By ERWIN CHLANDA
It took up only five minutes of last night’s hour-long Q&A program but the subject had the crowd cheering and applauding, moderator Virginia Trioli calling it the question of the night, Tourism Central Australia boss Dale McIver describing it as one of industry’s single biggest challenges, and Member for Lingiari Warren Snowdon referring to it as price gouging: air fares.
Speaking from the audience Matt Patterson (at left), due to go on his honeymoon, put the question: It will cost him and his wife more to fly from Alice Springs to Adelaide and back than to fly from Adelaide to Croatia and back.
What can be done about this?
The answer came from Queensland ring-in Bob Katter (above, right), sitting on the panel quite obviously in the place of Territory Senator Nigel Scullion, who apparently declined an offer to appear (although he won’t answers questions about that).
Mr Katter, Member for the sprawling Federal seat of Kennedy just across the Queensland border, said he is heading up a group that is going beyond complaining about airfares to Mt Isa, a town much the size of Alice Springs.
He said he will be meeting with trade unions, “which have a great say” in Mt Isa, with the local council and state government officials.
They will be calling for “expressions of interest in an airline service into Mt Isa, and we all guaranteed that airline 72% uplift.
“I know the cost of flying these aeroplanes from people who run corporate operations in North Queensland. We can come in at less than half the current price.
“It is simply a matter of seizing the power and saying, are you going to do it for that, or we’ll get someone else to do it for that.” (Applause).
Ms Trioli asked Ms McIver how airlines flying to Alice Springs were justifying their prices.
“Not very well. Commercial viability is the only answer we can get out of them,” replied Ms McIver, describing the prices as “insane”.
Mr Snowdon (at left): “They know they have a captive market. So they milk us.” (Applause.)
Given the unanimous disapproval of air travel costs it was ironic the show started with a question from Dave Batic, manager of the Alice Springs airport whose passenger, landing and other charges are among the highest in Australia (see footnote).
Praising the qualities of Alice Springs Mr Batic asked: “What incentives can government offer to attract people from increasingly unaffordable cities to regional communities such as Alice Springs?”
Ms Trioli asked the panel members to take it in turns.
Ms McIver (at right): Promote opportunities. There are lots of jobs here.
Mr Katter: If there has to be FiFo ensure it’s from nearby communities.
William Tilmouth, Chairman of the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress (CAAC) and founder of Children’s Ground: Develop a local workforce.
Josie Douglas, Principal Policy Officer of the Central Land Council (CLC): We have a fast growing permanent population. Provide more and better social housing.
Mr Snowdon: We have first class services such as the hospital and schools. Unemployment is low. More social housing is needed.
Jacinta Price (at right), cross-cultural adviser and town councillor: Lower travel costs would be a major incentive to reverse the dwindling of the total population.
Audience member Sal Forrest said the cattle industry is booming and in need of casual labour. What could be done to bring back the close working relationship between pastoralists and Aboriginal people?
Perhaps coming as a surprise for many, Mr Katter said: “I identify as a blackfeller on odd occasions.” He did so last night, meaning that four of the panel of six were Indigenous.
In response to Ms Forrest’s question he commented that Aborigines are the most land rich people on earth but we “are not allowed to use it … we’re not allowed to have title deed.”
He may have been commenting about the situation in Queensland while in the NT, where half the landmass is owned freehold by Aborigines, 99 year leases are available.
It’s a shortcoming of Q&A’s structure that the discussion often falls short clarifying some basic issues.
This could be said about the reply given to Ms Forrest by Dr Douglas: “The CentralLand Council is working to bridge that gap.
“There is a pastoral program providing support to young men and young women who want to find employment on cattle stations.”
It is surprising that such a program hasn’t been in full swing for decades, given that much Aboriginal freehold land has been cattle grazing country, that more than a dozen cattle stations in The Centre have been acquired by traditional owners, and that the skills of Aboriginal stock workers in the past are the stuff of legend.
Neil Ross (at right), the owner of a major metal fabrication and construction business, raised that in his experience, most Indigenous apprentices “have failed to complete their training. The reason for this, he suggested, is lack of support from family and their peers” or being ridiculed or humbugged.
Ms Price offered an unblinkered view, calling for cultural reform. There are obligations to family members, including those who are abusing alcohol.
“You are obliged to give whatever you have to ensure your family’s survival,” she said.
This was a good custom when “we were living off the land. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work so well with a cash economy.
“As soon as they get their pay cheque, family are upon them to share their money.”
She says she has learned to say no when she has to, but the change is slow.
Mr Tilmouth (at right) said about half the staff of the Aboriginal NGOs Tangentyere and Congress are Indigenous. But it’s hard on low-income families in overcrowded conditions “where there is not a person who’s had a job within the last five generations”.
