The truth about Toomelah

The community of Toomelah has been the subject of numerous media reports of late. But what is the truth?

NATIONAL: The tiny NSW town of Toomelah has made headlines, and once again it’s because of poverty and community dysfunction. But why has a community that’s received so much attention over the years failed to thrive? CHRIS GRAHAM takes an in-depth look at the town, and a bad government policy that, above all others, has set the community back decades.

For a very small town, Toomelah makes an awful lot of headlines. And in its recent history, there have been three that perhaps most defined the community’s history.

One of the headlines was very bad, one depends on your outlook, and one was very good. The latter was when Toomelah’s footy team – the Tigers – won the most prestigious rugby league competition in the country.

Forget the NRL, if you’re an all-Aboriginal team, the only event that matters is the Aboriginal Rugby League Knockout, an annual competition that provides a major boost to the economies of towns lucky enough to host it, with the fan base sometimes topping 25,000.

And so it was that in 1994, against all odds, the mighty Toomelah Tigers won it. It helped that the team had players like Glen Brennan, a former Canberra Raider, in its ranks.

And of course, there was Ewan McGrady, a God not just in Toomelah, but at the highest levels of the game. McGrady is a Rothman’s Medal winner, and was the best league player in the national competition in his day.

The Tigers somehow managed to knock off La Perouse – routinely one of the best teams at the Knockout – in the grand final. And all on ‘Lapas’ home turf.

So that’s the positive headline.

The headline which depends on your outlook came a few years earlier, when Marcus Einfeld, then president of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission completed a report into the impoverished community.

It was 1988 – Australia’s bi-centenary year – and Einfeld’s report shocked a nation. Sewage was pooling in the streets, unemployment was near 100 percent, and residents shared a single tap.

An outraged Einfeld lambasted government for the poor state in Toomelah, and shamed them into action.

As a result of the report, roads were sealed, homes were built, the water and sewerage system was fixed and street lighting was installed. Hence the headline was good and bad, depending on your perspective.

Bad in that it lay bare the grinding poverty that enveloped Toomelah; good in that it finally forced government to act. The community was reborn. Or at least it seemed that way, until the third defining headline in Toomelah’s history, which emerged only a month ago.

On May 7, the Sydney Morning Herald’s front page revealed that a NSW bureaucrat had told locals they either accepted the appointment of a ‘government mission manager’, or their community would be bulldozed.

Toomelah was facing, residents believed, a Northern Territory-style intervention.

Despite all the upgrade works, children were still living among raw sewage. The street lights weren’t working; the homes were in poor condition; the roads were still paved, but littered with broken glass and rubbish. Crime was a daily occurrence, and sexual abuse of children, according to residents, was rife, with numerous paedophiles living unchecked in the community.

How Toomelah came to find itself in so much trouble brings us to one other major defining event in the history of the town, although it never made national headlines. Indeed it barely rated a mention at all.

But we’ll come back to that shortly, because how the community came to face the threat of closure requires some explanation.

Firstly, Toomelah never really faced the bulldozers, nor an NT-style intervention. The federal government has no power to move Toomelah residents – or any other NSW community – off their land.

In Australia, land is controlled by the states, not the federal government. The Northern Territory, of course, is not a state. It has self-government, but it’s ultimately controlled by the federal government.

That’s why in 2007, the Howard government was able to launch the Northern Territory intervention. The Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory) is a Commonwealth Act of Parliament. Thus the Commonwealth can amend it.

But the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NSW) is not a Commonwealth act. The feds can’t touch it. In fact, even the NSW Government would struggle.

Under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NSW), the Toomelah community lives on freehold land, held in trust by the Toomelah Local Aboriginal Land Council. In order for the community to be relocated, the NSW Government would need to convince the NSW Parliament to pass a special piece of legislation specifically aimed at compulsorily acquiring the land at Toomelah.

It could then try and forcibly evict the residents. But the NSW Government does not have the numbers in parliament to simply pass any legislation it likes. It must rely on the support of independents and/or the Greens. But even if it did, there is no evidence it ever intended to relocate the community in the first place.

When the Toomelah story broke, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Victor Dominello, told media that a “top down approach” to government control of Aboriginal communities was not what was needed. What he supported was local control of local communities.

So where did the threat of closure come from? One bureaucrat who had neither the power to carry it out, nor the permission of the NSW government to deliver it.

That bureaucrat was Amy Makim. In January 2012 she was employed by the NSW Government as a Community Project Officer with Aboriginal Affairs NSW.

Her role, according to AANSW boss Jason Ardler “was to work with partner agencies in the development of a coordinated strategy for the Toomelah-Boggabilla community”. To undertake this role Ms Makim “was required to conduct some community engagement activities”.

At a community meeting earlier this year, Ms Makim is alleged to have told local workers and community members that problems were so bad at Toomelah that it faced government intervention. That threat was soon passed on to the Herald. After the story broke, AANSW began investigating the allegations that Ms Makim had threatened the community (an allegation she denies). But events quickly took an unexpected turn.

