By KIERAN FINNANE
Councillors of the Central Desert Shire – black and white – say the shire system time needs more time to prove itself. Most of those I spoke to will put their hands up again for election in March, including shire president Norbert Patrick. He says he would accept the leadership role again if asked, but would rather be just an elected member who could give new members the benefit of his experience.
I spoke to the councillors outside the chamber after they had met for the last time before the election. During the meeting shire CEO Roydon Robertson had raised the recent negative comments made about the shires by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda, angrily dismissed by the CEO as “another insult”. Mr Gooda was reported by the ABC to have called for the shires model to be scrapped, referring to its “total detrimental effect” on communities.
Councillors appeared to be in agreement with the CEO and the sentiments expressed by Kerry Moir, president of the Local Government Association of the NT (LGANT), who was appalled at Mr Gooda making such damaging statements just two months out from the shire elections.
“His words are an affront to all of the Aboriginal elected members in the shires as well as their Aboriginal employees who comprise more than 60% (in some cases more than 80%) of total employment in each shire. The shires are also the largest employers of Aboriginal people in remote areas,” said Cr Moir (a member of Darwin City Council.)
She has called for Mr Gooda to meet with LGANT and the shire mayors – all of whom in the large shires are Aboriginal – and this is to occur on February 21, with both Cr Patrick and Mr Robertson attending from Central Desert Shire.
Outside I asked Cr Patrick what he thought was good about the shire.
“Getting Indigenous and non-Indigenous to work together, making the shire better for people in our community and our region,” he said.
What has improved in Lajamanu, his home community?
“Management,” he said, “the relationship with head office, it’s very good the way it is now, better than before.”
Why is that?
“The previous organisation didn’t have ideas and system in place.”
I asked him whether he thought people felt a loss of control over their affairs as a result of the shire system replacing community government?
“People never used to work together,” he said, “decisions were made by a few people, not the whole people like we’ve got with the councillors and within the shire, and how the system is run, which is very good in my experience.”
Are people in Lajamanu happy with the system?
“They’re still not sure how the system works within the shire but we’ll have to work with the shire to make it better for everybody who lives at Lajamanu and in bush communities.
‘VERY HARD TO CHANGE IT BACK’
“Very hard to change it back, the shire is here to stay for a long time. They need to work with it and make it happen, both together, the community and the shire.
Can the local boards tell the shire what they want and get things done?
Local board members are “very important people”, says Cr Patrick.
“The shire will listen to the local board.”
Cr Patrick, as president, attends local board meetings around the shire. Does be believe the board members are happy with the system?
“It’s mixed at the moment, they’re still not sure, the system is pretty new to them. The system needs to be more introduced to local board members so they know how the shire runs.”
This goes too for new councillors. They need “a lot of introduction how the council normally runs. Not easy. In my experience it took about three years to learn how the system works”.
What helped him most?
“Getting to work with the CEO and the staff at head office and also visiting communities. It’s very important for them to share ideas with me as the president and the CEO.”
This is no mean commitment for Cr Patrick. Lajamanu is at the far northern end of the shire area, a good 10 hours drive from Alice Springs. Council business takes him away from home for weeks at a time.
Lajamanu is also home for Councillor William Johnson. He’ll run again for the Northern Tanami Ward, and like Cr Patrick, would be happy to just be an elected member: “I like to help my own people, I’ve got experience in the government side. I like to stand up for my own people, fight for the rights of my people.”
What has he been able to achieve while on council?
‘GET THINGS BUILT UP IN THE COMMUNITY’
“Ask for funding, get things built up in the community, encourage young people to employment plus education.”
Is Lajamanu better off since the shire was created?
“I can’t say getting better but it slowly is working towards that. The shire is just new, you know, give them time to do things, improve things more.”
Was the old community government system better?
“Local government been there long time, round about 30 years, the shire just started.”
What would be most important for shire to achieve in the next term?
“Employment, that’s what they need, employment on the community, full salary for people to work. Let’s get up and start working! Like local government days there was full employment. Employment is the main thing.”
Councillor Peppi Drover is choosing employment over representation. He works for night patrol at Engawala and under new rules shire staff cannot be elected to council.
Has the shire been good for Engawala?
“You stand up for your community, you got a voice.”
What about practical things?
“Work, jobs, couple of new buildings, basketball court, takeaway shop, kindergarten next to basketball court.
Did people like the old system better?
“No. New council, my ward [Anmatjere].”
Does the local boad tell him what they want?
Councillor James Glenn from Ti Tree will stand again for the Anmatjere Ward and expects there’ll be other candidates putting up their hands.
“It’s a great opportunity, management is really good, people on the ground, there’s a lot of support, especially … the younger people. I think it’s a good council.”
How have things improved in Ti Tree under the shire?
“A lot of things are happening – housing crews, people working CDEP, getting funding from other departments like Commonwealth Government, Territory Government.”
Does he think people prefer the old community government system?
“In many cases. It’s a big area now.”
(The shire covers an area of over 250,000 sqkm, stretched in an arc north of Alice, between the WA and Queensland borders.)
But Cr Glenn also thinks that people’s opinions of the new system are influence by “what happened with the Commonwealth Government”, ie the Intervention whose impact began to be felt at roughly the same time as the shire was introduced.
