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CAT: ‘We’ll grow again once the chaos subsides’

Above: Chair of the CAT Board Peter Renehan and CEO Bruce Walker celebrating the publication of Alternative Interventions last Friday. 

In the shadow of the federal Budget, friends of the Centre for Appropriate Technology (CAT), board members and staff, past and present, gathered last Friday to celebrate the publication of Alan Mayne’s Alternative Interventions, a book that charts CAT’s history over three decades.
During those years Bruce Walker was at the helm. CAT has its origins in his appointment in 1980 as lecturer in Appropriate Technology at the then Community College of Central Australia. Over the years it grew into an Aboriginal organisation running “like a business”. By 2010 there were 130 staff on the books and it was turning over $25 million.
Today the picture is somewhat different. Even before axes started falling in the federal Budget, a number of projects had finished or were lost, and with them scores of staff positions. Core funding of $4m to $6m is safe-guarded by contracts for the next two to three years but “the world has changed”, said Walker on Friday.
Left: CAT was once strongly associated with the production of low-tech appliances for remote communities, like these chipheaters developed at Utopia and made by Aboriginal employees in CAT’s Priest Street workshop. Pictured are Max McKenzie, Matthew Palmer, Trevor Corbett and Bradley Corbett. 
The CAT board, chaired by Peter Renehan, had just come out of a two-day meeting where they’d mapped out a survival strategy, summed up as this: “Pull business back now and grow again once the chaos subsides.”
In the immediate future there’s another challenge: finding a new CEO.
Walker retired in 2010 and was replaced by Peter Taylor, a former senior manager in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, a role in which he had worked closely with CAT. Tragically Taylor, at just 54 years old, died after a sudden brief illness twelve months ago, and Walker has temporarily stepped back into his old role.
Given the significant blows the organisation has suffered, the mood last Friday still managed to be upbeat. People working in Aboriginal affairs are probably more conditioned than many to sudden policy and budgetary shifts. There’s plenty of evidence of the latter in Mayne’s account of CAT’s history. His title, Alternative Interventions, points to the last shock-wave, the NT Emergency Response or Intervention as it is more commonly called, and suggests that there is another way.
Walker and Renehan firmly believe this. They see hope even in the changed landscape drawn in the federal Budget.
Looked at closely, there’s a restructured pool of funding around jobs and training – “which is what we do” – and another pool around “remote Australia strategies and networks, place-based regional responses”.
This is shaped by the Abbott government’s ideology but they “probably can’t see the issue of implementation on the ground”, says Walker.
This is where CAT will be standing ready. The government will need organisations like them “to work in the interface”. He points to two projects CAT has on the go, one in the Utopia homelands north-west of Alice Springs, the other in the Top End, in the Yolngu homelands of Arnhemland. Both are ‘fix and make safe’ housing programs, using local work crews in a project management approach. They achieve twin goals of local employment and service provision, and CAT is confident they are doing so in a very cost-effective way (figures will be available at the end of the financial year).
Right: CAT’s work crew at Utopia, preparing the surface for painting. There are 20 employees all up, the majority working on housing maintenance and repairs, and others on energy efficiency and water management. 
“At the moment,” says Walker, “government procurement is saying, ‘We know what people want, we don’t need to talk anymore, we just need to get the product out there’. We’ve got to find a new business approach to do that. In the meantime we won’t be winning the jobs that just want somebody to deliver a new car or power system.
“Part of our challenge in trying to address this new paradigm is ‘where do we fit?’”
Everything is always up for re-examination, but CAT’s approach in Utopia and Arnhemland seems to offer the best of both worlds: when there’s a bucket of government money available, they’ve got a value-added way of spending it.
At Utopia people have said they want better housing: “We’ve gone out there and said this is a way we can do it: ‘We’ll employ you, you and you, give you some training, put some vehicles here, get the materials organised from town, you’ve got to turn up every day for work.’
“We’ve not lost one [working] day out at Utopia. There’s something different in the way we are going about it that causes people to respond that way. That’s the essence of what we have got to try and get across to governments.”
“There’s a sense of pride and ownership to that way of working,” says Renehan,  “which has always been at the heart of the way CAT has worked.”
Although Mayne – who holds a ResearchSA Chair at the University of South Australia and is the author of many works of social history – charts the shifts and turns in the organization as it responded to changing policy settings and its own learned lessons, he also shows that striving to work with local realities (rather than imposing top-down ‘solutions’) has been an enduring feature of CAT.
It is hard for distant governments and indeed many outsiders to appreciate just how different physical and social conditions can be in remote communities, and just how different, therefore, their needs can be. Unfortunately, Mayne’s book does not really fill this gap as his research was done mostly in CAT’s archives and through interviews. It talks the language of policy thinkers and makers but it won’t set their imaginations on fire. It will still be down to Aboriginal people and CAT personnel (including through their in-house magazine, Our Place), to paint the picture – when given the chance –  to make governments see why an alternative approach to ‘business as usual’ might be needed.

