By ERWIN CHLANDA
Does Mayor Damien Ryan have conflicts of interests with the large number of positions he holds outside of his Town Council position? Do these jobs take up too much time, detracting from his mayoral duties for which he earns $100,000 a year? And do the fees he gets for these outside positions create obligations for him that may not be in the interest of the town and the ratepayer?
Left: Mayor Ryan in a Bangtail Muster parade.
Mayor Ryan has not answered in detail these questions put to him by the Alice Springs News Online in repeated requests, but he has provided the following statement: “As Mayor I sit on numerous committees, boards and as patron to many community groups. A large number of these positions are voluntary and often require me to travel and/or attend outside of work hours, during weekends and on public holidays.
“Such positions are Ministerial appointments such as the Central Australian Health Service and the Northern Territory Grants Commission are paid positions and these board fees can be obtained from NTG Departments.
“The majority of my positions are done as community service on a voluntary basis, born out of my passion and love for Alice Springs. All roles require me to be objective and I do this, however at all times I have the best interest of our community at heart.”
Mayor Ryan lists on the Town Council’s website his membership of an impressive 16 organisations and boards, and of seven council committees.
These positions are mostly unpaid, and include being vice-president of the Finke Desert Race, now a major national motor racing event, supported by Mayor Ryan since its inception in 1976, and capable of making the proud boast of being run by 300 volunteers.
Volunteering is no doubt a good thing for the community, and Mayor Ryan is clearly a shining example. But is there a downside?
The following activities supplement his $100,000 mayoral income with $20,000, plus an undisclosed amount, from other publicly funded sources: –
• The Local Government Association – Northern Territory (LGANT, $12,000, he is the president).
• Northern Territory Grants Commissioner (about $8000; four trips a year of four days each, plus two or three days of other meetings, at $405 a day).
• The Central Australian Hospital Network Governing Council (he is the chair. The Alice Springs News Online has asked Mayor Ryan and the NT Government to disclose what he is paid for that but neither have done so as yet).
The most important of the questions is that of potential conflict of interest. For example, when Mayor Ryan wears the hat of the Grants Commission, his obligation is no doubt to ensure that public money flows to where it is needed most. But when he slips on his mayoral robes he is expected to fight for the town that elected him. Are the two roles compatible? Some may think not.
Bob Beadman, who heads up the four-member NT Grants Commission, sees no problem. He says there is another mayor in the group, Steve Hennessy, Acting Mayor of the Vic/Daly Shire. (The fourth member is the CEO of the Department of Local Government or his appointee.)
Mr Beadman is a former NT public servant and since his retirement, one of the Territory’s most articulate and insightful commentators.
He says that grants commissioners are asked to “lift their horizon beyond parochial concerns and take a Territory-wide view”.
Right: Chinese travel agents, as recent guests of Tourism NT, got the merest glimpse of Alice Springs. Mayor Ryan is on the TCA board, the supposed TNT watchdog, with as much obligation to represent Ayers Rock Resort as his town.
It gives Mayor Ryan the opportunity of moving around the Territory and that “equips him to do his presidential job even better”. That is his job as the president of the LGANT. It is the LGANT which nominates members to the Minister for appointment to the Grants Commission. Mayor Ryan was nominated before he became the LGANT president.
Mr Beadman also sees a complementarity with his other roles.
The commission has set its own formula for arriving at its recommendations, he says. Need is defined by three criteria – the proportion of Aboriginal people in the communities, how many “pockets” of population need to be served, and the distance from major supply centres.
The cost of the delivery of diesel for electricity generation in each community is used as a yardstick on relative disadvantage.
We asked whether Mayor Ryan’s membership of the Grants Commission would restrict his ability of making submissions to it on behalf of the Alice Springs Town Council.
Mr Beadman says: “No, and one example is that Mayor Ryan has pointed out the strong influx of Aboriginal people into Alice Springs (and Tennant Creek and Katherine) since the Federal Intervention.
“However, there are generally few submissions from local government. Grants Commission visits to every remote community, at least once in a three year cycle, probably eliminates the need,” says Mr Beadman.
