We are not just passing through

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  • Published 20140506
  • ISBN: 9781922182258
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

IT’S AUGUST 2013 and I’m in a café on another cloudless late winter day in Bourke, northwest New South Wales, with Andrew Hull, local poet and artist. Last time I was here, twelve years ago, people advised against going out at night. Not safe, they said. But now the place has an entirely different feel about it. And this is despite regular negative media reports, including a front page earlier in 2013 carrying the bold headline: ‘Bourke tops list: more dangerous than any country in the world’.

I’ve asked ‘Hully’, as he’s known around here, for his take on the town he was born in more than forty years ago: ‘A while back I had tennis elbow, it was sore for quite a while, but gradually, without me really noticing, it started getting better.’  He’s a natural storyteller. ‘It’s the same with Bourke, things have been slowly getting better,’ he continues. ‘Twelve and more years ago there was a lot of unemployment with drought; there weren’t the same services that are here now. It’s a lot more positive than it was. There’s still a way to go, but people are doing things. Like the bloke who runs this place.’

Phil Parnaby is ‘the bloke who runs this place’, Diggers on the Darling, a café, restaurant and conference centre in the old Bourke RSL club building. Born and bred in Bourke, Parnaby’s seen a lot and is optimistic for the town. Crime and anti-social behaviour have been very longstanding concerns, but in March he took a different approach to the boys who were causing him problems. ‘They used to come in for a glass of water, or to use the toilet. They’d always make a mess, there’d be water and paper towels everywhere. They’d steal the sugars,’ he says. ‘I’d chase them away; called the police a few times. I tried to explain to them I’m running a business and don’t need the grief they cause me. And did they really need grief from me?’

As Parnaby sees it, positive role models are lacking for many of the boys. These are the behaviours they have learned. ‘We reached an agreement. If they come with me and we do something useful, I’ll do something for them. But it has to be two-way. And there has to be respect.’ So once or twice a week they go and clean up a park or water newly planted trees. Once a week they go back to Diggers and order a meal off the menu. They eat in the restaurant. Parnaby invites different people to come and spend time, talking with them. During winter they watch Monday night football. In the warmer months they often do something on the river. Parnaby has a couple of jet skis and a boat they enjoy.

His efforts have not been without some local sniping though. ‘A few people said I must be getting government money to do it. But I’m not. I’m doing it because I can and because it needs to happen,’ he says. ‘Some of these boys are hard cases. They’re the next generation of druggies and car thieves. Most people don’t want to know them.’ There was a murmur around town for a while that he must be a paedophile, spending all that time with a group of boys. So he always has someone else with him as a safeguard.

‘Ninety per cent of the time it’s good,’ he continues, ‘but every now and then we re-negotiate. I remind them they have to give something back.’ His canoe went missing recently. He got it back. ‘First they all denied it,’ he says. ‘Then they said, “it wasn’t me.” So we talked about shared responsibility.’ And, after denying any mischief, a few of them were surprised to see themselves caught ‘mucking up’ on the restaurant’s security cameras. ‘I knew it’d be like this,’ Parnaby expands on his understanding of the underlying problem. ‘They’re kids and they’re part of a cycle that’s been going on for decades, expecting they can just have things. The cycle won’t be broken easily.’ He understands this, from his own early years where alcohol abuse was part of life. ‘They think the cops are picking on them, but I tell them the cops are there to help them. Then they go home and someone will tell them not to let the cops push them around.’

Parnaby renovated the RSL building to open Diggers and he’s working on the old town hall next door. His plans for the once-grand building include an Aboriginal art gallery in part of the building. ‘A couple of the older boys are artists; they’ve had work in exhibitions. They can work in the gallery, when it opens, but it’s going to be commercial. When it’s open they have to be in there. Reliably. No question.’

It’s grown from small numbers at the start, up to thirty kids now, mostly boys. ‘The townspeople like what I’m doing,’ he says, ‘and the customers in the restaurant approve.’ He shows me a framed local newspaper article about the work he’s doing that hangs proudly on the restaurant wall. His approach is pragmatic, tough but fair, he believes. He takes satisfaction from it and regularly talks with others who share his concerns, his hopes for Bourke and its children.

