The dispossessed

IN MID-AFTERNOON JUST days after Christmas, finding a park in the small National Heritage town of Central Tilba, on the far South Coast of New South Wales, was proving difficult. Rows of Audis, Prados, the occasional BMW and all kinds of shining new four-wheel drives lined the narrow streets. Throngs of day-trippers surged in and out of the century-old houses now converted to shops and cafés: pretty timber-clad buildings with red tin roofs, bordered by neat gardens of hydrangeas and roses.

Central Tilba is a snapshot of a prosperous early-twentieth-century rural Australian town, captured for voracious tourists. In the Old Cheese Factory I stood shoulder to shoulder with others as cheese, ice cream, fudge, books, tea towels and a mind-numbing array of knick-knacks were sold. Devonshire teas and meat pies were gobbled as people sauntered and shopped their way through the art gallery, the leather shop, and the new-age hemp clothing and crystal store.

I caught myself gaping, astounded by the display of affluence. Just a few minutes' drive from Central Tilba is the Wallaga Lake Aboriginal Village, a community of 180 people. Here the median weekly income plummets from Tilba's $379 a week to just $200 a week. At the entrance to the village an Aboriginal flag flutters, and a sprawl of 1970s brick-veneer homes begins. A few are well kept, but most are in various states of disrepair: broken windows, sagging gutters, overgrown lawns littered with rubbish. There are as many decaying car bodies parked on lawns as there are cars on the road. Save for two kids fighting over a bike, the streets were deserted when I visited that same day after Christmas.

Adjacent to the village is the Umbarra Cultural Centre. If Central Tilba is a snapshot of Australian history, Umbarra is a panorama. Inside is a museum and cultural centre that tells the story of the Yuin, the people who, archaeological evidence suggests, have inhabited this region for 20,000 years. Yet on this day, with thousands of tourists nearby, the car park was deserted and the centre doors locked. Outside, a boat with 'Wallaga Lake Cultural Tours' emblazoned on the side sat in the dirt, covered in a film of dust.

Earlier I sat chatting with Uncle Stephen Foster on the doorstep of his house, behind us an old man coughing excruciatingly and a radio blaring. Uncle Stephen was spending the day, like most days, sitting around listening to music on the radio. At forty-four he already has the emaciated body of an old man, his face so tiny it seems all eyes and smile. Like many here, he has had a long battle with the grog. 'I used to go seven days a week if I could. Me little girl and me diabetes slowed me down. I slowed down for me daughter – that was me main priority. I just drink once in the blue moon now.'

As we talked a voice in the near distance started yelling aggressively, the tone making me nervous, but Uncle Stephen waved away my anxious enquiries with a gentle flick of his hand. Violence, particularly drunken violence, is not unusual here; while no one likes it, most are acclimatised.

To find this pocket of disadvantage amid the rolling green farmland and tourist towns of the South Coast is incongruous, and disturbing. Like most people who live in the region, I'd never set foot in the community before. To find myself venturing in with the same sense of curiosity and trepidation I used to take into foreign countries was strange. I was motivated by a simple question, but one I suspected was unanswerable: what went so wrong here?


IT TOOK ME a few minutes to realise that the reception I was receiving was not entirely a welcome. It was about a month before Christmas and my first visit to Wallaga Lake. I had been asked to front the full board of the Merrimans Land Council to explain my project. This is Aboriginal-owned land, managed by the land council, and while I was not explicitly told I wouldn't be allowed to work here if they didn't agree, that was the implication. I was viewed with suspicion. Some insisted on seeing what I wrote before it was published. Talking about some government-funded service providers who'd come in to the community, one board member said: 'They just come, use us to get funding, make money and go.' At this, elder Aunty Shirley Foster said to me: 'Just like you, really,' and walked out to have a cigarette.

