It’s widely thought that either Marie Antoinette or Marie Therese of the French aristocracy uttered the fateful words ‘let them eat cake’ when told that the peasants were starving. Regardless of who said the words and whether they were said in arrogance, ignorance (or even at all) the PR damage was done.

The APY Lands Women's Council rep Mrs Ken at a local market. Pic: Naomi Jellicoe

We all know what happened next.

Last week SA Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Grace Portelesi, had her very own Marie-moment by vacillating on the question of whether Anangu people living on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands in the far north west of South Australia were going hungry.

The following not so flattering media coverage generated by the story prompted the hapless Minister to recant and “clarify” that she did indeed know that Anangu people were going hungry. But the damage was done and her defence didn’t do her too many favours.

Fearing for her political life, the Minister was eager to point to her APY Food Security Strategic Plan 2011-2016 as evidence she was aware of the problem and was even doing something about it!

The document itself was perhaps not the wisest defence. Even on its launch it had attracted widespread criticism for being well-meaning but misguided.

Basically a three point plan of a couple of gardens, some holiday cooking classes and nutritionist, it actually doubled up on work already being done for nigh on a decade by Anangu-led groups on the ground such as NPY Women’s Council and Mai Wiru. Something the Minister would have known earlier had they been consulted in putting the plan together. 

The idea of a travelling road-show of ‘Come and Cook With Kids’ is the centrepiece.

For a place where there are already nutritional budget-conscious cooking classes this is about as useful as a screen door on a submarine, or an episode of Masterchef for people on a Centrelink budget and roughly 800kms north of the nearest Coles.

This Mystery Box challenge is a doozy, with a lovely Rosemary Stanton weekly meal plan but no working fridge or stove. Right, you’ve got 60 minutes, get cracking… 

It’s clearly mission impossible even if they could afford the ingredients. Which of course they can’t. That is the issue.

Far from being ‘comprehensive’, the SA Government plan is a short document offering new monies of $820,000 over 2 years. It includes ‘trialling’ two gardens in communities serving less than 5 per cent of the total APY population in addition to the cooking classes and nutritionist.

Laudable as a pet project but laughable as a food security strategy.

The plans’ two trial gardens are welcomed and much wanted by their respective communities but concerns that they will go the way of the failed Amata garden and the formerly failed but recently revived Mimili Bush garden are surely valid.

Sure, fresh fruit and veggies grown on your own local patch is a splendid concept but there’s a vast difference between that and the reality of delivering around 10,000 kilos of over 80 varieties of fruit and veggies that the Mai Wiru stores currently deliver at the lowest prices they can manage each month, week in week out.

The latter is food security, the former a food supplement and cynics like me would say that the former gets the gig from the SA Government because that’s what makes for the better photo op. 

On that note, Minister Portelesi launched the implementation of her gardens just a week ago with a hand-picked media entourage flown up and back in a whirlwind jaunt that conservatively would have cost $15,000 for some sugar-coated puff pieces and happy snaps. 

Meanwhile, unknown to the official entourage, one of the communities they whistle-stopped had just lost its store manager and the store had been forced to close its doors. The Minister’s guided tour didn’t go there. So we’ll probably never know whether she was aware of this and what - if anything - she was doing to salvage the situation.

In this past decade there has been much needed and necessary improvement to food security in the APY. The improved range and quality of fresh food and healthy alternatives in community stores is a testament to this.

However, there is still much work to be done to ensure access to healthy affordable food and health hardware every single day. Toiletries, vegemite, margarine and nappies will never grow on trees and will always need to be shipped in.

Anyone with a fruit tree in the backyard knows that timing and distribution is the difference between the joy of family, friends and neighbours sharing in the bounty of your bumper crop and the pain of being stuck with a house full of rotting fruit that no amount of late-night jam-making will ever fully harness.

The story of opportunities lost due to lack of coordination is well told by the true tale of forty boxes of apricots going begging this past summer smack bang in the centre of the lands. There was just no way to ship them to those in need in an affordable way.

That tale bells the cat on what is becoming an increasingly obvious part of the solution. Freight to and across the lands could be subsidised and roads must be kept in good repair. It’s not rocket science and it’s not new.

It’s a solution put forward by many including the House of Reps Committee and the Fred Hollows Foundation.

But this is the one solution the South Australian Minister has refused to embrace. Even refusing to even read the relevant reports because they were ‘before her watch’. She does so at her own peril.

I hope we are pleasantly surprised by what happens next.

Tammy Franks is a Greens member of the South Australian Legislative Council.

