Law


For the past couple of weeks I’ve been working my way through my several hours of Wagiman recordings from my recent fieldtrip, all the time remarking at how excellent they are. It’s a combination of a good recording device; a Roland Edirol R-4, a great microphone with a proven track record in the field; a Røde NT41, and experience in microphone placement and input gain control2. I’m finding the best tokens of all the words I recorded for eventual insertion into the electronic versions of the Wagiman dictionary, including a Kirrkirr instance, and a mobile phone dictionary.

Splitting the recordings into some 1500 individual sound files is a time-consuming occupation, and unfortunately, as it’s the only one of my many jobs that isn’t actually paying me anything, higher priority tasks often win out.

Eventually though, we’ll have a Wagiman electronic dictionary ready for distribution, and a down-sampled version of the same ready for installation on mobile phones. So keep posted!

[Cross-posted at pfed.info]


  1. Both of which were loaned from PARADISEC.
  2. Gain control was really key in the end, as it was raining most of the time,which would cause low-level hiss if the gain were set too high. Luckily my speaker didn’t mind talking directly and loudly into the microphone, so I was able to keep the gain right down to stop too much ambient noise getting in.

A couple of months ago, I received a phonecall from a journalist from the Herald, who’d seen my appearance on SBS World News, and was interested in writing an article about the mobile phone dictionary project.

A few things have happened between then and now, including conferences, holidays and a didjeridu performance by Nicole Kidman on German TV that seems to have absorbed all local interest in indigenous affairs for a few days1, but on Friday morning, two articles appeared in the front page section of the Herald, based in part on an interview I gave a little while back.

The main article is about Phil Parker, the marketing guru who’s recently delisted his ‘books’ on Australian languages (including dictionaries, thesauruses and crossword puzzle books) after his dubious publications hit the virtual shelves, and after a small but vociferous group of linguists complained. The other article is about this mobile phone dictionary project that James and I are getting more and more involved in, and (very quickly) how this sort  of project can prevent the theft of data in the first place.

I feel that the article on Philip Parker makes me look like a bit of a whinger. Here’s the operative quote:

Aidan Wilson, a Sydney University linguist who wrote an honours thesis on the Wagiman language spoken north-west of Katherine, said Professor Parker had used the wrong spelling on the cover of his publication Webster’s English To Wageman Crossword Puzzles: Level 1.

Yes; it’s true that Parker had the wrong spelling, but it’s clearly not the reason I’m annoyed at the publication of these books. I’m more annoyed that the entirety of information within them is publicly available at locations that properly explain the data, the language, and cite sources, while these dictionaries, thesauruses and crossword puzzle books omit all of this information. In short, they are lossy2 versions of dictionaries already freely available.

The article also makes it sound like we, speakers of indigenous communities and linguists working with them, have hindered the publication of useful educational resources due to our collective sensitivities. It doesn’t help the situation that Parker probably had his heart in the right place in wanting to further disseminate information relating to critically endangered languages.

A dyslexic, he collects lists of words and publishes dictionaries, thesauruses and crossword puzzles at a loss, he says, in the interests of education. His work has been heralded as a way to create paper resources for resource-starved Third World students.

That’s all well and good, but perfectly good materials already exist – those that the linguists have produced and made freely available in full consultation with the language community. It surely isn’t helpful to convert these into forms in which the information is distilled and compressed such that it no longer conforms to even the minimum standard required for the most basic dictionary. All information apart from the name of the language, the headword and a single gloss has been omitted. That truly is lossy. To give you an idea of what I mean, here’s an entry from the Online Wagiman Dictionary:

ngal-gawu-mang

nominal

1. grandmother (mother’s mother)

Ga-ngotjje-ji-n ngal-gawu-mang-gu. Ga-ngotjje-ji-n gahan warren yerdeng-nga ya-nggi, ngal-gawu-mang warle-na. ‘He is scared of his grandmother. That kid ran away and hid because his grandmother growled him.’ (LM)

2.grandchild (from a woman to her daughter’s children)

see also gawu, ngal-gawu.

You can see that there are no less than 6 tiers of information here; a headword, part of speech, glosses divided into multiple senses, illustrative sentences, their glosses and importantly, the speaker responsible for that illustrative sentence, as well as related words. Parkers dictionary merely has this:

ngal-gawu-mang
grandmother
grandchild

I don’t think anyone could reasonably argue that the latter is more useful than the former, or even that it is good for it to be around in addition to the original. I would even go as far to say that its existence in this form is potentially harmful and outweighs any possible benefits of it as an educational resource.

