Duncan Wright

What Is The Difference Between Me and You?

Article originally published in - Semi Decent Issue #21 - 18th May 2016

As Phish so eloquently scribes in Dr Dre’s classic “What’s the difference between me and you?” I wonder, what is the difference between me and you? Why is it that two people, of similar age living in the same country, under the same sky, on the same land, yet with vastly different cultural backgrounds can be treated so differently?

I am talking about the gap between Aboriginal and mainstream Australia, with specific relation to the community of Warburton in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands, where I lived and worked for nine months. There are many aspects to this gap, the one I will discuss is the way Aboriginal people in remote communities are treated with regards to welfare payments and work for the dole requirements under the program known as CDP (Community Development Program).

The lands stretch across a vast area located in Western Australia’s South Gibson Desert, which is a part of the Western Desert Cultural Bloc. The Western Desert Cultural Bloc covers an area of around 600,000 square kilometres, encompassing four deserts and three states. The term Western Desert Cultural Bloc is used when discussing the 40 or so Aboriginal groups that live in this area who speak dialects of one language. In Warburton, the Ngannyatjarra language is spoken, hence, the Ngaanyatjarra lands.

This is beyond the outback, it is the remote, wild, beautiful, harsh and silent landscape you imagine when people talk about Australia’s deserts. Aboriginal people have lived here for somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 years, possibly longer. This is where the remarkable dreamtime stories that us white-fellas hear about but don’t really understand come from, and where culture and tradition have been practiced throughout generations. Ngaanyatjarra people live here, in what is recognised as the ‘harshest physical environment that has ever supported humans on the planet.’

Anthropologist David Brooks suggests that even as late as the 1890’s the people of the lands had little influence from any sort of European settlement. He goes on to say that, as large, remote and arid as the desert is, it was far from a static life. Family groups moved around the lands in complex but predictable patterns to pursue their lives. Apart from the obvious need to hunt and gather food and water, people needed to travel for cultural reasons, establishing socials bonds, contracting marriages, participating in ceremony and gaining a greater understanding of ritual knowledge. Cultural behaviours, such as the impulse to be on the move, and the absence of any real idea of collecting material goods, developed across the generations and can still be observed today. Arguably this sense of culture, place and possession is one of the major proponents of the gap which exists between Ngaanyatjarra and mainstream Australia.

The first time many of the Ngaanyatjarra people had contact with a European way of life was not until 1930 when the Warburton Mission was established. Modern day Warburton is a community of somewhere between 400 and 700 people. Like all communities in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands, it has a somewhat itinerant population, depending on business, funerals and a vast array of other family related and cultural pursuits.

I worked for the Ngaanyatjarra Council in the area of Community Development. It was an amazing position in that I got to spend my time with some of the most genuinely friendly, welcoming, interesting, spiritual and humble people I have ever met. I worked as an ‘activities supervisor’ in effect creating jobs, which have the intention of teaching people new skills which might help them get a job in ‘mainstream Australia’, should they choose to leave the lands. The issue with this concept is the government’s apparent lack of understanding, knowledge and acknowledgement of Aboriginal culture, tradition, social structures and health issues with regards to how the CDP or Community Development Program is run. Which in reality is not at all a Community Development Program, moreso a Welfare Facilitation Program.

The CDP program is the government's remote community version of the work-for-the-dole program. In remote communities, this means participants have to work for five hours per day, for five days per week, 25 hours in total, all year round. Participants are anyone aged between 18 and 55 years of age and assessed as fit to work.

Why is it then, that in mainstream Australia, if I am aged between 30 and 55 years of age I can go down to my local Centrelink, get on a work for the dole program and only work for 15 hours per week and for only six months of the year? If I am aged between 18 and 30 I still have to work for 25 hours per week, though again only for six months of the year. In mainstream Australia we have access to Centrelink, banking, infrastructure, reasonably priced food, doctors, hospitals, psychiatrists, mental health clinics - a whole suite of facilities which largely we take for granted, but which play an extremely significant part in our day-to-day livelihood and in our capacity to develop our abilities to prepare for, and eventually, work.