ORIGINALLY FROM THE New South Wales mid-north coast, Kelly Edwards has been a police officer for ten years, three and a half of them in Bourke. Juggling family and work is the lot of many young families and on returning from maternity leave in November 2012 she wanted a part-time position. Youth liaison officer was all that was available at that time. ‘I wasn’t keen, I had no idea what it entailed,’ she says. ‘And I had no particular affinity for youth.’ She took the job thinking she would give it three months initially, leaving open the likelihood of seeking a different position.

She runs a couple of group activities. Tough Tiddahs (sisters) is a group of girls she sees a couple of times a week. They cook for residents of a nursing home. Kel’s Club is both girls and boys, many of them siblings. Some of the boys are also part of the group Parnaby works with. After an absence of many years she has re-introduced Blue Light Discos. In winter 2013 Edwards and another local community worker took twelve of the girls by bus on a trip to the snow. In November they went to the Corroboree Festival in Sydney.

Edwards was a dancer for seventeen years and she’s worked with the Tough Tiddahs’ girls on dance. In September they performed in public at the Yaama Aboriginal community festival. The festival was making a re-appearance after an absence of several years. ‘Some of them were terrified of this,’ she says. ‘They thought they weren’t good enough. “Shame” they call it. It can hold them back from trying new things, but they all did it. They were terrific.’ She does school visits as well and the programs run out of the Police Citizens Youth Club. One of her aims is to get other police and members of the community involved. To learn about safe people, discover safe places. Getting the kids to know and belong to the community. Know that they can achieve, that they have choices.

Edwards has strong support from a couple of close colleagues in the police service. Learning about, and being a part of positive community efforts to deal with Bourke’s problems has been an absolute highlight for Edwards. ‘This is something I knew nothing about, a completely different side of policing. Mostly you see the worst side, when something’s happened.’

Community and human service professionals learn, as part of their training, about self-protection. How to distance themselves from the problems they work with. Edwards is learning this on the job, with strong support from the community she’s become part of. She’s learned to avoid them becoming dependent on her. ‘When I’m away there’s others to carry on, it doesn’t all just stop,’ she says. None of which has stopped her working virtually full-time in what is officially a three-day a week position.

She wants these kids to respect her, not because she’s a police officer, but because she’s a strong woman. Getting to know and be trusted by the girls has been rewarding, and this has extended to their families where she has developed relationships. In the early days most of the kids were from the more stable homes, but as time has gone on kids from more troubled backgrounds have started to join. These are positive signs. After the initial hesitation about the role, Edwards has grown into it. She’s discovered a passion for working with kids. ‘I love it, don’t want to do anything else. I’m not here to change the world,’ she says, ‘I just want to make a difference.’

A SYDNEY MORNING HERALD article of February 2013 drew heavily, and selectively, on statistics supplied by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. While it is correct that Bourke has for many years been over represented, and often number one, in New South Wales for both domestic and non-domestic violent assault, sexual assault, break and enter, stealing, motor vehicle theft and malicious property damage, there is little defence to the headline: ‘more dangerous than any country in the world’. Comparing a town of three thousand people to United Nations’ statistics based on samples of a hundred thousand people can readily present a distorted picture. Omitting the most dangerous crime of all – murder, of which there were none in Bourke in 2012, two in the past ten years – adds to the distortion.

Most of the crime is between Aboriginal perpetrators and Aboriginal victims. Unsurprisingly, the leading causes of adult crime are noted as alcohol and drugs, followed by unemployment and a lack of purposeful activity. For youth crime, boredom and family background are leading causes. Disengaged youth become angry young men. The question of nature versus nurture looms large while the cycle continues. The next generation of druggies and car thieves.

The people of Bourke are accustomed to bad news stories about their town but the Herald’s article was widely condemned. The local newspaper, the Western Herald, reported the local council mayor demanding an apology and a columnist expressed the view,‘that one inflammatory headline has blown apart the chance to discuss some ugly truths.’ An understandable response, but the chance is only lost if people are seeking an opportunity to avoid those ugly truths.

