By Stuart Rintoul
22 March 2004
EARLY last year, in the South Australian town of Port Augusta, a group of Aborigines at a community church decided they needed a bus.
The reasons were clear to them: to get people to church, to take them to Aboriginal lands for ceremonies and events, to take them to native title meetings, or to funerals, and to get children off the streets and into school.
There was no end of things a bus would be good for.
The only problem was that they didn't have any money and almost everyone was living below the poverty line. What to do? The answer they came up with is a microcosm of the change going on in Aboriginal Australia. They turned their backs on the idea of a handout, calculated that the only real asset they had was themselves, and began a tourist enterprise.
Since then, the bus project has landed on diverse and sundry desks, including those in some bluechip corporate offices in Melbourne. Over Easter, a small group of executives will travel to Port Augusta and into the "ancient parliament house" of Wilpena Pound as the first guests of ThroughYuraEyes, a "four-day adventure" during which they will see the land through Yura (Aboriginal) eyes.
Hohaia Matthews is a Maori minister working in Port Augusta with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (the indigenous arm of the Uniting Church). The bus project began in his church. A father of 15 and grandfather of 14, of Scottish, Corsican, English and Maori heritage, he sees the bus project building self-esteem among a people strangled by welfarism. He imagines the bus being used not only to bring people to his church, but to get them to community programs, traditional activities (including initiations) and school.
"We're trying to think outside the square," Matthews says. "We've had enough of being dependent on government and other service providers.
"I guess at the end of the day we want to be able, as an indigenous community of Port Augusta, to stand up and say, 'Hey, we did this ourselves', to show other Aboriginal communities that this can be done. It's hard yakka, there will be a lot of disappointment, but when we get the bus we're going to say, 'gee that felt good, we did that'.
"I guess we're trying to put the word integrity back into Yuras and that has to be good. We see it as being the start of something."
Matthews says that after his congregation decided it needed a 25-seater bus, costing about $100,000, the Uniting Church of South Australia agreed, in "the spirit of the moment", to provide $25,000 seed money and $15,000 a year towards the cost of running the bus.
This was not a handout, he says, but "a partnership and a reconciliation, because the church has done so much to dehumanise Aboriginal people over the years; people have lived in the shadow of the church".
Describing the project as "putting the indigenous perspective back in", he hopes ThroughYuraEyes will break down some negative perceptions of Aborigines (or at least of the 27 different Aboriginal language groups in Port Augusta, including the Adnyamathanha traditional owners of the Flinders Ranges) and that "black and white will learn side by side".
The project comes at a time when small business is the increasing focus of indigenous development. In February, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services (the funding arm of ATSIC) held a Discovering Enterprise workshop in Port Augusta, run by First Australians Business, a national program that assists young Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders to establish or develop a business. Indigenous Business Australia is another statutory authority established under the ATSIC Act to advance the commercial and economic interests of indigenous people, usually through joint venture arrangements with industry partners.
Matthews says the bus project (coming with church "baggage") arose after ATSIC/ATSIS's funds were committed elsewhere and IBA, for reasons of time and uncertainty, was not approached.
But among supporters of the bus project, there is strong criticism of ATSIC, inflamed by the recent decision of the ATSIC board to provide $85,000 towards suspended chairman Geoff Clark's legal battles.
Malcolm Champion (who last year became the first Aboriginal person in Port Augusta to run for mayor, eventually running last), says the town's Aborigines are "suffering badly" due to lack of services, housing, employment opportunities and drug and alcohol problems. But ATSIC, he says, has become a dead hand in the battle to do anything about it.
"ATSIC was established to assist the Aboriginal communities to develop," he says. "But they have failed in many respects to deliver."
Champion's wife, Denise, who also ran for council (and was also unsuccessful), says: "The little people only get the crumbs, we're the crumbers, and even that we have to fight for."
The upside, she says, is that with no taxpayer backing the bus project has become "a bunch of people doing something with virtually nothing – and it's working".
Russell Smith, a Pitjantjatjara man working with the Telstra Foundation in Melbourne, remembers (in fact he says he is haunted) by the four words that came down the line to him from his home town a year ago: "We want a bus."
Smith, who has been working in Melbourne's philanthropic sector, teamed up with Justin Glass, a non-Aborigine at the Foundation for Young Australians, to pitch the project to corporate Australia. Part of the pitch says: "This journey will be a mix of traditional and contemporary experiences that will demonstrate that our culture is strong and is part of our very survival, indeed you may have a special role to play in our survival."
Smith describes the bus project as a lifeline in a community rife with social problems and low in self-esteem.
"We're just one small Aboriginal community trying to make a difference," he says. "We're trying to be self-sufficient and stop relying on handouts. We're trying to encourage the next Aboriginal kid to stay in school and become something in life. We're starting small and working up. Whatever we get will be a start and it will grow from there."
Last month in Melbourne, Smith, Matthews and some of the Adnyamathanha people who have agreed to be tourist guides pitched to the corporate sector at a small gathering at the top end of Collins Street. They promised to open a door to a world that most executives had never seen.
One of those who made the trip from Port Augusta was Levene Ngatokorua, a descendant of the Wangkangurrau and Luritja Adnyamathanha people. For her, a bus is a way of keeping families together on important occasions, while ThroughYuraEyes is a chance to dismantle some of the negative stereotypes attached to a town sometimes derided as Port Au-gutter.
"People come to Australia from all over the world," she says. "But they never see it as we Aboriginal people see it."
To put the venture in perspective, consider these socio-economic statistics for Aborigines in the Port Augusta area:
About 7000 Aborigines live in the Port Augusta area (half of them in Port Augusta, where they make up about a third of the town's population). More than a quarter (27 per cent) aged 13 and above have been arrested at least once in the previous five years (the figure is 20 per cent in South Australia as a whole).
Aboriginal income is around half that of non-indigenous people. In 1999, 40 per cent of dwellings in Aboriginal communities required major repairs or replacements. Of 17 discrete Aboriginal communities, seven reported restricted water supplies, eight reported restricted power supplies, and 11 reported sewerage overflows. In 1996, 11 per cent of Aboriginal babies were born with a low birth weight.
Only 32 per cent of Aboriginal children continued their education to Year 12 in 1998, compared with 73 per cent of all other children; only 18 per cent (or one in five) completed Year 12, compared with 68 per cent of all other children.
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