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    • Nigel says:

      08:10am | 06/09/11

      It’s their land and their choice to live there. Why do I have to pay for them if they are not goinig to make an effort to help themselves?

    • carli says:

      10:54am | 06/09/11

      Dear Nigel,
      Do you think that they should perhaps move closer to cities where food is easily delivered to the shops. Where would they find accommodation in cities? How would that work logistically?
      And honestly, having indigenous community members move to cities which are quite foreign to them and which honestly (let’s be brutally honest) don’t really want them, and are not at all prepared for them, and have a culture completely foreign to theirs, wouldn’t solve the problem. Rather economically it would create, at the very least, the same amount of expenses; far from being -ahem- integrated into the city way of life, they would become more disenfranchised and more difficult to care for and assist. This is what happens, often, when people who already have deep issues are removed from their way of life and asked to live in a way which is alien to them.  The youths out there are currently supported by drug and alcohol workers and youth workers who have assisted the community in stemming the endemic alchol and drug abuse.  In their small communities they are easy to access, and dealers are easy to spot and remove. Drugs are easy to find and hard to stamp out in cities – giving youths who are at much higher than usual risk of drug and alcohol abuse, easy access to dealers and bottle shops, is like giving a match to a powder keg.
      But still, I guess taking thousands of indigenous people who have strong ties to their families and their land and who speak very little english, and who do not know how to live in big cities, and some of who have drug, alcohol and domestic violence issues , and thrusting them into cities where housing for disadvantaged and low income families is already hard to find… I guess that could be a good solution.
      Easy solutions tend not to work.

    • Craig of North Brisbane says:

      01:32pm | 06/09/11

      Yep, like those Aboriginal people chose to move to the big smoke of Alice Springs to be nearer to commerce and jobs.  That worked out really splendidly, didn’t it?

    • Seanr says:

      08:11am | 06/09/11

      This would be the same community which got free housing built recently and is now complaining about the lack of furniture?

      Also the failure of the gardens you mentioned seems to have occurred due to lack of care by the locals (who I note were getting paid to look after the garden). As the website you link states and the pictures highlight “It appeared that no work had been undertaken on the garden for many months”

      Who would have thought that when you give people something for nothing that they wouldn’t appreciate it (please note sarcasm).

      The fact is that if this was a non Indigenous community it would be allowed to fade away as its inhabitants moved closer to jobs and services elsewhere. There are plenty of ghost towns around Australia that highlight this internal migration. Instead we continually fund unsustainable communities, entrenching intergenerational welfare dependence and then wonder at the lack of enthusiasm within these artificial ‘homelands’.

      So Tammy whilst you seek to blame you political opponents for these issues I think you should direct your criticism at the Indigenous people living in the APY lands and the policies of politicians like yourself.

    • mahhrat says:

      09:51am | 06/09/11

      @SeanR, you are neglecting to mention that these solutions simply don’t fit with indigenous lifestyles either.

      Exactly the same thing happened to a friend who lived in an indigenous community.  She grew her own garden outside her house, as there was a lack of fresh produce available locally.

      One of the local boys offered to look after it - offered! - when she went away on a business trip.

      He simply didn’t, not because he was mean or horrible, but simply because the culture doesn’t place value on permanent structures.

      We keep trying to apply the wrong values to the solution.

    • AdamC says:

      10:29am | 06/09/11

      Seanr, great comment. Only pollies, NGOs and credulous media types are surprised when, if you condition people to be dependent and dysfunctional, that is what they become.

      Mahhrat, I don’t believe in this ‘cultural’ argument for ongoing aboriginal poverty. To put it bluntly, everyone was a hunter-gatherer once, with the attendant social structures and values. Most of us no longer are, for a whole set of excellent reasons. Indigenous people just victims of welfare conditioning. While substance abuse, poverty and violence are seen in concentrated microcosm in indigenous communities, they are present everywhere.

    • c says:

      11:15am | 06/09/11

      What does it take to get a community functional?
      2. Infrastructure
      3. Healthcare including assistance with mental health issues
      4. Meaningful work -paid or unpaid

      Where are these in aboriginal communities?

      I agree with you, Adam C, in that I don’t believe, either, that it is ‘The Aboriginal way of life’ to not be able to look after things.

      Rather, the people out in those communities show evidence of health problems that we would call ‘post traumatic stress’ and ‘alcoholism’ and ‘neglect’ and ‘suicidal ideation and depression’ in cities. Trying to pretend that it is any culture’s way of life to drink themselves to oblivion and to treat their children so neglectfully is racist and reductionist.