The impression I got was that I was just the latest in a long line of white-fellas who come in with good intentions and inevitably disappoint. I steered the conversation to conditions in the community: 'What are unemployment rates like?' After some discussion they could only think of two people who worked full-time and only two kids who'd finished Year 12. As our meeting drew to a close, one person said: 'I should just record this, and play it every time someone comes and asks. It never changes.'

The Wallaga Lake community is a former Aboriginal Reserve, created from a government desire in the late 1800s to control and isolate the dwindling and increasingly marginalised Aboriginal population of the state. The ageing weatherboard cottage that the council now operates from is the former office of the last reserve manager, the man who once controlled every aspect of their lives. It was in this building that I sat down to speak with Aunty Shirley Foster – a tall, silver-haired, indomitable woman in her seventies – of a time when her people 'were treated no better than cattle and sheep'.

After the Wallaga Lake Aboriginal Reserve was established, in 1891, for seventy years people from the local tribes, but also from the north and west of the state and even as far as Victoria, were rounded up and sent here. Residents were housed, and given rations in return for work. The manager controlled everything: who was and wasn't allowed in, who worked and when, what language was spoken (no Aboriginal languages), even how people's houses were kept.

Most people over fifty living on Wallaga today remember this life. Lorraine Naylor was a young girl in the late 1950s and '60s: 'The houses were kept nice and clean, men used to come and inspect them every week. They were good days. We used to get the food, the rations handed out to us. We had to go to school every day or the welfare men would come and check on us. It was a good little school. Teacher didn't teach us much – we did sewing, and a bit of reading and writing, and sport.'

Aunty Shirley also remembers her neat house with pride; before arriving at Wallaga, in 1947, she'd lived in a tent her mother made out of corn bags and government blankets. The family constantly shifted across Gippsland as her mother sought work and tried to avoid the feared 'welfare' taking her children. But the fear didn't stop at Wallaga. At seventeen, pregnant with her first child, Aunty Shirley and her family were thrown off Wallaga because her mother refused to work – she wanted to care for her sick daughter. After retreating to the bush they were eventually readmitted.

A number of elders recall a day sometime in the 1960s when police arrived to forcibly remove six small children, all siblings. The elders suspect the manager tipped off police that the children's parents had gone to town. As the crying children were driven away other parents screamed and ran after the vehicle. 'That was the dirty things they done, you know,' Aunty Shirley told me.

Uncle Max Munroe also saw it: 'Sneaky bloody things they used to do here to the blackfellas. We couldn't do anything – if you kicked up a blue about it you'd be in jail.'

LIKE MANY IN Wallaga, Jenny 'Yuin' Kelly can't pinpoint the moment the decline started. 'I think from the 1970s we all went Yeah, we're free now, and the government started handing out lots of money and land back. For a while we sort of went up, and then our people started going down again.' The landmark 1967 referendum finally made Aborigines citizens of their own country, and the reserve was abolished. Individuals in the now free community fought and won some major battles for land rights; a Koori preschool was established. But in a path depressingly similar to that trodden by many Indigenous communities in northern Australia, it also marked the beginning of a slow descent into poverty, unemployment, drug and alcohol problems, and violence. Violence so extreme that, at times, government service providers have refused to enter this village.

Driving much of the discord here is a decades-long enmity between two families in the village. Aunty Shirley refers to it ominously as 'the split', and refused to tell me more. But, as I came to understand, it is essentially a power struggle between families that originate from different parts of the country, passing on through generations and picking up new points of conflict – today, it is even played out by kids on Facebook.

I first met Jenny, or 'Yuin', as she likes to be called, when I visited the Umbarra Cultural Centre as a tourist, many years ago. She left a lasting impression on me, partly because of her deep passion for the stories of her ancestors, but mainly because she was a fabulous tour guide. We climbed the sacred Guluga – a deep-green forested mountain with round rocky outcrops that rises above both Wallaga Lake and Central Tilba – and walked through the places where young Aborigines were taught the ways of their people in a time before contact with white people. In late 2008 a writer in the Sydney Morning Herald called Umbarra 'one of the enduring success stories of the Aboriginal tourism industry'.

