Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Last Contact

Well, it was very likely we would not see them again. We are getting older and they are getting older and sicker. We move on to new things and places and so contact slips away.

So, for a short while, last dry season in Darwin, we appreciated spending time with AJ and his wife for a brief time. While it was a happy reunion for us all, the underlying  events are quite sad.

AJ, is a big man with natural authority but his health is broken and he now walks with the aid of a stick. His wife and he are true lovers. They have suffered the taint of marrying  wrong. Their culture says their skin names cannot marry but their devotion to each other is touching. They seem happy in their own skins.

I remember the first time I saw AJ. This big fierce looking, dusty,long haired man looked as if he had just come in from the desert. You could not help notice his huge cracked feet as they tapped in  time with the music. He played a base guitar. He was part of the band Nomadic. Nomadic would practice in the Barkly Regional Arts office along with other local bands, several days a week. The noise was so loud almost all office work would cease and phone call were impossible.

It was a great band and while AJ was the rock like figure, responsible and stable, the bands genius lay in BM (Brian Murphy). BM's songs were  from the heart and sung from the heart. Nomadic was hugely popular in the area. (Their music is available at Winanjjikari Music Centre in Tennant Creek.)  There were others but AJ,BM and EK were the core. EK was a wonderful drummer but troubled. Over time, he spent  long periods in jail.

BM was also troubled. He was exceptionally sensitive and articulate and his music is world class. However, he was an unmanageable alcoholic and  his drinking and jail time kept him from the mainstream. We was said to be frequently violent when drunk but he never showed this side to us. He only cried on our shoulders often. While he never revealed his anger to us, there were times you suspected it was close by. A comment or a missed note would see change in his eyes and they would truly flash but nothing more. We found later that he had 'spent time' with a judge who took him to New Guinea as a child which may explain a lot.

AJ had come to Darwin to receive an award at the NT Music awards. The year before, our friends Lex and Joe from Tableland Drifters had also entered the 'Hall of Fame'. Sadly, this year it was  a posthumous 'Hall of Fame' award for BM.

Around the time we left Ali Curung BM left Tennant Creek and went to Adelaide to live. He successfully  busked  on the streets and made enough money to drink. There was a message passed around that BM was in hospital with organ failure and then some weeks later he died. AJ and his wife filled the gap left by his family and made all the arrangements to bring BM back to Tennant Creek for burial. This was the end of Nomadic.

In Darwin after the awards night,we all had a pleasant relaxed breakfast together in a restaurant  overlooking  overlooking Fannie Bay. How different it all was from those early days at Barkly Arts in Tennant Creek. We later took AJ and his wife to the bus terminal where we hugged good-bye and they boarded for the long haul back to Tennant Creek.

Currently we are in another community but not for too long this time. In the eight years we have been in the Territory and at the time of the official end of the 'intervention' it is difficult to see that it worked. Sure there is more hardware than ever; houses, school facilities, medical facilities,Toyotas and  planes coming and going. However, the real problems of community attitudes, health and education seem to have made little progress. What is clear though, is that the aboriginal industry is creating it's fair share of millionaires and ensuring continued population growth in areas of Australia where most people would normally fear to tread.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Is the penny about to drop in government? An extract from Peter Garrett's speech

Indigenous Visual Arts
The Indigenous visual arts sector is estimated to have an annual turnover of up to $500 million.
Participation by Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander people in the visual arts plays a vital role in supporting the maintenance and transmission of culture, inter-generational learning, and improved levels of community cohesion, health and wellbeing.

The Australian Government currently provides funding to 87 Indigenous art centres, most of which are located in remote parts of the country.

To a large degree, the Indigenous visual arts sector has been built on the backbone of these Indigenous-owned art centres.

Each art centre is owned and controlled by Indigenous community members who, in many cases, are also the artists that make the work.

The centres function like artists co-operatives and, in my view, are one of the best models that we have for supporting Indigenous self-determination and financial independence.

I am reminded of the success story of the community at Ali Curung, about 380kms North of Alice Springs with a population of 500, which, over two years, with Australian Government support, has turned community arts practice into a thriving professional enterprise.