Ms McIver said “we hear” that Aboriginal organisations including the land council “are doing these things [employment initiatives]. This issue isn’t new. It didn’t start last week.”
She said there is now absolute urgency, otherwise “we could be siting here with Q&A in Alice Springs in another 10 years’ time talking about exactly the same thing.” (Sustained applause.)
“Start with the kids. That’s where all the problems are that we’re facing.”
Dr Douglas (at left) said preschools are available in town, but not in the bush. And in response to Mr Ross she said two or three Indigenous apprentices should be employed together, not just one, but she acknowledged that this would require government subsidies for the employer.
Ms Price said mining royalties could act as a disincentive to work and should be “funnelled back into the communities”.
Dr Douglas said $20m to $25m of the royalty recipients’ “own money” had been invested in education.
Ms Price: “My family has blown a lot.” (Sustained applause.)
Valerie Napanangka Patterson said Warlpiri mining royalties should be put into education including teaching Indigenous languages.
She had worked as a language teacher and literacy worker in Lajamanu school since 1986. (Applause which would have continued, but Ms Patterson resumed speaking).
There should be bilingual programs, side-by-side with Department of Education teaching. (Strong applause).
Mr Snowdon said Labor had closed down bilingual education: “That was a bad mistake.”
Ms Price said Indigenous languages are important but English would “give them the tools to survive in this modern world”.
Mr Katter took a more robust line: “Give we blackballers some credit. What we did in the good old days, 200 years ago, was if you played up you were sent out into the bush and you stayed out in the bush until you were prepared to behave yourself.”
Dylan Voller, whom Ms Trioli introduced as being “at the centre of the Don Dale Youth detention scandal” spoke of the Bush Mob program at Loves Creek Station: Why can’t we have more young people being taken there “instead of going to a cell with no rehabilitation?”
Mr Katter replied that his party (Katter’s Australian Party) is currently formulating a policy: ‘There is going to be no more of this stupidity. The cost of a child indention in Queensland is $580,000 a year. We put in a wild kid and we get back a professional criminal.”
Mr Tilmouth: We’re throwing all the money when the damage is already done, when the ambulance is at the bottom of the cliff. Not enough is spent at the preventative end. (Lots of applause.)
The general discussion about Aboriginal affairs in The Centre was civilised, often humorous and articulate, although it offered little new to the locals. Some heat crept in when Barbara Shaw somewhat predictability asked about the Intervention, claiming it started with disempowerment and went downhill from there: More children taken away, more people in prison, more suicides.
Mr Snowdon chimed in, the Intervention demonised men, the army was brought in, the basic card is demeaning, there was “no hint” of any discussion with Aboriginal people.
Ms Price, also predictably, wasn’t going to have any of it: “I can take you to a lot of women who feel as though they’ve been given a voice.
“Dark issues “ were put on a national stage, she said. What happened since then was that a lot more women have reported sexual assaults, sexual abuse, family violence.
Ms Price said she has an aunty at Little Sisters town camp: “The basics card is good for her, it helped her get off alcohol.”
Women this aunty knows “can fill up their fridges with food for the children. No-one is listening to her. People who don’t like the basics card are the people who prefer to be drinking and using their money for gambling.” (Applause.)
A surprise came late in the show when Ms McIver expressed serious reservations about the $50m national Indigenous art gallery planned for Alice Springs.
She said the “challenge” is that the NT Government is not talking to operators about “how this fantastic gallery might actually support them” so it won’t end up as a white elephant.
“Come and talk to the locals,” Ms McIver said. “Come and talk to the artists. We have people who operate art galleries in Alice Springs [who ask themselves] is this in direct competition with my business?
“Is this going to take all the visitors from me? We’ve got to be careful we’re not doubling up on the great things we already have in town.”
The show ended with banter about the Territory’s cracker night: when would it be banned, asked Margaret Carew on behalf of all the birds and dogs in town.
Mr Snowdon likes cracker night. Dr Douglas thinks it a waste of money, but she laughed at herself when the crowd hinted their displeasure.
Mr Tilmouth said he doesn’t have a dog but the one next-door is a yapper at the best of times.
And Ms McIver top-scored by quoting a social media post saying “what about the dogs that bark all of the other 364 nights”.
FOOTNOTE: The Alice airport has passenger charges only, no landing charges for Regular Public Transport aircraft. The charges are proportionate to the number of passengers – the more passengers the lower the individual charge.
The Australian Airports Association it does not hold a database of airport charges and there is no ranking system for airport charges in Australia due to the wide variety of variables, which make it very difficult to accurately compare charges based on raw data.