We need more than a new government


PHOTOS (from top): Report author Dr Walker (left) with Julia Gillard, then Federal Education Minister, and Harold Furber at the opening of the Desert Knowledge complex in  2010. • Tourism – how to revive it? A visitor looking down into Palm Valley. • Are we hoping for a mining boom? The main pit of the Granites gold mine (photo courtesy Newmont). • The Bush said “no” to Labor: a voter in Hermannsburg. • Law and Order: Mounted police officer pouring out beer confiscated from illegal public drinkers. • Aborigines were the key to the change of government. This is the mobile polling station in the Karnte town camp in Alice Springs.
Governance Reform in Central Australia
The impact of the “bush vote” has not gone unnoticed in commentary around the change in government in the NT.  But in many respects it was predictable. The success of the Royalties for Regions initiative in the last WA election, and the impact of the regional Independent members in the formation of the current Federal government, all point to a wider disaffection emerging from regional and remote Australia.
In Remote Australia common issues are globally familiar: People live remotely from centres of economic and political power but are facing rapid social and economic change. Local signs are a high turnover in business, ongoing local employment shortages, fluctuations in tourist numbers, high mobility among Aboriginal people, Fly In Fly Out as a business practice impacting on local communities. Then there are the secondary effects – law and order and behavioral issues.
These tend to be dealt with as separate issues, yet in our view they are the outcome of a larger more complex dysfunction – a dysfunction created the way governments go about making decisions; the way government engages with – and governs – its citizens and institutions.
What Terry Mills has ahead of him
The new Mills government is now confronted by these same characteristics – though governments elsewhere have found they are relatively hamstrung because many of the issues cannot be fixed by local public policy responses.
“Fixing the Hole in Australia’s Heartland: How Governments Need to Work in Remote Australia” is the title of the Desert Knowledge Australia remoteFOCUS report that attempts to outline the impact of these dysfunctions on remote Australia and how they contribute to the issues people read in headlines or hear politicians attempting to wrestle with.
These dysfunctions exist despite the many well-meaning efforts of public servants and civic leaders over the years – and independently of which political party is in power. They appear in many forms but the underlying causes are the same.
While identifying the similarities from region to region and across the globe, the report also identifies a framework for developing regional governance responses that have legitimacy, authority, and effectiveness. This framework is grounded in international experience and extensive engagements across remote Australia. It draws on the many government reports that themselves highlight the need for governments to work in different and more responsive ways in remote Australia, and in ways that go beyond better “coordination”.
What does this look like in Central Australia?
Central Australia is a product of its history, its geography and its peoples. It covers 64% of the NT and contains 24% of the NT population. It has an estimated regional population of 48,000 people including 28,000 in Alice Springs, 8137 in the Barkly Shire (including 3500 in Tennant Creek), 4887 in the Central Desert Shire and 7322 in the MacDonnell Shire.
Its broad-based and relatively fragile economy has always been subject to fluctuations of the seasons and decision-making taken in places well removed from Central Australia.
The core elements of settlement in Central Australia are now undergoing significant adjustment from largely Commonwealth and Territory-led reforms of Aboriginal policy. Significant financial investment in those reforms are accompanied by a hope that the resources sector will also land in the Centre or that tourism will return if the dollar drops. Given the political profile of Central Australia, and despite the recent election result, the normal processes of democratic government are unlikely to resolve the underlying structural divisions exacerbated by these reforms. The region is in a state of economic transition.
Alice Springs is the major centre for the regional economy. The town has the range of infrastructure and services expected in a regional centre and its local economic base—government services (Aboriginal administration, health and defence related services), tourism, retail, transport and some manufacturing and pastoral and an expanding mining sector.
It is the service hub for the communities of Central Australia plus the eastern part of Western Australia and the top of South Australia. It supplies services not available in any other town within a 1500 km radius and is headquarters for two of the three shires in the region.
