We’re not Racist
The next story has evolved from many experiences dealing with the intricacies of bureaucracies. It is part of the soon to be released “Turn on a Light” and the main character is Robbie Fairfax, a former truck-driver-turned-teacher-turned-Aboriginal-community-manager (like the old position of community advisor). The year is 1974 and the scene an old mining site, 60 kilometres north-north-west of Kalgoorlie. It is where the fictional Wuluma Language Group was sent when they chose to leave Kalgoorlie. They actually wanted to go their traditional country, south of Kalgoorlie, but joint political and mining forces prevented them from doing so because of the amount of prospecting and mining on Wuluma land.
Robbie waited with Peter and Sampson, the two leaders of the Wuluma Council, at the Community Council Office. They were due to meet three State Housing Commission officers. The old men seemed to be excited, talking a lot in language, Sampson translating for Robbie every so often. The purpose of the meeting was to work with the SHC officers to develop a proposal for funding for new houses to replace the humpies, lean-to edifices and brush and cardboard huts that currently housed about 800 Wuluma people and had done so for four years.
As soon as the meeting commenced, however, John James, the senior SHC officer, told Robbie, Peter and Sampson that funding for new housing for Wuluma people wasn’t available through SHC because Plantagenet wasn’t on Wuluma land.
“It’s one of our rules and I’m sure wouldn’t want us to get into trouble by breaking any of those,” he concluded, fixing the two Aboriginal men in turn with steely stares.
As Peter and Sampson looked crestfallen, Robbie looked at each officer in turn, his head easing to one side. The extended silence seemed to discomfort the SHC personnel.
“What’s bothering you, Mr Fairfax?” the woman in the group finally asked.
“Mrs Price, do you own a house in Kalgoorlie?” Robbie ventured.
“Yes?” Her expression was quizzical.
“Do you live in Lamington, or North Kalgoorlie, or Boulder?”
“Do you own the house or does it belong to GEHA: the Government Employees Housing Authority?”
“All three of us live in GEHA houses.”
“Listen, what’s this got to do with our agenda?” John intervened.
Robbie straightened his head but spoke calmly. “Mr James, Mrs Price and Mr Ackroyd, just in case you didn’t know, Wuluma people are from south-east of Kalgoorlie, from Kambalda out through the lakes, and until recently had lived there for thousands of years. But even after the 1967 referendum, they haven’t been allowed back to their country because mining interests have convinced the State Government that prospecting on Wuluma land is a higher priority than Wuluma people going home. It wasn’t until the Catholic missionaries applied pressure that the government finally let Wuluma mob leave Kalgoorlie to come out here, to Plantagenet. Getting out of Kalgoorlie to stop all the drinking and loss of culture was important to you, wasn’t it, old men?”
Woolly grey hair bounced in response.
“And I also know,” Robbie continued in the same serene tone, “that the police and a lot of Kalgoorlie and Boulder people were very pleased when the Wuluma mob left town.”
John and his colleagues avoided eye contact, looking down, or out a window.
After a long pause in which his gaze moved quickly, several times, from one officer to the other, Robbie continued. “Now, is this summary I’m about to give you accurate? The State government won’t let Wuluma people on their land because of prospecting, and SHC says no to building at Plantagenet, where they’re allowed to be, because it’s not their land. Is that right?”
John blanched and looked at his colleagues. “We need to discuss this.”
They moved to the veranda and after indistinct mumblings, murmurs and shrugs from the trio, the meeting resumed with Jill Price announcing, “We’ve decided we should speak with our boss and the Department of Land Management to try to sort this out.”
“So when will the Wuluma people get an answer?” Robbie asked.
“When we’ve sorted it out,” John snapped.
“How long will that take?”
“I haven’t got any idea, Mr Fairfax.”
“Why not, Mr James?”
John angrily tossed his biro on the table. “Because it’s how things work around here, mate!”
“Mr James, what you officers have said today indicates to me that the Wuluma people are peripheral to decisions you’re making. Tonight, SHC officers will go to homes with running water, electricity and gas, on land that isn’t theirs. But the Wuluma mob, which isn’t allowed on its own land, will stay in shanties,” he pointed in several directions into the community, “with no running water, no electricity and no gas. Also, SHC sets no time limit on giving an answer as to why the Wuluma mob can’t have new houses here. I think that has to do with being black or white.”
“Are you accusing us of being racist?” John reared, his face flushed.
“No,” Robbie remained placid. “I’m saying the system employing you is. Tell me, what would happen if non-Aboriginal people in Kalgoorlie, Lamington or Boulder were given the sort of answer you just gave: it’s how things work around here mate?”
John looked out a window.
“My guess,” Robbie offered, “is that The West Australian or Daily News or Channel 7 would have a field day tearing your department and officers to shreds. But somehow, I don’t sense that will happen here because the clients are Aboriginal people.”
John stood and gathered his file and pens. “This meeting’s finished, Mr Fairfax!”
Robbie stood with him. “Mr James, while the meeting’s finished, know that I’ll be writing to your Director giving my perspective on what’s occurred today, asking for a review of the decision by you and your colleagues and giving all the reasons why. Thanks for coming out to the community today.”
At least Mrs Price shook my hand, he thought as he stood on the veranda with Sampson and Peter, watching the visitors head for their vehicles and what they thought was the safety of Kalgoorlie.