Within a year, it had closed. 'I miss it something bad – it was the best job,' said Yuin, a slight, dark-haired woman of fifty. 'Since then I've gotten more poorer, more lonely, more isolated, more depressed.' Umbarra not only connected white people like me with a history I didn't know; it also connected this isolated Aboriginal community to the wider community, and beyond.

'I met people from all around the world. I ended up meeting new friends too,' Uncle Stephen Foster told me of the six years he spent working for Umbarra. Like Yuin, he's never worked since, and is frustrated it all came to nothing. 'I should have had me own business after working over there, bloody six years of it. I came out with a small business certificate – I thought once you get a certificate like that you should be able to start your own business, but there's nothing.'

It's difficult to unravel what went wrong at Umbarra, but Lorraine Naylor, a long-time Wallaga Lake resident and former board member, explained to me that business was slowing down and insurance costs were high. Then the Howard government shut down the CDEP, the Indigenous employment scheme which employed most of Umbarra's workers: 'Once the CDEP went we had no workers. We had only two left on full-time pay and then that money dried up, and Umbarra started to go down.'

I tracked down Richard Barcham, the man who managed the CDEP in the region, and he didn't disagree with this assessment. Barcham, who's now a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University, also attributed Umbarra's demise to problems with governance at a board level: 'It's about the ability of people to come to grips with how a capitalist business operates, how a board of directors operates. It can be difficult for an Indigenous board, and there is no real capacity for them to access these complex and difficult skills.'

'I don't want to put it on the community,' said Yuin, 'but they did lose interest as well.'


'I KEEP TELLING them, we're getting too old, it's up to you to learn things and do things so you can run the community.' After decades of community work Aunty Shirley wants to start handing over – but like many here, she doesn't like what she sees. A lament for the behaviour of youth is one of the most common things I heard in Wallaga Lake. 'They are just disrespectful, they don't listen to their uncles and aunties, they would rather let their Fs and Cs fly at a person,' said Uncle Stephen, who is Shirley's son. 'They got nothing to do here. The only thing they do is drive up and down the bloody road.'

But what are their parents teaching them?

'You don't want to know,' he said, and looked away in disgust.

Aaron Parsons, who's twenty, told me the kids are just bored. There's nothing to do, not even an oval to kick a football on. 'Growing up here, you're sort of away from town, there's no shops out here, so if the boys ain't got anything to do they just go into Narooma, they get in there and break windows, do really silly things.' And when the kids start drinking, which now starts in their early teens, chaos follows. 'It turns the community upside down. It's the kids who end up getting the parents into arguments, so there ends up being a brawl. Family against family. They end up fighting around, they burn bins, they just turn the place upside down, bottles everywhere, driving around in cars, which is really uncool.'

While this behaviour is condemned, many kids are following in the footsteps of the previous generation. 'They're also the ones who rub it in your face, you know,' Aaron said of the adults. 'They are doing it in the open, they sit anywhere and drink, they're driving cars and drinking – that's not setting a good example for kids.'

A brush with death at fifteen turned Aaron's life around. He and four mates were joy-riding when their car slammed into a tree. Aaron broke both arms and a leg, and bit his tongue nearly in half. Witnesses were amazed anyone survived. Now, other than a few quiet drinks at home or at the club in town with his grandparents, Aaron stays away from the grog and the wild behaviour it induces. He views much of what he has witnessed as a cautionary tale. 'When I was growing up I watched me aunties and uncles carry on with their kids, and then I watched them get them taken away, and placed in foster care, not with their rightful parents.'

Aaron comes across as an ambitious, bright young man – he's just joined a youth sub-committee on the Land Council, and carries a weight of expectation. Meeting him gave me a glimmer of hope: while the intergenerational slide into destruction is common, it may not be inevitable.