There is another issue that stems from this that deserves attention. Suppose you found one of these dictionaries for a language you’ve never heard of. Let’s say it has some pretty extraordinary stuff in it and you’d like to know more, or even go to the sources and do some fact checking. How do you go about doing it? There’s no citations given anywhere,  no examples have made it through the distillation process and no speakers are referenced. We’re in a different situation as we know the original is a good quality publication due to Stephen Wilson’s work, and can pretty much trust that the ‘distilled’ version will more or less be correct. But if Parker gave the same treatment to a highly dubious dictionary, Urban dictionary, let’s say, then the output looks just as authoritative as something that derived from a reputable source in the first place. This clearly makes it very difficult for readers of dictionaries to make informed decisions about the quality of what they’ve got.

I should reiterate that I think Parker had the best of intentions; to further disseminate information about as many languages as possible, something I naturally admire as a linguist. Yet he fails to recognise that lexicography is not easy work; it can’t be done just with a data-harvester, a spreadsheet and a bunch of automatically generated Amazon.com comments and reviews. It takes linguists and lexicographers years to compile the information and resources necessary to create dictionaries. Producing very low-quality dictionaries, thesauruses and crossword puzzle books of some 600 worldwide languages does nothing but undermine their efforts.


  1. And that’s a whole nother post in its own right.
  2. To borrow an audio term.

A few posts back, I wrote about a book that David Nash had found on Amazon.com, which appeared to be a bi-directional crossword-puzzle book between English and Wageman [sic1]. It seemed as though these books, and a few others on Amazon on Wageman, contained the very same wordlist collected by a previous researcher and published under copyright at AIATSIS.

This is by no means an isolated incident. Parker has wordlists for around 600 languages stored online, and could potentially create crossword books, dictionaries and thesauri for each of them. See also Peter Austin’s post at Transient Languages and Cultures regarding a similar thing having happened to the Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay dictionary.

Instead of letting this issue slide into the obscurity of my Mabitjbaran, or Archives, I bought a copy of each, English to Wageman and Wageman to English, and have made contact with the ‘author’, Philip M. Parker, to solicit his explanation of what appears to be a blatant violation of copyright restrictions.

First thing’s first though. The books actually appear to be a pretty good educational resource, assuming that the school in Pine Creek is up to the point of recommencing its Wagiman language programs, of which I’ve only ever seen fleeting bits of evidence of ever having taken place2. The books comprise probably hundreds of automatically generated crosswords with the solution words in alphabetical order at the bottom. In spite of the books’ copyright restrictions by their supposed author, I’ve scanned a page of one of these books, which you can view here.

I’ve also done a little more background research on the author of these books, Philip M. Parker, and as it turns out, he’s not at all involved with dictionary compiling, language work or language education. In actual fact, he’s a professor of marketing and a generic entrepreneur at the Singapore campus of an international private business and marketing college based in France, called INSEAD. He even has a biography page on Wikipedia, which is interesting to this topic, as it goes into detail about his book publishing career. Apparently he’s quite famous in the marketing and entrepreneurial world.

His fame derives from the fact that he has developed a process that automatically produces and prints books on demand, with little or no interactive work. Each book that gets printed costs him an estimated 12 pence Sterling. So good is his software apparently that he has authored 85,764 books on sale at Amazon.com.

Parker estimates that it costs him about 12p to write a book, with, perhaps, not much difference in quality from what a competent wordsmith or an MBA might produce.

Nothing but the title need actually exist until somebody orders a copy. At that point, a computer assembles the book’s content and prints up a single copy.

Not much difference in quality from what a competent3 wordsmith might produce? If you check a random selection of some of these books, you’d be forgiven in not seeing what sort of quality he’s referring to:

The 2007-2012 Outlook for Tufted Washable Scatter Rugs, Bathmats, and Sets That Measure 6-Feet by 9-Feet or Smaller in India

Riveting. And that costs US$495.00, in case you were wondering.

What Parker does is harvest data, irrespective of what sort of data it is, and churns out books with it. It doesn’t matter if no one’s interested in the statistical prognostications for the Indian mid-sized bathmat industry, because each book is printed if and only if someone actually orders it; a copy may never actually exist. But considering there are libraries around the world that will buy a copy of each and every publication under the sun, Parker is probably earning a lot of money.

As I mentioned at the start, I’ve made contact with Parker and courteously attempted to solicit some information, such as which wordlist he used, and whether there were any copyright protections on that data. This is the response I got back:

Thank you for your concern; there are no copyright violations. Please feel free to copy my puzzles for your teaching4.

p.s. translations of words, themselves, cannot hold copyright, only the format in which they are presented (translations of single words are public knowledge; translations of creative works are not). I will later be doing anagrams, poems, rhyming sections, etc.. java-based web games (free to use), etc.

