How to diversify our economy: Labor's view


IMAGES (from top): Tennant Creek Clontarf Academy alumnus checks out Bootu Creek Mine. • The Inpex accommodation village at Howard Springs: will young Aborigines join the FIFO workforce? • Ted Strehlow: His work could be a cornerstone for a revived tourism industry. Labor’s Gerry McCarthy says Alice Springs should get “the new interpretive style museum of the 21st century” about Central Australian art and culture, a structure and styles of display similar to the Defence of Darwin museum.
“What’s the future of the little rapper, the Aboriginal kid of today, who’s now between 18 and 25, and who is incarcerated, who exhibits a higher recidivism rate than in any other jurisdiction in the country, with his baseball cap turned backwards and his Snoop Dogg playing through his earphones?
“Is he going to go home to Maningrida or Yuendumu to grow cabbage? Unlikely.
“But if I can get that kid trained up to operate a tractor, drive a forklift, in an environment where I can stabilise his sleep, and his work, and his nutrition, and I can put him around people who will motivate him and talk about the real world and its opportunities, then there is a chance that kid will go back to Maningrida to a job, and possibly be working on the barge landing, or in Yuendumu or anywhere else you like.”
This is what’s keeping Gerry McCarthy awake at night. He was a school teacher for 30 years, founded five bush schools in the NT, was elected as the Member for Barkly (Tennant Creek), and spent four years as a Minister in the Labor government until it was defeated in 2012. He is now the Deputy Opposition Leader.
We asked Mr McCarthy to talk to us about diversification of economic activities in the NT.
It may sound like a dry topic but in his mind it goes to the heart of the Territory’s mostly agonising social problems.
As unlikely as it seems, he says the future for that little rapper may well lie in becoming a fly-in, fly-out worker on a project like Inpex in Darwin, or on other mining, transport and construction industries already existing or in the future.
“You guys in Alice Springs have got two air services a day to Darwin,” says Mr McCarthy.
“What’s the problem with young people from Alice Springs and surrounding communities getting on a plane and heading to Darwin and working on the Inpex project?
“It’s the biggest construction job in Australia at the moment, a $40b project.
“There is a 3000-bed supported accommodation facility. To get a kid out of Yuendumu working side by side with the best boilermakers in the world on the Inpex project – that would be education in progress.
“And unless we get that right, that kid is destined to repeat another generation of unemployment.
“There are enormous opportunities already. I’ve got three boys. Two are in the mining industry, fly-in, fly-out.
“It you are prepared to do 14 days on and seven days off, you can have a cash income which you can spend on developing your outstation, have reliable transport, provide your wife with furniture and curtains, and have money in your pocket.
“You fly home with cash, a flat screen TV, a roll of curtains for mum. For that you need real wages. You can’t do this on the dole.”
Mr McCarthy has no illusions about the obstacles – issues of confidence and trust, boyfriend / girlfriend jealousies, coming home after a fortnight with “two and a half grand in their pockets”.
While the mining companies are bending over backwards to accommodate workers from the bush, the communities themselves have not mastered the changes.
“There are incredible opportunities in these projects for women as well.”
Mr McCarthy says he spent the past 10 years of his life urging the younger generation to focus on these opportunities. Sometimes it seemed like a losing battle.
There is a manganese mine 100 kms north of Tennant Creek, with a workforce of 300 on site.
The company has given an open invitation to the town of Tennant Creek to supply 30% of the workforce.
“At the moment we’re flat out having 10 guys on the bus traveling up there for a shift. Yet there is completely supported hospitality – food, accommodation, a free bus.”
The chance is there for the “experience in the big wide world”.
“Unless we make kids confident to leave home, we’re not going to break this cycle of dependency,” says Mr McCarthy.
“We need to shift the resources back down to the early childhood area, zero to eight years is where we need to be focusing, on the kids born into families where there are possibly two or three generations of unemployed.”
Mr McCarthy (pictured), like all politicians the Alice Springs News Online has spoken to recently, does not pretend to have the answers about the elephant in the room: half of the Northern Territory’s 1,349,129 square kilometers is owned by people overwhelmingly dependent on public handouts.
While Australia accepts that welfare payments should be, and are, means tested, this immeasurable wealth in Aboriginal real estate produces practically nothing.
