I don't agree with is their conduct when they do.
``The difference here has been palpable. I have not seen a drunk in my office since January. Children are going to school in greater numbers and they are being fed and are able to have a good night's sleep because they are not sharing their homes with drunks all night.
``There has been an 80 per cent reduction in alcohol-related presentations to the hospital for injuries caused by violent confrontation. Crime and violence numbers are down enormously, and it is just a more peaceful place to live. There is very little vandalism. The general cleanliness of the town and the condition of the housing are much better.
``For so long I have seen structural changes that amounted to nothing because the conduct of the people did not change. This plan has addressed that, and the big change is to the people -- for the better.''
AURUKUN was not always a violent place, where life was hell for women and children. It is interesting to leaf through historical correspondence and note, for instance, that in August 1971 the Aurukun Aborigines Mission run at the time by the Presbyterian Board of Missions told the Queensland government it did not want to legalise liquor sales, but instead asked for funding to establish a milk bar. That was not definite enough for the Department of Aboriginal and Island Affairs whose director, Pat Killoran, ordered a local opinion poll be held in September 1971. It overwhelmingly rejected the notion of allowing liquor to be sold at Aurukun.
In August 1985, then local government minister Russ Hinze visited the community and said the social problems at Aurukun, including school absenteeism, could be the result of the council's decision to make the area dry.
In April 1991 Aurukun council invited Goss government ministers Terry Mackenroth, Anne Warner and Tom Barton to a meeting to discuss the closure of the canteen because of the riots that had occurred, during which many people were badly injured and in which police were powerless to intervene.
But Aurukun is achieving real positives, many of them attributed to now having a much more sober community with which to work.
The Pearson-inspired Family Income Management scheme -- in which everybody who wants to participate pays a nominal amount each week into an account and the funds are used progressively to provide home essentials like refrigerators and washing machines -- is in operation. Money management and budgeting are also taught.
And there is no doubt that the training scheme run conjointly by the Cape York Partnerships, Queensland Education Department, TAFE and the Aurukun Shire Council is producing results. Two classes are held each day, attended by young men who learn basic skills such as metalwork -- and the real skill in this country of outboard motor maintenance.
THIS excellent scheme is managed by Geoff Thorne. ``My wife Diane runs the intensive literacy and numeracy classes for these students, and they do the hands-on stuff in this workshop,'' he says.
``Simple things that many of us take for granted are taught. For instance, telling the time. It is difficult to tell an employee to be somewhere at nine o'clock if he does not own a watch and can't tell the time anyway.
``Also basic matters such as reading gauges, amperages on the welders, measuring -- these skills are essential.''
Several years ago, the Wik people were among a group of local indigenous tribes who struck a landmark agreement with Comalco, which operates the nearby bauxite mine at Weipa -- on Aboriginal land. So Comalco entered into an agreement whereby compensation is paid, but more importantly, real jobs are provided for local people.
The agreement sets out that Comalco must, within a few years, have 35 per cent minimum indigenous employees -- and it is to these jobs that many such as the trainees on Aurukun aspire.
Prime Minister John Howard will be presented with a community that has much to be proud of, the credit for which must go to courageous local councillors and a number of non-indigenous administrators including health, police and education officials who have taken the tough decisions to act for the ultimate good of the residents of Aurukun -- particularly the women and children whose lives were made miserable by drunken behaviour.
It will be a good starting point on his road to discovery.