The centre currently supports around 65 artists through its men’s and women’s centres, and has recently worked with peak tourism bodies to be recognised as a National Tourism accredited art gallery.

New ceramics practice has been added for men, using the considerable skills of the art centre coordinator as well as a timely donation of kilns.

The art centre offers outreach services to surrounding communities, is introducing a volunteer program in 2010, and is working with the Red Cross to deliver a nutrition program.

Training across all facets of art centre business is a high priority and the centre currently employs eight Indigenous arts workers to support the manager.

These arts workers are supported by specific funding that the Government is providing for the employment of Indigenous Australians in the arts, which I will talk about in more detail in a moment.

Training is extended to all members of the community in areas such as budgeting and literacy.
The art centre is now looking to extend its opening hours to meet increasing demand.
Since 2007-08, the Government has committed an additional $17.5 million over seven years to strengthen the Indigenous visual arts and craft sector.

This includes $2 million over four years from 2009-10 for a Professional Development Fund, for projects that will increase the skills of Indigenous arts centre managers and staff and provide opportunities for Indigenous people to gain employment in the sector.

The professional development projects will be jointly funded by the Australian Government and the state and territory governments.

Another important strategic achievement for Indigenous art centres is the introduction of triennial funding which reduces red tape, and enables organisations to plan more strategically over a longer term.

Australian Government support for the Indigenous visual arts sector is directed purposefully, in order to build the capacity and knowledge of individual artists, art centre staff and communities.

This, along with our measures, supports a sustainable, profitable and vibrant Indigenous visual art industry.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Brief Visit to Ali Curung

Ali Curung July 2010

We returned to Ali Curung for the Dance Festival organised by the art centre and government agencies. We also wanted to meet up with some of our friends made over our years at Barkly Regional Arts.

It was a sad reunion. It was not long after the death of the much loved musician and song writer , “BM” Kumunjai Murphy, member of the band Nomadic. Many in the community are devastated by his death and we were glad to meet up with his two main partners in Nomadic, “AJ” and “EK”. Our next return to Ali Curung will be for the funeral.

“BM” and Nomadic were at the forefront of the push to get a music centre for Tennant Creek. They spent many hours with Lorna Martin, then head of Barkly Regional Arts, formulating their ideas and planning. The final result was the now successful WINANJJIKARI MUSIC CENTRE.

So how has Ali Curung fared since our departure and the takeover by the Barkly Shire?

Despite the millions being spent, community morale seems to be down. Housing repairs and paint jobs fail to hide the lack of care that formerly saw many well kept yards. Conversation with the Warlpiri people suggests there is an underlying discontent and an increasing feeling that they should move out to Jarra Jarra. The four language groups continue to struggle with their coexistence on Kaiditch (Kaytetye) land. Lack of resources will keep most of them put.

The last two years has seen the medical centre expanded to include a renal unit and the school has received a boost with more buildings,but still screening a declining school attendance. In a far corner of the old market garden, a controversial horticultural training centre is under construction that may see the revival of the market garden.

Without the hallmark, cultural and artistic facility, Arlpwe Art and Culture Centre one gets the feeling that Ali Curung might become even more of a gulag than ever. All the hardware in the world is wasted without properly resourced and right people to drive it. It was good to see that both the art centre and the Internet centre we set up with the community more than two years ago, were both doing well. The gallery is full of art and artefacts and the men have been involved in additional construction as well as furniture restoration.

The disbanding of the Ali Curung Council was in many ways a mistake. It was a place where any member of the community could have their say, allowing a sense of ownership. It could also be argued that if Ali Curung Council was properly resourced in the first place, millions could have been saved and better spent at the same time resulting in greater community capacity. Staff were closer to the people and more able to tailor programs to their unique needs.

So far the Barkly Shire's competence in managing Ali Curung has been appalling. This is reflected in moves by the community to expel two mangers in two years.

