indigenous reaction to yumi and kerri-anne
indigenous reaction to yumi and kerri-anne

What Aborigines think of KAK and Yumi race row

WHAT happens on midmorning weekday television out of Sydney is not usually of concern to the people of Minyerri, a remote community 480km southeast of Darwin.

Kerri-Anne Kennerley is a name with vague recognition. Yumi Stynes draws a complete blank.

Michelle Bennett, 51, a senior Aboriginal teacher at Minyerri school, did not see them going head-to-head in an argument over what mattered more: changing the date of Australia Day or addressing issues of child abuse and atrocious conditions in our nation's backyard.

But she already knows the answer. It's her life.

Minyerri knows about living rough. Two years ago, it made national headlines with people, including kids, living in squalor in tents and makeshift bough sheds by the community billabong.

Since then, governments, both NT and federal, have been embarrassed into action and 10 new houses are either completed or nearly there.

There is still chronic overcrowding - which creates the perfect environment for child abuse - but the community is picking itself up.

"Everyone's arguing about changing the date," says Michelle.

Senior teacher Michelle Bennett with students from the Minyerri School, 480km from Darwin. Michelle says Kerri-Anne is right,
Senior teacher Michelle Bennett with students from the Minyerri School, 480km from Darwin. Michelle says Kerri-Anne is right, "Of course kids are the most important issue". Picture: Justin Kennedy

 

"I've got nothing against people from urban areas, but what happened in the past happened. We had massacres, we had a lot of bad things.

"I can see where Kerri-Anne Kennerley is coming from. Kerri's saying it's important to focus on kids being neglected and abused. Of course it's the most important issue."

And changing the date? "It's not something we talk about. The date is the date. Let it be."

The rape of a two-year-old girl further south in Tennant Creek last year is known to every Aboriginal person in the north, whether they follow media or not.

 

Minyerri School students are taught math during a lesson on Thursday in the community. Picture: Justin Kennedy
Minyerri School students are taught math during a lesson on Thursday in the community. Picture: Justin Kennedy

 

The child had to be treated for gonorrhoea after the assault in a house where welfare authorities knew the children were at risk.

"It hurts," says Michelle. When you hear about it, you wonder why that happens. It saddens me to hear about our people doing that to our kids, our bubs. What trauma will that kid go through?

"Who knows how underreported it is? You hear about it in surrounding communities. It's sad. If you're an adult, it's your responsibility to look after kids. I've protected mine like a lioness. That's who I am."

 

Local Minyerri child Sampson Farrell, 9, works out on the punching bag. The Minyerri community is located 480kms from Darwin, NT. Picture: Justin Kennedy
Local Minyerri child Sampson Farrell, 9, works out on the punching bag. The Minyerri community is located 480kms from Darwin, NT. Picture: Justin Kennedy

 

Kennerley was called a "racist" by Stynes. Michelle's experience is slightly different. Growing up indigenous, she's been called racist things.

"It doesn't matter to me," she says. "I'm not going to change."

What they want to change is their health. Darren Farrell, Minyerri traditional owner and reverend, says the outlook is bleak. "We have biggest mob health problems," he says. "Too much. Diabetes, heart problems, cancer. Some people, if they get from the flu, they stay sick."

This man, of the Alawa tribe, is asked about Australia Day. He shrugs. "We want a good, happy healthy environment for our kids."

 

Darren Farrell, Minyerri community traditional owner and reverend.
Darren Farrell, Minyerri community traditional owner and reverend. "We want a good, happy, healthy environment for our kids." Picture: Justin Kennedy

 

 

 

Darrell O'Keefe and Carole Farrell live in a lean-to in Minyerri. They have never heard about changing the date of Australia Day. Darrell says:
Darrell O'Keefe and Carole Farrell live in a lean-to in Minyerri. They have never heard about changing the date of Australia Day. Darrell says: "Children are the most important." Picture: Justin Kennedy

 

It is a curious First World indulgence to have a venomous argument about changing a date, while people among us live in Third World conditions.

We met Carole Farrell, 47, and her husband, Darrell O'Keefe, 43. They do not watch TV, don't read papers, do the internet or any of it. They have never heard of Kennerley and need the thrust of the argument translated.

Currently, they are living in a lean-to while waiting for a house to be built. This is partly by choice. The locals have been offered temporary accommodation in clammy demountable boxes and this couple prefers to live on the outskirts of Minyerri, cooking damper on the outside fire.

 

Darrell O'Keefe and Carole Farrell’s camp oven which is beside their lean-to in Minyerri. Picture: Justin Kennedy
Darrell O'Keefe and Carole Farrell’s camp oven which is beside their lean-to in Minyerri. Picture: Justin Kennedy

 

They rake the sand outside their humpy and "borrow" electricity to run a fan and fridge. They don't have a car.

"Car?" says Darrell. "We got family."

Australia Day? They know nothing about. They don't need to. There's nothing more Australian than them. "Children," says Darrell, "are the most important thing."

Minyerri is looking better than it did two years ago. The school on Thursday this week was running at 80 per cent attendance - a near record, but it's early in the school year and it will soon drop off, possibly to as low as 50 per cent.

