The Desert Knowledge upstairs-downstairs dilemma


By ERWIN CHLANDA with additional reporting by KIERAN FINNANE
Second story of two. See the first here.
Discovering the “underlying drivers of problems to achieve long term systemic change”.
“Creating new ways for Aborigines and others to work together.”
“Building capacity and innovating new approaches.”
It’s all part of an impressive agenda, but will Desert Knowledge Australia (DKA) get its hands dirty and apply its objectives on the ground, where they are most desperately needed, right on its doorstep, here in Alice Springs?
That would, of course, require naming names – elected people not doing their job, highly funded yet inadequate or corrupt NGOs, incompetent government departments. Will DKA have the bottle?
On the day this week when the Alice Springs News Online spoke to CEO John Huigen about DKA’s long-term plans we also visited Hidden Valley, one of Alice Springs’ notorious town camps: there have been two recent attacks on police, with rocks and sticks; there was a stabbing killing late last year; camp dogs were eating people in 2008. Alcohol abuse is rife although its use is prohibited.
As we were talking to prominent camp dwellers Mark Lockyer and Patrick Nandy (pictured above)  in one house about overcrowding and unwelcome visitors, next-door police were taking away in handcuffs a man suspected of sexual assault.
Yet in that same camp is a “cluster” – a concept of which DKA is very fond – of people whom most would consider to be leading normal lives.
Mark Lockyer and a niece live in a new duplex. He works for the Territory Department of Children and Families. Another niece lives in the adjoining duplex.
 In a house on one side lives his sister Delvine, who is married to an African American. They are expecting their first baby. He works as a security guard at the Aherlkeme Village, a complex of small dwellings where Aboriginal people are taught life skills.
On the other side are two houses where Mark’s brothers live with their families.
 Nigel Lockyer is the eldest and works for the Central Land Council servicing its car pool. He is 40 years old, still plays footy for Souths and is the president of the Hidden Valley Housing Association.
Mark’s aging mother, May, lives in a separate house in front, cared for by Delvine.
May’s children’s dwellings are all new and well looked after. The yards are fenced and tidy.
From Mark’s carport hang flower baskets and flowers are growing by the front door. He’s planted trees along the fenceline.
“I want to buy this house,” he says. 
His car parked in the yard has a rear window broken: “It was unlocked but they still smashed the window,” he says.
 He locked the rear gate so people wouldn’t take a shortcut through his yard, but Mark says by and large, life in that corner of Hidden Valley is fairly quiet and on the whole things in the camp are on the up after coming through a rough patch. And despite recent problems with the police, he welcomes their greater presence as well as a security patrol in the evenings by Territory Housing.
He says people are more willing, since the Intervention, to report crimes to the police, such as the sexual assault that allegedly occurred the night before.
“When I was a kid police hardly ever came into the camp,” he says, and this even though terrible violence was part of his daily life.
 All tenants at the camp pay rent.
The Lockyer children’s dwellings were built under the $150m Federal program to upgrade town camp housing and infrastructure. Much of Hidden Valley is still dug up as roads, drains and power are being upgraded.
Mark looks forward to the day when that work, together with mail delivery and street signs, is completed, about two months away.
Across the road two old houses, like May’s, have been refurbished and a little further along a new house accommodates elderly Mark’s aunty, “Mum Judy” and her grandchildren. One of the old houses has been allocated to her daughter, Sarah, who cares for her. The other has been allocated to a family from the fringe camp, White Gate.
Sarah’s husband Patrick Nandy, a man of impressive stature and bearing, works with Mark in the Department of Children and Families.
He complains of a broken door knob which means that people can enter his house uninvited at night. A washing machine, bolted to the floor, has broken down.
 Tangentyere Council supplied the washing machine but has not responded to his requests to fix it or remove it, he says. It is full of stinking water – and has been for a year.
 Why does he not just syphon out the water?
 This doesn’t seem to be an option he has considered.
Meanwhile on the other side of The Gap, in the immaculate Desert Knowledge precinct, Mr Huigen is mapping out what DKA will be doing in its next five years.
He wants to consolidate and expand the business network across Desert Australia – 1330 businesses and individuals so far, a way commercial operators in the bush can become more effective.
Mr Huigen says because of the inland’s sparse population, spread over vast distances, enterprises are smaller and have less capacity for change, improvement and growth.
 The web-based meetings facilitated by DKA, largely the brainchild of Mike Crowe, have fostered partnerships and alliances that created “a critical mass to get things done as in large businesses,” says Mr Huigen.
The network also ropes in government instrumentalities and NGOs, giving all players in what’s needed to develop the desert regions – a meeting place, physical or – more often – virtual.
Mr Huigen says getting the most out of the national broadband network into remote areas is a major objective, pursued with great enthusiasm by staff member David Nixon.
Mr Huigen says it’s not yet obvious what all the applications of a greater bandwidth will be (telemedicine may be one of the uses).
“The very nature of how commerce and service delivery is changing as we speak because of the digital revolution. It’s difficult to predict exactly what opportunities could emerge for remote people but the way things are looking a growing digital divide is very much a possibility.”
This begs the question: Should objectives such as lifting education standards and creating industries have higher priorities than creating the medium for downloading movies and video games?
In Hidden Valley, too, communications is an issue, except here it is a life and death matter, every day: can a householder refuse hospitality to a couple of dozen rellies from bush descending on his place and demanding accommodation?