The dance festival, the first since the opening of the art centre two years ago, was a small affair lacking involvement from other communities. However, it is early days and if the enthusiasm of the local men and women dancers is anything to go by then the next one will be a lot bigger and better.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Ali Curung Internet Facility Still Running

Visiting the community for the first time in two years it was wonderful to see that the internet facility was still running under the Barkly Shire. Three local men operate the facility for the community.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Local Government - colonialistic , patronising, apathetic - Ali Curung - the internet facility closed

One of the first actions by the new Barkly Shire was to close the internet facility at Ali Curung.

See also - The Barkly Shire- Still on P- plates.

The email below was sent out to members of the ICC, Ali Curung Council, Northern Territory Government and new Barkly Shire Administration. The Barkly Shire reply made it clear that they would not be able to support the facility. They are of the opinion that it is not a core service, and to continue it should pay for itself. No other department responded. Even a request to provide the agreed 35,000 for a coordinator as part of the SRA was ignored.

The centre will never be a proper business in an impoverished community and this is an 'inconvenient truth' for the new Barkly Shire and other government bodies. It connects to the Internet via satellite, charged at extortionate rates by Telstra. Telstra has so far defaulted on their contracted agreement with Ali Curung Council to supply the far cheaper option of BDSL. Even ADSL would be acceptable. Also, the fifty or so thousand dollars a year for a coordinator can never be generated from time charges alone.

The message from the bureaucrats also suggests that it has to be run as a business. This community has no one with adequate literacy or numeracy skills, experience even desire to do this. The whole aim of the facility is to help people break out of their situation so that in the long term they can run their own businesses or gain qualifications suitable for the main stream economy.

There is a paradox. We installed highly regarded literacy and numeracy software, 'Successmaker' on two computers. Not only is the internet centre educational but it is also diversionary. The only other place these people access this software is in Alice Springs prison.

The Email:

Before I leave Ali Curung it is important to give you a full run down on the state of play with the internet cafe and try and provide some insight as to its crucial role in this community as well as the complexities of running it.

The internet facility is more than just an access point for the internet. It is also of major importance as a diversionary and educational centre for disengaged school leavers.

Currently, the internet cafe is run by a combination of me, Luke Kelly with periodic appearances by Lionel James. My main function is to maintain the computers and network while Luke Kelly works as a tutor funded by DEET helping people with computer access and most importantly mentoring about a dozen people a week in literacy and numeracy using a software programme called "successmaker". Luke also plays a major supervisory role in the facility to ensure no damage or misbehaviour takes place. This work is voluntary.

Lionel James is paid by CDEP and is often away. In addition, because Ali Curung is a complex community comprising four language groups, he has limited influence and ability to carry out a supervisory role to a standard needed to maintain the facility. An outsider can only carry this out.

There are ten client computers (fully utilised) plus a 'server'computer all of which access the internet via another computer with satellite access to the internet. Two computers are loaded with "successmaker" software, which is highly regarded. An internet cafe software management software from Antamedia manages the client computers. This software also logs all use. All computers have filtering software, antivirus and malware software.Basic computer security is controlled by several levels of user names and passwords.

The whole setup was funded by 50,000 from DBERD as a part of a Shared Responsibility Agreement and I understand, was enthusiastically supported by Elliot McAdam.

Currently, the community accesses computers and internet by purchasing a ticket from the council for 50c. This allows one hour of computer time. Access to literacy and numeracy learning is free. An initial charge of 2.00 was levied but declining bank deposits suggested this charge was too high. A conversation with an experienced operator in the BIA (Building Indigenous Ability- Dept of Broadband Communications and the Digital Economy) suggested that any charge in impoverished communities was too much so the council agreed to the current charge of 50c. This has maintained and increased community engagement. For people here, working in the community to build capacity, this is seen to be a crucial part of the process.

There is an opinion that the charge of 50c should be increased to 5.00 because this is what is charged at Alpurrurulam. Ali Curung is quite a different community to Alpurrurulam. The main difference is that Alpurrurulam has one language group and Ali Curung has four. It is likely that this factor more than any other is a main barrier to capacity building. This is why we consider the internet facility to be a vital component of the capacity building process. Complex traditional rules govern individuals within language groups and complex rules exist between groups. Combined, this means that for any individual to work in the community of Ali Curung for the whole community is a very difficult task.

