Thursday, July 25, 2024

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HomeIssue 32022 AD – What we could hope for in Indigenous affairs, apart...

2022 AD – What we could hope for in Indigenous affairs, apart from the odd miracle

Bob Durnan (pictured) is a community development worker with over three decades of experience in working with Aboriginal people in town camps and remote communities in the Northern Territory and Queensland. He looks forward to where we would hope to be when the sun sets on the current 10-year second phase of the Federal Intervention into Indigenous affairs in the Territory.
Those of us – of all ethnic backgrounds – who seriously look forward to still residing in the Northern Territory 10 years from now need to start getting our acts together if we want a tolerable social and climatic environment to enjoy in our dotage.
Apart from the grim fact that we must hope Australia doesn’t get dragged down into a world-wide economic quagmire – the new depression – and endure the suffering that would accompany the further disappearance of finance and trade, jobs and commerce, we have to still deal with our own unfolding local social catastrophe.
To help us do this dealing, we also must hope our nation’s strong streak of mean-mindedness and lack of empathy is diminished, at least a bit, as we badly need to continue receiving generous helpings of the GST gravy if we are to have any chance of achieving a safe, well-educated, healthy, productive and integrated society in the NT.
Equally we must hope that measures to abate global warming are implemented rapidly, despite their impacts on trade and finance. It’s hot enough in Central Australia as it already is.
If Australia’s national wellbeing survives these and other possible threats (the usual – war, terrorism, and their pressures for increased population shifts) then we could reasonably expect our national government to build on its already large investment in the Northern Territory Emergency Response, and see some Stronger Futures evolve in the NT; but as you may sense, I think it’s a bit of a long shot.
However there are moral and social imperatives for our national government to “create” the necessary funds to do what is needed here in the Territory (i.e. provide “catch up” services, and address the growing level of income inequality), and it could be done by increasing the proportion of our wealth that is being collected by government in taxation revenue: at present Australia has almost the lowest tax rates amongst the advanced economies.
This should not be done by increasing taxes on the middle and lower classes, but through introducing genuine measures aimed at taxing the top 10% of income earners, along with progressive taxes such as the Mineral Resources Tax and the proposed Financial Transactions Tax.
But, for argument’s sake, let’s say we Territory dwellers are lucky, and play our cards right, with a good strategy for staying in the game and using our winnings wisely. Let’s also assume the Federal Government agrees to keep propping up this failing wannabe state by maintaining the funding for the 60 extra police already stationed in the remote communities; plus the 200 extra teacher positions and a platoon or two of youth workers; the small army of Centrelink social workers and support staff for the welfare reform; a few hundred night patrollers; and a couple of thousand other positions – also filled by local Aboriginal people – that they are presently funding on behalf of the impoverished shires.
Still, to achieve really positive outcomes, we need much more than the simple maintenance of this expensive current package: we have to focus on obtaining much more funding to invest in the underdeveloped remote communities – the price of a practical program to resolve our key problems. We must also work out how to collaborate amongst ourselves better to achieve important goals.
These goals should include:-
Significant reduction of addictions, violence, crime and poverty: decreasing drug and alcohol availability and consumption
Some will say that to attain these goals we require much more personal responsibility, extensive early childhood and family intervention programs, more education and jobs, more economic development, treatment and counselling services, self-reliance, autonomy, and individual discipline and agency. They are all correct.
But the starting point must be the creation of circumstances, or settings, in which these other initiatives can take root and thrive. I believe this means firstly we must ensure excessive drug use is contained by increased interceptions of illegal drugs before sale to consumers; and secondly, excessive alcohol consumption is reduced by the introduction of both a floor price and also individual alcohol consumption licences for all NT citizens who want to drink alcohol in the NT. Some days free from sales of take-away alcohol wouldn’t hurt as well. There should also be widespread implementation of violence-prevention strategies.
These twin strategies, sustained over time, would have a big impact on diminishing the rates of both crime and poverty.
If we don’t do these things, then I doubt whether any of the other initiatives are likely to have the desired effects, and all our determination to foster more responsible behaviours will amount to very little.
Significant improvements in socialisation, education and health: early childhood services
For significant, sustainable improvements, and reduced burdens on tax payers, we have to start now doing what we neglected to do in the 1980s and since: we must ensure all NT children have real chances to do well in life.
At its most fundamental level, this means investing in greatly expanded, high quality early childhood and education services that are able to meet the needs of large sections of the Aboriginal population. An important part of this will be adaptations of successful elements of the Alice Springs Transformation Plan across the NT: programs such as training in how to control a house so it is safe for children, intensive case management of tenants who are at great risk of failing to comply with the details of their leases, support for young mothers by specially trained nurses who make home visits, and parenting skills training, and strongly co-ordinated activities and services for young people.
Such programs provide the necessary support and education needed to assist parents to learn how to be authoritative, rather than authoritarian or overly permissive in the early years – a critical part of the development of good character including good self-control. We need more of these programs that help provide skills and motivation for people to take responsibility and become the agents of their own futures.
If our educationists, politicians, public servants and parents find ways to work together productively over the next few years, we could also hope to see a greatly expanded and stabilised education workforce, adequately accommodated and reimbursed, and residing in (or, in some cases, continually visiting) remote communities.
This workforce would include many Aboriginal people, and would be comprised of experienced teachers with appropriate qualifications and good morale, along with a range of people with other specialisations (counsellors, early childhood services workers, special needs teachers, linguists, Teachers of Languages Other Than English, administrators, producers of teaching materials).
If these needs are met, and existing complementary programs to ensure community support and reasonable enrolment and attendance levels are consolidated and successful, then we may expect to start seeing reduced levels of offending and reduced rates of addictions by 2022.
Greater integration of Aboriginal people into the NT’s social and economic structures
If more Aboriginal people are to become stronger, more active and more self-reliant, especially in remote communities, then they will have to work out new ways to assert themselves in NT society and politics, and find suitable ways to participate as producers in the NT economy.
This will necessarily require the Aboriginal leadership to create and promote realistic welfare and royalty distribution policies, and pursue realistic work options for remote communities. These will in turn require strong effective management and mentoring of trainees, apprentices, workers and family enterprises, and affordable safe accommodation where the jobs are – possibly via public-private partnerships.
Public-private partnerships are alliances between private sector interests (large corporations and / or aggregations of small and medium size businesses, including Aboriginal investment corporations) and governments.
Governments also have no choice other than to support some new job creation, service provision and accommodation programs in most remote communities, including for a few large outstation populations such as those at Urapuntja. It is highly desirable to enable unemployed people who are less adaptable, or unable to move elsewhere for paid work because they are caring for others, to obtain socially useful paid work in their home communities.
I believe this because of serious practical concerns. There are simply nowhere near the amounts of accommodation or the other conditions suitable for all these people and their dependents to live  in the towns and cities where most of the existing services and work opportunities are available. Everybody needs to calm down and accept the reality that for decades to come many Aboriginal people are going to have no choice but to go on living in their existing houses in existing remote  communities, if for no other reason than that there is nowhere else available where they can afford to live. For most of these people, these circumstances are unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.
It is also plain that any new job creation programs in these communities will need to be better planned, funded and monitored than the old CDEP projects, which were usually hamstrung by important factors such as insufficient funds, and lack of suitable accommodation and other infrastructure needed to attract and retain good quality staff in sufficient numbers to enable strong planning, administration, supervision of workers, and training.
There would have to be stringent requirements that wages only be provided for work performed. Participants’ wages need to be at reasonable rates, with superannuation included, and as far as possible the work provided should be commensurate with the worker’s skills. Full-time work should be available for those who want it.
If I am correct in these assumptions, then we in the Territory have a very big job on our hands, to not only persuade governments about these needs, but also to persuade great numbers of the taxpaying voters to overcome some of their prejudices and cynicism, and get behind such a program.