Does that government not realise that in remote Australia facilities such as those aforementioned are not readily available, if available at all.

Using the community of Warburton as a case study representing facilities in a typical remote community. They have a small general store, fruit and vegetables are subsidised, but the cost of freight to the lands is costly, making ‘good tucker’ exorbitantly expensive. Warburton has a small medical clinic which can tend to very basic needs and the community relies heavily on the Royal Flying Doctor Service for anything major, this is a common reality. We have a central office which tends to basic Centrelink duties, though mainly through the use of the ‘silver service’ phone line, which, to be frank, still has people waiting for hours on end.

The CDP program, as it currently stands, assumes that everyone in the community is of sound mind and physically able. I am not in the position to, nor have enough knowledge to comment properly on the subject of mental health, but we should all know that mental health is widely recognised as a significant issue for Aboriginal Australians. With no available assessment facilities, people who are mentally or physically unwell are still forced to work for the dole, even if they unable to. This ends up of course with many participants not showing up for work and as a result their Centrelink payments are eventually cut off. Once a payment has been cut, it will not be reinstated for the next eight weeks. Imagine not having any source of money for, at least, two months? People cannot simply rely on family members to support them. Family structures are very complex and people generally do not have enough money to support themselves in the first place.

For a CDP candidate to start the work for the dole program, they are required to sit through a series of invasive personal questions. They are then told what the program involves, and dependent on their level of English literacy, they may not understand all the requirements.

The CDP program, as it stands, plainly dehumanises the people of remote Australia. It is, in effect, discriminatory towards Aboriginal people and needs to be changed.

So, what is the difference between me and you? Well apart from what I have just discussed, the severe discrimination and lack of understanding towards Aboriginal people, quite a lot.

Though, unlike what I have just described, it is remarkable.

People here manage exceptionally well in challenging and difficult conditions. I suspect it’s the 50,000 years of culture, tradition and non-mainstream thinking under their remarkably thick skin which keeps them going.

I remember on my first day here (most of you reading won’t like hearing this) we killed a puppy. It was an accident, obviously, people have a real affinity with dogs. I was working with Mr. F, a man of similar age to me. It was the first day that the CDP program was running to full effect, with four new staff employed in Warburton. I was still figuring out what to do, so was following on with the Community Maintenance activity.

One of the main jobs the fellas do is attempt to keep the community clean. We have become much more effective now, but initially the fellas were attempting to tidy and trim every yard in Warburton. These aren’t your average suburban yards, these are yards which have knee high grass throughout, stacked full of rubbish, fire pits, snakes, camel bones and all sorts of bits and pieces.

Anyway, Mr. F had the big DCS60 Whipper Snipper charging full pelt into a huge swathe of grass, I was digging up some rubbish into garbage bags. All of a sudden he yelled over to me “Quick, Duncan, quick, come here, I didn’t see it!” I went over and get there as he is pulling the whipper snipper back, revealing a little puppy. It had been hiding at the back of the house, nestling up to it’s mother, underneath the grass and must have, intrigued as puppies are, strayed away from it’s mother to see what the noise was.

I was upset of course but Mr. F was distraught. The little puppy was lying there whining, it’s body bloodied. Mr. F got a garbage back and through tears snapped its neck to put it out of misery. Often when animals die out here they are just taken to the tip, much to the joy of dingoes, but Mr. F insisted we bury it. We drove out of town, to a place with some soft sand, dug a hole, buried it and placed a rusted paint can on top to mark where we left it.

This might not sound like anything much, but it was. The way Mr. F talked about the importance of the dogs to his culture and the Ngaanyatjarra people, throughout the dreamtime stories and to present day was something that we don’t have in mainstream Australia. That immense connection to the land, to life, to another way of being that isn’t just about trying to get a job that pays. That is what is important to people, and it makes a lot more sense out here than the way us white-fellas think.

You can see the sun setting well after it is dark here, far in the distance, a thin yellow line. Bursting, beaming, glistening against the dark skies, hot wind, warm earth of this vast land. It is just as well because I had a lot to reflect on. 

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