I felt a little confused by this response; I’m not very knowledgeable about copyright law and would have expected that someone’s research and work would be protected under copyright. At the same time though, I’m sure that Parker has done his legal research and knows full well what he can and cannot do. Peter Austin has a legal advantage over me in this respect; his Gamilaraay dictionary included some reconstructions:

It is not possible to copyright common knowledge such as words and meanings. Unfortunately for Parker, some of the quoted forms, like muRumuRu on page 11 are creative works since they are reconstitutions which I have posited on the basis of 19th century published and unpublished amateur recordings (as explained in the preface of my dictionaries — note that the orthographic R is not a Gamilaraay sound but a cover term for where I could not determine whether the source represented a flap rr or a continuant r). Now that is copying of creative work without attribution, in my view.

It may turn out to be a little more difficult to demonstrate some ‘creative work’ with the Wagiman dictionary, and we may just have to accept that legally, this sort of blatant plagiarism will be allowed to continue.

Let my warning be this: If you find a book written by Philip M. Parker that looks interesting, avoid it; you can probably find the content online for free.


  1. We spell it Wagiman these days. Wageman was the spelling adopted by earlier researchers, Ethnologue and AIATSIS. Phonetically speaking, I couldn’t judge either way. For ease of fact-checking, I’ll retain the spelling used in the books.
  2. Perhaps Wamut could help me out here.
  3. Notice also that he implies here that he is an incompetent wordsmith.
  4. I take my blog to be ‘teaching’, thereby indemnifying myself against the apparent copyright violation of my publishing of a scan of one of his crosswords

Last weekend, a group of 16 Warlpiri women, including one three-month-old infant, travelled the 300 kilometres from Yuendumu to Alice Springs, to receive training in swimming skills and first aid, as they are about to become Yuendumu’s first life guards, ready for when the community’s new pool arrives in July.

However, the manager of the establishment that they had booked, the Haven Backpackers’ Resort, asked them to leave. The reason she gave, when challenged, was that since they were aboriginal, other guests had complained of being frightened by them.

Naturally, this is pretty disturbing and has been in the news for much of the last week. You can read more about it, and voice your opposition to the Haven Backpackers’ Resort at Hoyden About Town, where Tigtog has possibly found a way to encourage tourists not to stay there.

Last night, it emerged that turning away aborigines is in fact one of the resort’s policies, as a former employee has just revealed. I could have a lot more to say about this fact, but I think it speaks pretty much for itself. I find it odd though, that the company that owns this resort, among others, prides itself as a tour company that gives tourists a real insight into indigenous Australian culture. The following comes from the tourism company’s website, via the Sydney Morning Herald:

Don’t blame us if you finish your tour and start telling strangers about all the weird and wonderful facts you’ve learnt about rocks, plants, animals, aboriginal [sic]¹ culture, all the great people you’ve met and how wonderful it is to be alive!

Apparently their tours place an emphasis on “the unique scenery, wildlife and Aboriginal culture of each area”. I suppose with this recent controversy in mind, what they mean is ‘we’ll show you a nice little sanitised and whitefella-approved demonstration of indigenous culture, but apart from that there’ll be no contact with anything remotely indigenous’.

This, to me, really exemplifies the Aborigine-as-Museum-Piece point of view that is often mistakenly attributed to us documentary linguists and other anthropological scientists².

In other news, reports have emerged of truck drivers in north-west New South Wales that have been coaxing aboriginal women into sex with money and drugs. Some of the girls, according to the report, were as young as 8.

I think one thing that must be said about this, especially in the context of the reports of sexual abuse in aboriginal communities and the intervention that it provoked, is that sexual abuse is not an inherently aboriginal thing, nor is it an inherently aboriginal community thing. This is clear since not all sexual abuse happens in aboriginal communities between aboriginal people, nor do all aboriginal communities necessarily have problems of sexual abuse.

What it shows to me is that poverty, lack of prospects or ambitions and boredom are the key risk factors. It just so happens that aboriginal people are grossly overrepresented at the very bottom of the socio-economic scale, ergo, aboriginal people are also grossly overrepresented in statistics relating to such things as sexual abuse, neglect and the like.


¹I can’t really empathise with how the SMH have used the [sic] tag here. Their point is obviously that aboriginal should be capitalise, but I’m not convinced. On one hand you can view word like aboriginal and indigenous as operating along the same lines as nationalities, as in pork pies are a very English dish. On the other, they could be seen to operate as a plain old adjective would, like pork pies are a very poxy dish. I doubt you could reasonably capitalise poxy there.

Then again, in another paragraph cited by the Herald, the tour operator used Aboriginal with a capital. So I guess they had to [sic] either one or the other, but certainly not both, since naturally, there’s only ever one correct way.