Mining produces the biggest share of Gross Regional Product (GRP) in Central Australia including in the Barkly Shire but doesn’t employ many people. The other larger government, health and community services sectors employ more people locally but they only represent about 9% of businesses.
Recent investment of the NT and Commonwealth governments in Aboriginal communities and town camps in Alice Springs and Tennant Creek Transition Plans have delivered a significant economic stimulus into the region.
Government investment
The economic base of the region is currently precariously positioned and dependent on future government investment. The significant mining opportunities traditionally contribute to the boom and bust nature of the centre whereas tourism and the provision of services to Aboriginal people have made a more consistent contribution to the region’s growth. Failure to understand this would be a significant impediment to current policy reform. The recent rise in the Australian dollar has impacted on tourism and this fact, in concert with changed policy settings in Aboriginal affairs, have created increased uncertainty in Central Australia.
Rolf Gerritsen, a Central Australian economist, estimates that if Aboriginal people were suddenly extracted from Central Australia the Alice Springs economy would shrink by 40% and there would be widespread out-migration of non-Aboriginal people. This is an indication of interdependency of the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal populations, and the degree of dependence of Aboriginal people, the Central Australian communities and NT Government on national funding.
The dilemma for all governments is that the pressure for Aboriginal people to move to find employment and services either has them converging on the hub or migrating further south to large coastal cities.
If a consequence of these initiatives is to depopulate the remote regions of Australia, matters of national strategic interest need to be weighed carefully. Governments need to have large programs to house, educate, and employ people in the migration towns with little immediate capacity to fit easily into urban living.
A significant adjustment would occur if government or defence retreated from the region. The Commonwealth has already shown it is disengaging with direct contact in Aboriginal communities.
Operating within this fragile regional economy is something like 1,800 businesses: 79% are micro or small businesses and 83% of these businesses are reliant on other external government investment and the transient population for their survival.
These are largely property and business services, construction, retail and transport and storage. The value of the most numerous businesses is not reflective of the business contribution to Gross Regional Product.
The region is heavily dependent on government investment and public funds transfers, with 35% of the population drawing Centrelink or Job Services network benefits.
Values, ideas and land uses remain a puzzle
The failure or inability of current governance arrangements to resolve the differences in values, ideas and land uses that have been at the heart of the intercultural space in Central Australia still challenge the region today.
The dominance of Aboriginal issues has left the region without the capacity to tackle some of the future challenges. Nor has it allowed the region to develop the types of institutions that will enable contested views to be resolved over time.
Another contest that remains unresolved is the relationship between the different levels of government and the shuffling of mandates and the lack of clarity around longer-term directions for the region.
The difficulties and underfunding of new shire arrangements and the separation of the largely Aboriginal interests into the shires as differentiated from the Municipality of Alice Springs is a further example of the failure to fully engage and respect the region as a total system, rather than two systems requiring two systems of governance.
No-one’s in charge
At all levels of government there appears to be not one person nor department responsible for taking an overview or a holistic view of the impact of change on the region: a view that examines the impact on business, environment and Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people who have invested in the region.
A large number of small business people influence political response. They often do not necessarily share either the values of Aboriginal people or of the pastoralists and land managers who are involved in the contest over land use. They are a group who generally support the policing or strategic intervention approach to stabilise the community in the short run. They are often indifferent to activities that engage Aboriginal people and they do not build community institutions that can deal with and govern the contest of views. Such an approach would require more time and more intense relationships.
In this contest, government has increasingly assumed an executive role and adopted a managerial response. Invariably that is a controlling role and it has distanced the community from the setting of policy.
Executive government has used its power to take charge of delivery of service in order to improve human development indicators. It is now able to influence consumption, spending and security of individuals.
That means the community has been largely disempowered. The way government has gone about procuring services in support of this approach leaves little room for local suppliers to be innovative. Without that local innovation the adequacy of the measures in a sustainable sense are questionable.
Local institutions have become overloaded or where they have contested the executive approach, they have been underfunded and disappeared.