Some of the ugly truths include high levels of child sexual assault, which are linked to all of the other social ills, compounded by overcrowded and sub-standard housing. These were addressed in a NSW Ombudsman’s report in 2012, Responding to Child Sexual Assault in Aboriginal Communities. The report was also heavily critical of the more than fifty government or community service organisations that are charged with addressing the town’s needs, saying most of these are ‘poorly integrated and inefficient’. Yet they continue to be funded. Some see this as the protection of an established empire, that there is a vested interest in the town’s problems remaining unresolved. Most of the problems occur in the evenings, when paid workers have gone home. The issue of disengaged and disadvantaged youth is an ongoing concern, yet there is no dedicated youth worker. Decisions are often made by people living anywhere other than Bourke who, some feel, have no direct experience and limited understanding of the issues.

The council has been criticised in the past for not engaging with the town’s social problems, including in a university study into factors affecting crime in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. But that seems set to change. Phil Johnston, council’s tourism and development manager explains this: ‘Council’s default position has been to resist the cost shifting that the state government is always trying to put onto local government. So it’s a natural extension to resist engaging with the town’s socio-economic conditions that would be a further drain on resources. But frank discussion has led to an understanding that conditions aren’t getting better and council have to engage.’ The extent of that engagement is to be determined, Johnston says.

ALISON WHEELER WORKS for Medicare Local on a community resilience building project. She’s an admirer of the commitment that Parnaby and Edwards apply and the results they are getting through their different approaches. Wheeler says there are many people with complex needs suffering multiple disadvantages. ‘Drug and alcohol abuse, poor nutrition, child abuse and domestic violence are often inter-connected and have a compounding effect,’ she says. ‘There’s also an underpinning inter-generational trauma related to family dislocation and loss of land,’ she adds. ‘These are not an excuse but may be an explanation.’ Intergenerational trauma is the trauma that is transferred from the first generation of survivors that directly experienced or witnessed traumatic events to subsequent generations. A recommendation of the 2012 NSW Ombudsman’s report was greater access to healing programs to address the intergenerational trauma. Add to this the poverty, the over-representation of Aboriginal people in prison, and recall the learned behaviour Parnaby noted. The conditions of many Aboriginal people in remote Australia can be called Fourth World. They don’t have quite the same poor health outcomes as people in the most disadvantaged, strife-ridden Third World countries. However, they don’t live lives that most people in modern and prosperous First World Australia would recognise.

Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generation in February 2008 led to the establishment of the Healing Foundation. This independent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation has an overarching goal of helping young people heal from their distress of intergenerational trauma and prevent the transmission of that trauma to future generations. Breaking the cycle.

Wheeler has helped organise meetings between the foundation and various service providers and community members in Bourke. The foundation isn’t able to talk about their proposed work until agreements are reached, but Wheeler says they will start work in 2014 soon after their program is finalised. Importantly, they will take as long as necessary to get the program properly planned and accepted by the local community before starting.

Another of the ugly truths is the underlying division – with limited interaction and little understanding – between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. Racism is mostly subtle rather than open, but when people don’t know each other, or actively avoid each other, relations are brittle at best. There is also entrenched conflict between Aboriginal people and other Aboriginal people just as there is between non-Aboriginal people and other non-Aboriginal people. And there are those who believe that Aboriginal people should just get over it, that the continual reference to the stolen generation and dispossession from land is a smokescreen for an inability or unwillingness to take responsibility for the situation. 

Fairfax’s Good Weekend magazine published a feature article on Bourke in November 2013. Titled ‘The lost town’, it highlighted the social ills of Bourke, particularly as they effect very young people, while focusing on some of the local efforts to improve the situation. Less dramatic and more reflective than its coverage from February, this could be seen as a travel advisory downgrade.

WHITE SETTLEMENT IN the area began in 1853 and pastoralism developed quickly, with Bourke being recognised as a major wool centre, even spruiked as the ‘Chicago of the west’. Riverboat traffic serviced the town and the pastoral industry from 1859 until the coming of the railway in 1885. The town of Bourke is at the traditional boundaries of four Aboriginal nations and Aboriginal people were forcibly relocated to Bourke in the 1920s.

Bourke has been affected by the loss or decline of its rural industries over many years. Irrigated agriculture has been important since the 1970s, although this is subject to varying water allocations. Being the largest town in the region, service industries are important to the local economy, tourism increasingly so. Unemployment is high, incomes are low. Levels of functional illiteracy are high, a low value is placed on education and the population has declined in recent years.

Despite this, shady trees, parks and the riverside setting offer an inviting setting, a relief from the surrounding ‘great grey plain’ as Henry Lawson described it in 1892. It’s a tough place though, at the whims of nature. In drought, the Darling River can dry to a series of pools. In flood it might be fifty kilometres wide. Still, many people will tell you how much they love it. Wouldn’t live anywhere else.

