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.