By ERWIN CHLANDA
The government crisis triggered by the proposal to close to police front counter in Alice Springs during the night has prompted Stuart MLA Scott McConnell (pictured) to raise a string of issues, including the possibility of a Minister for the Regions.
He says he will attend this afternoon’s public meeting with the police “as a citizen” because he has not been involved by the government in the issues.
Several times during an exclusive interview with the Alice Springs News Online today Mr McConnell stressed he doesn’t want to be seen as a rebel, or disloyal: “I am very proud to be a member of the Gunner Labor government. I am not questioning this process.”
But he said much of the government’s decision making happens on the “Fifth Floor” in Darwin and the involvement of him, a backbencher, is minimal.
“What I am doing is explaining this to people, so that they know. I’m not saying the system is flawed but there may be better ways to do business.”
Mr McConnell heard about this afternoon’s public meeting not from a government source, but from Facebook and media: “No-one from government has made me aware that there is a meeting today.
“There may be operational issues that support the initiative by police but those things need to be communicated to the community properly, and surely they need to be communicated to local members. We need to listen to that advice but the consultation wasn’t done properly.”
Mr McConnell says in his opinion, shutting the front counter half the time would be “a bad look for the community and it’s a bad look politically. Both of those things are an issue.
“I am also concerned about the location [in Darwin] of the centralised call centre generally. A lot of that concern comes from my electorate.”
Mr McConnell’s electorate is 448,576 square kilometres, two thirds of the size of France, the biggest seat in the NT, followed by Barkly which has 383,859 km².
He says the democratic representation of the regions – everything outside the greater Darwin areas and including Alice Springs, Katherine and Tennant Creek – has suffered when Alice lost a seat last year and Darwin gained one.
He says the Cabinet consists of eight of the 18 Labor team in the Assembly. The ministers’ chiefs of staff and media advisors are much more informed about government decisions than he is.
There are also 26 junior ministries, backbenchers assisting ministers – too many, says Mr McConnell.
He has three of them:-
• Indigenous Art Trails (for tourism).
• Indigenous tourism participation, “the game changer, getting Indigenous people participating in the front line of industries like tourism and pastoralism. When I was a kid stations were run by Aboriginal people. Most of the work force were Aboriginal people. So we know these things can be done. Working for wages, having something to do, something to look forward to.”
• Assisting Housing Minster Gerry McCarthy in the roll-out of the Indigenous housing policy – spending $10m a year for the next 10 years “the biggest funding commitment ever by an NT Government”.
Says Mr McConnell about the Fifth Floor. “As far as I know the ministers’ chiefs of staff have a daily meeting and the media advisers have more than one meeting a day.
“As a member of the government that currently holds power, elected by the people of Stuart, I get a meeting up there, mmh, every now and again.
“Of course I have personal relationships with ministers, I can pick up the phone, they are all great people, they have my total faith.
“But [the Fifth Floor is] where things are going on. I am not in that circle.
“That system has been designed to make it as difficult as possible for people like me” – for backbenchers.
“The more of a free thinker you are, the more that you come from a different world view and experience, like mine, being brought up with Aboriginal people in the electorate of Stuart, that just clashes with the system that exists.”
The regions need more of a say in fixing the NT’s endemic problems, he says.
“We can’t have the issues we have now for another generation and then another one.
“We can’t have the policy agenda driven by people who are not necessarily engaged in what’s going on here on the ground.
“These people are only part of the answer. We need to give a voice to people from the bush. We need to have a much wider conversation about these things.”
A Minister for the Regions would give the regions, including pastoral and Indigenous land interests – “people I grew up with” – the comfort “that there is always a person at the Cabinet table, where most of the decisions of government are made, who will have in the forefront of their mind what’s happening in the regions … that we do have a voice there”.
Current ministers from the regions, including Braitling’s Dale Wakefield, would find it difficult to perform that role because their focus would necessarily be on Darwin “where pressures in their portfolio areas can be very substantial.
Mr McConnell says the bush – predominantly Aboriginal people – is “changing dramatically. The main thing is connectivity through social media. The uptake is extraordinary – and not just by young people.
“What I most get requested by my constituents is, hey Scotty, how can you help improve mobile phone and data coverage? When is it coming to my community? Make it quicker.
“The next issues are housing and roads.”
What about work?
Says Mr McConnell: “That’s what is going to change the world. We are not going to change it with a new Don Dale, or with another 120 police.
“Here is where I am going to throw a challenge to my colleagues: Where is the discussion that I want to have, which is what are we doing to ensure Indigenous land and labour are engaged in the economy with equity. This is not saying we are not doing anything right now, but we need to include the wider community in that discussion.
“Here is my experience. We’ve got schools where the attendance rate is on the wrong side of 50%. Terrible. Why have communities lost faith in sending their kids to school?”
He says the parents of his peers during his youth “got these kids off to school. People will say, it was the missionaries, the government, the station owner, whatever. It was not.
“It was the fact that the parents of the children, who are now adults, my generation, those parents had faith in the system and knew they had to get their children engaged in that system.
“We have to re-empower those parents. An institution can’t raise children. This is the broad debate we have to have.
“Why do we have fewer people in the pastoral industry than when I was a kid? The pastoral industry is significantly bigger now – manyfold bigger.
“We have this massive tourism industry here, our biggest non-government employer, yet the Indigenous workforce utilisation is actually really, really low. Yet tourists who come here want interaction with Aborigines.
“These issues are complex. That’s why we have such big government.
“I really feel for the people who are suffering in yet another crime wave in Alice Springs, the business people having their windows broken.
“I want to work on these solutions.”
Mr McConnell says the acknowledgement of Aboriginal rights, protecting their land and their sacred sites, is a “marketable commodity.
“Ethical investors from around the world are interested in coming and working in places where first nations people are recognised. We have some exemplary protections of first nation peoples.
“Putting forward ideas like that is what I was elected to do.”
By ERWIN CHLANDA