      One interesting fact is that for some young indigenous people, a funeral a week is, however, currently a ‘way of life’, due to things I mentioned above.

      If you want to look at the breakdown of the structures and routines which support and connect a community, you have to be honest about its’ causes and solutions.

      Up until minimum wage was established for Indigenous people in the 1970s, Aboriginal men often worked on the farms out there, and history tells that they did a fantastic job. It gave them food and lodging in the housing provided by land owners, which they looked after, by all historical accounts, quite well. (Where is the evidence of a cultural predilection towards property damage and unemployment in that historical evidence?)
      When minimum wage was introduced - by the kindness of people in the cities who thought they were providing new opportunities for these poor black workers - the farm owners dumped the aboriginal workers, who then were forced to return with their families to communities, or were shuffled off to towncamps and hasty thrown together communities. Then the men, used to working and providing for their families, even if they were getting utterly pitiful wages for it (tea and flour and other dry goods mostly), could not find jobs because nobody wanted to pay a blackfella the same as a white man. Endemic unemployment, when they WANTED TO WORK,  turned to drinking and community breakdown and the families fell apart.

    • MarkS says:

      11:28am | 06/09/11

      The time for being hunter gatherers has passed. To the extent that there are values or customs from their recent hunter gatherer past that are serving them poorly, then those values have to GO.

      My ancestors where hunter gatherers once & later, head hunters. Does not mean that I should be allowed to cut off heads & hang them from my door.

    • Seanr says:

      12:35pm | 06/09/11

      @mahhrat, I refer you to what AdamC and MarkS said re ‘hunter gatherers’ and the Indigenous lifestyle argument, they are invalid and help keep these dysfunctional communities going.

    • AdamC says:

      01:03pm | 06/09/11

      I was meaning to say, those interested in indigenous policy should log onto ABC iView and have a look at their first episode of 50 Year anniversary vintage 4Corners. It comprises two episodes about indigenous people, the first of which concerned that celebrated equal pay case for indigenous stockmen.

      It was a fascinating show. On the one hand, the pro-equal pay camp quite reasonably highlighted the mind-blowingly discriminatory state of affairs. On the other, most of the negatives that the anti side predicted as outcomes of the decision have come to pass. Big time.

    • Mahhrat says:

      02:49pm | 06/09/11

      @SeanR, perhaps, but that wasn’t the point of this article.

      The other side of the coin is that where the elders were given authority to manage their communities, they do manage and they manage well.

      If we’re going to expect assimilation, then let’s expect it, make it clear and be upfront about it, not whinge behind backs.  I agree this solution is poor, but if we’re going to do it, let’s make sure it’s the right thing to do, not just us being an ideological parent, which is what we’re doing now.  It’s disrespectful to them not just as a culture, but as human beings.

    • Seanr says:

      03:34pm | 06/09/11

      Agree completely with your last paragraph but I would add that if Indigenous groups wish to maintain some semblance of their forefather’s lifestyle, they shouldn’t expect the rest of Australia to fund it if it is not sustainable.

    • Joe says:

      04:29pm | 06/09/11

      Mahhrat,  No we don’t expect assimilation today.  Assimilation is a personnel choice for the individual.  But what we do need for people to integrate, to get jobs, to pay their way, to get off welfare, to look after their children, etc, etc, which goes for the entire of Australian Society.  Australia will not survive as a country if we do not brake the habit of Welfare dependency that we have created over the last fifty years or so, again it goes for the entirety of Australian Society.  Fixing this problem is going to take some time.

    • John A Neve says:

      08:18am | 06/09/11

      Surely the real and only answer to this issue, is to relocate the people.
      Those living back and beyond, always have and always will have less choice and higher prices.
      In the days that man was a hunter/gatherer early Australians went to where the food was. So why don’t they do this now?

    • Kangarooster says:

      08:25am | 06/09/11

      And I thought they were living outback to save their culture and being hunter and gatherers and living off kangaroo meat.  If they were, they would not suffer the same fate of the obese whiteman.  Or do they?

    • centurion48 says:

      09:10am | 06/09/11

      The first link in the article holds a clue:
      “Regional Stores Council general manager Kirsten Grace, who manages six of the nine major food stores on the Lands, called on the Government to support a voluntary income management scheme to prevent hunger, particularly among children.
      “People are going without food and it is a big issue,” she said.
      “If you are starving and you have money in your pocket you spend it, and then you have no money. There is no planning or management.”