My preferred, though certainly not absolute, method, is to capitalise the noun Aborigine, but not the adjective aboriginal³. Sometimes though, I think [sic] is used too widely to imply something about the writer’s literacy, as though they wouldn’t have done so had they known it were wrong. My above sentence about pork pies, for instance, might well be cited somewhere with a [sic], since I’ve used non-standard verb-subject agreement. It’s clear from my discussing it here though, that I’m aware of the stylistic ‘error’.

²Yes. I think of anthropologists and linguists as scientists.

³I was once thinking of publishing the official matjjin-nehen guide to style, but it seemed like a mammoth exercise in totally academic effluence⁴.

⁴I’m just remembering how much I enjoy writing across purposes in footnotes. Probably another exercise in totally academic effluence.

Sorry about those faulty links in this post, they’re fixed now.

We’ve had a few weeks of a Rudd government since the election now, and I reckon it’s been so far so good.

He’s made a few political errors of course, like gagging Peter Garrett (but let’s face it, Garret was Latham’s recruit as an environmental campaigner, not an environmental parliamentarian) and looking as though he’d obfuscate negotiations in Bali while awaiting an economic impact study (which should make the Libs very happy indeed, one would have thought) but with respect to handling the shambles that was the half-baked, knee-jerk Northern Territory intervention, he appears to be on the right track.

First of all, he pledged to keep all that $1.3 billion that Howard and Brough had earmarked for squanderin’, and spend it on the better aspects of the intervention while rolling back some of the more controversial and downright ludicrous aspects. Rudd says he’ll halt the changes to CDEP and gradually reverse them, and the permit system looks as though it’d be reinstated.

On Saturday, Rudd flew back from Dili where he stopped over on his way back from the Bali conference, and landed in Darwin to commence talks with aboriginal community leaders about what to do with the intervention. The Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the Northern Territory, headed by Olga Havnen, have presented both the federal and Northern Territory governments with a 14-point plan to reverse the changes to CDEP, which apparently, has been welcomed.

Contrast this with the standover tactics that Brough used while in talks with community leaders; all reports depicted him as basically telling them how it would be, and not listening to their concerns at all. Rudd has therefore passed the first test of leadership on indigenous affairs; he’s engaged aboriginal people – that is, not just Noel Pearson – and included their concerns in his policy planning.

So from the outset, things look pretty good. All except for the fact that the government doesn’t plan on stopping the quarantining of welfare payments, although the scheme will be subject to annual review, which, you may recall, was one of Labor’s recommendations when the bills went (briefly) before the senate back in September, and subsequently rejected by the Howard government.

I have to say, I’m rather optimistic about this. Well, optimistic that things will pretty much go back to where they were a year ago. Clearly, there’s an awful lot left to do and, to their credit, the government did a good thing in identifying the appallingly high rates of preventable disease in children. Hopefully some of that $1.3 billion pie will go towards fixing some of these shameful health problems, something for which this current generation of Australians should formally apologise.

~

By the way, two intervention soldiers have been slapped on the wrist after getting drunk and supplying grog to local aborigines. However, the matter is now being investigated by the defence force, which is kind of like the Mafia investigating its own activities.

Remember the allegations of sexual assault in the defence force that were revealed on Four Corners earlier this year? What about the systematic bullying in the defence force that likely caused the suicide of a soldier? Both these matters were investigated by the defence force itself, and nothing untoward was found.

It’s been less than a week since Howard conceded defeat to the Labor party on election night, but already things are beginning to change in indigenous policy. In fact there’s so much going on in Canberra, Darwin and elsewhere, that I barely know where to begin. I apologise (taking responsibility, that is) for what may therefore be a structural mess of a post.

Picking a starting point completely at random; The new Liberal leader, Brendan Nelson, has pledged to not support the government’s position of drafting and issuing an official apology to indigenous people. This is what he said:

Look Kerry, we are very proud of what our forebears did at Gallipoli and other campaigns. That doesn’t mean that we own them. Similarly, we feel a sense of shame in some ways of what was done in the past, where with good intentions, but not always with good outcomes, Aboriginal people were removed from what were often appalling conditions. We, in my view, we have no responsibility to apologise or take ownership for what was done by earlier generations.

This in my view is going to be a rather difficult point for the Liberal party, and will probably keep them at odds with the majority view until the apology is made and the issue is diffused. Nelson cannot now support an apology of course; it was the main reason he was elected above Malcolm Turnbull. Or more accurately, Turnbull lost votes in the party room because he said he would support an apology.

Northern Territory Chief Minister Clare Martin resigned during the week, citing the pressure she has been under during the last six months due to the Howard government’s intervention. She resigned not long after saying she would fly straight to Canberra to begin talks with Rudd about how some key aspects of the intervention could be immediately reversed.