Better leadership capacities in all sectors of the NT population
The achievement of any, let alone all, of the above goals will require more and better leadership from all the interest groups involved in our collective project of creating a better future for ourselves and our descendants here in the NT.
We will need much better focus and commitment from the representatives of our elites, and greater efforts at putting aside self-interest and family interests, and encouraging responsibility, participation and agency by younger people.  I believe that we are now capable of putting aside many of our past differences and finding new ways of working through these problems together. In particular, we can decide to put aside some of the political opportunism that has often wrecked our collective endeavours in the past, and work together to overcome social and cultural differences, much as Gerry Wood, Jodeen Carney, Luke Bowen, Damien Ryan and others have been doing over the past couple of years with the Henderson Government.
Thoughtful community development plans and projects could also contribute greatly to this process of reaching consensus on certain matters in order to deal with the overwhelming and urgent issues that confront us. Innovative leadership development activities could also play a key role.
The fly in the bush medicine
There is one other obstacle that could interfere with the success of this scenario. It consists of a well-organised network of misguided oppositionist activists, plus assorted individuals, who work overtime to destroy the potential and undermine the success of some good government programs and policies, such as Income Management, increased security, planning for the common good in the development of communities, implementing store reform, improving school enrolments and attendance with the aid of SEAM, and serious efforts to combat violence, child neglect, drug dealing, grog running, exposure of children to  pornography, and sexual abuse, through collection of intelligence on these issues for use in both prosecutions and preventative strategies.
These anti-Interventionists advocate to Aboriginal people and the rest of the general public in a myriad of ways, claiming that many of the government’s NTER policies and programs have evil intent, are racist, and therefore should be opposed and resisted. Many of their statements are absurd, illogical or just factually incorrect.
These misguided people should be challenged at every opportunity, debated, and asked to justify their statements and activities. It should be pointed out as often as possible that this is not a time for destructiveness, fantasy and paranoia: it is a time for increased unity, honesty and focussed effort aimed at achieving some very basic and obvious goals.
Photographs are from the Alice Springs News archive. From top: Old Timers’ town camp, Alice Springs, 2007. • Children at Ntaria School, Ntaria (Hermannsburg), 2009. • Voters at Alpurrulam (Lake Nash), federal election, 2007. • Alpurrulam, 2007.


