An excerpt from my fieldnotes (2008): ‘Welfare quarantining’ and the feeling on the ground.


Fieldwork photo (2008)

Fieldwork photo (2008)


The following excerpt is taken from my field notes (2008). They are notes on a rather tense meeting between senior Yolŋu people and government representatives when ‘welfare quarantining’ [4] was first introduced in Arnhem Land. I have noted major edits or omissions with ellipses.


Fieldnotes, Friday 8th February 2008


Yesterday was the day of the mala-leader [1] meeting at Galiwin’ku Island. The plane flew in at 9am to pick up yapa, wäwa, wiripu wäwa and myself. The pilot apologised for the delay and explained that we were doing a ‘round trip’ – we had to stop at Doinji and Marparu before Galiwin’ku yet. Yapa wasn’t impressed, given we already running late, and teased the pilot accordingly, “I don’t usually do the round trip . . . I always go straight there – I don’t want to go straight to the hospital – I should tell dhuway to start digging my grave right now!” The pilot wasn’t quite sure if this was banter or complaint. He looked a little flustered and reassured her it wouldn’t take long.


It was lovely to fly over Country that I haven’t seen before. As we flew away from camp yapa began pointing out this and that – where the flag-song travels following the contours of Country, where she got that big scar on her forearm down there near the point on the rocks, pointing out and naming different features of the broader landform – the backbone Country, the open Country where there’s dharrwa gatapunga, dharrwa, dharrwa (‘heaps of buffalo, heaps and heaps’).


We arrived at Marthakal [2] when everyone was taking a break for morning tea. Yolŋu’yulŋu (‘Yolŋu people [plural]’) were milling about in the walkway between buildings. Yapa rolled a cigarette, chatting and introducing me to gurrutu (‘kin’) I hadn’t met yet. After about ten minutes we made our way into the meeting room, where we took up seats arranged in a semi-circle facing a desk at the front of the room. Yapa sat on the floor in front next to Kathy (the strong Warramiri woman), and Jane who was also wonderfully articulate and outspoken. All the women were seated on one side together and all the men on another side, just as is. The government or Centrelink [3] Representatives (three women and one man) were sitting together at the desk at the front of the room, along with Richard the Balanda (‘white person, European’) CEO of Marthakal, the Yolŋu Chairman of Marthakal (whose name escapes me), and gathu David, the Manager.


We were given a sheet of paper with the agenda, as well as an official Centrelink ‘information sheet’ explaining a little about the new welfare quarantining measures. The Centrelink Reps introduced themselves – they were asked where they were from, if they had children, and how long they had been working in Aboriginal communities for. (This is fairly standard request in these intercultural ‘meeting’ contexts.)


One of the Centrelink Reps began to deliver an introductory talk about the new welfare quarantining measures. Galay, a senior Yolŋu man and long term cultural broker, stood near the front of the room and translated as he spoke. He was not long into his introductory talk when one of the mala-leaders requested a moment of pause for questions or comments thus far. Dhumungur, Galay’s son, was the first to speak up: “I’m going to speak in my language” he said, though his English is impeccable. Galay translated as he spoke:


“This is going to be a hard question for you, not as a Centrelink worker but as a person – Andie – as Andie – do you think these are fair or unfair? How do you feel, as a person?”


‘Andie’ exhaled in one deep breath and stood up: “You’ve asked me a really hard question . . . [exhale] . . . just before I say anything, I want to say that I’m doing a job, and what happens is that one person tells another person what to do, and they have to do it – that’s what’s happening here today okay. But you’re asking me personally . . .  well, I think there’s some good and some bad parts to this policy, but if the stories in The Little Children are Sacred [6] report are true . . . if this can help [voice quivering] . . . ” He seemed about to burst into tears. He resumed his seat and took a few deep breathes. All the mala-leader representatives felt immediately worrying and sorry for him, gumurr-djararrk.


For my part I have to admit that I was more skeptical. I wasn’t sure whether he was feeling emotional because he had to be the one to explain these new discriminatory, punitive policy measures – or if it was something to do with the actual content of The Little Children are Sacred Report. Either way, this set the parameters for the meeting. The Centrelink Representatives were there to deliver a message. They were ‘just doing their job.’


The rest of the meeting ran thus: The Centrelink Reps explained some key piece of information about the new welfare quarantining policy, galay would then translate it into Yolŋu-matha, and then the floor was open to comments and questions.


For the most part the Centrelink explanations were over-simplified and condescending. The Centrelink Reps drew two columns on the white board. $500 was written on top as TOTAL pay, with $250 written at the top of each column. In one column was listed:











At the top of the other column was written YOUR MONEY. When explaining this, the Centrelink Reps repeatedly said: “We don’t want to know about that money – that is your money to spend however you want.” In order to use the “Centrelink half,” however, “you have to ring Centrelink and talk to them about what you want to spend it on” they explained.


