30 Aboriginal homes in Alice Springs are empty, Opposition Leader Michael Gunner was told. ABOVE: The “transitional facility” on the South Stuart Highway. Grog was another topic for talks. BELOW: Police at a bottle shop.
Problems fueling anti-social behaviour, peaking again recently, and a quest for solutions dominated discussions with the new Opposition Leader, Michael Gunner, who is keeping up a fortnightly routine of visiting Alice Springs to get a first-hand look at its issues. This week he caught up with the Redtails Football Club, which has an agenda that is as much social as it is promoting sport, and he talked with the People’s Alcohol Action Coalition. Work for the dole, Aboriginal housing and urban drift came up when he met with Tangentyere Council. Editor ERWIN CHLANDA spoke with Mr Gunner (at right).
NEWS: There is a recent suggestion from the Central Desert Regional Council that people from the bush, where they have to work for the dole for 25 hours a week, may be moving into town because here the requirement is only 15 hours. Do you think it’s odd that when billions of people around the world are going from country to city to find work, here they do so to get away from it?
GUNNER: (Laughs.) I have a general concern about urban drift. The CLP and the Federal Government seem to be encouraging it. That goes to the $150m in the Federal budget around the NT Government taking control of the outstations, which is a massive bill for the government to pick up. I am concerned about the pressure on communities. Are we giving up on communities? There is not a matching investment in town.
NEWS: What should the communities do to help themselves?
GUNNER: It needs to be a partnership with the government, and communities have the responsibility of decision making, how government transfers resources to implement those decisions. We want the communities to make the decisions that make them functional.
NEWS: It seems to me, that would confine decision making to how public money is spent. What should the communities be doing for themselves? There is a lot of talk about asset tests these day, applied to pensions, for example. Per head of population, Aborigines in the NT own twice as much land as non-Aborigines. In view of that, is it not reasonable to expect they to embark on some very significant self-help projects?
GUNNER: Aboriginal people need to work out how to leverage the value of their land. Some of that land is worth a lot, some of it, not that much. That’s a very large conversation, about what the land councils are doing, how to access and use land. There are certain things [the NT Government] needs to do and needs to start doing, and then local communities have to make their own decisions. Wadeye, for example, is becoming very much a township. They are getting to the size and shape a Tennant Creek, and they need to be viewed as a Tennant Creek, as a body making its own decisions. They need to decide how to run their own community.
NEWS: I guess the three things communities can do is become self-sufficient in fruit and veg, as well as beef. Tourism, of course, is the big one.
GUNNER: You nailed it: It’s about growing things, mining things and showing things off. We have to have conversations with our communities about how they can do this in their individual circumstances. We are happy and comfortable to talk to land councils. We’ve seen a number of professional businesses doing that over the years. It can be done, it should be done.
NEWS: Are you satisfied with the land councils in making things happen, aside from mining?
GUNNER: By and large, yes. They have a very large body of work, very disparate people they work with.
NEWS: Give me examples of where, in Central Australia, growing things and showing things are a success story?
GUNNER: The sealing of the Mereenie loop is a good outcome. The result of a long period of negotiation, going right back to the Martin Government.
NEWS: The Mereenie loop isn’t being sealed. The remaining inner loop is. That’s 43 kilometres.
GUNNER: I thought I said inner loop.
NEWS: There was no argument about the inner loop.
GUNNER: It still had to be resolved by negotiation and took time.
NEWS: What about enterprises – showing and growing, in Central Australia?
Mr Gunner took this question on notice.
His meeting with Tangentyere touched on much of what underlies the town’s worries about anti-social behaviour.
The organisation previously provided services to all town camps but some have now been taken over by another organisation.
It is understood Tangentyere has lost much of its funding, is no longer generally regarded as a representative of Aboriginal people in the town and has been cut out of some consultative processes.
Tangentyere is not incorporated under the Office of the Registrar of Aboriginal Corporations (ORIC) which provides, on the public record, comprehensive financial details of organisations.
Tangentyere has persistently declined to answer questions about its dealings from the Alice Springs News and its online successor.
Director Walter Shaw has not responded to a recent request for an interview.
Mr Gunner says he was told by Tangentyere that housing and the time frame around repairs and maintenance are major concerns. He says it takes “four, five, six months to get fixed,” and there are 30 empty homes on town camps.
“They are very concerned about children being taken into care before family having a chance to look after them,” Mr Gunner says, and cuts to youth services are having an “impact on the town”.
He says what is needed in the main are common-sense responses: “Giving decision making back to locals. I said to them I’m happy to work with them, work out how we can do that, have a proper agreement that both sides trust” so that “they don’t have to try and find Bess Price or Adam Giles for an answer to a question.
“They can actually answer the question themselves. That’s where we need to go. They agreed with that,” says Mr Gunner.
“One of the things they complained about was they simply can’t meet with Bess Price or Adam Giles. Alice Springs is too small, the Territory is too small to simply not talk to people. No matter how much you might disagree, you’ve got to have a conversation.”
NEWS: Which of the youth services would you re-instate if you won government?
GUNNER: There is no point going back three years. If we gain government we will put in place proper, coordinated youth services. [Between now and next year’s election] we will be talking to the people to know what is in place, is effective and works. That will give us a clear idea of what we will do.
Mr Gunner was unfamiliar with the current row in Alice Springs about a $30m government tender for hospital construction work going to the Sydney company Lahey Constructions.
We pointed out to him that Labor, before losing government, had also given a hospital contract to Lahey – the construction of the Emergency Department.
Mr Gunner replied after the interview with a written statement: “The Territory Labor Government had a policy which ensured that the vast majority of tenders were awarded to local Territory companies. Any tenders awarded since August 2012 are decisions for the CLP Government to address.”