ANNE GREENAWAY IS the fourth chief executive of the Merrimans Land Council in five years – an indication of just how highly politicised this community has become. She is a warm, efficient person, and as we talked in her office little kids came in and were sent away with handfuls of biscuits. While she acknowledges huge problems with grog, Greenaway believes that respect for elders has gone primarily because of 'how we have had to live'. Decades of dependency on government services and 'solutions' imposed upon the community have created a new kind of servitude. 'It's going back to a mission kind of management; government is telling us what we need when we know what we need. Then we get into trouble if we go outside those boundaries, if we don't accept what the program is or change it to suit our circumstances. It's a welfare mentality.'

This method of service delivery has gutted the community, Greenaway said. 'People think, Well, they're not going to listen and so we'll accept that, and that takes the fight out of us. That's what you see in this community, the fight's gone out of them. People think, I'm just hitting my head up against a brick wall if I continue to fight, so I'll just accept it, just accept being on the dole; I'll drown my sorrows, because there is nothing else I can do. It is very detrimental.'

'I DO NOT want to hear platitudes about bureaucrats being appointed, million-dollar programs and all of that nonsense when the outcomes in these communities are not real,' a clearly frustrated member of the NSW parliament said two years ago. 'The programs in these communities are not delivering better protection for children and women.'

Andrew Constance has been the local member for Bega, which covers Wallaga Lake, for eight years. That day he was trying to move a motion calling for improved services to Wallaga, but was being thwarted by government ministers listing the many things already being done. Constance is still as exasperated: there are only thirty-eight homes in Wallaga Lake. 'A lot of money has been sloshed around but with very little outcome.'

Governments have not ignored Wallaga. A person who works in the community-service sector locally described a recent meeting when people were asked to raise their hands if they were funded by government to assist Wallaga Lake. Forty-five hands went up – though, he added, 'I've never seen half of those people since.'

I approached both the state and the federal governments to ask what services they provide specifically for Wallaga Lake. The NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs came back with a list of seventeen different services and government departments. The office for the Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Jenny Macklin, listed twelve specific programs funded since 2008, including new building projects, education and youth programs, funding for employment providers – at a total cost of more than $2 million.

Anne Greenaway told me that while there has been some change and governments are starting to listen, the attitude has generally been: 'This is what we're going to do for you, we're going to throw all this money at you.' The lack of consultation means the community ends up with programs or services that are ineffective. Initiatives are often only funded for short periods, two-year trials, so just as they begin to get traction the funding stops. The stream of short-term training is a running joke. 'We are the most trained Indigenous people in New South Wales, us here in Wallaga,' Uncle Max Munroe said, laughing. 'We can do all this training and still not get a job.'

One of the federal government's programs to help the people of Wallaga Lake has – very quietly – collapsed. In 2009 the government announced funding of $402,000 for two Intensive Support Playgroups, one for Wallaga Lake and another for Indigenous kids in nearby Bega. It sounded like a great idea: early childhood and family support workers go into the community and set up a playgroup, and work with children and their parents on early childhood development issues.

In Wallaga Lake the kids eagerly attended, but parents and caregivers were not interested, undermining the central aim of imparting skills to parents. Some parents were simply dropping their kids off at the playgroup so they could go drinking. Tensions arose with the service provider, and the program was withdrawn. In Bega many of the Indigenous families are related to those at Wallaga, and live in the mainstream community; the mothers and grandmothers came along with their children, and the program is flourishing.

A recent state initiative also had a less than spectacular outcome. 'Weaving the Net' is a program targeting child abuse and family violence, by training people within the community to respond. People in Wallaga Lake requested it, but few attended regularly and the group, which was meant to be ongoing, has stopped meeting. Anne Greenaway said, 'While that could still possibly happen, people were not as enthusiastic or as committed as one would expect from eighteen months' work.'

Placing the blame for failure on governments and 'whitefellas' is a commonly expressed sentiment, yet it also seems to me the community is not bad at letting itself down too. 'There is a bit of lethargy,' Anne Greenaway said. 'People think nothing will change, so they don't take ownership.'