  1. To the misguided and far too well paid talking head Bob Durnan may I say, I am proud to be labelled as anti-interventionist by the likes of you. I will always use the freedom of expression in our country to let others know of the poisonous racism that is the fundamental bedrock of this permanent policy.
    It is no more defensible than the worst of the Blair, Howard and Bush push into Iraq.
    You know this Bob and you know too that we can do better.

  2. Talk about living in a dream world. This would have to be the closest thing to opium dreaming that I have ever read. I have been out of the Alice for thirty years now, and it is obvious that the problems of the city and its surrounds are worse now than they were back then, and they were bad enough back then, so what have Mr Durnan and his ilk been doing in those thirty years apart from demanding more and more funds to repeat the same mistakes over and over?
    To suggest that the whole population of the center of Australia should suffer for his inabilities, and the inabilities of all the administrators of the affairs of the indigenous people is nothing short of plain stupidity.
    It would appear to me as an outsider that a total clean out of the administration is in order, and a new team, with new ideas be elected.

  3. @2
    David – Bob challenged / asked anti-Interventionists to justify their statements and activities. You have not done so, merely made an assertion. How about explaining your position?

  4. Reply to ANON @ 1:53 pm. My position on the intervention, on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, on CAMECO, on David Hicks, on the very fragile social fabric that is the Alice today etc etc has been known for many years.

  5. It’s the combination of the photograph in the third point and the text in the fourth that I find most hopeful.
    The leadership thing is being addressed and nurtured through Desert Knowledge Australia’s Desert Leadership Program. With others, Alderman John Rawnsley has encouraged potential future leaders to step forward, to trust their luck and not be shy.
    As a self-confessed local government tragic, I hope some of them will nominate in the coming Council elections. For the work and hours involved, the pay sucks and the exposure is daunting. It can also be a frustrating and intimidating task when, as is sometimes the case in local government, there is too much leading from the chair.
    But the Alice Springs Town Council is the premier elected body in Alice, and the new single transferable vote proportional representation system (!) is designed to make the eight alderman positions more accessible to a wider variety of residents.
    We need at least some young(ish) local voices on Council to help us all through the coming transformative years. We are still hunting the elusive formula that will bring the old town camps under the one municipal roof, and this is before we begin to look further afield.
    We all know that necessary change is in the air, and that it can be for the better. Bob’s well considered ideas are as good a place to start as any.

  6. Wow. Some good ideas and yet the same racist speech that has supported segregation all this time. If you want equal rights then paternalism needs to stop now. When you discuss the Centrelink issue please explain to non aboriginal welfare recipients why aboriginal people are treated to an open door on income from other avenues. I did raise this issue with our pollies and was told it just is and will not change. [Some persons] on the dole at royalties time (twice a year) pick up over $300,000 plus and still get the dole. Anyone else non aboriginal you would lose your welfare. I am not happy listening to the racist propaganda that tells part of the story and fails to address the facts as they really are. Racism will continue to exist. Money is directed to ensuring aboringals never obtain equality. And that equality comes from equality under law and living under the rules as everyone else. The beginning of that would start with the closing down of all government funded organizations that operate to promote segregation.