This facility is neutral ground with a whole set of rules that are outside traditional, opening windows on life in the outside world in unprecedented ways as well as providing learning opportunities for individuals in their own time and at their own pace.

Two individuals in particular epitomise the importance to the people.

Joseph Thompson:
He is the Ali Curung community representative on the Shire Transition Committee. He has poor literacy and numeracy and finds engagement with mainstream very difficult. He now spends 12 hours a week being tutored by Luke Kelly on the "Successmaker" program.

Esaw Marshall:
A young man, Esaw has discovered E-bay. He buys his clothes there. He does this because they are cheaper and what he wants. To do this he had to arrange for a debit card. Because E-bay trading requires reasonable levels of literacy and numeracy he now spends a lot of time with Luke Kelly on "Successmaker". So, because he is finding ways to spend money in a way that he likes, he is looking for ways to make money for himself.

Finally if the internet facility is to survive someone Like Luke Kelly needs to be employed to supervise and mentor. Luke is keen to take on the job. Without this type of supervision and left open for business, the facility will quickly disintegrate. The rules about children, dogs, babies, food and drink and operational hours will rapidly erode.

This internet facility could be an opportunity for the Barkly Shire Council to demonstrate their good will, support and willingness to invest in communities and develop capacity. Also, it could support the on going quest by the council to find community based literate people with computer skills. Full support of this facility as a training centre could be crucial tool for the council to identify people and foster relationships for mutual benefit.

After a life of loss, a housing legacy of shame

Tony Koch | August 15, 2009

Article from: The Australian

A TINY, black-skinned woman on remote Groote Eylandt, off east Arnhem Land, her shoulders slumped from decades of pain and unimaginable hurt, looks shyly down as she speaks in a whisper of "blame and shame".

Yet the battle this amazing Aboriginal woman has dealt with through all her life marks her as one of the most courageous humans alive today.

It is hard enough to live in a community in the grip of a hereditary degenerative disease for which there is no cure.

But the hardship of life on the island is compounded by the empty promises from government to indigenous Australians living in remote communities in conditions that locals correctly describe as "below Third World".

Just over 18 months ago, the federal government announced a $672 million allocation to the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program in a massive assault on the accumulated disadvantage. But as The Australian revealed last month, not one house has yet been built under the program.

Bureaucratic red tape, a confusion of organisations, the employment of "consultants" with their endless visits to the communities and a creaming off the top by the Northern Territory government has delivered the usual result: nothing. What most defies belief is that the federal and Northern Territory governments know that the lack of appropriate housing on remote and regional communities is critical.

Commonly, three-bedroom houses with just one toilet and shower have to accommodate more than 20 people, including the elderly and the newborn.

The houses cannot cope, and neither can the occupants, who usually have nowhere else to go. On Groote Eylandt, there are families living in tents on the beaches because they can no longer live in the homes. Yet they still have $30 a week deducted from their wages or dole payments to meet the "poll tax" for the shameful housing, even though they are not living under a roof. The heart-wrenching example of Gayangwa Lalara must soften the most cynical political heart. In reality, it should be enough to see Kevin Rudd strap on a nail-bag himself and help somebody whose degree of need almost defies belief.

Gayangwa is 65, a proud and intelligent Warnindilyakwa woman revered in her island community for the strength of character and family loyalty she exhibits.

She nursed her father for the 20 years he took to die when afflicted by the mystery "Groote Eylandt Syndrome".

It is a cruel way to die, with the brain fully alert but the body functions and muscle control gone.

There is no cure for what has now been identified by medical researchers as Machado-Joseph Disease, a hereditary neurodegenerative condition in the disease family that includes Huntington's disease, and for which there is no cure. MJD is an inherited autosomal dominant disorder, which means each child of a person carrying the defective gene has a 50 per cent chance of developing the disease.

The first signs are the child, youth or adult developing a "drunken sway" gait, and mobility and muscular control degeneration follows. Within a decade, the patient is confined to a wheelchair, incontinent and without any control over limbs or muscles, unable to sleep and awaiting death, which in most cases can take up to another decade.