      Their money, provided by taxpayers, is being spent on non-food items. It is not lack of food, per se, it is lack of enforceable spending on food. The SA report does go in the right direction and probably doesn’t need an upper house Greens member trying to make political capital from a serious issue.
      I would like to see community cooking established and all members of the community required to participate. Give the APY people power by income management and reducing disposable income.
      Simple basic foods - not 80 varieties - are not necessarily expensive but provide adequate nutrition. I note that the photo in the article shows bananas which have been off my shopping list for six months even though I love them. I live within my means and maintain health through diet and exercise. The APY people have the means, provided by nature and taxpayers, and need to realise there is no longer any free lunches.

    • John Howard's Sock says:

      09:21am | 06/09/11

      Stop giving charity, creating a welfare mentality with no commitment, and then wondering why things fail. The hypocrisy is stunning.

    • fairsfair says:

      09:41am | 06/09/11

      This article does indigenous culture a disservice.

    • Sony B Goode says:

      10:20am | 06/09/11

      Nobody respects something they get for nothing. Time to stop welfare that is killing these people, destroying their self-respect and dis-incentivising them from looking after themselves.

    • James1 says:

      12:33pm | 06/09/11

      You got the headline wrong on this one.  It should read “Communities go hungry as individuals in communities make bad financial choices”.

    • Anna C says:

      12:45pm | 06/09/11

      Anangu people, welcome to the 21st Century. You are expected to get off your arses and conform to white man society. Go to school, get a job and fend for yourselves just like everyone else.

      If you want food then go buy some with the money you earned working? If you want a house then save up like the rest of us with the money you earned from your job? Get the picture? Nothing is handed to you on a silver platter. You have to earn it just like the rest of us.

      Sorry for invading you over 200 years ago but sadly for you there is no going back. Learn to adapt to our way of life.

    • Joe says:

      03:51pm | 06/09/11

      To all those people who want to relocate aboriginal people from their customary to so called functional communities, you must consider how the aboriginal people are going to maintain their rights to their land and their connection to their land.  This is a form of ownership that we cannot just take off these Aboriginal people.  Aboriginal people have already been disenfranchised enough, particularly in the well watered Southern parts of Australia.  These are now the subject of very messy and sometimes very heated negotiation and legal action to work out a path forward/ fair compensation for recognition of prior ownership.  We must not repeat these mistakes in northern and central Australia.  But at the same time we cannot allow these aboriginal people and their children to be subject to the lives of hopelessness which they are now subject.  There must be a better way…

    • John A Neve says:

      06:56pm | 06/09/11

      I will not touch on the ownership issue, suffice to ask, who gave them ownership?
      The reality is, if they cannot support themselve in the back and beyond, they will have to move.
      Land that cannot support you is not worth 20c.

    • Outraged says:

      04:13pm | 06/09/11

      Maybe we should do like the Americans did with the Native Americans:

      Give the Aboriginies Casino’s to manage with no State Tax!

      This increases Aboriginal employment in Gaming/Hospitality and gives the Tribes control of money.

    • Tator says:

      09:23pm | 06/09/11

      Here is a Quadrant article on the plight of those Aborigines in Central Australia
      Looks like the problem is a lot deeper than throwing money at will fix as there has been a bucketload spent already.  So unless a new strategy is used, those people living out in the remote areas are just in for more continous poverty as it is not just the income that is the problem, it is the illiteracy and innumeracy that will kill them off in the long term.

    • rod sexton says:

      10:10am | 07/09/11

      Let them go walk-about and hunt their food. If they want to eat the white-man’s way then do what white man does and get a job!
      There is too much welfare without commitment.

    • Dark Horse says:

      11:13am | 07/09/11

      Some of these people tell us they have lived on the land for up to 60,000 years, but all of a sudden, they need houses, subsidised freight and government handouts, Toyotas etc.

      Many indigenes squander their sit-down money on grog, cigarettes and gambling and leave nothing for food. Is that our fault? They need to move where the food is or perhaps learn something about agriculture and grow their own food. It gets monotonous hearing the constant carping about how disadvantaged these people are. Australia is a land of opportunity, but to access it you have to actually do something.

    • Aussie (what) Pride says:

      10:45am | 14/09/11

      It’s great to see that even though times have changed, the redneck Australian attitude certainly hasn’t.  Gunyas have next to no idea about what it is to Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander, so many are quick to say ‘well let them get a job, live by white mans law’ etc.

      As an Arrernte man living in the ‘big smoke’, I work honestly and support my family and comments like this plastered online do nothing to change other peoples’ perception of Aussies.


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