Dear State Capitalism,
You are sneaky and very shit. I knew this already, of course, but have recently learned it anew in my concern for the future of a certain remote township in North East Arnhem Land. It is everywhere and always implied that the State imposes taxes on citizens so that the government might provide them with services. This is a catchy tune. The Australian constitution certainly implies this – that people pay taxes so that the government can ‘perform all of its functions’, or something to that effect. However, this is not – and has never been – the case. I want to tell you a bit about the history and import of Nhulunbuy.
The historical relationship between Yolŋu people and mining in North East Arnhem Land has been of National significance and formative in terms of the nature of such intercultural engagement, policy and legislation. It was the excision of land from the then Aboriginal Reserve for the purposes of a mining lease and the subsequent Gove Land Rights Case (Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd, (1971)), instigated by the Yirrkala Bark Petition, which eventually laid the foundation for the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976 (as a result of the Woodward Commission). More specifically, it was the Yolŋu response to the excision and the decisive action taken by Yolŋu people which forged new and innovative intercultural possibilities in their engagement with their ‘supporters’ (predominantly Methodist Missionaries), as well as the Federal Government and the Courts, in their determination to have their system of land tenure and rights over their estate recognised by the State and Federal Governments and the Australian legal system.
Despite initial opposition to the excision and the lease commitment to build a mine, a port facility and a township the presence of Rio-Alcan has become a part of everyday life in the region. Nhulunbuy township is an important hub of service provision (including local government, health, education and training) and a valued market enclave (with shopping centres, banks, taxi businesses, restaurants, bars etcetera) in one of the most remote areas or regions in Australia. Yolŋu people and communities now rely upon Nhulunbuy in many and various ways and Yolŋu residents have become accustomed to living in close proximity to an ‘around the clock’ industrial-estate-cum-township with all its conveniences and trappings. Yolŋu Traditional Owners have also actively sought to engage and negotiate with mining companies in the region.
May 2011 saw the signing of the Gove Traditional Owners Agreement between Rio Tinto Alcan [Rio-Alcan] and Yolŋu Traditional Owners. President and chief executive officer Rio Tinto Alcan bauxite and alumina Pat Fiore paid tribute to the work of Gumatj elder Galarrwuy Yunupingu and Rirratjingu elder Bakamumu Marika in securing an agreement, and said at the time: “This agreement is living proof of the great long-term benefits that can be secured when mining companies and Traditional Owners work together in good faith for a common purpose”. The deal was reputedly worth between $15 and $18 million per annum to Yolŋu Traditional Owners until 2053.
In November 2013, however, after failed negotiations with Federal and Northern Territory Government over the construction of a gas pipeline, Rio-Alcan announced that they would be closing the Gove aluminium refinery. Media coverage has focused on the loss of over 1000 jobs at the plant with only 350 left in mining, the flow-on effects on the mainly Balanda (white, European) township of Nhulunbuy, the negative impact on the regional economy and the anticipated collapsed value of the township real estate market. However, as Altman points out, there has been little discussion about how the closure will affect Yolŋu people and communities in the region. Altman suggests that the closure is ‘not necessarily a bad outcome for the Yolŋu people’, but I would hesitate to suggest otherwise. Census data may show that ‘there have been few employment benefits to the region, [with] only a handful of Yolŋu from the townships of Yirrkala and Gunyanarra and from homelands in the region actually work[ing] for Rio Tinto Alcan’ (Altman 2014), but social and economic relations are far more complex and enmeshed on the ground.
Nhulunbuy is a purpose built township situated on leasehold land within the boundaries of Aboriginal freehold land. It was established by the former owner of Alcan Gove [Nabalco] to accommodate and support staff involved in the operation of the bauxite mine near Yirrkala (~20km from Nhulunbuy) as well as the alumina refinery at Gove. It has a population of approximately 4,000 people, the majority of whom are non-Indigenous people. It is the fourth largest town in the Northern Territory and the service and administrative centre of the region. Capital, like magic, creates things.