On the evening of May 22 – two weeks after the first headline – Ms Makim logged onto this publication’s website ( She was looking, she later claimed, for details on a story that ABC’s 7.30 Report was expected to run on Toomelah.

In the course of her search, Ms Makim posted a comment at the bottom of an unrelated story, believing at the time that her identity was unknown (she used the fake name ‘Sick of the Whingers’). Unfortunately for Ms Makim, her posting was not anonymous.

Tracker was able to trace her identity. We did so not because we suspected she had links to Toomelah, but because the comments were so extreme that they warranted a closer look. Here’s what Ms Makim wrote:

“I have worked in an Aboriginal former-mission for more than 2 years…. This victimised mentality, co-dependency on government and laziness is so revolting.

“Well done to all the aboriginal people who have worked hard, studied hard and created a life for themselves and their families without the “pity funds” from centrelink…I’m guessing you either had someone with “white work ethics” in your midst..stolen generation or mixed race?? I don’t know any Murri who is an advocate, scholar, professional or person of admiration that doesn’t have a heavy dose of white influence’.

“Face the facts! You have been conquered! Get over it! Get a job, look after your bloody children and stop putting your hand out! You should have put up a better fight to keep your land or more frankly the English should have wiped you all out because the 2.6% of you are costing our country a fortune and making our country a place of ghetto violence!

“I used to be a person of compassion, empathy and looked forward to learning of the culture and empowering the community to be strong, Aboriginal and proud… and I can now honestly say where I have been there is no hope.

“You now have black blood mixed with white trash creating one of the worse kind of human societies. Harsh, shocking? and true!
Australia cannot say sorry any longer, they cannot keep hanging their heads in shame..we didn’t do this, our ancestors did, it is done, we cannot go back only forward.

“So stop bloody whinging and have a go! And P.S Aboriginal came from Africa so you are settlers too!”

Suffice to say, Ms Makim no longer works for the state government.

Head of AANSW, Jason Ardler, himself an Aboriginal man, told Tracker: “When Aboriginal Affairs was informed that Ms Makim was alleged to have made inappropriate remarks about Toomelah (at the community meeting), the agency questioned Ms Makim and she denied the allegation. Further investigation of this matter was overtaken by Aboriginal Affair’s response to Ms Makim’s comments on the Tracker website.

“When it was confirmed that Ms Makim was responsible for the comments on the Tracker website, the agency acted immediately, contacted Ms Makim, stood her down and subsequently accepted her resignation, effective on that day.

“These kinds of statement are repugnant, completely at odds with the values of Aboriginal Affairs and will not be tolerated. These comments have affected Aboriginal Affairs’ reputation and the offense caused is deeply regretted. Aboriginal Affairs apologises to the people of Toomelah for the hurt caused and reaffirms its commitment to working with the community to create real opportunities and positive change.”

Ms Makim’s alleged threats against the community sparked substantial mainstream and Aboriginal media interest. Her comments on are unlikely to attract the same level of attention, although as it turned out, the 7.30 report did file a major story on Toomelah.

It revisited much of what the Herald had already reported, revealing no more than what anyone with any knowledge of Toomelah already knew. The community is struggling. But so too are most of the state’s former Aboriginal missions and reserves, and there’s more than 60 of them.

The reasons why are many and varied, although one event in particular helps explain the current decay of black bush communities. And it never made the national headlines.

Apart from great footy players, Toomelah had at least one other local talent. A capacity to run a thriving Community Development Employment Program (CDEP).

For the uninitiated, CDEP is an Aboriginal created program where participants, in a broad sense, worked for the dole. It began as a pilot program at the community of Barunga, an hour’s drive east of Katherine.

Ironically, CDEP was unveiled in federal parliament by the Fraser government on May 26, 1977, a date that would later become Sorry Day. Ian Viner, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs told the chamber: “Unemployment benefits have been available to Aboriginals as to other Australians.

“In some cases… the lack of activity when combined with unemployment benefit has produced serious social problems such as alcoholism and other health hazards. CDEP will provide work for all Aboriginals in a particular community who wish to work.”

And they turned out in spades.

From its humble beginnings, CDEP quickly spread across the nation. By 1986, there were more than 4,000 participants, about 1.8 percent of the total Aboriginal population in Australia. Within 10 years, the figure had increased more than seven-fold to almost 29,000 participants.


This entry was posted in Editor's Pick, Features, NSW, Opinion and tagged , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Posted July 4, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    Let the First People govern themselves as the movie Freedom For Ozeans postulates. They shall elect their own President American style, and form a Government in Internal Exile. Then their National Congress would have a real meaning with a Constitution FOR OZEANS, but no others..