Alistair Ferguson, chair of the Aboriginal Community Working Party, was born in nearby Brewarrina. He’s lived in Bourke most of his forty-six years and he loves it. The Bourke ACWP has been established for nearly twenty years, with Ferguson chair for the past ten. He’s also current chair of the Bourke Aboriginal Health Service. He’s been around the block a few times and comes from a long line of Aboriginal activists. His great-grandfather, Bill Ferguson, was an organiser of the Aboriginal Day of Mourning in Sydney on Australia Day 1938. The Ferguson name is symbolic, being associated with the likes of William Cooper, Jack Patton, Pearl Gibbs and Sir Douglas Nichols, all strong Aboriginal pioneering activists.

The ACWP has an admirable list of achievements including: implementation of the Wangkumarra language program, the first in the NSW high school curriculum; initiation of an alcohol management program which has received two national awards; lobbying for a child safety review through the NSW Ombudsman’s Office; and negotiating an overarching service-level agreement with the NSW Department of Family and Community Services. It has initiated sporting and recreational programs and moved beyond traditional government funding sources to engage with the corporate sector in jointly developing an innovative, best practice Aboriginal housing and home ownership model. Importantly, six members of the ACWP have completed accredited governance training. This has provided a platform for members of the ACWP being involved in other Bourke non-Aboriginal associations.

Bourke, Ferguson says, ‘has been resource rich and outcome poor. We’ve been massively funded for little positive return.’ The community working party has developed and recommended a new approach to the provision of services and the governance and accountability of that provision in Bourke. This recognises that while the level of funding for service provision has been strong, the level of accountability has been weak.

The Maranguka Proposal, as the new approach is known, is a grassroots vision for true empowerment of the Aboriginal community. ‘The vision has been there for many years,’ according to Ferguson. ‘It was shared by our forefathers.’ The vision was spurred into action with a 2011 NSW Ombudsman’s report, Addressing Aboriginal disadvantage: the need to do things differently. Maranguka, which means ‘caring for others’, is all about doing things differently. ‘It’s time for the community to move beyond the existing service delivery model,’ Ferguson says, ‘a model which has clearly failed.’

Maranguka is designed to create better co-ordinated support to vulnerable families and children in Bourke. It involves establishing a community-led and multi-disciplinary team initially focused on family case management with the necessary support services working in partnership with relevant government agencies and non-government organisations. It will also, Ferguson believes, eventually build social capital and strengthen bonds with the wider community. Creating a place that is safe, enjoyable and a model to others.

Maranguka is based on extensive research, input and expertise from other Indigenous communities in Australia, North America and New Zealand, while building its own capacity. This includes an approach known as collective impact, a different form of collaboration with dedicated staff and a purpose-built rather than an off-the-shelf structure. It also focuses on the development of evidence-based policy.

ON ALMOST ANY issue in almost any place, local decision-making is held up as the panacea. The locals always know best, is the catchcry. This, though, can overlook the tendency for tunnel vision, or short sightedness, where local people may be too close to a problem, or it may be too difficult. This does not appear to be the case here. The ACWP has been responsible for a number of past initiatives, shining lights into uncomfortable places. And while developing Maranguka, Ferguson and one other member of the ACWP went on a study tour of Cape York and other Queensland communities. ‘We wanted to look at innovations and learn from others, not re-invent the wheel,’ Ferguson says. ‘While we were in Queensland, having meetings in many small communities, I often excused myself from meetings, went outside and asked people in the street what they thought about things, such as the Family Responsibilities Commission.’ This commission empowers local elders to make decisions about families that come before it. ‘I asked how they thought it was working for them and their community. That was enlightening, I learned a lot from that.’

An earlier strategic plan of the ACWP articulated the desire for local decision-making by local people: those people, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, who choose to live in Bourke – people who are not just passing through – and have a personal commitment to its future. Kelly Edwards and Phil Parnaby provide good examples of what individuals can achieve. ‘Change is needed throughout the community,’ Ferguson says, ‘not just in the Aboriginal community.’ And, unlike a number of people who told me, off the record, they believed there was no real commitment to change – among those service providers identified as ‘poorly integrated and inefficient’ – Ferguson believes people will change when they are involved in the change.