Gayangwa's three brothers saw their father die. They were in turn diagnosed with the disease and died, as did her two sisters and a young nephew. A niece, now 14, is already confined to a wheelchair, having been confirmed with MJD as an 11-year-old. The mutation of the disease when passed to the next generation -- the anticipation effect -- means symptoms appear eight to 10 years earlier and are more severe. Medical experts estimate that 300 Australians, mostly living on Groote Eylandt and several other Northern Territory communities, will develop MJD.

The disease is thought to have been introduced to Groote in the 16th century by Portuguese sailors. Yet despite Territory and federal governments knowing of the dreadful disease for four generations, little real attention has been paid, particularly regarding the provision of MJD-specific infrastructure.

Gayangwa lives with eight adults and four children in a two-bedroom house. The residents include her wheelchair-bound niece, Rosanne Mirnyowan. The small loungeroom has a string across the centre with sheets hanging from it so an improvised bedroom can be made for four adults, who sleep on mattresses on the floor.

They each pay $30 in rent for the house, which has recently had added a purpose-built disability shower and toilet block. The younger family members have lived with older adults dying in the house and know the stark truth that one morning they could wake up with "the drunken walk" -- and face 20 years of undignified suffering before death.

Although a blood test would confirm beyond doubt whether they are to become MJD sufferers, the young people are frightened to know the result. They live a life of horror and fear.

But the house, like so many on the island, is a wreck. It is not vandalised -- just worn out because a single house with one bathroom and a small kitchen cannot cope with the needs of the number of family members who need to be housed there because of the accommodation shortage on Groote Eylandt.

Gayangwa points to the overcrowding, and speaks again of the "shame" she has of showing outsiders the living conditions. "All I want is a house like white people, with enough bedrooms for my family to live in properly," she said.

She cannot understand why she and other families like hers -- the traditional owners of the land -- have to live in such conditions, and is tired of the endless political promises that do not change the sad ratio of Aboriginal people to available accommodation.

An example of government ineptitude and dismissal of the plight of the seriously ill and elderly on Groote is the aged care respite centre constructed there. It has eight beds and facilities for MJD sufferers and others, and it would be ideal for such patients to stay there overnight or even for extended periods, which would give all parties involved a much-needed break. But it is usable only during the day because there is no housing available for staff, who would have to be employed if it were a 24-hour facility.

When governments speak of taxpayer funds being spent on "priority housing", there cannot possibly be more deserving people in this country.

Gayangwa is vice-chairman of the MJD Foundation. The chairman is occupational therapist Libby Morgan, a non-indigenous woman who was raised by missionary parents on Groote and returns periodically from her Brisbane home to ensure whatever help is available is rendered to these souls.

She is every bit as remarkable as her close friend, Gayangwa, and is an outspoken advocate for help and facilities to be provided to the MJD sufferers throughout Australia's Top End.

Information for donations and support of the MJD Foundation can be found at www.mjd.org.au

ON lush islands off Australia's tropical northern coast and in the desert interior, three Aboriginal communities live in hope

Natasha Robinson, Tony Koch, and Michael Owen | August 15, 2009

Article from: The Australian

ON lush islands off Australia's tropical northern coast and in the desert interior, three Aboriginal communities live in hope.

That is all they have, even though they are awash with money; a combined $127 million has been promised by the federal government to improve housing for the communities on the Tiwi Islands, Groote Eylandt and Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory.

In the 15 months that the $672m Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program has been on foot -- the biggest project in remote housing -- the three communities have been abuzz with talk. Endless conversations have taken place. Designs have been drafted and re-drafted in a mania of consultation that has even included discussions on prospective residents' desired bathroom tile colours. Yet not one house has been built and the pool of money available for building is shrinking day by day.

Housing was the big-ticket item of the federal intervention into remote Aboriginal communities in the Territory ordered by the Howard government in 2007. But the rollout of the big-budget SIHIP has exposed a bureaucratic rip-off of long standing in the Territory, where money for Aboriginal programs is systematically eaten up in bureaucratic expenses and consultants' fees or not spent on its allocated purpose at all. It is now clear the system, which for years has churned through billions in public money meant for combating disadvantage, has instead been responsible for entrenching it.