In contrast to MacDonnell Shire, whose councillors are all Aboriginal people from communities, Central Desert Shire has three non-Aboriginal councillors. Councillor Sascha McKell lives at Yuendumu where she is employed by the shire and so will not contest the next election. Councillors Dianne Martin and Liz Bird are both cattle station people and both are considering standing again.
Cr Martin, of Mount Dennison Station, was elected when a vacancy occurred after 12 months.
“Like the majority of station people, I complained fiercely about the shire but decided there was no use complaining unless I could affect change in the process. The only way to do that is to become a councillor.”
She does not see station people as her only constituents, however. She works on communities and feels she has “a broad understanding” of their issues.
“I know a lot of people in our ward. I like to think that I represent everyone and am available to speak to everyone, which I’ve endeavoured to do over my term.”
Cr Bird, from Indiana Station, was encouraged to join by Cr Martin, whom she knew from School of the Air days. She was elected unopposed to fill a year-long vacancy in the Akityarre Ward.
Both see local board meetings as an important way for them to have contact with community people in their ward and for the shire to know what people on the ground want.
Cr Martin, who attends the meetings at Yuendumu, Willowra and Nyirripi, says the majority of members are usually there and the system has “definitely improved”.
“It needs to improve more but it is going in the right direction. It’s important to have participation on the boards, to get community involvement, but it still needs work done on it.”
Cr Bird says she’s met capable people at the local board meetings in Atitjere who were involved with community government.
“I’ve talked to them, said come on to council. They’ve said we should share the jobs around, maybe they thought they’d done that job five or ten years ago, it’s time for younger people or other people to have a go.”
Station issues are obviously close to her heart but Cr Bird sees a role for her to get more shire information out to all the people in her ward, whether they’re on communities or more isolated on pastoral and mining leases, agricultural ventures or other businesses.
She’d like to see the diversity of these interests reflected in, for instance, the shire newsletter, which is dominated by community news, and will work to make that happen.
If she runs again, what does she hope to achieve?
“I’ve been on council not even a year, so I guess consistency. I’ve learnt a lot, so to continue that knowledge onto the next council – you do need time to understand it all.
“I’d like to broaden my knowledge of how local government is expected to work. Local government has been thrust onto the Northern Territory people, the state government expects it to work – it’s whoever the people are on it who’ll make it work.”
Are they feeling more optimistic about shires now that they’ve had close experience of them?
‘PEOPLE ARE GAINING A BETTER UNDERSTANDING’
Says Cr Martin: “I think people are gaining a better understanding. It wasn’t explained well, there was too much change at once – the Intervention and the shires – people didn’t understand well, whether they were literate or not literate.”
Says Cr Bird: “It’s not even four years [since the shire was formed]. Four years is not long for a group of people to come in with very little information – they’re still finding out information that was incorrect when they took over, what their assets were, money owed to them and so on. They’re still dealing with that plus the current problems. It’s a big job.”
“You need consistent good staff,” says Cr Martin. “That’s always very hard to find remote and that’s with every business. Very few people can cope with the isolation and live there in the long term.”
How is their relationship with their fellow councillors?
“Very good,” says Cr Bird, referring to the “really lovely letter” that one of them had sent to apologise for being absent from this last meeting, in which he thanked various of his colleagues for having been his mentors. “It’s little things like that, people coming up and shaking my hand, saying thanks very much, nice to know you. I think people appreciate the time you’ve put in, especially someone like myself who has nothing to do with the communities.
“And a good sense of humour always keeps everyone together. Whenever we do have a meeting we have a dinner, go out together and share a good joke.”
People were wary of one another in the beginning, says Cr Martin.
“But over time I thnk we’ve developed a really good working team, very supportive of each other. It’s ended up, the last 12 months particularly, very, very good.”
“I think we also share a respect for each other’s areas,” says Cr Bird. “For example, yesterday there was a rating proposal put out and a lot of discussion about the conditionally rated land [such as pastoral leases]. I was asking a lot of questions about things and at the end I said, ‘Look, I’m sorry, but this is actually very close to me’ and everyone in the room understood. If something affected them in their community, I would expect everyone to sit there and be interested in what’s going on.”
What will the big issues for the new council to deal with?
“Section 19 leasing is the biggest one,” says Cr Martin. “In my opinion it’s absolutely ludicrous that the Australian Government and NT Government have agreed to pay for the leases and said to shires, ‘That’s it’.” (See separate report this issue.)
“Sustainability”, says Cr Bird.
“For a lot of grant funding we’re only given 12 months to acquit and sometimes that’s very difficult. You need to build x amount of houses and if there are delays for rain or contractors or whatever, 12 months is not really a long time, especially when you have to take time off over summer.”
Twelve month grants also mean “there’s no long-term planning”, says Cr Martin. She also nominates a lot more local employment as a priority for the shire: “That’s what we are working towards.”
Pictured, from the top: Shire president Norbert Patrick and Councillor William Johnson, both of Lajamanu, outside the shire head office in Alice Springs last Friday. • Cr Peppi Drover from Engawala. • Cr James Glenn from Ti Tree. • Crs Dianne Martin and Liz Bird, from Mt Dennison and Indiana Stations respectively.
By KIERAN FINNANE