Kennedy AE 2013, 'Values, voice and choice : Western Arrernte outstation engagement in the Northern Territory intervention', PhD thesis, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW.
Copyright AE Kennedy 2013
This study examines engagement with the state from a remote, Aboriginal perspective. It aims to foster a better understanding of how we work with, not what we do to Aboriginal people. Set in the context of everyday outstation lives in the Central Australian desert, the study privileges the voices of Western Arrernte men and women as they encounter three of the reforms introduced under the Howard Government’s contentious 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) and its continuation over the next two years under the incoming Rudd Labor Government.
Through narratives of outstation encounters with the myriad of policy reforms, programs, services, projects, trainings, rules, and meetings underneath the bough shelter that accompanied the reforms, ordinary men and women offer their perspectives on their engagement with the people and institutions who aimed to improve their lives. In their stories are important insights into what might ‘engage’ remote Aboriginal peoples as governments go about the business of ‘closing the gap’ on Indigenous disadvantage.
The findings from the study suggest the engagement of people like those from the Western Arrernte outstations is a matter of choice - not coercion. In a remote setting such as the Tjuwanpa outstations, choice is vested in Aboriginal wellbeing values where being well, feeling well, and acting well are valued functionings, which prioritise relatedness to kin and place. Choices also take account of the heterogeneity of individual circumstances, where state reforms merge with practical needs for cash and cars as well as the realities of language differences and a limited desert economy. Revealed through the study, however, are the struggles outstation families experienced in trying to make informed choices about their futures. Further, as the changes unfold we see the continuing absence of their voice, leaving families no means to negotiate Western Arrernte wellbeing values or articulate their aspirations and the circumstances of their lives.
The study suggests that if government commitment to Aboriginal engagement in national policy is to be more than feel-good fuzz words, the engagement of remote Aboriginal people on the ground needs to recognise the inter-relationship between Aboriginal agency, Aboriginal constructions of wellbeing and Aboriginal voice. Given the absence of meaningful opportunities for voice in remote communities, the narratives are used to reflect the changes required in current government policy and practice.