Martin’s resignation saw Paul Henderson ascend to the Chief Ministership, and saw prominent aboriginal woman, Marion Scrymgour become deputy – the highest office ever held by an aboriginal Australian. During the year, Scrymgour publicly attacked the intervention, calling it the “black kids’ Tampa“, and she also diverged from the party line with respect to the McArthur River mine issue, which I wrote about here and here. Apparently such was her disappointment with the Labor party back then that she considered resigning. Scrymgour’s appointment as deputy – and possibly her taking on the role of Indigenous Affairs Minister –  is an excellent move for the Northern Territory government.

Federal Labor went into the election last week with the promise to reinstate the (albeit imperfect) permit system and reverse the changes to the (occasionally misappropriated) Community Development and Employment Program (CDEP). Based on the election results in the bush, they certainly have a mandate to do so. The swing to Labor in remote communities was enormous. The remote polling booths (which I mentioned back here) returned primary vote numbers consistently in the high 80s. In Wadeye, where vanquished former Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough did a lot of photo-opping, Labor MP Warren Snowdon polled an amazing 90.27% percent of the primary vote, and enjoyed a swing of almost 16%.

But Brough refuses to accept this indictment of his intervention, and has called for Prime Minister Rudd to continue on with the intervention.

I took the chance during this campaign to go back out to places like Hermannsburg and Mutujulu (sic), and I saw in the eyes of the women out there their desperate need for this to continue.

So I have a plea to Mr Rudd – I know you don’t agree with much of what I’ve done out there but not for me, not for some ideology, but for the children of the next generation, please, give them a chance, give this a chance to work.

For all intents and purposes though, the intervention will continue; much-needed houses will be built, health checks and follow-up treatments will go on and, irritatingly, welfare payments will still be contingent on certain conditions. The only difference is that aboriginal people will still have control over who comes into their land, and they will be able to earn a livable wage doing community work.

I don’t personally know how things are going out in communities at the moment, as I haven’t been out there in a few months, and news reports from the ground are really drying up in the mainstream media. For what it’s worth, I’m looking into the possibility of doing more Wagiman work in about a year’s time. It’s probably going to be rather a nightmarish task of submitting a grant application to get funding to do so, but here’s hoping.

~

Elsewhere, and this isn’t really related to the intervention or the election, the Anangu people are considering a blanket ban on climbing Uluru, as they’re seeing more respect and consideration from tourists of their wishes for them not to do so and it therefore seems an appropriate time to ban climbing it altogether, something they’ve wanted to do since Bob Hawke (conditionally) handed it back to them in 1985. Interestingly, Europeans are statistically least likely to climb Uluru, whereas Australian and Japanese tourists are most likely.

We did not climb it because we were told that your original Aboriginals would not like us to do that, so we respect their religion and we didn’t do it.

(Dutch backpacker)

The entire report is available as an mp3 from here, and if you’re unaware of some of the more irritating quirks of Australian accents, watch out for the cracking example of high-rising intonation as demonstrated by AAT Kings spokesperson, Dianne Easson.

I know I quite hyperbolically said I’d be gone for quite some time following the defeat of the Coalition by Labor under Kevin Rudd, but in our ecstasy, we forgot that pubs tend to, you know, close and stuff. So celebrations didn’t continue for as long as I’d imagined, meaning I’m now mentally competent enough to write a post.

By the end of last night, it was pretty clear that Labor had won about 86 seats out of a house of 150, giving them about a 22 seat majority, though there may still be some fiddling around when counting resumes tomorrow. There were a few high-profile losses for the Coalition, which notably included the seat of Longman, Mal Brough’s seat. Brough is, of course, the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, and was largely responsible for the mess that is the NT intervention. I won’t mourn him.

Another big loss for the Coalition was the Nationals-held seat of Dawson, which suffered a 3.7 percent swing against the incumbent De-Anne Kelly, and saw a mammoth 16.9 percent swing towards Labor, which levelled out to an overall swing of about 13.6 percent after preferences.

And possibly most surprising of all, the former Prime Minister John Howard may end up losing his blue-ribbon lower North Shore seat of Bennelong, to the former ABC journalist Maxine McKew. There was again, a mammoth swing towards Labor, at 16.1 percent, though it was largely due to Labor’s deflated primary vote of the last election in Bennelong (the number by which the swing is measured) when high-profile former ONA public servant turned Iraq whistleblower, Andrew Wilkie, ran for the Greens, and polled a surprising 16 percent of the primary vote. Wilkie also ran this election as the second Greens candidate in the senate in Tasmania, but failed to pick up a seat.

