Sunday 6 December 2015

Changing Stations

At the beginning of October, I packed up my family and we made the move ‘home’.  

The house is fairly new, but the place is old.  It has a lot of history, and not all of it is good.  Lake Tyers is a former Aboriginal Reserve, started up in 1861 as a place to keep Aboriginal people separated and under strict control, but today, is freehold land that was returned in 1971 to the residents.  My paternal Grandfather, Charlie Carter, was a member of the group of residents who marched with Pastor Doug Nicholls on Melbourne in protest when the mission was threatened with closure at the end of the 60’s, and in his role as eventual Chairman of the Committee they formed, stood and received the deeds when they won their fight and the Governor General of the day, Rohan Delacombe, formally handed back the land to the people in a ceremony held just a short walk from where I sit right now.
On the day, my Grandfather was smiling and happy.  He told the people who gathered to witness the handover that “we won’t let you down”, and, for a long time, he was good to his word.  Ask any of the residents or former residents from that day who are still alive what they remember of life at Lake Tyers before he died, and you will be told that life out here was much, much better.  

My Grandfather was a smart man, a tough man, and a very determined man.  Sadly, he didn’t live for a long time after the land was handed back, but thought he had fought long enough, hard enough, and won the battle that would mean his children and grandchildren and the generations that came after them would always have this place.  A piece of security and a home for eternity, never again to be threatened or taken away.  That was his dream, and the dream of all the families who lived here - almost all of whom are related to me today through blood or marriage.  My Grandfather was a man who’d lived with the threat of being forced from the land he knew, that he was very much a part of, and it was an intolerable position that he wanted to ensure he protected his family against ever having to worry about. 

This was done in two ways.  First - the 4,000 acres went into a Trust, with shares given to every Man, Woman and Child who was a resident at the time.  My Grandfather received shares, as did all his children and so did many other members of my extended family.  Second – there were rules put in place around ownership and transfer of these shares.  Unlike NAB shares or BHP shares, they couldn’t be sold for money or any other kind of consideration, and those who had shares had strict limitations on who they could give their shares to. Only the original residents and shareholders or their bloodline descendants were eligible to receive them, a simple rule that meant it would always pass down to the rightful heirs.  I wasn’t born until two years after this all happened, so did not receive any shares from this initial handout myself.  A little over a decade ago though, my Aunt, who had received shares in the initial handout as a child in 1971, decided to transfer almost all of her shares to those of us in my generation, and as a result, I was the recipient of 100 of her shares.  Or so I thought.

The day I signed the lease for my property, I was also hoping to sign some paperwork to accept the nominations I had received and take a place on the Committee here.  Enter the first stumbling block.  After my paperwork was examined by a man from the Koori Justice Department purporting to hold authority on these matters, I was informed that the Land Council had ruled that the year of my share transfer (2003) deemed me ineligible and as such I was not a shareholder as I thought, and therefore could not take a Committee position. I am not the first, as story after story has been recounted to me by relatives, given the same spiel when they try to assert their rights, yet the Share Register is full of names that don’t belong and people that should never be eligible to hold shares.  There is no avenue of appeal offered for the decisions that have been made, and no opportunity for those who have been excluded to prove their rightful title to this land today.

So even with just two simple rules, and basic principles to underpin them, it all fell apart in less than 40 years.  We may not be able to sell the land, but that is not the only way to make a dollar out of a place like this.

4,000 acres is a lot of land, and not everyone can resist temptation.  Whitefellas and blackfellas alike are both susceptible to greed, and self-determination took a huge step back when the Government had to step in and take charge after one Chairman was caught with his hand in the till – years after they had received information about his misdeeds.  Perhaps they didn’t want to go in heavy handed and create another ‘wasted Aboriginal money scandal’ that they could ill afford at the time, perhaps they didn’t want to seem like they were meddling – whatever the reason for their delay, the end result of their apathy was a greater sum of taxpayer money lost ensuring that when action was taken, it was more severe and far-reaching in the lives of those people who were left behind.  The benefactor of the fraud was banished and no longer allowed to reside here, but the rest of the residents – who received no benefit from his actions nor had any power or control in the community to make the decisions – had to live with the daily consequences of his actions.  The Government stepped in and took power, appointing various people over the more than decade of their rule here to run the day-to-day affairs of the Trust and promised solutions if given power, money and control over an extended period of time to get it done.  

The media releases will tell you that the Government has poured money and effort into this place – millions of it in fact.  A ’10 year Renewal Project’ that was supposed to help improve the place and, as a priority, they would train the people to eventually take over and run this place themselves and attain ‘Self-Determination’.  Instead, the 10 years has ended, and things are not much better than they were a decade ago.  There will be no outcry at the waste of taxpayer money this time though, it was not stolen by a greedy black man but instead funnelled by stealth into wasted programs that provided not hope and change to the people here, but proved useful instead as a means to give kickbacks to the salaried army of contractors and bureaucrats who learnt to make the various schemes work for them instead.

Since coming ‘home’, I’ve seen the real face of racism.  It’s not a foul-mouthed or ill-behaved child at a football match -  as some would lead you to believe, but instead, it’s the disenfranchisement of a whole group of people based on their race, location and history - who have less education, less money and less support than their detractors.  I now see it all day, every day.  From the police officer who attended here and, instead of taking the complaint from the victim who was doused in petrol as I thought he would, gave advice consisting of “wash your clothes and forget about it” before leaving – to the graffiti some filth sprayed on our bus stop the other day that read ‘fucking coons’ – they never let you forget what you are living out here.  

We’re probably not what you’d imagine when you’d think of a remote Aboriginal community, but we are in many ways very isolated.  The term the Government folk were using at one point was ‘discrete community’ – though it hardly seems appropriate.  The closest well-populated town with services like supermarkets and a police station is Lakes Entrance, about a half an hours drive each way, or you can take the 17 kilometre drive to the closest general store - if you don’t mind paying $5 a loaf for your bread.  I use the word drive because that is your only option out.  There is no public transport within about 15 kilometres, the distance from the residential area of Lake Tyers out to the nearest bus stop (a limited service Vline route), with a State Park surrounding you and only the one road in and out.  There once was a community owned bus or two here that took residents out regularly that either couldn’t drive, didn’t have a license, or couldn’t afford a car.  Like the Cattle Enterprise though, you’re not allowed to ask about what happened to them, or where the money went from the sale of those assets.  There is no transparency, no accountability, and for now, that suits the status quo.  If the books were ever opened on this place, I assure you there would be scandal after scandal revealed and waste of taxpayer money in the millions.  If you set foot out here you'll see the beneficiaries are not the Aboriginal people who will be blamed and suffer the consequences when the losses are finally tallied, but instead, the real winners are the army of salaried contractors and government employees who drive in and out of here on weekdays and rely on this place not improving as their means of financial stability for themselves long term.

I don’t know what will become of this blog, or of my future here.  As far as the blog goes, I have very limited internet access for now, but my wish is to write more and post it up when I can.  Not only because people need to know what is going on in places like this, but also in the hope that by speaking up, some questions just might get asked.