Former Territory indigenous policy minister Alison Anderson walked out on the Labor government last week in disgust at what has been labelled the NT's "bureaucratic gravy train", sparking a crisis that yesterday brought the Henderson Labor government almost to the brink of collapse.

The NT political crisis has brought into sharp focus the huge task that confronts federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin in overcoming bureaucratic inertia to deliver the promised housing. But there are ominous signs that Macklin's Aboriginal allies have already begun to desert her: Arnhem Land leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu's renunciation this week of his previous support for the federal intervention represents a heavy blow to the government.

Macklin has been steely in her determination to deliver the housing her government promised. She has put a rocket up the NT bureaucracy and building alliance managers have been working overtime this week in a frenetic attempt to increase the pace of their projects. "I'm absolutely determined to deliver on the upgrades and the houses and the rebuilds that we said we'd deliver," Macklin says. "It's the biggest housing package that has ever been put in place in remote parts of the Northern Territory and it's also part of a very significant reform agenda."

But confusion over the goals of the SIHIP has reigned. The NT government had publicly announced that the $53m allocated to Nguiu on Bathurst Island would deliver 29 houses, then sharply revised its figures upward to 90 this week in the wake of the SIHIP furore. The same occurred on Groote Eylandt: 26 planned houses suddenly became 80. Macklin's office insists the lower figures represented only the first stage of construction. That statement surprised everyone familiar with the rollout of the SIHIP in the Territory.

As the wheels of the machine for indigenous reform continue to grind and the urban consultancy class grows fatter, great risk lies ahead for the federal Labor government. The widespread doubt that exists among indigenous people at the Rudd and Henderson governments' joint ability to deliver on their housing promises threatens to derail the entire SIHIP.

The housing program hinges on the willingness of Aboriginal communities to sign over their traditional land to the federal government under long-term leases. It is a politically fraught issue that cuts to the heart of the battle over indigenous land ownership, and few communities have taken the step. Many will be looking at the progress of the SIHIP on the Tiwi Islands, Groote Eylandt and Tennant Creek and wondering why they would bother.

At Nguiu, a peg has been hammered in the ground. It marks the spot where Territory Alliance will put its construction camp, which has yet to arrive on the island despite 12 months of consultations over housing. Tiwi Islands Training and Employment Board chief executive Norm Buchan is deeply frustrated. "The only visible evidence that the people have got that something is happening here is this peg on the ground," he says. "The charter planes are coming in and out, the airlines are making a killing. There's lots of people making money out of this but there's nothing on the ground yet, and we're running out of time because when the wet season hits the work will stop, if it's even started."

A $600,000 construction camp that was recently used to house tradesmen working on the island sits empty, surrounded by tall weeds. Territory Alliance, which late this week ferried materials and flew workers to Nguiu, plans to use the camp initially to house its workers, but the camp, unsuitable for the wet season, will then beabandoned.

Down by the beachfront, the shell of two barbecues sit on the grass, minus their hotplates. They were built during a pre-vocational course for Aboriginal men due to be employed under the SIHIP. The course ran for five weeks with about 20 participants. The barbecues are built out of 22 bricks each. The men have nothing else to show for their training. "It's just training for the sake of training, and dollars being wasted," Buchan says.

In a shipping container that has been his home for 10 years, Walter Kerinauia is asleep on a bed in his lounge room in the midday heat. The floor of his home is bare concrete. Between the rooms, there are gaping holes in the floor where rats creep in at night and terrify his children. "All I want to see is a new house," Kerinauia says. "I would be happy and proud. People here want proper houses to live in. They don't want overcrowding. If the young people get a new house, they won't do anything like suicide any more. When they know they are getting a house, they're going to be really proud, and they'll look after it. I don't want to live in this old house any more." As the biggest project in Aboriginal housing falters, Kerinauia sits and waits. But around him he can see something else happening, and it has nothing to do with the government.