The economy of the entire Gove Peninsula is centred around the mine and refinery. The Gove operation spends more than $300 million annually on local goods and suppliers, with approximately 1400 employees and contractors. The closure of the Gove refinery will mean the loss of 1100 jobs and almost 25% of the town’s population.
With the loss of $300 million annually from the local economy it is likely that small business will find it very difficult to survive. The shopping centres, clothes stores, video stores, sport and recreation stores, taxi businesses, restaurants, mechanics, cafes, bars, etcetera – many of them will close and their owners and staff leave town. The are many and various other features of this modern industrial township – the sports ground, the golf course, the yacht club, public swimming pool, fishing club, surf-lifesaving club, the speedway, the skate park – that may not survive. Daily Qantas flights to Darwin and Cairns, which connect this remote township to the larger centres, have already been cancelled.
With such a dramatic fall in the population of the township it is also likely that the delivery of services will be significantly wound back or deemed unviable. This will affect health, education, training and social welfare – the hospital, the schools, the TAFE centre, the Centrelink office. Staffing numbers will likely be reduced at the Shire Council, the police station and the local Court, which will affect service and capacity in these areas also. There are also questions surrounding the future of housing and infrastructure and the legal status of the township lease, situated as it is, within the boundaries of Aboriginal Freehold land.
Yolŋu people from across NE Arnhem land depend upon Nhulunbuy for their consumer needs including food, alcohol, tobacco, consumer goods, vehicle maintenance and banking needs among other things. They also depend upon Nhulunbuy as a service and administrative centre, for health, training, social welfare, licensing, policing and legal services, among other things. What will the impacts and effects be if they can no longer access these goods and services in Nhulunbuy? Will they have to travel to another town or centre to access them? Will the loss of access to these basics affect people’s health and well-being? If they have to travel elsewhere to access these things might this affect other aspects of their lives?
Nhulunbuy, Yirrkala and surrounds has also become a nationally significant site or hub of intercultural relations, politics and brokerage. It has seen the establishment of a number of influential intercultural organisations such as the Dhimurru Rangers, Yothu Yindi Foundation, etcetera, and events like the annual Garma Festival which attracts prominent politicians, including the Prime Minister, and social figures from across Australia every year. How will the closure affect organisations such as Dhimurru and events such as the Garma Festival? Or don’t we care?
‘Nowadays,’ writes Graeber, ‘we all think we know the answer to this question. We pay our taxes so that the government can provide us with services. This starts with security services-military protection being, often, about the only service some early states were really able to provide. By now, of course, the government provides all sorts of things. All of this is said to go back to some sort of original “social contract” that everyone somehow agreed on, though no one really knows exactly when or by whom, or why we should be bound by the decisions of distant ancestors on this one matter when we don’t feel particularly bound by the decisions of our distant ancestors on anything else. All of this makes sense if you assume that markets come before governments, but the whole argument totters quickly once you realize that they don’t’ (2011:55).
What is the responsibility of the State or Federal Governments in this situation? Whose responsibility is it to maintain the service and administrative centre in the region? When capital withdraws so too, apparently, does any sense of social responsibility on the part of the Government toward its citizens. Rio Tinto has announced a ‘rescue package‘ to help locals when it closes the alumina refinery, so where is the government rescue package to provide basic services for its citizens?
K thnx bai,
p.s. What the **** do you do with all that money if it’s not to provide basic services for tax paying citizens?! Oh.
 We have seen similar unified, organised, determined and innovative responses from Yolŋu people in their engagement with the Native Title process. (See, for example, Morphy, F. ‘Performing law: The Yolngu of Blue Mud Bay meet the native title process’ in D. Fay and D. James (eds), The Rights and Wrongs of Land Restitution: ‘Restoring What Was Ours’, Routledge-Cavendish, Abingdon, pp. 99-122.)
 See ‘Nancy Williams, 1986, The Yolngu and Their Land: A System of Land Tenure and the Fight for Its Recognition, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra.’
This work by Bree Blakeman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.