  2. Tarns
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    I for one wish to see these communities regain the CDEP back! Why take something great that helped a community to grow & become self reliant on its own people’s skills, knowledge etc….
    It seemed as if the state govt, could see the greatness this CDEP had generated, & yet took it away so that the community failed again, to perhaps become reliant on the state? maybe it showed that YES The First People are actually prosperous people, if given the correct and right support they so deserved!
    Keep your heads held high Toomelah people! once again you will rise above it all, and take ownership for your good efforts!
    Shame on Australian Government in creating a nation separated by racism that has been allowed to reign these lands and disadvantage the people whom allowed the crown’s people to reside on the lands they cared and tendered, for generations prior to the landing of the crown.

  3. paul hood
    Posted October 13, 2012 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    This is revealing and is very important to propagate so that we are informed of what lies at the basis of every decision made in all levels of this distorted, dysfunctional and useless parliament.

    Forwarded by me though wrote by Michael Anderson.
    Goodooga, Northwest NSW, 5 December 09

    By continuing their assimilation policies despite the success of the 1967 referendum, the Australian federal and state governments should realise that some of the people may be fooled sometimes but we will not all be fooled all the time.

    It is important for our people to understand the deceit and deception that continue to be peddled by all political parties in Aboriginal affairs.

    The following are passages of a federal cabinet’s decision (Decision No. 314) dated Sydney, 2 July, 1968.
    The Cabinet referred firstly to the objective which its Aboriginal policy is to serve. It declared firmly that the ultimate objective would continue to be assimilation – a single Australian community.

    While recognising that it will take generations for the Aboriginals to become fully assimilated into the Australian community, the Cabinet’s position is that it will hold patiently and purposefully to this aim. It will measure all any policy proposal against it and would want to avoid proposals which, by identifying Aboriginals as such and setting them permanently apart from other Australians, are likely to have the effect of acknowledging and establishing a policy of continuing separate development leading to an eventual racial problem.

    With in the foregoing, the Cabinet indicated that it is ready to contemplate support for transitional arrangements which would help Aboriginals to overcome social and other handicaps which now impede or stand in the way of, more rapid progress towards assimilation.

    This policy was signed off on by the secretary to the cabinet, Mr. E.J. Bunting.

    What we must all remember is that all successive governments have maintained a very tight stranglehold on all that we have attempted to achieve and they have done this through their grants and funding conditions when they have agreed to fund our organisations.

    We have not been able to become self-determining and self sufficient. All programmes put in place to deliver services to our communities are socialist in their design and purpose, with the federal and state ministers for Aboriginal affairs being the gate keepers. Up front they put wall-to-wall semi-important black fullas only to demonstrate to the rest of the world that Australian governments are doing something about establishing an independent Aboriginal programme to bridge the gap between the two Australias.

    De-colonisation has occurred in every previously colonised part of the developed world except Australia. Everywhere else people have fought for their right to retain their distinct identity, including their right to keep and speak their own languages, their culture and their own religious practices.

    The repressive and discriminate laws that we are subject to here in Australia would not be tolerated anywhere else in the free world. But here in Australia the government has spin doctors operating full time to hide the true state of play in respect of Aboriginal people. They are paid big dollars to convince the white Australian public that what they do for Aborigines is in the interest of the Aboriginal people and that special measures are necessary.

    The reason for the use of the words ‘special measures’ is to continue with their assimilation policy of 1968. We Aboriginal people cannot permit this to continue without a fight.

    Nationalist movements all over the world have erupted because of the oppressive rules that governed people and their lives that are designed and maintained by the dominant society. China and Iran are just two examples of places whose people are trying to win their freedom. We are no different here in Australia.

    Enough is enough and if governments don’t want to talk to us then we will find a way to win our freedom to live as Aborigines, keeping our Dreaming, language, songs and culture alive for our future generations.

    This is a right of all people, and it is our right to fight for our future.

  4. brownstar
    Posted November 5, 2012 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    As a non-indigenous person I felt disgusted and ashamed when I recently saw Ivan Sens movie “Toomelah”. I had never honestly heard of this town before I watched the movie and to think in 2012 the same social problems are continually occuring throughout aboriginal communities is disgraceful. This example of a disadvantaged aboriginal town should be taken to the United Nations Court. Our current and past governments should be charged with the lack of care and responsibility of allowing black ownership and running of this town. Australia should be shown to the international community as a instigator of racism and bullying against its first people.

    • Jo
      Posted January 6, 2013 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      I agree! I watched it for the first time last night and I was shocked!
      It didn’t really portray the best light of our Indigenous people, however, I guess that it is what it is like in those areas now that the government has stopped assisting.
      Now I am so happy that I am going to study Human Services majoring in Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Studies.
      Here’s hoping I can make a little bit of a difference!

  5. Posted April 27, 2013 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    Howdy! I simply wish to give a huge thumbs up for the
    great information you have got right here on this post.

    I will probably be coming again to your blog for more soon.

One Trackback

  1. By | Tracker on July 5, 2012 at 4:12 pm

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