It's a busy and invigorated community, trying hard. But then we head north to Beswick.

 

Discoloured water comes out of the drinking fountains at the Minyerri school. The Minyerri community is located some 480 kms southeast of Darwin. Picture: Justin Kennedy
Discoloured water comes out of the drinking fountains at the Minyerri school. The Minyerri community is located some 480 kms southeast of Darwin. Picture: Justin Kennedy

 

Minyerri School’s Year 2-3 students read books during Thursday's class. The Minyerri community is located some 480km from Darwin. Picture: Justin Kennedy
Minyerri School’s Year 2-3 students read books during Thursday's class. The Minyerri community is located some 480km from Darwin. Picture: Justin Kennedy

 

A COMMUNITY TORN APART

ON THE ROAD to Beswick, we are following what looks like a refrigerated meat delivery van. But this vehicle's not delivering; it's collecting.

The police have got vehicles blocking the road. A green Ford Fairmont has left the road and rolled end-over-end. An indigenous man is deceased in the vehicle. He's the third from this area to die on NT roads in 10 days.

Beswick, 420km from Darwin is a trashed community. Kids play on a pile of wrecked cars on the main road through town. Picture: Justin Kennedy
Beswick, 420km from Darwin is a trashed community. Kids play on a pile of wrecked cars on the main road through town. Picture: Justin Kennedy

Jail, road trauma and alcohol-related bad health have ripped the young and middle-aged men from these communities. Nothing can be normal in these townships when so many are dead or missing.

The police point out something curious. Hidden in a culvert, just near the destroyed vehicle, is a bottle of vodka. It is suspected one of the passengers had the wherewithal, even as a friend lay dead at the wheel, to stash the liquor for later.

 

A single-vehicle-rollover on the road to Beswick. The driver was dead. He is the third person from this region to die in a car in ten days. Picture: Justin Kennedy
A single-vehicle-rollover on the road to Beswick. The driver was dead. He is the third person from this region to die in a car in ten days. Picture: Justin Kennedy

 

Next to the scene of a fatal car rollover on the Beswick road, police find a bottle of vodka hidden in a culvert. The suspicion is that surviving passengers stashed the bottle following the rollover on Thursday afternoon. Picture: Justin Kennedy
Next to the scene of a fatal car rollover on the Beswick road, police find a bottle of vodka hidden in a culvert. The suspicion is that surviving passengers stashed the bottle following the rollover on Thursday afternoon. Picture: Justin Kennedy

 

Further up the road, the community of Beswick is a picture of ruin and despair.

Two quick points. Having covered this story for decades, there's a little bit of chagrin in following in the footsteps of Kerri-Anne Kennerley. But more than that, this community is at this time as bad as I've ever seen, anywhere, ever.

It's partly because the relatively new housing development at the south of town is now close to a total slum. When new things are wrecked, it always looks worse.

Doors ripped from hinges, ground-in filth on the walls, dead cars that have had their windows post-mortem flogged like they're being punished, heaps of wandering kids, dogs with tick infestations so grotesque that it is nothing less than cruel.

 

Camp dogs keep entertained during the midday heat in Beswick, NT on Thursday. Picture: Justin Kennedy
Camp dogs keep entertained during the midday heat in Beswick, NT on Thursday. Picture: Justin Kennedy

 

There's plenty of official-looking vehicles driving around. How can they not see what is before their faces? How can the locals live like this? It's their decision not to clean, it's their decision whether or not to destroy their homes.

If the dogs are neglected, what about the kids? Being young, brilliant and fearless, they backflip off standing starts and demonstrate uncanny prowess with balls. But we already know that. What we don't know is how they are suffering.

What happens behind the front doors in homes like the ones in Beswick, just 420km from Darwin? That is, if they have front doors.

 

Filthy, barely habitable houses in the community of Beswick, is located 420km from Darwin, NT. Picture: Justin Kennedy
Filthy, barely habitable houses in the community of Beswick, is located 420km from Darwin, NT. Picture: Justin Kennedy

 

There are food programs at school, and these kids tend to get ravenous midmorning because they don't get breakfast. It's a daily triage routine that cannot mask what we're really looking at: the most vulnerable kids in Australia.

As we head out of Beswick, the body's been taken away in the mortuary vehicle and the cops are finalising their investigation.

 

A ute collects dust outside of a local house in Beswick located 420kms from Darwin NT. Picture: Justin Kennedy
A ute collects dust outside of a local house in Beswick located 420kms from Darwin NT. Picture: Justin Kennedy

 

Chatting to one of the officers about Beswick, he agrees it's as bad as he's seen it. Yet, he says, the community of Barunga, just 30km away, is spotless and they're not seeing major problems.

"They're the same people, the same families. How can one be so bad and the other so good?" He doesn't understand it, nor do I. But it is something to do with strong people taking charge in Barunga, while no one is doing the same in Beswick.

Were Yumi Stynes to spend one night in one of the hovels of south-side Beswick, or even to just do a drive-by from an airconditioned vehicle, her views on the national priorities would be shaken.