FOR SUCH A dispossessed people, this small piece of land is of profound value, yet it has also paved the way for profound isolation. Wallaga Lake is eighteen kilometres from the nearest town, Narooma. The only public transport is the school bus. Without a driver's licence or car – uncommon here, due to poverty and disqualification – Wallaga Lake is the end of the road. It makes holding down work almost impossible. Uncle Stephen Foster lost his licence more than ten years ago. 'I just kept drink-driving, and driving while disqualified, so I can only blame myself for that.' He won't get it back until the end of the decade, well past the end of his potential working life.

Yet the isolation is not just geographic. Many of the things that occur here are so at odds with the South Coast I know that it could almost be a parallel universe. The reason most homes are derelict is because many residents don't pay their rent, so there is no revenue to repair them. Then there is the anti-social behaviour: public drinking, destruction of property, groups of kids wagging school, absent parents, the thirteen-year-old girl with a baby. None of these things is unknown in the wider community, but here they are tolerated and more prevalent. So are physical fights, a source of amusement and entertainment for the kids, who rush over in excitement to watch if the adults start punching.

Several people who live outside the community but are familiar with it claim that sexual abuse of children has occurred. Anne Greenaway agrees that 'one or two' perpetrators are known: 'The issue is that those who are witness to it, or have the facts, are not the ones willing to take the steps they have to. I will say family politics stops a lot of it being talked about or acted on. There are instances of it being generational – not necessarily here now – but it comes back to the family putting pressure on the victim. And that's what drags the community down, the silence.'

Late one afternoon, about halfway though the school holidays, scores of kids were leaping about with uncontained excitement outside the recently renovated community hall. It was movie night, organised by the co-ordinator of the Outreach Centre, Bruce Macpherson, and hotdogs were about to be served. Two Aboriginal police liaison officers were there, but the only adult from the village to turn up was Yuin Kelly.

Along with the hotdogs, lavish praise was being heaped on the kids, and they were eating it up. 'Wow, deadly! You are going to be a leader one day,' Yuin told a young barefoot girl who was rehearsing her speech for the night. Eddie Moore, one of the police liaison officers, told me: 'What we're trying to do is get them to realise they are someone, they're an individual, and they've got a lot of choices to make in life.'

Teanu, a teenage boy, shyly announced that he'd decided to go on to Year 11, and was roundly congratulated. His decision was even more amazing because he'd just become a father.

The residents of Wallaga Lake have low levels of education. According to the last census only 4 per cent of those aged over fifteen have completed Year 12. The figure for Indigenous people elsewhere in the state is 19 per cent. Children leave school early, and don't attend even when they are enrolled. Gabrielle Power, an outreach worker in the community for the past seven years, explained: 'The kids seem to do okay at primary school, then they get to high school and the wheels just fall off.' Many in the community I spoke to said they are desperate for their kids to stay on at school, but went on to say how terrible the local high school is: the 'worst bloody school in the state'.

That claim is too complex to explore here – but it is true that a generation of parents at Wallaga Lake feel deeply wounded by their time at Narooma High School. They say they experienced racism, and were treated like 'they were not very bright'. And there was the fire.

In the late 1980s, in a cataclysmic event for the community, Narooma High was nearly destroyed by fire. Three young men from Wallaga Lake were swiftly arrested for arson, convicted and jailed – including one of Aunty Shirley's sons. She has always maintained the boys' innocence. In her son's appeal to the High Court the only evidence against him – a seven-line typed confession, signed without the presence of a lawyer, less then an hour after he was picked up by eight police and falsely told he'd been implicated by the two others – was ruled inadmissible and his conviction overturned. Yet the bitterness remains. Aunty Shirley said of the high school, 'I won't go near the place.'

Two years ago Gabrielle Power ran a federally funded program to rebuild the relationship between the school and the community. Tensions were so high the first meeting had to be held in a neutral zone, at a conference centre in town. Over time the meetings were held at the school and in the village. They were a huge achievement, and relationships improved. A large photo of the fire was removed from the school foyer and replaced by a picture of Aboriginal elders. But the funding ran out after two years, and a lingering hostility has not been extinguished.

