Sunday, July 21, 2024

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HomeIssue 38LETTER: Shire attacked over children's service, responds

LETTER: Shire attacked over children's service, responds

Sir – I am an ex-MacDonnell Shire employee. My experience regarding the shire and their delivery of the Early Childhood education program in the Ikuntji / Haasts Bluff community has been appalling. The shire are supposed to be working for the people [who] want to make the decisions about what happens to their own children. Nobody needs or wants the shire to do it for them.  The shire recently made changes to the provision of “Children’s Services” and “Youth Development” programs across their communities. These changes were made by the shire in their Alice Springs head office with no community consultation.
Funding was applied for and approved by DEEWR prior to the community even being informed about the changes. They involve moving the children aged 5-12 from “Youth Development” to “Children’s Services” and are against the wishes of the community, staff and team leaders in the Ikuntji community, where I live and was (until recently) employed as Team Leader of Children’s Services.
I was hired by the shire under the guise of mentoring and supporting the childcare staff in all the aspects of running a successful childcare centre where I was already volunteering. I was also informed that we would be working towards meeting the requirements for the new National Quality Standards set by ACECQA for childcare services.
Before commencing working, I was told that “two way learning,” working with the community and community specific involvement, were of extreme importance in this job, which I was very happy and excited about. I developed strong, productive relationships and friendships with the staff, many who have worked in childcare for very long periods of time. Every day I was learning more and more about the culture, language, education and child raising practices of the community and I was helping teach the staff what I had learnt about early childhood education through University study.
We were learning from each other however, when it came down to it, MacDonnell Shire simply wanted a one size fits all approach, designed in head office from people who have spent no to very little time in communities and none at all in the Ikuntji community.
I was employed by the shire in April. I received one day of “training” in Alice Springs where very little information was provided to me and it mostly consisted of signing forms stating that I would not discuss my opinions of the shire or policies outside of the shire, or with other areas of the shire.
I returned to Ikuntji / Haasts Bluff and received very little support from my “Support and Development Officer” in Alice Springs who was responsible for this community and three others. During the fove months I was employed by the shire, our centre received about four visits from this “Support and Development Officer” who has very little experience/qualifications in Early Childhood.
These visits were each for a maximum of two hours.
I was not able to order any learning resources for the centre. I was told various excuses, such as that I was on a “spending block”, budgets needed to be approved etc for the entire time. The centre had hardly any resources and almost everything we did have was donated to us from individuals or other organisations.  The shire policies for children’s services were only provided to our centre in August. These policies were developed in Alice Springs and are not culturally appropriate or responsible. One such policy stated that children weren’t to be identified as “boy” or “girl” but their names only were to be used.
This does not suit the cultural identity of the community as first names can be very private; “boy” and “girl” (their Luritja forms) are used  often on community to call out to children to identify them and request their attention. Most of the children will respond much more strongly to this than to their own first names. There are many such policies which are obviously based on a mainstream centre in urban Australia and do not suit community life or the Luritja culture.
The MacDonnell Shire structure can be seen as metaphor for the massive wealth gap between rich and poor. Every single Indigenous staff member in childcare, as well as the majority of the other services are paid the minimum hourly rate payable by the shire. I was trying to advocate a raise for one particular staff member who has been working at the childcare centre for over 10 years. She is still being paid the minimum rate.
After asking management repeatedly, I was told that there simply “wasn’t the budget” for any raises in community. All of the management and “support” staff in Alice Springs recently gave themselves promotions and massive pay raises. This can only be described as a disgustingly racist. This money needs to be going to the communities. The NQS requirements state that staff must have or be working towards specified qualifications. Some staff at Ikuntji were carrying out training when the community council was in power. They are willing to continue to undertake this training and have requested more training several times since the shire took over the centre in 2008. No childcare or first aid training has been provided to child care centre staff at Ikuntji since.
People have told me that life under the shire is similar to life under a superintendent in the 1970s. That alone must show that a serious change is needed urgently.
Susannah Taylor
Alice Springs
The shire responds:-
It is always disappointing when a disgruntled ex employee for personal reasons misrepresents the practices and intent of a quality early childhood program.
Employment: MacDonnell Shire Children’s Services employ local indigenous staff in all our communities and as highlighted in the letter we are proud that one of the indigenous staff in Ikuntji has been working with the service for 10 years and the Shire since formation. In fact the staff member referred to has been operating the service with 100% indigenous staff prior to the author’s employment.
Working conditions are generous and significantly higher than industrial requirements. For example, every staff member receives generous cultural leave entitlements and automatic above inflation increases every year (and has since the Shire was formed).
National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care: As research supports, the first three years of a child’s life are the most critical years of development: physically, emotionally and cognitively. With the support of DEEWR, MacDonnell Shire delivers Early Childhood Education programs in nine communities and due to the success of our programs has recently been awarded a tenth community. We are keen to ensure that quality improves through the implement of the National Quality Framework and as such we are actively recruiting qualified early childhood educators (the author working towards this qualification but not yet attained) to support and develop local staff in achieving qualifications.
Local Knowledge: The Support and Development Officer referred to has both lived and worked in the Ikuntji community and boasts both a Degree in Community Development and Early Childhood qualifications. In fact a much longer association with Ikuntji than the author.
Elizabeth Death
Director Community Services
MacDonnell Shire


