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 (www.tracker.org.au). 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 tracker.org.au 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.
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