There has been an expectation created that the shires will assume greater responsibility for the small communities abandoned by the Commonwealth and the NT Government as they consolidate their growth towns and hub and spoke models of service delivery.
Law and order cries within Alice Springs and the policing of pornography and alcohol in outlying communities have led to an emphasis on security as a basis for investment and development.
The upshot of all this is more, not less marginalisation. Can the new government change that? Can it provide more local control?
Measures in the past have brought contested and turbulent responses among some Aboriginal people and among the non-Aboriginal population. Hard won social capital was lost. For more remote people it has created a feeling of despair and what Bob Beadman once described as torpor.
The current Federal Government has renewed interest in regional Australia and has developed a large mix of specific programs. The challenge for governance reform is how to ensure these investments work in the best interests of the region.
Good intentions, patchy responses
Government has demonstrated its good intentions through a long-term commitment to targets to “Close the Gaps” in a specific number of areas. This commitment has financial commitment, a commitment to be strategic and coordinated not only within the Commonwealth agencies but also between the Commonwealth and the Territory.
Executive control of housing, welfare and security services and social security payments complemented by the placement of government business managers in communities and adjusting the role of the Regional Indigenous Coordination Centres all point to a strong commitment by the Federal government.
However, returns from this endeavour appear patchy and, whilst improvements are noted, they are often ephemeral or are outpaced by even more significant improvement in the same indicator among non-Aboriginal populations. In that sense, gap closing may be a problematic measure.
The new Mills government has prioritised listening to remote Territorians.
There is a growing agreement within government that training of staff in community development techniques would be desirable. Greater community engagement and meaningful consultation and negotiation would also assist in achieving government and community objectives. However, there is currently no program to support this.
How do we get the Commonwealth / NT / Local Government / and communities all pointing in the same direction and working in unison?
What is clear from the remoteFOCUS work is that despite a uniformity of analysis of what needs to be done, and recognition at the highest levels that current outcomes are problematic, the system of government appears unable to make the necessary systemic adjustments. On our analysis many areas of current systems and practices need to be addressed systemically.
It is clear that innovative economic policy rather than a singular focus on improved subsidies, welfare and services must be at the heart of policy on Central Australia.
Economic policy requires more from government than setting macro-economic conditions. It needs to become an active partner in business / livelihood with community and private sector. It needs to be prepared to be innovative – more of the same regional development will not work.
Agglomeration, regional integration, and regional connectivity are keys to an innovative response in Central Australia.
Government could stimulate capacity in Central Australia though micro-economic reform including adoption of more innovative regional and procurement policies.
The current arrangements comprise three tiers of government and a series of ad hoc regional arrangements overshadowed by localised law and order concerns. This appears to be incapable of resolving both the priorities and the contests that need to take place around these arrangements.
The structure and configuration of institutions across central Australia are, therefore, largely not fit for purpose. Failure to innovate is most marked in the public sector.
For Central Australia, the national debate over rights and responsibilities of Aboriginal people and the general question of citizen rights and equity for all Australians has created service expectations that cannot be financially sustained in this region.
There are a number of inherent contradictions within the current policy mix impacting on Central Australia.
• There is a lack of clarity of national purpose as to whether Aboriginal people can pursue cultural difference and whether, as a result, the nation is prepared to respect Aboriginal difference and allow a future for remote settlements which that difference reflects. At a more nuanced level, what cultural difference is Australia prepared to accept, support and fund?
• As a consequence we currently have an unworkable settlement strategy in Central Australia. The hub and spoke service model of the growth towns strategy and the abandonment of homelands by the Commonwealth set a default policy of population movement to large regional centres. This is without regard to economic issues, and is indifferent to the consequences for a range of other employment and human service outcomes that result from such mass mobility.
• Central Australia has an inadequate economic base to support the infrastructure requirements and the recurrent effects of such a de facto de-population strategy. Fiscal federalism allows the Territory government to apply revenue assessed by the Grants Commission against needs of remote communities to be allocated independently of those community needs. [Ed: Refer to previous article by Prof Rolf Gerritsen.]