In a fenced lot a few doors down, a concrete slab has been laid that will form the basis of local school principal Leah Kerinauia's new home, which will be the first house in Nguiu to be privately owned.

Several other people in Nguiu have also obtained home loans since the community signed a 99-year lease with the federal government. For locals, the contrast between obtaining a new home through private ownership and waiting forever for a government-delivered dwelling is only too clear.

NT Chief Minister Paul Henderson has promised that 55 houses will be built under SIHIP by the end of this year. But as the wet season approaches across northern Australia, it is hard to see how this target will be met. When Inquirer visited Groote Eylandt this week, there was little sign of building activity. Three trainees were being supervised knocking down a wall in a house to berefurbished.

The concrete footings on just one house had been poured a week earlier apparently for a photo opportunity for an NT government minister's cameo visit, but there was not a strapped-on nailbag in site, and certainly no signs of new homes being erected.

Inquirer spoke to Simeon Lalara, who stands 190cm tall. His handshake would make a village blacksmith wince, and even at 46 years of age he has the classic physique of a middleweight boxer. It comes as no surprise that he has killed a man in a fight. His own father was stabbed to death by his eldest son in a family altercation. A century ago this man would have been a typical warrior leader of his tribe, revered by family and friends, feared by foe.

Yet Lalara, senior Groote Eylandt land and sea ranger and Warnindilyakwa clan elder, a traditional owner of thousands of hectares of the most beautiful island real estate off the entire Australian coastline, is homeless in his own country.

He and his wife, Eileen, have been forced to join the growing throng of Aboriginal people on the island off east Arnhem Land to move from the overcrowded housing on their community to tent communes on the nearby beach.

They are refugees on their own land that has been their home, traceable back for centuries. "In most of the homes here there are more than 20 people, with dying people in some, and there are newborn babies too," Lalara says. "All we want is a home of our own where we can live quietly and have a family life. But there are no homes available. We are told the government is going to build more, but we never see that happening."

Lalara has a full-time paid job as a ranger and could easily afford rental charges, or even instalments on a home purchase. But he and Eileen go back each night over the corrugated track to the tent by the water, cook over an open fire, fish with lines and a spear in the Gulf waters, and keep their perishables in two battered Eskys.

It's a hard life.

He says the 5 1/2 years he spent in Darwin's Berrimah jail in the early 1990s for a payback shooting of a man who had earlier shot him were more comfortable than the life he now leads as he gets older.

Richard Preece, chief executive officer of Groote Island's Anindilyakwa Land Council, says the three local Aboriginal communities have a floating population of about 2000 people, living in 212 dwellings.

The high percentage of disabled and infirm people, including principally those suffering from the tragic and incurable Machado Joseph Disease, has resulted in the demand that all new housing on Groote be constructed with bathrooms suitable for severely disabled people, and that they all have wheelchair ramps to the homes and across road gutters.

"The overcrowding is at a serious stage and the promised houses will be most welcome," Preece says. "This community has been the lead agent in a great many reforms, but they are being held back because of the housing crisis."

It is the clear view of concerned people such as Preece and others on Groote that overcrowding is the base problem from which all other problems flow. If people cannot get a good night's sleep, they don't want to go to work the next day. Children who have disturbed nights don't want to go to school. Another local issue is that all non-indigenous public servants -- police, nurses, health workers and teachers -- moved off the communities and live in Alyangula, the mining township on the island. The Aboriginal people have no everyday contact or interaction with non-indigenous families in what has become, although for reasons innocent enough, a situation akin to apartheid.

All the police are resident in the township, which is an hour's drive from one of the island communities, and there is no police station facility outside Alyangula.

Well-organised employment training programs operate on the island and, unlike the majority of remote Aboriginal communities, real employment is available at the local manganese mine which is owned by Gemco.

More than 1000km southwest in the red-desert Centre, Tennant Creek is the territory's forgotten town. Once a thriving mining centre, now there is no commercial airline service to the town, nor a permanent dentist.