However, it hasn’t all been good news this time around, in fact it’s been quite devastating for some. Malcolm Turnbull was safely returned in the salubrious Eastern Sydney seat of Wentworth a seat he’s never really had to earn, as it was largely handed to him as a celebrity candidate back in 2004, much to the detriment of the then-sitting member Peter King, who suffered loss of pre-selection thanks to Turnbull’s tactics of branch-stacking.

I should point out though, that the Liberals don’t have a monopoly on this. Greg Combet, another celebrity fly-in, was basically handed the seat of Charlton this election when the Labor Party revoked pre-selection from Kelly Hoare, who had represented Charlton since 1998. The difference here is that Combet is great. Not only was Turnbull born with a diamond-encrusted silver spoon in his mouth, he’s barely done a skerrick of socially responsible work in his life. And to make matters worse, he gave the go-ahead for the Tamar Valley pulp mill, which should have hurt him in Wentworth more than it did.

Depressingly, it’s looking very likely that Kerry Nettle has lost her seat as the only NSW Greens senator. Nettle has been a very active and vocal senator over the past two terms, and often directly challenged the theocrat Tony Abbott, my local member, whenever he made some religious gaffe. A memorable moment for me was when Nettle wore a t-shirt to parliament to protest against Health Minister Abbott’s vetoing the use of the abortion drug RU486, claiming that Australia had developed an ‘abortion culture’. Her t-shirt bore the slogan Mr Abbott, keep your rosaries off my ovaries. Her presence in the senate will be sorely missed and I do hope she’ll stand again in the next election.

However, the Greens did manage to pick up senate seats in Western Australia and South Australia, and have retained Bob Brown’s seat in Tasmania, to bring the total number of Greens in the upper house to 5, which would mean that they will share the balance of power with both Family First’s Stephen Fielding, and the Independent Nick Xenophon.

Lastly, Andrew Bartlett, despite being one of the most active senators this last term in office, will lose his Queensland senate seat to one or other of the major parties, having polled only 2 percent of the primary vote, half as much as even the Terminatrix Pauline “She’ll be back” Hanson, whose preferences appeared to have delivered Labor the last seat ahead of the Greens. Bartlett’s loss, in conjunction with Lyn Allison’s defeat and the retirement of both Natasha Stott Despoja and Andrew Murray, means that the Australian Democrats no longer have any representation in parliament. That is indeed a devastating result, and I would like to congratulate Senator Andrew Bartlett on his career in office, and thank him for the focus and attention he’s given towards indigenous affairs, something that until recently had been largely ignored by both major parties. I also wish him the very best for the remaining 8 months of his term before the newly elected senate is sworn in. You can also read Bartlett’s own remarks on his blog.

So overall, it has been a rather bittersweet victory. On one hand we’ve punished a hubristic, arrogant, highly conservative government, and have replaced it with a slightly less conservative opposition, and quite resolutely so, but we’ve also lost a minor party in the process. For the most part, I think the country voted correctly for the first time in a long time, for as long as I can remember, as a matter of fact. Now, all that’s left is to hope the senate will be strong enough to keep the Labor government in check, but that’ll be difficult when the senate is so tightly balanced.

All in all, I’m very much looking forward to the next three years.

~

<update>
News of Rudd’s win has already filtered into the podean linguabloggosphere, with Language Log’s Bill Poser pointing out that at long last, we have a non-monolingual Prime Minister, as Rudd speaks Mandarin quite fluently. Of course I wrote about this back here.

If only he spoke an aboriginal language, he’d be perfect.

I couldn’t agree more. May I suggest Wagiman?
</update>

For anyone who’s interested in what is happening in remote aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, but don’t want to rely on the writings of those of us who blog and have seen the effects first-hand, last night’s Four Corners visited two communities, Maningrida in western Arnhem Land, and Aputula, or Finke, in the Simpson Desert, in a report titled Tracking the Intervention (follow the link to watch the program in full, or read the transcript from here).

Because the intervention began in the south of the Territory and gradually moved north, Aputula has endured the taskforce for longer, and is considered further down the path; it is a ‘phase three’ community. Maningrida on the other hand, is about as far north as you can go without getting wet, and is still in ‘phase one’.

Generally speaking, it was great to see such a huge and important issue given the airtime it deserves; far too few people in this country realise what is happening. In fact, my family saw for the first time glimpses of what I’ve been ranting about for the past four months, and they were all appalled at the blatant injustices being committed, and the covert assimilationist policies being carried out in the (rather insincere) name of child protection.

There were four main points detailed in the four Corners report that elicited gasps of disbelief and cynicism in my household, and I’ve summarised them here.

