By ERWIN CHLANDA
“Let’s give them a chance” and “show me the money” were opposing conclusions by two of the 190 locals invited to hear Chief Minister Michael Gunner speak about his government’s “agenda to drive growth in Alice Springs through 2017 and beyond”.
In his 43 minute speech the Chief Minister went into extraordinary detail about funding, for example “$98,000 with a company called Tourism Tribe to deliver an online networking platform and online tools”.
There was plenty of rhetoric: “Alice Springs is the hub for some of Australia’s greatest and most unique events – the facilities and cultural events are amazing and only getting better.”
But despite the “2017 and beyond” theme, Mr Gunner did not delve into the big issues overshadowing Alice, its drift toward being a welfare town, parental responsibility to combat the rampant youth and other crime (120 more cops “for the front line” is the stock answer, regurgitated from the Giles Government onwards); investment in tourism facilities – the proposed National Indigenous Art Gallery aside – to profit from our tourism assets and cranking up private enterprise not just in the service of welfare facilities.
Mr Gunner said we need to empower the bush “to lift itself into the economic mainstream while preserving language and culture”. Exactly how the government will be doing that was not explained.
“Housing is the closest thing to a silver bullet we have, if we get it right, to reduce disadvantage … to close those gaps.
“We will spend $1.1b over 10 years under our Room to Breathe program to house more people in better conditions.”
(Communities in the central region identified for works on the basis of “having high levels of overcrowding and the local building capacity to deliver what people say they need” are Ali Curung, Lajamanu, Ampilatwatja, Areyonga, Engawala, Titjikala, Hermannsburg and Kintore.)
Far from Mr Gunner exciting expectations that private enterprise will get a shot in the arm, apart from being in the service of welfare programs, the 2016-17 Alice Springs region infrastructure program is heading the other way: $16m for the hospital, $6m for the women’s shelter, $7m for youth justice facilities and programs, $6.3m for a palliative care unit.
Another question raised in after-dinner chats was: Labor has been in government for nearly seven months. It was very likely that they would win for six months before the election last August. So why has so little been done so far?
A lot is rehashed from the Giles government: “You told me the Home Improvement Scheme of the previous government worked – so we have brought it back, bigger and better … Those who have not previously accessed a $2000 voucher can now access a one-off $4000 voucher,” said Mr Gunner.
“All of us inherit a slowing Northern Territory economy and stagnant population growth,” he said, but help is at hand: “The economic summits process, which will culminate here in Alice on the 24th, will lay a blueprint for long-term Territory prosperity, bigger than this government and this Chief Minister.”
Another meeting, another plan?
A lot will be in the future: “Exciting projects [are] nearing launch (including mines).
“In 2017 you will see the detail of a 10-year infrastructure plan informed by the economic summits and designed to leverage the private sector economy.”
This initiative is in place: “We have strengthened Government’s buy-local principles to 30% local content weighting across all procurement stages to get more of the Territory’s $3b annual goods and services expenditure to local businesses.
“With the Australian Government we are jointly funding $3m for the Lasseter Highway and $35m for the Outback Way roads as a vital tourist link to Western Australia and Queensland.
“We are working to seal the length of the Tanami Road (no deadline given) and the Mereenie Loop will be finished, weather permitting, within weeks.
“Such is the beauty of this country, the Mereenie loop will become one of the iconic sealed road drives of Australia.”
And so – much to the surprise of many – will be the Stuart Highway: “Both Jay (Weatherill, SA Premier) and I believe driving the Stuart Highway should be a bucket list item for every Australian and for people around the world,” said Mr Gunner.
“This will be one of the items we will work on at our historic joint SA and NT Cabinet meeting here in Alice Springs next month.”
“Closer to Alice, a planning study is underway for the duplication of the Stuart Highway through Heavitree Gap.”
Mr Gunner said he had “committed the Territory to a 50% renewable energy target by 2030. With 300 sunny days a year, Alice Springs is a natural solar power hub.”
He omitted to mention the severe challenge to this notion of the fact that the Owen Springs Power Station is now running 100% on gas, a Giles Government decision welcomed recently by a Gunner Government Minister.
A key advisor on the solar hub vision, said Mr Gunner, would be Alice Springs’s own Lyndon Frearson.
That’s the same Mr Frearson who was silent when the town desperately needed expert advice as the Giles Government, with the purchase of 10 gas-powered generators for $70m, all but committed the town to using a fossil fuel for decades.
Repeated requests to Mr Frearson, at a time when the project could still have been stopped or modified, fell on deaf ears. Now that the horse has bolted, he is getting a government job.
Mr Gunner’s stating the obvious, without presenting a coherent strategy for dealing with it, continued with his observations of the CBD: “There are empty shopfronts. And by mid-afternoon the Todd Mall is virtually empty.”