• With elements of Commonwealth disengagement, a distant and largely over-stretched Territory government and grossly underfunded local governments there is no effective or legitimate means to address concerns. This is unless the Commonwealth invests significantly in regional renewal and alternative governance outcomes. This disengagement means that many of the elements of civic life normally present in a community are not available in remote communities.
• Targets for change have been elusive and, in hindsight, judged chronically inadequate and opportunistic, chasing new projects or hoping for mining to arrive or commodity prices to increase. The employment targets required will require more than reliance on markets if government is to sustain any improvement in human development indicators.
The response to these five concerns has been a managerial response that in ways – unintended – simply reproduces the problems.
Towards governance reform in Central Australia
What might then be the basis for a discussion around a new governance reform in Central Australia, and what mechanisms might be used to facilitate that discussion?
We need a unifying vision that goes beyond service provision, law and order and reliance on the boom and bust cycles of commodities. With three levels of government, representative community organisations, a business community and a web of representative Aboriginal organisations the task is formidable. Simply returning local control in the absence of systemic governance reform may well meet people’s aspirations but our research suggests it is unlikely to provide a basis for renewed regional development.
First of all we need to confirm:-
• What are the issues in the region?
• What needs to happen at each level of government and of communities themselves?
• What are agreed objectives, what are we wanting to achieve?
• Who is responsible for what tasks, including keeping everyone on track over time?
• Are the resources and capabilities matched to the task?
• What structure will have the authority and legitimacy to maintain this approach over time?
One approach would be the establishment of a regional innovation trial where the principles and approach outlined in the remoteFOCUS report are applied. The specific aim would be developing an on-going process of learning, consensus and regional capacity building – a starting point with a defined scale and scope. This will build momentum for change as required, and potentially provide “proof by good example” of the usefulness of such change.
The mix of economic and social issues in Central Australia call for a big picture approach, a shared vision across the region, rather than a mere focus on Alice Springs. That, combined with place centered approaches, would create the necessary shared vision.
New networks to create new solutions
Innovation in its broadest sense involves creating new ideas, and diffusing them into economies, driving changes which improve welfare and create economic growth. It is also increasingly dependent on interpersonal relationships as ideas develop within networks seeking solutions to particular problems. Where innovation takes place these relationships shape informal cultures and formal institutions to create more conducive environments for particular kinds of innovation. There is also a territorial dimension to innovation because innovation relationships depend on proximity for interaction and geographical proximity can allow people and business to interact more easily.
Irrespective of the starting point, the remoteFOCUS report establishes a number of clear criteria, including vision, authority, legitimacy and effectiveness against which reforms at any level can be evaluated.
• Is there a capacity to have a guiding vision or narrative that gives direction and explains the actions of all levels of government, that is, a shared vision?
• Is there a capacity to settle mandates?
• Is there a capacity to match mandates with funding and resources?
• Is there local accountability within the various administrative structures?
• Is there a capacity to review and adapt mandates as experience accumulates and learnings develop?
• Is there a body that is above the contest, authorised by the players to be responsible to oversee all of the above?
Three or four tiers or just more tears?
The current three-tiered system of government fails to do this adequately in Central Australia. Land Councils and Native Title Bodies provide effectively a fourth tier of governance adding to the complexity of arrangements.
Are new arrangements possible in Central Australia? The answer will be in creating regional governance with the authority, effectiveness and legitimacy to respond to the nature and pace of change in Central Australia and deliver on a regional innovation strategy.
Working through these issues requires a resourced, skilled and independent process to be put in train, and an action / learning / innovation framework to be established. It will also require a commitment from each level of government and leading Aboriginal organisations and the Land Council and Native Title Bodies.
We know that more of the same will produce more of the same and therefore a changed approach to how government operates is needed.