In Maningrida, the community women operate a night-watch called the Child Safety Service. The women ensure that children are safe at night while playing, and that they go home at a reasonable hour on school-nights. The service was praised in the Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle report:

The Inquiry regards the [Maningrida Community Action Plan Project, including the Child Safety Service] as an extremely valuable project and one that can be utilised to both establish a Community Justice Group and help guide reform in relation to the mainstream response to child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities.

However, the funding is about to cease, and none of the $1.3 billion spent so far on the intervention (a lot of which is going towards the extra Centrelink bureaucrats) is finding its way to helping out this group of 15 Maningrida women who are undertaking this ‘extremely valuable project’.

This is particularly hard to understand, since the purpose of the entire intervention is the protection of children, presumably, and not the scrapping of CDEP nor the quarantining of welfare payments, which are mere means to achieve this end, supposedly. It beggared our collective belief that something as closely related to the issue at the heart of the intervention as this project is, could be allowed to suffer, especially with all the investment the government is putting in.

The next aspect that caused considerable concern was the seizing of assets. Under the legislation, commonwealth appointed ‘Business Managers’ (community administrators, or Superintendents¹) have the power to seize community assets. In Maningrida, this means up to $40 million worth of land, structures and houses on some 32 outstations, vehicles and heavy machinery, community stores and so on, can be taken away with the mere stroke of a pen.

The community have been trying to get answers from their appointed ‘Business Manager’, Luke Morrish, as to what legal powers they have, and under what circumstances and under whose authority can the government seize their property. Here is the exchange:

MATTHEW RYAN, HEAD DJELK RANGER: There’s a lot of people are curious and want to know what’s going to happen with their assets and everything, you know, but there need to be like more members too, that way they can ask you questions as well. And like Peter said earlier, we had three times taskforce come up here …

LUKE MORRISH, TASKFORCE BUSINESS MANAGER: Mmm mmm.

MR: We’ve asked them, they haven’t come back with the answers and it’s not good enough. If you want that good working relationship with us mob, well you need to have the answers.

LM: I’ve got to say, I’m not going to be able to give you all the answers myself straight away, but when I say I’ll get the answers for you, I’ll get the answers for you. And I can’t run away, I can’t hide, I’m here so I’m going to have to do that.

MR: Well that’s what the taskforce promised us which they haven’t yet, so, hopefully it’ll be you.

LM: But they’re not, you know, and they probably had a view that, yeah, once I’m here on the ground that I’d be able to do that …

MR: Oh we hope so.

LM: And that’s why I’m here.

Same question evasion, different government department.

And so the report moves on to Aputula, where the intervention has been in full operation for months. Some people in Aputula were moved on from CDEP onto real jobs: seventeen out of the twenty-eight. Most of the seventeen are now employed in the child and aged care facility. There are also reports that people who were previously able to receive welfare without doing anything, now had to earn their money through work-for-the-dole.

There were however, a number of Aputula residents, mostly men, who were employed under CDEP to tend to the community-owned fruit orchard. While they provided food for the community, there was no commercial viability in the venture as they couldn’t grow enough surplus to sell, so the project was funded by CDEP. Its cessation meant that the former workers will be moved on to something else. In the meantime they receive ‘CDEP transitional’ payments of $8.24 (that’s not a typo: eight dollars and twenty-four cents) per fortnight, for 50 hours work! That’s less than 20 cents an hour!

Since the men’s wives often work in the aged and child care centre and get a steady wage, the men feel justifiably disinclined to work 25 hours a week for an extra four bucks. This is how the government apparently gets people into jobs.

The worst part for the men though, is that whereas before they were performing important community-oriented tasks and were widely regarded as good workers, they now feel completely undervalued.

The welfare quarantining has also come into effect in Aputula. The basic premise is that the government, under the guise of the ‘Minister’, can mandate that half of all welfare payments in proscribed areas (all aboriginal communities and town camps) will be spent on certain goods or services, including food, clothing and bills, and will be spent either at a Woolworths (of which two exist in the Territory excluding Darwin) or a community store. And it’s lucky that Aputula have one of the latter, otherwise residents will have to drive some three-and-a-half hours to get to the nearest Woolies, in Alice Springs.

It sounds simple, but it has been an administrative nightmare and required the enlisting of some 350 extra staff for Centrelink to figure out the details. But it seems that when it comes to Aputula, they’ve merely passed on the job of working out the details to the communities.

Every morning Centrelink emails her updates on the quarantined money owed to each Finke [Aputula] resident on welfare. She downloads it and then enters the new data on her computer in the shop. She then prints out this list so she can refer to it all day when customers want to use their income managed funds for purchases.

Many customers come into the shop several times a day for small purchases. Every time they do, they sign their receipt.

