Hundreds of residents from a remote Northern Territory community remain displaced due to recent violent unrest, in what one senator has described as a “humanitarian situation”.
- Nearly 100 houses in Wadeye have sustained damage due to weeks of fighting
- Senator Malarndirri McCarthy and NT Police say violence has eased this week but tensions remain
- Talks are underground to address longstanding issues in the remote community
Labor Senator Malarndirri McCarthy said she visited Wadeye over the weekend, about 420 kilometers south of Darwin, following weeks of escalating violence between families after a man, 32, was killed last month.
Dozens of homes have been extensively damaged by fire and the community’s only food store has been forced to close several times.
“Where I’m calling for support – and I understand the territory government has gone out since I made that call to them on the weekend – is for the humanitarian situation,” Senator McCarthy said.
“Those families, the women and children … had — at that time that I was out there — no accommodation, no toiletries [or] sanitation, and very, very little food, if any.”
Senator McCarthy said hundreds of people had fled to outstations, temporary bush camps and surrounding homelands, while community members embroiled in the conflict fought with weapons and set houses on fire.
Numerous people have been injured in the unrest.
Senator McCarthy said she believed living conditions in Wadeye had improved since her visit thanks to police and the Northern Territory government, however said “there’s a great deal of hurt” among the families.
“I had the opportunity to speak to all sides of the families that are obviously in conflict, and urged everyone there that violence is not on.”
What’s being done to address the crisis?
NT Police Acting Commissioner Michael Murphy said extra police had been deployed to Wadeye in recent weeks to help bring violence under control.
He also said stores were now “well supplied” with essentials.
“We haven’t seen any unrest in the last six days, which is pleasing,” he told ABC Radio Darwin this morning.
However, he said law enforcement alone would not fix the problem.
Instead, Acting Commissioner Murphy pointed to long-term investment in education, employment, housing and community connection as the solution “because when police are arresting people, it’s too late”.
“I think there’s about 700 children enrolled in school, and there’s only 10 per cent attending — or possibly less,” he said.
“It’s quite sad to see all the young kids out there who are bright-eyed, very intelligent, energetic, love their footy, being displaced from what they can see as what might be normal — and it is absolutely not.”
Traditional Owners in the community have also been calling for change.
Acting Commissioner Murphy also said there was a “feeling of hopelessness” among Traditional Owners and clan groups who had lost all of their belongings and wanted peace.
In the short-term, he said ensuring residents had access to food and appropriate accommodation were top priorities.
“The immediate response is making sure that their quality of life is sustainable and they’ve got the staples, the right food security, the right accommodation,” he said.
“It’s about supporting them right now and bringing harmony through mediation back into the community, so we don’t see continued violence and harm and disruptive behaviours.
Who will clean up the damage?
As residents continue to seek refuge on the outskirts of Wadeye in tents, the government has confirmed almost 100 damaged houses will be repaired.
“Since March, 94 houses have been damaged in Wadeye, of which 41 have major damage, including 15 that have received fire damage that will require structural engineering inspections,” a spokeswoman from the Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics said.
“As the landlord, the Northern Territory Government manages and maintains public housing in remote communities, including Wadeye, which includes carrying out repairs in accordance with parameters established in the Residential Tenancies Act.”
The government has confirmed repairs to the houses with minor damage had already begun, and inspections of the houses with major damage will start later this week.
While the full extent of cost is yet to be determined, the spokeswoman said “fixes” would be prioritized depending on who lived at the residence.
Where to fromhere?
The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organization’s (NACCHO) chief executive Pat Turner said the damaged houses and fighting was emblematic of deeper-rooted problems.
She said additional housing to address chronic overcrowding in homes and providing more services needed to be prioritized.
“There should be a real, genuine effort to negotiate with the local clan groups to work out living areas that will prevent this ongoing conflict that flares up periodically.
“Only full engagement with the community is going to… work out how the community can become a sustainable community.”
Acting Commissioner Murphy described Wadeye as “very complex and very concerning”.
“The community has 22 clan groups [and] obviously sometimes there are simmering conflicts and it comes and erupts,” he said.
Senator McCarthy also said the community was dealing with “deep wounds.”
“This means shelter, food, sanitation and medication.”
On Tuesday, Deputy Chief Minister Nicole Manison also visited the remote community, where she spoke to community leaders, various senior public servants and police on the ground, a government spokeswoman said.
Criminal lawyers call for inquiry
Lawyers who have spent significant amounts of time representing clients charged with crimes in Wadeye are calling on the NT government to launch an inquiry into the ongoing unrest.
The principal lawyer of private, Darwin-based firm Territory Criminal Lawyers said while the justice system is an important part of a functioning society, he feared that no matter how many people were charged and arrested, the courts would do little to prevent further community turmoil .
“Anybody who says, ‘I have a simple solution’, doesn’t understand the complexity of the problem,” Clancy Dane said.
Mr Dane said the local court system was already constrained by an overwhelming caseload, limited access to interpreters and little long-term continuity in the legal professionals flying in and out to represent clients.
“The circumstances in which that court operates make it a poor vessel to identify, let alone address, the root causes of the ongoing community unrest,” he said