Yapa spoke up, gently out of turn: “We just in the deep shits. That’s where we are . . . . What about all the people who don’t speak English? This is one example that I am giving to you, about why this is putting us in the deep shits.”


One of the Centrelink Reps replied: “We’re not going to lie to you – it’s going to be a lot of work. If you ring up Centrelink and say you want $100 sent to the shop and then you change your mind, you’ll have to ring them back and say ‘stop that money, I want to spend it somewhere else.’ It’s going to be a lot of work.”


One of the mala-leader women began to explain that they had been actively dealing with issues of alcohol and gambling for a long time, and had long-running community based programmes to do so. “We know this is a big issue for us,” she said, “but we need to work together.”


The Centrelink Rep acknowledged that this was indeed the case, before saying (rather out of nowhere): “I hear this from a lot of people – that they feel caught between two worlds.”


Dhumungur interrupted: “Actually we feel dominated by the white people and the white world. And what’s the reason for all this? From that report about child abuse? Whose children?? And can you tell us then, when will you know – when will you think you know – if those children are safe?”


Many of the following comments, concerns and queries from the mala-leaders followed in a similar fashion. One of the Centrelink Reps interjected and suggested that we “try and focus on the smaller issues – like how this quarantining is going to work.” It seemed to me, however, that the mala-leaders knew these measures were a fait accompli (and that they would therefore learn about them in time), so they were taking this opportunity foreground and appeal to the larger issues – the perceived injustice of these policy measures. Further comments from mala-leaders that I noted at this point included:


“Are we like an elephant or monkey – ‘look can we teach them to read and write and talk?’ Is that what we are like for this government??”


“When this Intervention started, myself and other Yolŋu people – we felt like a concrete block had fallen on us. That is what it felt like when that John Howard and Mal Brough introduced that thing. And since then, we feel that concrete block on top of us.”


“If they are worried about Yolŋu people learning about saving their money why don’t they bring the education program that we had here at Galiwin’ku, that Money Business[7] that we had – instead of just cutting our money in two. We were happy running that Money Business here – learning for our own people about the money. We are not stupid.”


“See those three ‘g’s on the board there? Grog, gunja and gambling – they not a Yolŋu disease, they are a Balanda disease. And on the Homelands we stopped them long long time ago. They a Balanda disease in the towns ga cities.”


“Many of us have certificates – ‘diplomas’ – I was the first Yolŋu to get a diploma in horticulture. But those bits of paper – that you Balanda always tell us that we need – well, then they stay in the Balanda cupboard. We work, and we have those certificates – those qualifications – so why aren’t we on the Salaries like you Balanda? We work just the same, but we just get that CDEP – that sit-down money. Is your Balanda paper more powerful that you get those salaries for doing the same work, and we just get sit-down money?”


Notable among the last of the comments was the beautiful ‘kind of parable’ from Kathy (one of the mala-leader women). She spoke in Yolŋu-matha, and galay translated into English.


“This is a kind of parable. There are two people. They are different and have separate lives. One knows his destiny, the other is travelling. The traveller says to the other, follow me. And he says ‘no’ this is my home and my people and I have to stay here where I belong. But the other person says you have to come with me. That man says, if I go with you, you will be my eye. I will have to go with blind faith.” She paused for galay to translate, before continuing: “You have to understand that that is the position we’re in. We can’t have anything except blind faith if you make us come along with you. But there is no trust here.”


As with all meetings of this kind that I have attended, there wasn’t enough time to hear everyone’s concerns. The sense of frustration was palpable. The meeting was supposed to close for lunch, but it went on and over into lunch-time because the comments and concerns from mala-leaders kept coming. At some point, noticing that the Centrelink Reps were making a move to ‘pack up,’ Jane (one of the mala-leader women) asked, nay implored them to write down the concerns and questions that were being voiced: “Write it down and take it back with you to the government. Take these two big words back with you on that paper – ‘fairness’ and ‘human rights!’ We are Australian citizens! We should all get the fair treatment, black or white! Write those words down!”


Others echoed her call, urging the Centrelink Reps to make a record of what was being said. They didn’t, of course, I doubt they were prepared enough to do anything of the kind. They did, however, repeat Jane’s concerns aloud, demonstrating that they would remember (i.e. they needn’t write it down because they would remember). Jane was still talking when the lunch was brought in in two boxes. People wanted to be heard out. Balanda Richard (the CEO) attempted to draw things to a close, explaining that the Centrelink Reps would be available to sit down with people individually after the meeting. His attempt to quell concerns had little affect. People continued to share their comments and concerns, politely but firmly, in turn. This continued for about ten minutes before one of the Centrelink Reps declared “Lunchtime!!!!”