  1. FACTS:
    It should be noted that while Elizabeth Death applauded the efforts of the staff member of the childcare centre who has been working for 10 years, she is STILL ON MINUMUM WAGE, earns less than a quarter of what the Support and Development Officer earns, still has not done any childcare training since the establishment of the shires (requirement by NQS/ACECQA).
    It should be noted that there has still been no community consultation of the changes, unless you consider the managers in the shire’s services meeting with whitefellas in the community!
    While the shire has nine childcare centres across Central Australia, it should be noted that only three of them have team leaders which, as a requirement by NQS/ACECQA standards, they should have Early Years trained staff in all of these positions by 2014.
    While the Support and Development Officer in question should be applauded for the time that she has spent remote, she should not be applauded for the lack of community involvement. She manages up to four childcare centres, all speaking Pintupi-Luritja, only knowing a couple of words, with one of those words being “palya” meaning good. She pronounces it with a /p/ sound, and not its recognised /b/ sound, and is mocked by community members because of it. She also has a Certificate III in Children’s Services (the aforementioned EY degree) and does not know the difference between a preschool and a playgroup.
    The author told the Support and Development Officer that she is trying to do what is best for the community and the SDO replied by stating that the author is supposed to be doing what is best for the shire. This sums up the mode of thought employed from the shire which is far removed from what they are actually supposed to be doing – working for the community!

  2. The author and @1 sound like they are Kartiya / Walypala that love living and working in the community with Aṉangu, and will continue to do so. They sound like they are a rusty and beaten-up Toyota, willing to do a lot of mileage. Sounds like the work in children’s service can be done without the shire, back in the old system of a community council.
    The writer of @2 sounds like they are a Kartiya /Walypala that work for and love working for dysfunctional organisations like the MacDonnell Shire, enjoy earning considerable amounts of money in doing so, and has the ability to disengage from reality.

  3. I worked and lived in different Aboriginal communities along with Government workers! Unfortunately I should note that I do not see the right attitude in Ms Taylor for such an environment, while she just started her career a short while ago. She should realize we are all learning and despite all the shortage we try to do our best. Non of these organization (MacDonnell Shire …) are perfect but they are trying their best, you should instead of making the situation worse, try to cooperate with your organization and be constructive. I believe indigenous people are sick of these newcomers who arrive and want to make a glory over night. I suggest that Ms Taylor is better to leave and reflect on her action. Thank you.

  4. I feel sorry for Ms Taylor. Quite often whitefellas are pushed out of their positions in the NT because they gel too well with the community but cannot work with the organisation. A fact that resident of Ikuntji raised is quite a good one, workers in the NT should be learning language, especially in an early childhood environment where the children don’t learn an ounce of English until they reach school, and also the fact that English literacy levels are very low in adults.
    Like Ms Taylor mentioned, “too many decisions are being made without community consultation” by organisations that will appear to be unable change their ways.
    It seems like the simple things cannot be done by these organisations like first aid training, keeping up with government standards, raise on minimum wage, etc. even though the community members are happy to fulfill these essential requirements. I wish the best for Ms Taylor and hope that the organisation can learn to change their ways as it too is still young.

  5. I don’t think that lying down and allowing a less than perfect situation to continue is beneficial to anyone. Is anyone listening to the Traditional Owners of the communities? Has anyone asked them what they want or need? Simply saying that “we are doing our best” is not good enough. If people who live in and work in the communities can see that things need to be changed, and that Government bodies aren’t meeting their responsibilities, then it is imperative that this is both addressed and brought to the attention of everybody. Education is the future for all communities, white and black, and is something that should be given the very highest priority.
    Having people who actually care in these jobs and are prepared to stand up for what they believe, instead of people who just want a job with a high salary and a nice easy life, is the only way things will change. No-one should have to “co-operate with their organisation” if they believe there is racism or injustice. If that was the case, nothing would ever change. Bottom line – ask the communities (in their own language) what they need, because at the moment it appears they are only being talked at.