We accept that:-
• If the three levels of government and the community(ies) are working at cross purposes success is impossible because goals are different.
• If members of the communities disagree with or do not support what governments are trying to do, wicked problems (health, education, employment) will not be solved.
• In Central Australia government is the main provider of an economy (as against having some industries and particularly mining which do not of themselves ensure an economy as against having an industry).
• In the short term the pressure of change may require unique operational realities.
Discussion of possible new governance needs to be open to new evidence and n
ew concepts. It needs to be sustained and not immediately politicised.

Starting the discussion
The account of Central Australia provided in this article is one possible context statement for Central Australia that might begin that conversation. The very fact that you as a reader may disagree with this article highlights the importance of people developing together a reasonably shared understanding of the context before they proceed to the next steps. It is now not a case of not knowing what to do, rather a case of having the collective will to do it. Only political and civic leadership will drive the necessary reforms.
This article is an extract from the “Fixing the Hole in Australia’s Heartland: How Government Needs to Work in Remote Australia” report providing a starting place for developing different government governance approaches in Central Australia.
Further information on the RemoteFOCUS project, including a copy of the full report after its launch on September 10, can be gained from www.desertknowledge.com.au/remoteFOCUS <http://www.desertknowledge.com.au/remoteFOCUS> .
[Dr Bruce Walker is the remoteFOCUS Project Director and principal author of the report.]


  1. Of the different issues that swung the indigenous vote away from the ALP, thereby securing government for the CLP, the new Shire system probably tops the list.
    In a discussion the other night, a novel (to me) idea was floated. Restructure the mostly indigenous populated shires along language and kin lines. Ask the locals how best to do this, and then do it.
    The local governments would necessarily be smaller and more numerous, but it would empower the various extended communities in a manner that just might be acceptable and effective.
    Worth a think, anyway. Maybe even worth a shot as the current system seems to be both unwieldy and unpopular.

  2. What an important, complex and interesting article, obviously with no easy answers to all the issues and problems touched upon. Here is my initial “two bobs’ worth” or should I say one Bob’s worth? Probably the starting point is the Australian Constitution and the section that gives states equal representation in the Senate. The so called “states house” (The Senate) does not function as the authors had planned, ie. it is really divided along political lines, but it appears that most of the Senators are residents of, or come from the state capital cities or larger towns in those states. The Northern Territory being predominately remote only has two Senators compared to the founding states’ twelve. Maybe a remote area bias is required and/or a change to the Constitution so the emphasis is placed more on regions, areas or divisions of the nation with a common interest, but not necessary based on population. (Note: Divisions were obviously thought of by the authors of the Constitution and are mentioned in Part 2 section 7 as an option for Queensland.)
    “We need more than a new government” is spot on, ministers and bureaucrats will also need to learn from previous (ALP and CLP) governments’ mistakes and/or poor decisions. What we also need is a more robust private sector, investors and developers with vision and their own money (not taxpayers). Legislation that facilitates development and at the same time protect community interests and the government to think strategically and long term (more than one or two election cycles) may also be required. Existing legislation and regulations that are not used, followed or enforced already exist, new legislation may not be the answer. The complex processes outlined in this article will need time for consultation, organisation, planning, bedding down the details and action. Something China and other totalitarian governments can do in an undemocratic way, but is not so easy in a democracy.
    Decentralisation is a classical example, it must be a long term (maybe forever) policy, any short term fixes will not work, unplanned natural forces of economic activity seems to eventually draw people and money back to the capitals. For example, The Advocate are now going to print their paper in Darwin, listen for the outcry from the general public and small businesses when it doesn’t arrive early one morning. With all the new technologies around these days management and administrative hubs can be built anywhere – even in small communities along the lines mentioned by Hal below, but to avoid building infrastructure that maybe redundant in four years, careful planning and consultation is required. If the investments in Aboriginal education and training in remote Australia are successful, a lot of these people may wish to join mainstream Australia and move to the larger towns or SE Australia.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here