From top: The Todd in flood. • Mr Cocking and his son Louka at the Claypans in early 2016 • Night market • Car in solar rally • Women celebrating opening of the hospital’s ICU • Heavy Metal band Uncreation
By JIMMY COCKING
I know this because under the previous Giles Government, among various other committee posts I was appointed to in 2016, the Flood Mitigation Advisory Committee was one. The first recommendation of the FMAC was to get the topographical data of the catchment which would enable us to better model the flow of the river and its tributaries. We accepted that we cannot stop the river flooding – but in the short term we can get to know it better and help the community respond to it more effectively. This wasn’t necessarily the answer the previous Chief Minister wanted, and since the election, we have not heard what is to become of the recommendations.
Alice Springs is a gateway town. I moved up here in 2008 in response to the Federal Government’s Intervention and the uranium mining and nuclear waste proposals that dogged that era, and also to visit a friend.
I was considering a tree change from the city of Melbourne to Alice Springs as the Arid Lands Environment Centre Coordinator job was being advertised. I didn’t know much about the arid lands environment or the Northern Territory but I did care about the issues. I applied and now I’m approaching my tenth year at ALEC.
Despite considerable efforts, there are still many structural barriers to us achieving our vision of “healthy futures for arid lands and people”. A lot of of these barriers are based on the mindset of self-interested parties and individuals who are resistant to the changes we need to implement.
When I arrived the town was abuzz with Alice Solar City. The Alice Springs Water Advisory Committee had only just been formed and was talking collaborative water conservation and efficiency projects, which lead to Alice Water Smart being created.
Desert Knowledge Australia, Centre for Appropriate Technology, the Desert Knowledge CRC, which became Ninti One, were firing on all cylinders. The Desert Knowledge vision was alive and strong. Although not connected strongly with the local community, it had national profile and recognition for its purpose.
Desert Knowledge Australia COOLmob, became DesertSMART COOLmob to reflect the purpose of the roadmap and the growing focus on water and energy efficiency, composting, recycling and local climate action.
People were talking about community gardens and building the case for one. The Henderson Government had a comprehensive climate policy, an agreement with the South Australian Government for the TransAustralian EcoLink wildlife corridor and was developing plans for Alice Springs to be a world renowned solar centre.
Indigenous land management was growing on the agenda with ranger groups getting some funding through a variety of means, but increased considerably under Peter Garrett’s Caring for Country policy framework which instituted five to 10 year funding agreements to support landscape scale activities. Everything seemed possible.
At the end of 2016 I reflect on the things that have changed, things that have grown, things that have disappeared that may never appear again.
Alice Solar City grew a culture that supports solar energy and people continue to put panels on their roofs – why wouldn’t you? Best tariffs in Australia and the best solar energy resource in the world.
Alice Water Smart came and went, two years of Federal and Power Water funding saw more than 1000 households audited for water efficiency and 50 businesses, plus a range of utility scale measures and communication outputs that continue to have benefit.
COOLmob is unfortunately dead. It was a victim of the 2014 budget cuts, although ALEC created Arid Edge Environmental Services to get jobs done on a contractual basis that enables us to have some impact. However, without government investment in community engagement activities we can only do so much.
The Alice Springs Town Council is committed to recycling at its Regional Waste Management Facility, which is great and the fact that the NT stands alone with SA, and soon to be WA on 10c deposits, we have to acknowledge that it started here in Alice Springs with 5c putting pressure on the NTG to act.
Desert Knowledge Australia was put under review, its board and CEO essentially sacked. The amazing resources of the precinct are under-utilised and under-valued by the local community. I am one of a number of new board members and with a new CEO coming on, expect to hear a lot more about Desert Knowledge.
The TransAustralian EcoLink died the day after the CLP got into power in August 2012. But the Ten Deserts and the Indigenous Desert Alliance have emerged and are building more momentum for collaborative, cross border land management work across SA, NT and WA than ever before.
RePower Alice Springs is pushing us towards a 100% renewable energy future because we need to.
Why am I telling you all this?
Because I want to give you context before we embark on the next agenda item that is critical for all of us living in Alice Springs to understand, to consider and be engaged with, alongside the Northern Territory Government: the concept of Alice Springs as the inland capital.
We are an oasis in the geographical heart of Australia. We are surrounded by 10 deserts – the Perdirka and the Tirari to the south, the Sturt Stony, Simpson and Strzelecki to the south-east, the Tanami and the Great Sandy Deserts to the north-west, the Gibson and the Little Sandy to the west and the Great Victoria Desert to the south-west.
Alice Springs is the medical service centre for two million square kilometres. The area of country in the Ten Deserts is equivalent to the eighth largest country in the world.
We need to avoid using the language of itinerants or any other words that separate town folk from bush folk. We are their capital city. We are their Las Vegas and we need to acknowledge that and better plan to provide services and maintain services to support the region and not just the town.
We are a long way from the decision makers in capital cities but we can make our own decisions: How will we play a role in shaping our destiny?
The NT Government regards Alice Springs as Australia’s inland capital but the town needs to be engaged in that process. We need to have public meetings, workshops and people dedicated to making this work best for the town and the region.
Secondly, we need to think about all the things we do better than anyone else, and what we need to do better to show the world what is possible.
This is a non-exhaustive list: Go 100% solar on a remote power grid; harvest and reuse water effectively and for collective benefit; incorporate electric vehicles into our remote setting; have buildings and urban design for the extremes we experience here; embrace Indigenous cultures and desert living (so rich, but undervalued); events, events, events; multiculturalism and diversity; Indigenous ranger programs and managing vast swathes of country; fire management and carbon economies; research into what is already here (for example, spinifex and stronger rubber, grains and bush foods); reducing carbon and caring for country; recycling locally (can we use concentrated solar thermal heat to re-form materials?); growing food locally, distributing fresh food regionally; remote service delivery (health, social services and education); livelihoods trump economic indicators out here (new measures, tell the success stories, not just the tragedies); Geoscience Australia satellites and monitoring landscape and groundwater change over time; economic development (strategic and long-term reduction of boom-bust impacts); a Memorandum of Understanding between WA, SA and NT recognising the need to collaborate across our desert country to work towards all of these items and more; add your items here!
Most importantly we need to demonstrate that we can support sustainable livelihoods here.
People need work. People need entertainment. People need meaning and a sense of community. The planning process for Alice Springs has been ad hoc at best, oscillating between trading off Indigenous culture and the economy, whether it be sacred trees, sites or talking about damming the river, or being hopelessly dependent on boom-bust cycles that are difficult to plan for or sustain.
What we need is a whole of government approach to Alice Springs, recognising its importance in a region that dwarfs the east coast of Australia as far as scale goes, while understanding the threats posed by climate change and a world where autocrats and demagogues are set to rule for an undetermined amount of time.
We need planning to ensure Alice continues to provide, whether this is in the shape of arts and cultural centres, roads and rail, solar and batteries, recycling and clean drinking water, emergency flood shelters that are outside of the flood zone and how their design may borrow from nuclear bunkers. We don’t know until we start setting the direction and understanding which way the wind is blowing.
It’s time to reflect on the positives but also understand the risks.
We’re not in the middle of nowhere, we are in the middle of everything here, especially global politics. In an era of uncertainty, warming climate and increased nuclear proliferation, as Australia’s Inland Capital we need to have a plan.
Look up and smell the desert roses, everybody. A new era is upon us and it’s up to us to respond to it.