The short answer, says Mr Nandy, is: “No. That’s too rude for us. They’re family.” But he recognises the problem: one night can easily turn into a week, a week, into a month and so on. It’s difficult.
Overcrowding – 30 or so people in a normal house – has been blamed over decades for violence, sometimes lethal, sexual assaults, drunken brawls, children’s inability to get to school, get a good night’s sleep, get adequate food.
 Territory Housing, now in charge of the rental system in town camps, clearly still hasn’t got a handle on the problem. 
Mr Nandy says he would call the police if things got out of hand, yet that would be a measure of last resort.
Mr Huigen leaves no doubt that DKA has a role in acting on the “Balkanisation” of the community, the many splinter groups jealously guarding their power and money, the publicly-funded clan fiefdoms, incapable of or unwilling to talk to each other, organisations without whose cooperation the town has no chance of survival: the search for remedies has been futile for decades. Can DKA help?
Mr Huigen says DKA has three core approaches:-
• Look at the whole system – tackle the root causes not the symptoms.
• Innovate: find new ways of tackling problems; tap into smart people; learn from what you have done.
• Find new ways for Aborigines and others to work together to create a shared future.
One problem that needs to be tackled is that service providers who need to cooperate are forced to compete against each-other for public or philanthropic money: “This undermines collaboration,” says Mr Huigen.
He says criticism of providers is sometimes expressed in an aggressive manner (often with very good reason), putting the providers on the defensive and making them disinclined to engage in dialogue.
“As a first step we need to get people to the table,” says Mr Huigen. “Results may well flow from that.
“It’s very useful to have an independent broker to create conversations and develop new approaches,” says Mr Huigen.
It’s not yet a rounded approach, let alone proven, but it’s an honest bid to deal with the town’s underlying woes.
DKA is working with a “cluster” of NGOs in Alice Springs and Philanthropic Collaborators, the Menzies Foundation and The Ian Potter Foundation to develop new ways of collaboration, innovation and investment.
And the next chapter may well be written – as we speak – by board member Bruce Walker, founder of the Centre for Appropriate Technology which, with Batchelor Institute, makes up the Desert Peoples Centre housed in the DKA precinct. Dr Walker is the director of the Desert Knowledge remoteFOCUS project “that is working to create better ways of governments governing, engaging and administering remote Australia”.
 Dr Walker has decades of experience mediating – successfully, as demonstrated by substantial grants he obtained – between The Centre and the powers that be in Canberra and Darwin.
Almost everyone agrees that one thing that would make Alice Springs a better place is fixing “the alcohol problem”. No doubt DKA would agree that getting people at the coalface to the table would be a good idea. On this issue Mark and Nigel Lockyer and Patrick Nandy are all on the one page. The ban on grog in town campers’ own homes has to go. It has made not the slightest difference to the problem in Hidden Valley, except for putting camp residents on the wrong side of the police.
It’s one reason why many of the camp residents are in gaol.
Meanwhile, nothing has been done about supply, says Mark: “That’s what they need to cut back on.”
Both Mr Nandy and Nigel enjoy a drink and want to be able to do so in the peace of their own home without interference.
“I drink in moderation,” says Mr Nandy. “But if you carry on and carry on, you’ll end up either in hospital or dead.”
“I pay my taxes, pay my rent like anyone else in the mainstream,” says Nigel. “I like to be able to unwind with a drink after a hard day’s work or after playing footy. Me and my little family don’t annoy anyone, unlike some of my countrymen.”
He supports a case by case approach: “I don’t want to see the whole camp drinking. The courts and the police know who the troublemakers are.”
He knows all too well what’s at stake, having fought for custody of a little relative whose parents were drinkers. The child now lives with him and his family. He wants her to go to school and grow up to get a good job, like that of his daughter Lauren, who works for Life Without Barriers: “She’s got a good education, reads and writes, speaks her mother’s [Aboriginal] language.”
On the work opportunities that don’t necessarily require much education, he says a lot of other girls of Lauren’s age are drawn into looking after family members, whether they are younger children or aging parents and relatives.
He also says a lot of organisations don’t give Aboriginal people a chance to prove themselves, but equally Aboriginal workers can be at fault themselves for “not turning up every day”.
Mark says some Aboriginal people will criticise others for working, accusing them of thinking that they’re “white” because they’ve got a job.
The two brothers say the focus for improvement should be on the next generation – the kids who are still at school or about to start: “Start with the future.”
Money is a worry for DKA. Mr Huigen is expecting the $890,000 annual grant from the NT Government will continue. The precinct real estate may become a good little earner as other instrumentalities lease land. DKA is an organisation equally concerned with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and this puts it outside some funding guidelines, “which is challenging,” he says.
Philanthropists are welcome any day – more money is likely to flow as the DKA brand gathers recognition. And there could be money in consultancy work.
But Mr Huigen says chasing dollars detracts from the core mission DKA has itself: making Desert Australia a better place.
PHOTOS (from top): Patrick Nandy outside his mother-in-law’s new house in Hidden Valley. • An old house in need of TLC. • Mark Lockyer gearing up to buy his house. • Housing shortage? This new home under the control of Territory Housing has been empty for some time. • Man under suspicion of sexual assault is arrested. • This tap in a Hidden Valley house has been running … for a whole year, says Mr Nandy.