The Maranguka Proposal was endorsed in principle by the ACWP in August 2013, with a foundation stone of overturning society’s historical deficit-based approach that views Aboriginal people as ‘the problem’, rather than as people ‘having a problem’. It is not about reinforcing Aboriginal people and communities as victims. Maranguka proposes an annual ‘community report card’ to offset concerns that agency reporting is always at a state level, concealing the true state of affairs at a local level. This will also go some way towards increased accountability and transparency. Its approach is aligned to the NSW Government’s Office of Aboriginal Affairs (OAA) commitment to the development of staged local decision making. The OAA has committed to funding a temporary position with Maranguka to collect and analyse data that will drive evidence-based policy development. This is one of the foundations of Maranguka.

A key component of Maranguka is support for legislative change to enable local Aboriginal leaders to undertake community conferencing with identified vulnerable Aboriginal families. This proposed intervention would have teeth. Its focus is the welfare of children and it will not require the consent of the identified families. It does, however, require legislative change, similar to that in Queensland that established the Families Responsibilities Commission. ‘We live in hope for this,’ Ferguson says, ‘otherwise it’s more of the same.’

Maranguka also supports the Justice Reinvestment Campaign, which aims to convince the NSW Government to shift policy and spending from incarceration towards prevention, early intervention and treatment for young Aboriginal people at risk. Young Aboriginal people, the campaign says, are twenty-eight times more likely to be placed in juvenile detention, at an average cost of $650 a person a day. For young people from Bourke, detention is in Dubbo, four hours’ drive away. In Bourke alone, Ferguson says, juvenile detention costs more than $2 million each year. The campaign argues for the diversion of a portion of funds currently spent on incarceration to be reinvested into education, program and services that address the underlying causes of crime and meet community need.

Justice Reinvestment, Ferguson says, has attracted philanthropic support, which is expected to fund a caseworker in Bourke to work intensively with young people and their families. The evidence of their impact will be used to strengthen the argument for a state government diversion of funds away from incarceration and into early intervention programs.

There might be a case for accepting that some people might only ever have welfare as an income, but it’s important that that income be used wisely and that people have some purposeful activity, a meaning in their lives. ‘But,’ Ferguson says, with his passion, dedication and determination, ‘we should never give up on people. While Bourke has been good to a lot of people, this vision is about giving back. Bourke’s worth fighting for and it’s now better placed to get it right.’ And he sees good reason for optimism. Bourke’s tennis elbow might have more improvement to come. He also knows it will be a slow process and understands the importance. ‘After all,’ he says, ‘if Bourke can’t get it right, the rest of Aboriginal Australia has no hope.’


Bourke Aboriginal Community Working Party 2013,  Maranguka Proposal, June 2013. 

Duffield, T 2013, ‘Mayor seeks apology over “Bourke Most Dangerous article”’ and ‘Tricia’s Column,’ The Western Herald, 7 February 2013.

Harari, F 2013, ‘The lost town,’ Good Weekend, 9 November 2013.

Healing Foundation, 2014, Healing Foundation, www.healingfoundation.org.au.

Justice Reinvestment, 2014, Just Reinvest NSW,  www.justicereinvestmentnow.net.au.

NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research 2014, Lawlink Police and Justice: NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, www.bocsar.nsw.gov.au.

NSW Ombudsman, 2011, Addressing Aboriginal disadvantage: the need to do things differently, Special Report to Parliament under s 31 of the Ombudsman Act 1974.

NSW Ombudsman, 2012, Responding to Child Sexual Assault in Aboriginal Communities, Report under Part 6A of the Community Services (Complaints, Reviews and Monitoring) Act 1993.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2014, UNODC, http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/statistics/crime.html.

Olding, R 2013, ‘Bourke tops list: more dangerous than any country in the world’ and ‘Crying out for a new beginning,’ Sydney Morning Herald, 2 February 2013.

Vivian, A & Schnierer, E 2010, Factors affecting crime rates in Indigenous communities in NSW: a pilot study in Bourke and Lightning Ridge, Community Report, November 2010, Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, University of Technology Sydney.

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About the author

Graeme Gibson

Graeme Gibson has worked extensively as an adult educator and facilitator, primarily in the community services and environment sectors. This came after earlier stretches...

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