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Whitegate's Story

Whitegate, whose traditional name is Irrkerlantye, is a small Aboriginal town camp on the fringes of Alice Springs. As far back as the mid 1980s Rod attended a meeting in camp where the Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs promised housing for the assembled families. Such promises have been repeated every so often by politicians of both major persuasions. The children that ran through or around the assembly are now in their mid-thirties with families of their own.

 

When asked to reflect on what changes has happened in the 11 years, if any, had taken place since The Hard Light of Day won the Prime Minister’s book Award in 2010, Rod remarked 'How I’d love to announce a range of achievements that have improved the lives of the Whitegate families. They live three kilometres east of the Post Office, a forty-five minute walk if you’re able.' And yet, 'Whitegate, which appears decisively third world, makes good press for ‘what needs to be done, and will be done, when we are in power.’ Houses have yet to appear.'

 

After ten years of rejections, the book which recounts the lives of the

families and Rod's own between the early 1980s when he came to Alice Springs, and 1998 with the death of the senior man in camp, Edward Arranye Pengarte Johnson, was finally published. This process for award-winning book seems analogous to the mainstream’s inertia in dealing with Whitegate’s inadequate housing.


Rod shares that for the first time since it was published, he read a few chapters when asked on the changes, and that he wasn’t expecting to brush away tears. 'The lives in so many instances, so cruelly cut short, the separation from my kids, the state of camp, it’s still a hard read. None of the men and women in that book survives. Nor are many of the children. Apart from my kids who are now adults living elsewhere, most of this litany of suffering continues apace. That this is so, if anything, makes matters worse.'


Reading Hard Light and its sequel, One Thousand Cuts, you’d realize that Rod has never pretended to hold grand statements or an overview that speaks to what is often referred to as ‘the Aboriginal question/problem.’ Education, health, housing, incarceration, drug-fuelled, violence, the media’s familiar bold print are in there. But they arrive through his recounting of his and the families' small everyday rhythms; 'What we do, how and why we do it, and the challenges in getting them done. And how this daily grind contributes to the question/problem.'

Recently, a lawyer has attempted to have a lease agreement amended to the Crown Land on which Whitegate is situated. Though the families won Native Title at the turn of the century and mistakenly thought that was sufficient to start building, the NT government is yet to acknowledge an agreement permitting building. Rod has been a part of the families' walking and marking the trees and rocks that might form a boundary. And though the Native Title claim extended from camp to the foot of the ranges and some kilometres east, the families’ wish fell way short of this.

 

They’ve had architect collaboration with building types. An interstate organisation offered to do the building, fence and gate the zone to protect it from vandals stealing and destroying things when the families are in town. Landscaping plans have been drawn showing the layout of the most suitable sites and tracks that would minimize flood damage.


For some years an arrangement between families had town water piped over the hills from Ilpeye Ilpeye to Whitegate. This at least gave some security for washing, cooking and laundering. That stopped in 2014 when the supply was cut during housing developments at Ilpey Ilpeye. Despite street protests and national media attention, the NT government Minister refused to restore it. Until this happens, water and power, prerequisites for proper housing, can’t happen. Whitegate falls outside the brief of the indigenous town camp service provider, Tangentyere. Yet, upon request, they send a truck to top up the tank.


Some of the Whitegate women have taken the option of houses, in town or other camps simply to have power and water to cope with raising young kids. Breaking the family cluster and forcing them to mix with other language groups that are traditional foe, has increased friction. The houses are massively overcrowded, often thirty spread through three bedrooms. Fridges, stoves, air-conditioners and toilets aren’t up to this. No change in the housing situation in ten years. Worse if anything, with the increased urban drift since the Intervention.

Rod summarises saying, 'I don’t know in each instance if cultural protocols oblige such numbers to be tolerated without argument. I hear complaints sometimes. I hear the all-night parties that result in tired and unfed kids. I do know, despite regular housing inspections, the resultant wreckage after six months occupation keeps a maintenance team totally occupied. Who pays? Not the householder. Would they be better cared for if the householder had to foot at least some of the damage? So it goes. The original occupants have to leave, then re-enter their name on the housing commission’s two-year waiting list. That is the environment the children are nurtured in. Or in tin sheds at Whitegate.'

 

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