The meeting was over.


People milled around to get drink and food. The Centrelink Reps hung around for a little while longer too. Yapa B grabbed two sets of sandwiches and we were about to make an exit when one of the Centrelink Reps approached to say: “We hear that Homelands find it hard and we are going to do everything we can – ”


“Yo, manymak (‘good’), that’s ok . . . ” said yapa. I interrupted, though I knew it might be speaking out of place:


“One of the many problems is the fact that one single shopping trip costs more than $700 for people living on the Homelands, so if you quarantine their money they won’t be able to pool their money to pay for a flight let alone collectively buy food. And – ”


“Yes I’ve heard about that, and Centrelink might have to speak to the airlines to arrange that, even $10 be deducted from people’s pay each week to put towards a plane.”


I explained that this wouldn’t be nearly enough, but she was clearly intent on saying ‘yes, I’m listening carefully to your concerns and I’m really interested’ in any or as many ways as possible with an understanding tone. And we were running late – we had to rush off to catch our plane home. Waku David was waiting for us, engine idling. We all clambered into the back of the Troopy and waku drove us down to the hangar. There was a storm rolling in. . . . The flight home rough (and terrifying for me, not for anyone else). After dipping and rising and swerving around the darkest and most dense of the cloud clusters, the engine finally eased and we started to descend. As we glided down gently onto the gravel strip I spotted little gaminyarr running parallel to us over near the houses, racing us up to Top Camp. Balanda dhuway was waiting for us under the mango tree on the mat with Bäru, waving as we taxied to a stop.


We began to relay stories from the meeting and the day:


Balanda waŋanha waŋanha waŋanha true!” (The Balanda talked and talked and talked true!’)


It seemed that yapa, wäwa and wiripu wäwa were still really angry and frustrated. And then I realised – not only had they been denied time and platform to voice their respective concerns and ask questions – but the regular mala-leader meeting had been totally eclipsed by the Centrelink agenda. And now I recall, of course, that they had collectively requested that a number of issues be listed on the agenda some weeks ago – issues crucial to our capacity to maintain essential equipment and basic infrastructure (e.g. the plumbing!). Now I realise that the meeting must have been doubly frustrating and upsetting for them . . . on top of the horrible Centrelink policy stuff. An overflowing toilet for another few weeks it is . . .




[1] The term mala refers to group or collectivity. In an intercultural context ‘Mala-Leaders meetings’ are attended by a delegate or representative from each bäpurru (‘clan’) in the relevant region. This arrangement between Yolŋu people and representatives of Balanda institutions – and the associated intercultural decision making process and structure – was established by Yolŋu people in dialogue with a few individual Missionaries of the Methodist Overseas Mission in the early 1940s.

[2] Marthakal is the name of the local Government Service Provision Agency at Galiwin’ku Island)

[3] ‘Centrelink’ was, until very recently, the name of the social welfare branch of government.

[4] Welfare Quarantining was one of many policy measures comprising the Northern Territory Intervention into Aboriginal Communities (2007). See the latter half of this post.

[6] This is the report that was the alleged catalyst – reason and justification for the Intervention. It is now widely acknowledged that this was used as something of a Trojan Horse to fast-track the cluster of policies comprising the Intervention.

[7] Money Business is a program run by Mission Australia, it ‘provides individuals and families with money-management information and support. Money Business builds self-reliance and improves individual, family and community wellbeing. It also provides people with the skills and information to make better decisions and reduce the risk of getting into greater debt.’

*this may need further editing, and yes, I realise it is rather long*


Filed under Current social issues, Ethnography, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

3 responses to “An excerpt from my fieldnotes (2008): ‘Welfare quarantining’ and the feeling on the ground.

  1. Really powerful post. It took me back to the day we discussed this in practical theology. Our lecturer, an ex-priest was furious. Never seen him like that before or since.

    • Thanks Abdul. Yes, it’s pretty hard to ignore the injustice of such policy and political process when they are given a human face. I hope the Australian Gov’s attitude and approach to Indigenous policy shifts very soon, but I’m not holding out hope, which is part of the reason I think telling these stories is important.

  2. Gareth Lewis

    Great summation of exasperating engagements mobs have experienced allover NT. I will never forget being in Alice Springs woolies just after basics card enforced. Just to humiliate yapa further the store directed all basics card transactions to one aisle. Tbe long que at 6pm in their winter’s clothes contrasted starkly with the other aisles – all that was needed to complete the image was a yellow star to be sown on those lumber jackets.

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