I heard many reasons for why kids skip school – no lunch, no clean clothes, feeling uncomfortable and isolated – but the most common is that no one steps in and tells them they must attend. Last year, after hearing parents say they didn't have desks, computers, or dictionaries at home, Gabrielle Power set up an after-school study centre in the village. Lots of kids came initially, and some parents. The parents struggled; with low literacy and no computer skills, they didn't feel they could contribute. 'It's hard, you have three generations of people on the dole, how do you suddenly say, this generation has to engage?'

During the movie night at Wallaga Lake, I spoke with Teanu after he was congratulated for deciding to return to school. He said the new study centre was a 'relief' for him – it meant he had somewhere to go and get help with his homework. I couldn't tell him the funding has run out, and the centre will probably close before he is halfway through Year 11.


THE NEED TO radically rethink how policy-makers treat discrete Indigenous communities is increasingly being recognised across the nation – though little of this new thinking has hit NSW. The two most notable departures from the norm have been the Northern Territory Intervention, launched by the Howard government, and adapted by the Rudd and Gillard governments; and the Cape York Welfare Reform Trial, a project spearheaded by Noel Pearson's Cape York Institute.

Of these two new approaches, the one most likely to affect Wallaga Lake is 'welfare quarantining' – the cornerstone of the Intervention. This requires welfare recipients to reserve a portion of their pay for 'essentials', such as food and schooling. It has been operating in the Northern Territory and will be assessed at the end of 2011, with a view to being rolled out nationally.

In Wallaga Lake, where many locals still mutter darkly about the Intervention, such a move is unlikely to be welcomed. Anne Greenaway said, 'It's like another imposition. If the community themselves asked for it, then okay. But having it imposed – that is not going to work. The majority of people are not involved in the problems here, so something shouldn't be imposed on them because of a minority. Again, you are being punished for being who you are.'

While Greenaway is circumspect about embracing Noel Pearson's ideas in their entirety – 'every community is different' – she philosophically supports his approach of active community engagement and a requirement to accept responsibility. A key component of the Cape York Trial is the 'Family Responsibilities Commission', which sets and enforces 'social norms'. If these norms are broken – by not sending kids to school, for instance, or committing alcohol offences – the offenders are offered support. If offences continue, welfare payments are quarantined. Preliminary results of the trial indicate a marked decrease in hospitalisation due to assaults, and an increase in school attendance. Greenaway agrees: 'It is getting back to how we ran things for ourselves all those years ago. Because it was the community that ran the community, and set up the norms about what behaviour is appropriate and what are the consequences.' For now, however, the Intervention model is favoured in Canberra.

While no headline-grabbing changes are underway in Wallaga Lake, significant shifts are emerging from within the community. Before Christmas the land council implemented a new policy requiring people to provide a bond when hiring the community hall for a party. The co-ordinator of the Outreach Centre, Bruce Macpherson, helped develop the policy. 'In a normal community, if you hire a public facility then you don't feel it's yours and you can do anything with it. If you trash it or you don't clean it, it will cost you money.' This is a new concept for Wallaga Lake, so new that at its first test it failed; the keys to the hall were handed out for a Christmas party without a bond, and the hall was trashed. Yuin spent the better part of a day cleaning up, and the stench of a chicken left rotting in the oven stayed with her for days.

Bruce Macpherson is not deterred. 'It's a slow process, to go through all those excuses for not taking responsibility and say, I'm sorry it is your responsibility. Like it or not, this is what has to happen.'

Over the mound of bread rolls she was buttering for the hotdogs, Yuin said: 'It's gotten to the point where it can be really, really bad here, but we've got good people, and we're trying.' This is true. But up against the resolve of these few are governments who are only half listening, and a community so crippled by decades of dysfunction it can barely rise above its despair.'

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