 Above: The first hand pump installed in early 1981 at the newly formed community of Kintore. This kind of technology provided the basic infrastructure that supported the return to homelands.

CAT may be run like a business, but it relies very heavily on public money, a perennial issue they have struggled with, as Mayne shows. But Walker told his audience on Friday, that the government has to realise that in remote areas “government is the market.”
“That’s always going to be the case,” he says. “You look at Alice Springs at the moment: [the gaol has] 640 inmates. The majority of the ones ready for release are Aboriginal. Where are they going to go? The shires are saying they are all full. They’re not going to pick up work around town. Who’s employing anybody around town at the moment?
“So what do they do? Queue up back at the courthouse two weeks later and then they’re back out [at the gaol].
“Breaking that cycle is bigger than us. Our part in that is to say, ‘If you want to keep people engaged and employed, there are ways to do it, but not through this normal procurement [system] of let’s advertise a tender and give it to the lowest-priced bidder, let’s cut out the community engagement. The way to do this is to break with that procurement system.”
What about the opportunities offered by industries that do have a presence in remote areas, such as mining and tourism?
Renehan reminds us that CAT had a long-standing partnership with Rio Tinto: “It’s not foreign to us as an organisation.” And more recently CAT has been talking to Central Petroleum about getting people work ready for mining camps. This comes after CAT had geared up for such a program at the behest of the Minerals Council, going so far as building a life skills training centre on their Heath Road site, adjacent to the Desert Knowledge precinct. But before the facility was even finished it was all off: there was a slump in the mining industry, and they were no longer recruiting.
“It’s very difficult in the private sector, says Walker. “They turn on and off really quickly. The commodity price drops and all of a sudden your program is quashed.
“What are we going to do with that [facility] now? Who wants to use it? The shires want all their training delivered in the bush. Because the market has changed, we’ve got a set of resources in town that would be better [situated] out bush. That’s part of a normal business cycle.
“Tourism is also declining. There are not a lot of jobs in tourism.
“I’m talking about the cruel hoax in there. If we constantly push back at Aboriginal people, saying ‘you’ve got to get jobs, got to go to work, get trained for work’, if there’s no job at the end of it, that’s just a hoax.
“It’s really tough at the moment, there’s not a lot of work around. Somebody needs to have a good look at what the economy of central Australia is really like.”
Renehan compares it to the kind of structural change that Geelong is going through, but doesn’t see government responding in the same way: “When they closed down the car companies there, government brought in a whole lot of jobs to keep that place going. They won’t do anything like that out bush. Not yet.”
What about the idea of “orbiting”, of people going, when necessary, to where the work and opportunities are?
“That’s something board has been grappling with for a long time,” says Renehan. “[There’s a] push for teenage students to come in for boarding facilities. We’ve got fantastic facilities out here and a lot of room to move and grow. If there is a need for accommodation and that sort of thing, possibly we could help support that.”
In any case orbiting is already taking place. Renehan refers to a number of Aboriginal students taking up scholarships for boarding schools interstate, through programs such as those of the Centrecorp Foundation. Then there are the others, says Walker: “The young kids [who] come in and there are no jobs, they go and orbit around the sub-culture. There hasn’t had to be a ruling by government to say ‘You’ve got to orbit’, because at the end of the day to survive you’ve got to chase your resources. Then you get a new Supreme Court and new gaol rather than jobs. That’s the dilemma, breaking that cycle, getting on the front foot.”
There’ll be another book to write when that happens.
Note: Alternative Interventions is the result of independent research, not a commissioned history. It is published by Wakefield Press.


  1. What a thoughtful and incisive story. I’ve read about Rev. John Flynn “touring in the land of dilemmas” trying to find finance and invent new technology, e.g., the pedal wireless to get his aerial ambulance into the air after WW1 to inaugurate a regional health service.
    The CAT has always fascinated me and even the image of the chip heaters fills me with a strange optimism.
    Australia is indeed, set for some social chaos. As a nation, we have had a fairly easy ride since the Hawke / Keating government – 30 years of it.
    If things get really tough, then the chip heater will broaden its appeal and perhaps create a new technology interface.
    Getting resources out bush to create employment is critical for the local and national economy and perhaps markets can be found for CAT products in our vast inland or in Asia.
    There’s a job for someone willing to tour through the land of dilemmas in search of product placement.


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