  6. @1 I am disappointed because its not all true. There might not be enough resources but it does not mean that she comes against the organization and blame their action. If you are really care about the community, you should put up with difficulties and try your best through your organization for the sake of the community. I have seen so many white people coming to the community and after a while they start to turn the community into their own territory. They come into the conclusion that the no longer belong their organization and they can run the community affairs on their own. Then they turn into the broken Toyota and will be replaced. If there is an issue we should raise it with system while we are still in it. This is called constructive consultation. Writing such a letter does nothing but damaging the trust that we are trying to establish. It also does not keep the childcare centre open. As a professional she could instead work with the shire in order to improve the policies as well as education. I believe this is what every professional does. Ms Taylor should realize that her action had nothing but devaluing her colleagues’ hard work.

  7. @1 – I believe if you read post 8 it said that “The author told the Support and Development Officer that she is trying to do what is best for the community and the SDO replied by stating that the author is supposed to be doing what is best for the shire.” You state that if an employee has “an issue we should raise it with system while we are still in it” [sic] – how is that possible with the attitude shown above when the system clearly works for itself?
    I think it is very important that people who might not be aware of such problems within the communities are made aware and I think this letter has brought some of that to the attention of the general public. It seems you feel that people, both black and white, should put up and shut up, and accept their lot. Neither is acceptable in a modern society with so-called freedom of speech, and nothing will change while that continues to happen.

  8. Other people have said what I want to express in a much better way than I ever could.
    “If you’re aware of injustice, you can either ignore it, say there is nothing you can do about it, complain about it and not do anything, or put your energies into doing something about it” (Ben Cohen) and “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know” (William Wilberforce).

  9. @2, I am sorry but I think we should realized that where we are and what are we trying to establish. We are all working on the same problem, despite shortages we are doing our best, which is better than nothing or saying the system is wrong and we should give up or shut up.
    I cannot see any solution or positive suggestions in this letter but complaint of an ex-employe. If there is not enough support, its our responsibility to be creative and use whatever resources we have to do our job.
    I do not think Ms Taylor’s experience in the community is long enough to make such a statement! We are free to criticize but if its only constructive otherwise it is just an empty statement! We worked hard to build up trust despite all the shortages and problems. Letters such this target the whole system and disintegrate our unity.
    We should realize that this “modern society” is suffering from lack of professional educators. I am sure indigenous people are able to express themselves as well as their problems.

  10. This system is WRONG. It is WRONG for the money to be spent in Alice Springs on bureaucracy when it should be spent in the communities delivering services. It is RACIST and goes against the basic principles of human rights. Training should be provided to staff, resources should be provided. Complaints should be made and people should be made aware. The power needs to be with the people and not with the organisations. As the author has mentioned, THEY are supposed to be delivering services for the people.
    You mentioned that this letter “targets the whole system” and “disintegrates our unity”. This top down system does not work. It needs to be completely destroyed and rebuilt from a community level. These organisations … cannot be changed. They have the money, the power and are FAILING to deliver what they promise. They need to be destroyed.
    I have seen many great people working for these organisations, who are dropped as soon as they raise any objection or “try to change the system”. By carrying on “doing your job” you are encouraging, allowing and enabling that racist behaviour.
    And as for the comment that Indigenous people should “express themselves” and “their problems,” which outlet do you suggest for this? The Internet service using the computers the Shire fail to maintain, the media who continue to ignore them or another extremely effective method?

  11. Old Tjilbruke asks for constructive criticism and says that the letter failed to provide the reader and the Shire with any. Except for the following points of information:-
    • locals should be making decisions about their future, not organisations
    • plans aren’t community specific, but easily can be
    • can be working towards NQS/ACECQA standards, but choose not to
    • two way learning, using local staff to choose the best approach
    • child raising practices by locals aren’t catered for
    • needs to be culturally appropriate, but isn’t
    • raise people off minimum wage, especially with staff that have served a long time
    • staff were previously working towards qualifications, but Shire failed to do so since establishment
    • basic first aid training, requirement for all staff in an early childhood environment
    • finally, one other thing that was mentioned in the letter was that the Shire would not listen when she was on the job.
    Enough constructive criticism?
    You tell Ms Taylor that she is young in her career and that her experience is not enough to judge the system. In any position, it does not matter about the quantity of your work, but the quality.
    Relating back to a community position, if you spend a long time in a community, fail to relate to the locals, fail to learn language and fail to see local practices, then you have failed at your job miserably – you are the uneducated! And it is very unfortunate for the educated that the uneducated generally remain that way.


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