“The Federal Government funds for local government in the Northern Territory comprise a per capita share of a national pool, and consequently there is always a shortage. There is little scope for catch-up here, or to overcome the disadvantages of a very thin population spread over vast distances, and the ravages of severe climatic conditions.
“Here the Commonwealth Grants Commission recommends that States and Territories share the national pool of GST revenue on a Horizontal Fiscal Equalisation basis. This results in the NT getting four and a half times more than the national per capita average.”
However, the grants are “untied” and for decades, the Alice Springs News Online (amongst others) has contended that NT governments of either major party have seen no difficulty in spending “needs money” disproportionally on Darwin’s northern suburbs, and on such things as a wave pool and multi-lane boat ramps in the capital.
Given that, it’s hard to see the benefit for Alice Springs in having its Mayor out of town for the equivalent of a working month every year on Grants Commission business.
Another apparent conflict is in Mayor Ryan’s position on the board of Tourism Central Australia (TCA).
In that role he is obliged to act as much in the interests of the Ayers Rock Resort, a member of TCA and erstwhile an adjunct to Alice Springs’ tourism industry, now its greatest competitor.
Few now will remember the slow drawl of Chief Minister Paul Everingham who built the resort: “There will never be any direct flights to Ayers Rock.”
Now the Rock is draining the lifeblood from the town Mayor Ryan is pledged to serve: The resort is interstate owned, repatriates its profits, draws most of its staff from outside the NT and is evasive about where it gets its supplies from.
Yet Tourism NT – over which the TCA is meant to be a watchdog – is heavily promoting the resort. Surely, the Town Council, as Alice Springs’ major lobby, should enter that debate, boots and all.
Between 2005 and 2013 overnight visitation numbers in the Alice Springs – MacDonnell region have dropped from 500,000 to 350,000 (see graph) and we’re facing another king hit when Tiger stops flying here next month.
A recent example of Mayor Ryan’s town being left out in the cold was the Tourism NT funded “familiarisation” trip for Chinese travel agents.
According to a media release by Tourism Minister Matt Conlan – an Alice Springs resident – they would be taken in the Top End to “the Territory Wildlife Park before traveling to Wangi Falls and Florence Falls at Litchfield.
“The group will participate in a sunset harbour cruise and then travel to Kakadu and Pine Creek before returning to Darwin on Sunday where they’ll finish their trip with a visit to the Darwin Aviation Heritage Museum and Mindil Beach Markets.
“The Central Australia trip will see agents tour Uluru today where they will watch the sunrise, ride camels, participate in an Indigenous dot painting workshop before traveling to Kings Canyon.”
So much for regions other than Alice Springs where, according to Minister Conlan, they would be shown “the Todd Mall Markets and the historic Alice Springs Telegraph Station”: not a peep about the magnificent MacDonnell Ranges, our major drawcard. This type of neglect of Alice is surely an issue of survival for the town Mayor Ryan represents. (Mr Conlan has declined to be interviewed.)
Meanwhile Steve Strike, an Alice Springs based photographer and tourism operator, who has been dealing with Chinese tourists for six years and has an office in Guangzhou, says travel agents have little if any role in helping Chinese decide where to spend their holidays.
He says they make their holiday decisions on the basis of networking, dealing with people they know and trust, or who “have face,” on recommendations made in a network. “The human value is what counts,” says Mr Strike. “It’s old cultural stuff, tied up in Chinese, Asian culture. To promote tourism we need people on the ground, for a long time. Western style advertising doesn’t cut much ice.”
Similar to the process in other Asian countries, promotion needs to happen through personal contacts, or social media where some people have hundreds of thousands of followers. According to Mr Strike, travel agents mostly come in when a decision has already been made and their role is confined to booking flights, accommodation and tours.
With shops closing and people leaving town, our leaders need to come up with fresh answers, and that will require a sharp and creative focus on Alice. Not much of that is currently seen as coming from the Town Council and its mayor.
By ERWIN CHLANDA