Many can’t write, so they mark the receipt with a cross, and Rewa Angell [Manager of the Finke store] prints the name and attests that it is the customer in question. At the close of business, she then reconciles each receipt against the Centrelink data.

It’s turned community store operators into micro accountants.

I’d like to finish off this post by pointing out that I really haven’t spoken much about child sexual abuse, alcohol and drug abuse, violence, incarceration rates and all those other issues that are central to this debate and central to (the most recent incarnation of) the report that started it all. There’s a good reason for this, and that is that the response from the government to these issues – this very intervention – doesn’t address them either. Instead they’ve gone after community assets, land rights, the permit system, and everything there is that makes living in remote communities possible. In this respect, and I say this (repeatedly) without delving too far into the realm of politicking, it looks as though the real motivation is to free up that resource-rich land.

Kim Christen has written an excellent post on the history of the intervention so far, as a guest-post on the brilliant Anthropology blog Savage Minds, which I have thus far neglected to add to my blogroll (note to self: fix that) and it is well worth the read. I spent quite a few minutes composing a lengthy response there, but as it contained a link or two, it hasn’t appeared yet. In other words, I rote U a rply but Askimet eated it².

~

¹White bureaucrats who were employed in the earlier days of Australia, during the height of the Assimilationist days, to act as paternal overseer of all aboriginal people within their jurisdiction. Their job was effectively to keep them downtrodden.

²I can’t believe I just made a lolcat reference! I’ll make amends by showing you this xkcd comic:

As Lauredhel noted this morning, the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation (BAC) will take legal action against the federal government’s Northern Territory intervention in the High Court in an attempt to stop legislative changes that would threaten the viability of Maningrida and other communities and their 32 outstations.

The BAC operates one of the largest CDEP programs in the country, with over 600 employees. As such, they stand to lose greatly from the cessation of CDEP and are threatened with the closure of the corporation altogether. This would seriously endanger the livelihoods of the 800 people living on the outstations serviced by the BAC, based in Maningrida.

There is apparently sound basis for this case, although most of the reports seem to imply that it rests on the interpretation of one phrase, just compensation. That aside, St John Frawley, a Melbourne based lawyer representing the BAC, believes the case is strong:

The acquisition under the powers under which the Act is made mean that the acquisition should be on just terms, and we say that the acquisition is other than on just terms, for a number of reasons.

I just love the way lawyers make me have to re-read a sentence several times.

As is always expected, Brough is crying political conspiracy, harking on about how David Dalrymple, one of the lawyers working on the case, is in bed with the NT Labor party, literally:

This has now been in for over three months, and what I am doing is simply stating what I understand to be the facts.
That is that the lawyer taking this up is the husband of the Labor Minister from the Northern Territory who has just condemned every aspect of it.

Big deal! It’s up to the High Court at the end of the day, and presumably they don’t care who’s married to whom.

While we’re on the subject of the NT government; they’re not formally supporting the legal action but have reiterated their criticisms of some aspects of the intervention strategy, specifically those with which this case is concerned.

"We didn’t see the link between ending the permit system and protecting children," [NT Chief Minister Clare Martin] said.
"We as Government didn’t see the link between protecting children and five-year leases, and I’ve been clear about that all along."

It is likely a matter of political expedience that Martin won’t support the legal action any further, since Kevin "07" Rudd has given his (in principle) support to the intervention and, with an election just four weeks from today, could do without any more embarrassments from the state governments.

This single case could also have much wider implications in the Territory and elsewhere, as the legal representatives of the BAC believe it could render invalid the entire foundation for the removal of aboriginal assets, including the forced leasing of land.

"My understanding is if we’re successful in this action, then the Commonwealth will not be able to compulsorily acquire land elsewhere in the Northern Territory," [Ian Munro from Maningrida’s Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation] said.

Even if this case doesn’t invalidate this particularly hairy part of the intervention legislation, it could set a legal precedent for other communities to pursue similar legal action against the government. It could in effect become a landmark case for indigenous sovereignty in this country; it’d potentially be right up there with the Mabo and Wik decisions. Just imagine: Mabo, Wik and Bawinanga.

A final bit of good news, as it’s considered a matter of urgency, the High Court is listing this case as a high priority and will hold a directions hearing next Thursday.


In case you were wondering about the title for this post, it’s an allusion to the meaning of the place-name Maningrida, which, according to the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation, is an anglicisation of the Djeebbana (Ethnologue’s spelling) name Manayingkarírra, which comes from a phrase mane djang karirra and basically means ‘place where the dreaming changed shape’.

Perhaps someone who’s more knowledgeable than me in the Burarran languages can verify this and provide a morpheme gloss or something. It’s not that I doubt it at all, but it would interest me nonetheless.