By ERWIN CHLANDA
If you believe there is nothing out there in our wide open spaces beyond the handful of major centres – think again.
There are 772 other locations on the Northern Territory Government’s books where people live, at least sometimes. 453 locations are funded under the outstation program. 11 require further clarification as they appear to be duplicates. 350 are funded through non government organisations (NGOs). 103 are funded through local government. Seven are classified as town camps. 20 are classified as minor communities. Five are classified as major communities. The rest are outstations or homelands. 22 locations do not have a community identification and therefore are not registered in the place names database.
Government housing information from 2008/09 says about 453 funded locations:- 19 locations have no houses reported. 307 locations have between one and five houses. 98 have six houses or more (12 locations are town camps and 20 minor communities). 29 did not have housing information reported. 12 where not identified in the place names register and five locations are major communities.
Regional Development Minister Alison Anderson is now lifting this $30m a year conundrum out of the too hard basket where it’s been for close to two decades.
The size of government funding for a “location” has long been governed not by actual need, but by the label of the place. And as the transition from homeland to outstation to settlement to minor community to major community – or the other way ’round – is usually fluid, the way public money was being spent was a dog’s breakfast.
“Population numbers are also quite fluid and imprecise,” is how a senior official in the Department for Regional Development puts it.
In fact there is persuasive anecdotal evidence, from Aborigines and pastoralists, that many of the outstations are abandoned of occupied only sporadically.
Says the official: “Funding distribution is largely at the discretion of the service providers. At best, this ‘methodology’ could be understood as an artifact of Commonwealth policy that had been neglected for nearly two decades.”
He says the new NT Government is seeking to “address the issues of inequality and transparency under the old model” acknowledging that there is “no simple equation. Funding must be based on need. Homelands policy has languished since the late 1990s.”
The 2007 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for Indigenous Housing, Accommodation and Related Services between the Northern Territory and Australian Governments transferred to the NT Government responsibility for the delivery of essential and municipal services to outstations from 1 July 2008.
At left: Minister Anderson on polling day in Ntaria (Hermannsburg, west of Alice Springs) last year. Services “in the bush” were a feature of the campaign and the bush vote crucial to its outcome.
The total package of $783m included $20m a year for three years for outstations, but the MOU noted this was “inadequate” and that “no Australian Government funding will be provided to construct housing on outstations and homelands”.
The inheritance of the funding for municipal services also meant an inheritance of a static funding allocation, says the official: “The amounts provided to each service provider have been pre-determined by FaHCSIA … and so there was little flexibility to respond to need or changing circumstances or to factor in inflationary pressures.”
The sorry saga continued with the “Little Children are Sacred” report and the ensuing Emergency Response with its funding avalanche including the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP).
In 2008 came the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Service Delivery under which it was agreed that 15 communities across the NT would be supported as regional “hubs” providing a focus for the provision of services to residents within their region.
This “hub and spoke” concept was alleged to be driving people to the larger centers while others say the taxpayer could not be expected to put infrastructure and services into a myriad of tiny communities with an unstable population.
Under the Labor government in the NT reports and inquiries came hot and fast, including in 2009 “Our Home, Our Homeland” and “A Working Future”, but failed to create some semblance of order in the system, or ease fears amongst supporters of the homeland movement that the 21 “Growth Towns” would be a means of forcing outstation residents into large communities.
The official says in the next month or so, there will finally be answers to fundamental questions about the 500-plus bush locations: How many people live there? In what state are their houses and other infrastructure? What services do they need?
That audit is part-way completed, and – amazingly – has to rely substantially on funding applications currently being made buy a gaggle of NGOs which for years have received public funds on the basis of their own assessments, and with little transparency or government supervision.
This, Ms Anderson is making clear, on her watch will be consigned to history.
FOOTNOTE: A spokesman for her says the funding provided by the National Partnership Agreement on Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory – Municipal and Essential Services Implementation Plan for HOMELANDS and TOWN CAMPS is:
• Commonwealth contribution over ten years $206 million.
• Northern Territory contribution over ten years $25.4 million.
In addition HOMELANDS and TOWN CAMPS also receive funding for housing repairs and maintenance to the value of $7.3 million per annum. This is a combination of Commonwealth and NT government funding.
Homelands Extra Allowance funding is a new allocation from the NTG. The four year program totals $14 million. Year one $2m, year two $2m, year three $4m and year 4 $6m.
At top: Google Earth image of an outstation near Utopia, just off the Sandover Highway, north-east of Alice Springs.
By ERWIN CHLANDA