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Sunday, December 20, 2009

The living is grim in a place they call Utopia

 DEBRA JOPSON    |  November 16, 2009

UTOPIA: In her eight years as the head of Amnesty International and a native of Bangladesh, Irene Khan has seen some of the worst living conditions the world has to offer, but yesterday, in a part of Australia ironically named Utopia, it was the sight of people and animals living in the same environment that rocked her.

''I saw today a dog and a man eating from the same plate. That's shocking enough, but it's shocking that it should happen in the heart of Australia,'' she said.

At Camel Camp, a 250-kilometre plane ride north-east of Alice Springs and a juddering half-hour drive over red bulldust and clay, she witnessed the ''desperate conditions'' where Topsy Ngale McLeod, aged in her 90s, lives in a humpie made of boughs and tin cans, her carpet an old quilt shared with dogs.

This was part of Ms Khan's research for her Canberra meeting with the federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Jenny Macklin, tomorrow to discuss the Government's pledge to reintroduce the Racial Discrimination Act, suspended to allow the Northern Territory intervention, among other matters.

The Government has missed its own deadline of last month, and Ms Khan will remind it that ''any measures need to be in line with international standards set by the convention on the elimination of racial discrimination''.

Ms Khan heard an impassioned plea for help in focusing international attention on the Aboriginal plight from Rose Kunoth-Monks, the child star of the 1955 movie Jedda, now a leader at Utopia, a group of 16 homeland communities where about 1000 people live.

''We are being stripped of whatever dignity and pride we have left. This is clearly demonstrated by how our authority through our law is cast aside,'' she said.

''We live on our homelands out of choice, as our forefathers did for thousands of years … We do not want to relocate to a large community with its neat streets like whitefellas. That's what the Northern Territory Government wants us to do.

''If the Government is not willing to assist us, we need to tell our story outside Australia.''

Holding up a ''basics'' card that the Government issues to indigenous welfare recipients as part of of its policy of income management, a traditional owner, Harold Nelson, said: ''Government people are playing up. They are rubbish.''

Among about 30 elders who angrily denounced the intervention, Lena Pula, an artist said: ''We are on Aboriginal land … We are not allowed to keep the land, all the white men can get out.''

Richard Downes, a spokesman for about 40 people who have walked off outstations to set up a protest camp at Honeymoon Bore against the Federal Government's attempt to take over their leases, said the asylum seekers from the Oceanic Viking were getting better treatment than his people.

But Ms Khan said later: ''Amnesty International would be very cautious about pitting one group against another … The Australian Government is rich enough not to have to rob Peter to pay Paul. I don't think it's a question of resources being diverted from one group to another. Refugees have rights, and so do indigenous people.''

Ms Khan said being voiceless and excluded from decisions were two measures of poverty - and she saw both yesterday.

''There were elderly people who obviously had very strong attachment to their homeland, who felt that somehow they were being pulled away from their ancestral lands.''

She called on Australians to draw on their innate sense of fairness to end the disparity of this poverty in the midst of affluence.