On the edge of the gunbarrel Stuart Highway running through the middle of the town, which is 500km north of Alice Springs, a large federal and NT government-endorsed sign declares: "Site under construction". But in the town's seven town camps, there is no sign of any construction and very few "sites".

As in the rest of the NT, there is an Aboriginal population boom in Tennant Creek. And for more than two years it was planned that the town's growing indigenous population would be the recipients of "major housing works in the Northern Territory".

The reality is there are no new houses planned at all. And of the nine unoccupied homes that have been cleaned and earmarked for an upgrade in the past couple of months, there are just two that are still weeks away from having their refurbishments completed, despite the fact that works were supposed to begin in November lastyear.

Real work only started this June, shortly before federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin arrived in Tennant Creek to see for herself what was going on. She tells Inquirer there is "progress on housing" in the town.

Although the chairman of building consortium New Future Alliance, Brian Hughey, tells Inquirer there was never any intention to build new homes in Tennant Creek, this is disputed by his own project partner, Julalikari Council general manager Pat Brahim, and others such as former NT local government minister and Tennant Creek resident Elliot McAdam.

Brahim says new houses are part of the original plan, but everything changed once the cost estimates came in. She says the council's long-term strategy now is to train local indigenous people by upgrading existing homes, with a view to securing more government funding later to ultimately build new houses.

McAdam is angry about what he calls a "stuff up" in the Tennant Creek SIHIP package and has documents to prove his warnings about high costs for new housing construction were ignored by government. "I was being lobbied by local businesses who were saying 'this is bullshit, the costs are just inflated and too high'," McAdam says. "At a public meeting, attended by about 60 businesses, we were told by Territory Housing personnel there will be no management fees attached to the $30m, other than training. That's all appeared to have changed. I am now told new housing is not the priority."

Joe Carter, the workshop's manager for the refurbishment project and the Julalikari Council's Community Development Employment Projects co-ordinator, confirms that "initially, the plan was to build new houses here".

But the building consortium in charge of housing works, New Future Alliance, concedes that the issue of overcrowding will not be solved by building new houses. Supervisor Phil Bevan says: "It comes a lot down to the indigenous family structure. You could build a thousand homes out there and it doesn't mean each family is going to go and live in each one of them. Only a small number would be used because families will like to be together and love having their relations around them."

Carter concedes "the refurbishments will address the refurbishments but will not address the overcrowding, it never will".

"You can refurbish 100 houses and it will still not solve the overcrowding," he says.

"That's really one of the concerns with the communities, the overcrowding. We are trying to address the standards of housing, not overcrowding. In my opinion, the issue of overcrowding will never be resolved."

A small house that one of Carter's work crews was refurbishing this week in the Wuppa Camp will probably house up to 20 people once it is handed over to a town camp family, he says. "All these houses around us here will have 15 to 20 people in them; no house can hold 20 people unless it has got 20 rooms," Carter says.

Wheelchair-bound renal dialysis patient Alice Limbiari moved to Tennant Creek from Alice Springs about four years ago and lives in a rundown home in the Marla-Marla Camp. The aged pensioner is angry two crude concrete ramps and a set of iron rails she asked Julalikari Council to install in her home for better access ended up costing her $2000, which is being taken out of her bank account in instalments.

"We have no money to buy tucker. How am I supposed to pay for that? Why not build a proper new house? We were told that is what they were going to do," she says. "I need a new high fence to keep the drunks out. Most people want new houses because overcrowding is such a problem. Families come to visit from a long way away and they need somewhere to stay.

"Today we have two cars full of my friend's family and then family and my grandchildren coming too. We could have 20 people here in this tiny house for who knows how long.

"We want to have a good house."

Far to the north in Darwin, tradesmen put the finishing touches to the capital's new billion-dollar waterfront development, the proud legacy of the Labor government. As the sun sets on another perfect late dry season day, parents fish their children out of a huge wave pool, which sits behind the city's convention centre, a silver-steel symbol of modernity. The waterfront is an idyllic playground for Darwin locals, the kind of place where the town's public servants might go to relax on the weekend with their families. In the remote enclaves, such a life is something that Aborigines can still only dream of.