  7. Bob’s vision for NT builds on his immense experience and study gained over 30 odd years. The most astounding thing about this article is that he still has a vision about improving the life of the most impoverished and marginalised peoples in our country. He continues not only to speak up but he has never given up using the privileges of his background and education to work together “on the front line” with the First Peoples of this most wealthy nation. Social inequality and racism is rampant within Australia and this is not confined to the NT.
    The situation of the majority of Aboriginal people living in rural and remote Australia is not dissimilar to that in Central Australia. This is what the “99% global social movement” is about – demanding that our political leaders and their organisations and the corporations who support them, are accountable for their decisions and take responsibility for the impact of their actions on all those, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, who are forced to live in appalling misery, without dignity, without hope, without the means to work out solutions to our problems.
    Abbott is merely the spokesperson for the powerful elites who will do whatever it takes to strengthen the status quo. ALP is only marginally better when it comes to rebuilding a more equal, tolerant, fairer and just Australia. As Bob says without a national consensus, without a redistribution of the wealth, without the “urban haves” being prepared to give-up a some of what they have and demand that we look after our brothers and sisters who live in rural and remote regions of this resource rich country, the future is bleak. Let’s hope others dare to care as Bob does as it’s the only way to force social change.

  8. Hi Bob,
    I love your sincere vision and commitment to positive change in the NT and I respect your wealth of experience and understanding, and the amazing work you have done up there in Central Australia.
    I don’t have the experience of having lived or worked in the NT, and I’m not sure if this will resonate with you or anyone else out there at all but I feel it’s a perspective I’d like to share.
    Of all the articles I have read about indigenous affairs I find many of them inspiring but at the same time frustrating, because I truly believe that everything being done to try to create deep positive change is being thwarted due to one major problem that never ever seems to be addressed overtly and emphatically, as I believe it needs to be.
    I truly believe that the absolutely fundamental problem is an energetic one, at the very foundations of the individual, and that without shifting this, we are pushing sh*t uphill. Anyone who is struggling, indigenous or non-indigenous is in that place because they are unable to find alignment with their true selves within their life.
    People who find alignment, perhaps through their sport, art or music or whatever their passion is, or who are fortunate enough to be living a particular way of life that they love, will always thrive.
    Those who are not thriving are those who are out of alignment. Perhaps they are unable to move past grief, trauma and shock, sometimes immobilising themselves further through drug and alcohol abuse, whilst their confusion and anxiety is being added to by a society that is trying to help by piling “solutions” on top of this deep, emotional state. Such solutions either do not offer alignment, or they are unable to strike a chord of alignment while the grief, shock and trauma are present.
    When people’s lives are in alignment with who they truly are, they are happy. (I know this deeply for myself, a recent example being having just left my teaching position because I no longer wanted to be there. I had begun to feel extremely tired, uninspired, got a sore back and physical illnesses, although I’m usually always well. The moment I decided to leave my health returned.)
    When people are living a life that doesn’t feel true for them, illness usually shows up. When people are struggling in life they may need support to hear their inner guidance and acknowledge who they truly are and what they want in life, and to assist them to work from that point to get it.
    From a supporter’s point of view, for this to happen, the supporter (government, community worker, health worker, teacher, counsellor etc) needs also to appreciate and be in that feeling of alignment in life, and let the creation of the change, the mental and emotional shifts (a.k.a. the energetic shifts) and the action steps come from the people themselves who want their lives to change.
    Offering up intelligent, thoughtful, well intended “solutions” in the form of money, great ideas for projects, public education campaigns and the like will be very unlikely to reach the places where change has to occur … those unconscious thoughts and feelings that account for over 90% of the choices we make in life. Nobody likes to follow advice that doesn’t resonate with them. When it does resonate, the change occurs effortlessly. The quickest way to come up with solutions that resonate is to find them within oneself.
    If the well being of the individual, at the level of unconscious thoughts and feelings, can be made a priority for both the supported and the supporter, would it not be one thousand percent more likely that any efforts applied thereafter on the material plane will bear fruit?
    Shaky foundations need attention … we could spend a lifetime building with the greatest love and care upon them and continue to feel disappointed, confused and exhausted at the instability of our structure and the need to keep changing it.
    Happy New Year out there,
    Cheers, Debra

  9. I read with interest the comments written individually by Debra and Janet Brown. Since been back from Alice Springs, I’ve reflected on most issues, positive and negative. For a first timer to Alice Springs, I was bewildered at the Aboriginals lazing around idle time away. I was told that they get the dole from Centrelink. My immediate inner thoughts was “Why can’t this be abolished? Why can’t they be trained for skills appropriately? Why take in outsiders when we can look in our own backyard?” Oh yes … I do feel very Aussie. I don’t feel Asian … although I do get “that” look. I am Aussie. I want to offer my knowledge and skills in every positive aspects to build future the Australia … a safe, comfortable, affordable, clean and harmonious one.
    No, this does not dampen my spirit. I will, one day, visit Alice Springs and the surrounding areas in NT (with or without my husband).
    If any of you readers need a volunteer to help make Australia a better place, I’m here.


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