“We’ve hit the milestone where Aboriginal people want their land to provide an economic return.
“The trick is, how do we engage them so they don’t sit back as a passive recipient through royalties, but through being actively engaged, with skills within business and commerce.”
All that sounds good – but how do we disentangle the convoluted ownership structure of Aboriginal land: it is inalienable (cannot be sold); it can be leased, but under what conditions? What actual power do the land trusts have? Are there influences which limit and pervert that power?
“I don’t know,” says Mr McCarthy but he suggests some answers may flow from the Federal Court case about the Muckaty radioactive waste facility for which one single family, and the Northern Land Council, have granted permission.
It’s not surprising that Mr McCarthy – a politician from a mining town – puts the role of extractive industries, and the facilities they need, at the top of the development agenda: better roads, an expansion of the rail network and a bulk commodity port in Darwin.
Labor’s road infrastructure mantra was “beef, mining and community”.
The east-west Outback Highway needs to be part of that, he says. The “inner” Mereeenie loop road was all sealed by Labor, except for 6kms, while the “outer” loop remains in the too hard basket because the Central Land Council denies easy access to gravel, sand and water. Best guess of the sealing cost is a million dollars a kilometer for the 130 kilometers.
Mr McCarthy says “the big end of town” is seeing a great future in “alternative gas, a network of pipelines harvesting alternative shale gas out of McArthur River, Georgina and Beetaloo basins and linking them to the east coast, coming off the existing Mereenie to Darwin pipeline, somewhere north of Alice Springs, around the Plenty Highway corridor”.
This would make us a “major global player, not just in offshore gas, but onshore as well, to service particularly domestic needs.
“We could put the high risk coal seam gas on the east coast out of business.
“That’s what I call nation building projects. Santos is spending $360m in the next few years, the majority of this in the vicinity of Mereenie, just to the west of Alice Springs, and in the McArthur Basin, near Borroloola,” says Mr McCarthy.
“Now, a Territory Government needs to show leadership, supporting that, and creating markets.”
He’s not optimistic about the “latest rhetoric form Canberra about the food bowl of Australia”.
He says conservatives focus on the Ord River, but broad acre farming – such as the Chinese sugar cane project – is not labour intensive, and doesn’t  put product on the table. Rather it feeds mills and refineries.
Yet we can have a role in a central government policy shift for this “most highly urbanised country in the world”: Ti Tree, Rocky Hill, Ali Curung and Neutral Junctions have shown the capacity for small-scale farming, but for this to be extended into Aboriginal land, a way needs to be found for it to be divided up so that small groups – families, clans – can control and use it. Ali Curung has a population of 300. At present just one is working on the 400 hectare watermelon plantation.
“We’d be building new hotels to accommodate the influx of tourists. Basically the whole world wants to know about Indigenous culture.”
No more or less, that is Mr McCarthy’s vision for the Alice Springs tourism industry to get back on track. And he says the treasures in the Strehlow Museum (at present mostly inaccessible) could be the focal point of “the new interpretive style museum of the 21st century”.
The Labor government started the digitisation of the collection established by the famous anthropologist working with Western Arrente people.
“It is world class – film, sound recording, photographs – it’s just incredible,” says Mr McCarthy.
Add to that present-day Indigenous and non-indigenous artists, from this “very dynamic art community,” in collaboration with “traditional owners, who are very interested” in such a project, and we’d have a formula for presenting to visitors something that’s not available anywhere else in the world.
Mr McCarthy suggests a building similar to the Defence of Darwin museum, for – initially, as “mid-range project” – $12m to $15m.
“That’s doable, that’s not huge money.”
A larger gallery, for around $100m, could follow in the future, with Federal support.


  1. Gerry it is great to find a politician who looks at the Big Picture beyond the next election.
    You talk here about diversification of economic activities in Central Australia. Problem as I see it is that the economy is too narrowly focussed around the ‘Aboriginal industry’ and tourism. Others are hard to find.
    Mining projects (eg Angela Pamela) are pressured from Green groups. Others include the large American contribution via Pine Gap.
    Without them Alice would seriously be struggling. This is rarely acknowledged by those with a different agenda.