“We must do more to celebrate what makes this place great. I see Alice Springs as the inland capital of Australia – the beating heart of outback and indigenous Australia; the gateway to Uluru and the MacDonnell Ranges.
“This iconic town is wanting for 21st century rejuvenation and our government, guided by you, will begin the process this year.
The tasks enumerated by Mr Gunner are clear. How to achieve them he doesn’t say: “This is about getting tourists here and keeping them extra days because they see there is so much to see and do.
“It is about getting professionals and families here because it is such a great place to live and raise children.
“It is about re-igniting the town centre to draw people from the south and the world over.”
Again, help is at hand: “Discussions have begun on the idea of a meeting place in the centre of town, where people can gather for coffee” and so on.
“Exploring concepts”, which he will then take to the people in the second half of 2017, is the Government Architect. Mr Gunner mentioned some possibilities: “This may mean more open spaces and road re-design. It may mean water and rock features.”
That sounds like a re-run of the work done in Todd Street North and Parsons Street, which, with all due respect, has not had the revitalising impact aspired to.
What about non-architectural solutions, simple ideas about getting people into the mall? Things like running a coffee cart or pancake stall in the evenings (ice cream in the summer months)? Arts and craft stalls, perhaps on rotation, year round?The Town Council could revisit the permit system be revisited to encourage art sellers and buskers, rather than restrict them?
One answer: “The Centrepiece of the rejuvenation will be the Iconic National Indigenous Art Gallery … a dynamic place of stories on the inside and an architectural symbol of remote Australia on the outside” – $50m earmarked, no certainty yet about the time line.
(Of note, Mr Gunner spoke about this project in the context of “re-igniting the town centre” which would seem to indicate a criterion for its location.)
Then there is a cultural centre “being developed in conjunction with local Aboriginal organisations” ($20m).
Why there have to be two centres Mr Gunner did not explain, but he suggests they will make a difference to our rampant juvenile delinquency: “This must say to disenchanted Aboriginal kids of Alice Springs, and right across the nation, that what and where you come from is special.”
This will then clear the path for “tourism [to] be at the heart of the vibrant and bustling future we will create together”.
Said Mr Gunner: “It is through hard work and innovation such as yours that I can say total Central Australia visitation is up 21% to September last year – and the forecast is for more year-on-year growth.” He did not distinguish between percentages for Alice Springs and the Ayers Rock Resort.
“Our Territory wide target is 30,000 Chinese visitors a year by 2020.”
He acknowledges that the Rock is showing the way, where the Indigenous Training Academy run by the Indigenous Land Corporation “is on track to smash its 50% Indigenous employment target by 2018 – and I am excited”.
“Conversations have begun about how this concept can be applied to Alice Springs.”
“By this time we hope to have at least 50 students working towards careers interpreting Arrernte, Luritja and Warlpiri languages.”
And what if all that doesn’t work for the many young people who are aimless, angry and increasingly dangerous?
Said Mr Gunner: “NT Governments have been good at chasing the symptoms, but bad at treating the cause.
But perhaps most disturbing, the [ABS] Census found that we’ve gone backwards since 2012, effectively exposing even more kids to lifetimes of unemployment, crime and misery.
“We have … appointed experts from the Territory and across Australia to create an early childhood plan bringing in Government, the non-government sector and the community.
“The evidence is overwhelming that the first 1000 days of a child’s life are critical for later health and wellbeing.
“We know support must continue throughout early childhood to ensure families don’t ever slip through the cracks.”
Were those experts not available to the then Opposition a year ago?
Mr Gunner said alcohol-related harm costs Territory taxpayers $642m a year, that’s $4200 for every adult and almost four times the national average. (The $642m figure is not new: it triggered debate back in 2011 when Paul Henderson’s Labor Government was in power.)
“We know alcohol is a factor in nearly all of Alice Springs’ crime and antisocial behaviour.
“We know it is a factor in most of the Territory’s domestic violence incidents reported to police.
“We will re-introduce the Banned Drinkers Register to cut off the supply of alcohol to problem drinkers.
“We hope to have the legislation passed by August and by September the BDR will be operating in all Territory liquor outlets.”
Mr Gunner scored a few good-natured laughs as well: “History shows us when a decision is made in Darwin, there is a good chance of it being wrong, and when it’s wrong it’s difficult to fix.
“When a decision is made in Canberra, it is in all likelihood wrong and near impossible to fix.”
The best take-out from Mr Gunner’s speech is that he clearly acknowledges the power of his constituents in the decision-making process: “It won’t be easy, but there is no place this size in Australia so blessed with potential.
“It falls on our Government to unlock the opportunity. It falls on you to take it.”
PHOTOS (from top): Mr Gunner speaking last Thursday • Better housing a silver bullet • The area of the inner Mereenie loop road • If the Stuart Highway is to join the Central Australian tourism bucket lists, the rest areas will need a lot of work, especially in South Australia. This one near beautiful Island Lagoon is hardly welcoming.