  1. Thank you, Erwin, for the image of the running tap. Is it true that water has been flowing down this plug hole for one year? Unfortunately, I tend to think that that is probably an accurate statement.
    And this goes to the heart of so much of the Alice Springs “problem”. We are top heavy in intellectualising, in conceptualising and in framing answers to the bigger picture, while either not seeing or ignoring the bleeding obvious.
    We need to fix the leaking taps.
    The old camel drivers has a saying: Trust in Allah, but hobble your camels first.

  2. Erwin, a picture really does paint a thousand words, especially the one of the tap. I am having trouble expressing my thoughts on this as I have written, then deleted my response many times and words are failing me. Do I agree with Hal @1 about not seeing the bleeding obvious, or do I really simplify it? Why do we need to use big words like intellectuallising and conceptualising, when the answer is so simple. Turn the bloody thing off!! If that can’t be done, ring a plumber. This is not a complex issue, it is about getting off your backside, and turning off a tap!
    For a person who pays for water usage, you understand the value of not letting such a precious resource be wasted. If you do not need to pay for it, because the government will, then who cares??
    Erwin, I get pretty worked up about many issuues in your paper as you know, this this one just blows me out of the water, (pardon the pun).

  3. I’ve had the pleasure of being associated with Mark Lockyer over several years through a variety of contexts. He is a tremendous young man committed to his family, community and himself. He works very hard to establish and build harmony in the Hidden Valley community. He is a great asset to himself and his people … contributing to sensible solutions for intergenerational issues.
    As for the leaking tap … maybe Tangentyere can send around a plumber! It’ll cost less than all that water being wasted.

  4. If the tap is leaking then it is the responsibility of Territory Housing to fix it, just like if the tap is leaking in the house I own it is my responsibility as the landlord to fix it (not the tenant). You can’t have these things both ways. If the government owns the house, then they are the ones who need to fix things when they break (this is different for the washing machine which is a private good). If we are going to focus on responsibility then it needs to be clear who is responsible for what and do our accounting accordingly.

  5. Matt@1: Making excuses for people is what will keep this problem going for another 30 years. As a landlord you will know a tenant is able to authorise a minor repair (in many states up to $1000) and deduct that from your next rent payment. If the tap is leaking the tenant is still responsible for notifying somebody (landlord, Territory Housing etc) that a problem exists in the first place. It really is not rocket science, and it certainly not a matter of having it both ways. The article states that the tap has been leaking for 12 months. I could be wrong, but I find it unusual that constant requests to have a tap fixed have been ignored by the landlord, Tangentyere or local plumbers for 12 months. Maybe Erwin could investigate that too if that is really the case.
    At the end of the day Matt, you can make all the excuses you want, if you are happy for the people concerned to go on believing there is always somebody else to blame, and never find a solution themselves.
    You say that it is the responsibility of the landlord to fix the problem, quoting ordinary rental agreements as a reference, but you fail to acknowledge that it is the responsibility of a tenant to notify a landlord of any items that need repair, and also maintain the property in good condition.


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