    As tourism has come under pressure due to the A$ and the economies of overseas countries we see the demographic of ‘just add boiling water’ noodle eating budget backpackers replace the big spending traveler.
    I have been in the Alice long enough to recall the five star hotel with silver-service restaurant. Those days are long gone.
    Now it’s backpacker joints that jostle for business at the airport. The FIFO miners really contribute very little. Not sure how it works in Tennant but imagine that FIFO is killing Tennant too.
    In previous centuries our nation built great towns like Ballarat, Isa and Kalgoolie to name a few, as service towns.
    Tennant sits as a minor player in that group too. Now, with all our wealth our governments think it’s good enough to build pre-fab mining camps to rape the soil of its wealth and get it to China in quickest time even if that means destroying the Barrier Reef and our little remaining industry if necessary.
    Tar and Feathers for most of the pollies is my solution. There seems no planning for future generations. But I have digressed a long way from Central Australia.
    Yes, the ‘Elephant in the Room’ does need addressing. That over 40% of the NT land is barely productive (beyond mining / gas) yet occupied by people who still have their hand out for government largesse cannot continue!
    Imagine what productive Asians could (and do) with such assets. That it’s a black elephant is what demonstrates that our nation lacks the maturity to have a genuine debate.
    It’s just too easy to use the throw-away racist taunt when your side is backed into a corner. It’s worked in the past and governments run a mile to avoid. If we cannot get some progress under an Indigenous Chief Minister there is no hope really.
    You talk of the possibility of the “rapper” from Yuendumu or Maningrida joining the FIFO Inpex project.
    You are not being too romantic as you acknowledge the problems. Chief amongst them is the lack of aspiration that most Indigenous (and many others) suffer.
    If you look at the history of Western education it did not start with mass and universal education for all.
    Yet this is how we ‘impose’ education on our Indigenous youth. To do otherwise would be exploited as “racist”.
    Individuals of merit were identified and privately tutored by Greek masters. Mass education is a product of the Industrial Revolution and the need to free parents for the mills of Manchester and the coal mines.
    There was not some universal Human Rights at play mandated by the UN! That was left for modern times! The closest we can get here now is Noel Pearson’s Cape York Institute model of sending talented youth thousands of kilometres from home and family influence to work and gain real skills, but more particularly work habits and attitudes.
    Health and respect for self and others and one’s culture feature holistically. It is here in the holistic union of issues that I believe our modern systems fall down.
    I believe that health, education and culture need to develop together. This is not happening at present in a compartmentalised approach of education and health service delivery.
    Indigenous kids respect their rapper mates with iPhones and the ghetto music from Harlem more than their (fast disappearing) grandparents and (often intoxicated and missing) parents.
    What this region needs is a Noel Pearson. We have one in the name of Barry Abbott who established the Ilpurla Aboriginal Association, a treatment outstation in the remote south-west corner of Central Australia. I understand you have similar persons in the Tennant region.
    Many of the readers will know of Barry’s fine work and award as NT Senior Australian of the Year 2011. Some will be shocked to learn that as yet (to my knowledge) untried charges of aggravated assault and deprivation of liberty are over his head.
    [ED – Most charges have been withdrawn and it seems any remaining ones are not proceeding.]
    Not really surprising with the clients with whom he deals. However, Barry remains a “loner” working on the fringe with the hardest, recidivist youth offenders. Of course there will be problems.
    It will be tragic if he and his family program is hung out to dry. Where will these cases then end up? Probably with a youth worker with an Ochre (Child Protection) Card that has been earned in 10 minutes. God bless them!
    Certainly there would be no more Boot Camp Love instilled. They will be (further) taught that they are the victims of an unjust system.
    While there is some mixed truth therein it will not “move them forward” but have them wallow in self pity, dependency and crime. The cycle will not be broken. The Welfare Industry will be the beneficiary. What a co-incidence.
    In closing, Gerry I thank you for such a reasoned and insightful article. I particularly liked your thoughts on the future of art and galleries in Central Australia. The Strehlow Museum is indeed such a valuable asset largely locked away to academics. The “problem” is that Strehlow’s work is often seen in a different cultural perspective by many. That it houses a vital historical and cultural collection needs honouring and accessible. I do confess a vested (non commercial) interest in the art domain.


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