The numbers at the ‘Toomelah Sovereignty Gathering’ were perhaps smaller than expected, owing in part to a memorial service held in Goondiwindi for Auntie Ursula McGrady, who passed away two years ago, and a visit from a church group.
Everyone who spoke at the meeting agreed something needed to be done to arrest grave fears of a community concerned it will be “hit” by a Northern Territory-style government intervention.
“We know the NSW Government and Department of Aboriginal Affairs are circling the issue of mission relocation or closure.
“We know Australia owes the people of Toomelah the right to a better way. For too long we’ve let the government dictate what our needs are,” organiser Madelaine McGrady said.
“The first principle for Toomelah is sovereignty - the right and ability to control our own affairs, our own land, our lives and law,” Ms McGrady said.
Most at the meeting agreed government agencies were not capable of doing anything to help.
Some claimed it was due to negligence and others felt it was a lack of cultural understanding.
“That understanding is something non-indigenous people can never have,” Ms McGrady said.
Michael Anderson, from Walgett, who is one of the founders of the original Tent Embassy in Canberra, said the Goomeroi people had never surrendered their sovereignty and needed to take back control of their communities and their lives.
He said sovereignty was about “making decisions for yourself”.
“We have to fight as the Goomeroi nation, working for the same thing, to make laws for ourselves.”
Otherwise, Mr Anderson said, indigenous people were “slaves in their own land”.
He said governments kept indigenous people poor, so they could keep control over their lives.
Members of the Moree Goomeroi Tent Embassy were also in attendance as well as representatives of the Woomera Sovereign Rights Union.
“It’s a special place, Toomelah, with special people here. You have the expertise and experts here to pull it back,” chairman of the Centre for Indigenous Cultural Policy, from Brisbane, Bob Weatherall said. “The government removes everything you need to have a healthy community.
“Sovereignty, self-determination, self-management – all that belongs to you. Take control. It’s up to you to sort it out. Dysfunction is not Aboriginal.
“It comes from the government. They continue to think they have the solutions. We have it in our own heart.”
There was no support voiced for the NSW Government’s new scheme of putting executive principals with special powers into 15 schools, including Boggabilla and Toomelah, with high numbers of indigenous students.
“It’s up to the parents. It’s up to us. All these government agencies, they’re not really doing anything,” said Norm McGrady. “It’s up to us.”
An invitation to the public meeting said: “We hope concerned family can attend to ask questions, offer insight and opinion, and contribute to developing a real way forward. The problems (police, housing, health, education, crime, drugs and selfharm) are bigger than any one of us and the answers will only be found by a combined and united approach.”
Coordinated approach needed: Coulton
WITHOUT a coordinated approach to the problems facing the community at Toomelah, any government initiatives will continue to fail says Federal Member for Parkes, Mark Coulton.
Mr Coulton has brought the conditions of Toomelah to the attention of the Federal Parliament and he believes a consistent policy and cooperative community action will improve conditions.
“This is one of the great tragedies of our age and, if anything, I believe that the conditions in Toomelah are getting worse.”
He said the Community Development Employment Program was closed in 2009 by the Rudd
Government exacerbating social problems and intensifying the high level of unemployment.
Mr Coulton has met with Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin and discussed the need for firm action to address drug and alcohol abuse, severe unemployment and child abuse in Toomelah.
“I believe that this is a bigger problem than any particular government. The issues at Toomelah are complicated by the proximity to the Queensland border, but I will work with the local council, with the New South Wales Government, with the Federal Government, and most importantly with the community.
“Toomelah is one of the most picturesque settings in NSW and I understand why residents want to live there. However I find it completely unacceptable that residents are exposed to health risks, that unemployment continues to cause social problems, and that children continue to face abuse.
“Recent media reports have given mainstream Australia a small insight into a lifestyle that the children of Toomelah have to deal with. Without efforts from the community at Toomelah action by the government to bring about change will be in vain.
“I know most of the residents personally. I am very fond of them. They are wonderful people, but they are living in a very troubled society. While it may be fair for adults to choose how they live, the children that live in that community have no say as to the poverty they are brought up into, and they need their safety secured.
“Change must begin with the community, and the government must be there to help effect that change,” he said.