By ERWIN CHLANDA
Wet canteens in which alcohol can be sold on communities “fit in very well with our local decision making processes where Aboriginal communities can make their individual decisions,” says Families Minister Dale Wakefield.
“We are still waiting for the Federal Government to sign off on the alcohol management plans [drawn up in the past] for town camps.
“[Canberra has] jurisdiction over alcohol on Aboriginal land, the town camps in particular, but Federal control does not apply to all outlying communities.
“We will definitely be doing a review of the Liquor Act,” Ms Wakefield said in an interview with the Alice Springs News Online last Thursday, following the release of the Alcohol Policies and Legislation Review by Judge Trevor Riley (formerly the NT’s Chief Justice).
“We’re putting in a Liquor Commission which can support local decision making. There is a lot more work to do, with Aboriginal people leading that conversation. Everything is on the table,” she says.
On the question of how the government’s $6.2m on sporting facilities in Alice Springs will be spent Ms Wakefield said the amount was initially for an athletics track at the Centralian Middle School (the former ASHS in Milner Road), before Labor came to power last year.
However, “significant difficulties” with the site had been discovered, and the budget blew out. The project was put on hold and the town council was asked consult with stakeholders and to come up with alternatives. Last Monday the council presented a “set of recommendations”, albeit in the confidential section of the meeting.
Ms Wakefield says these – the number of them is still a secret – will go to another “have your say process” before the money is spent.
The News requested the interview with Ms Wakefield (pictured) in her role as the Local Member, the most senior government front bencher in Central Australia, to get information about several issues stonewalled by other ministers or government instrumentalities.
Parliamentarians in The Centre include government backbenchers, Scott McConnell and Chansey Paech. Each is looking after an electorate as big as a medium sized European nation and – unsurprisingly – are out bush a lot of the time.
Araluen’s Independent Robyn Lambley is a prominent thorn in the government’s side but, of course, she’s not sitting on the Treasury benches.
That leaves Braitling’s MLA Wakefield, considered as a giant slayer, albeit by a handful of votes and lots of preferences, having unseated former Chief Minister Adam Giles, although he was more of a dwarf by the time election came ’round last year.
We told Ms Wakefield before the interview that we had thoroughly canvassed the issues we were putting to her with the relevant NT Government ministers and instrumentalities, but had not received responses that are remotely satisfactory.
We told her we were speaking with her as the Local Member to whom, in our style of democracy, constituents turn when they find no satisfaction from government or the public service on their issues.
We gave Ms Wakefield more than 48 hours’ notice of the majority of the questions, and more than 24 of the remainder. After a meeting of 28 minutes we are little the wiser on most issues, and neither is the public. (The Minister has agreed to a face-to-face interview of 30 minutes a month with the Alice Springs News Online, in addition to dealing with issues as they arise.)
Batchelor Institute absorbs $32m a year in taxpayers’ money but will not provide a comparison between the results of its students with the national average.
The Federal regulator (the National Centre for Vocational Education Research) has the comparative results but Batchelor acting CEO Kim Jenkinson is blocking their release.
We put written questions to Ms Wakefield’s about recent reports in the News which pointed out that a very high proportion of students received certificates in very low grades of study, that there were very few receiving Certificates III (the minimum to be useful in the job market) and that a Federal probe into the recognition of prior learning practices by the institute was under way.
We asked Ms Wakefield’s whether she would ensure that the comparative information is disclosed.
WAKEFIELD: Obviously they have some issues at the moment which need to be looked at and I know the Education Department [is dealing with them].
NEWS: Can we please stick to this: Should they give us the existing information comparing the performance of their students with the national averages?
WAKEFIELD: That is really a matter for the Education Department. It’s not my area of expertise. I am not the Minister for Education. I have looked at it and it is very much clearly a decision for the Minister of Education. That’s her decision, that she doesn’t think that needs to be public.
NEWS: You agree with her, in other words?
WAKEFIELD: I didn’t say that.
NEWS: They said they will not give the News the information.
WAKEFIELD: Yes. That is their decision, the Minister’s and the department’s … it may be commercial in confidence, it may be because they are working through some issues.
NEWS: Do you agree or disagree with that?
WAKEFIELD: I haven’t got an opinion either way.
Similarly Ms Wakefield will not use her position or influence to provide the number of people who attended the Red Centre NATS this year and last year, events which cost the taxpayer $1.3m each.
The government’s Major Events company said this year 14,000 people had “gone through the gate”.
As the same people were clearly going through several gates at successive events over four days it is clear that the number of individuals would be a fraction of that number – it could be just 3000 or 4000.
Chief Minister Michael Gunner promised the News his government would provide clarification of the issue but so far he has not kept his word. The News drew Ms Wakefield’s attention to our reports.
We told her that we still don’t have the honest figures, neither for this year nor for 2016, and that the 14,000 figure had been interpreted by some media as the number of individuals attending, not passes through gates.
NEWS: Do you want to know how many people were actually there?
WAKEFIELD: How do we collect that data? I had a paper ticket that was a pass for the whole weekend. We do know that a lot of people attended. The data we have is enough to assess that the event was a success. There were a lot of people in town. You couldn’t get a hotel room. We have information that shows it is a popular event.
We showed Ms Wakefield the online “industry update” (one image of which is pictured) from Tourism NT CEO Alastair Shields on the day before the interview. Of the landscape or tourism activity photos, four showed Uluru and four the Top End. There are none from Alice Springs nor the MacDonnell Ranges.
We drew the Minster’s attention to a detailed News report on the differences in earnings between the Ayers Rock Resort and Alice Springs: For example, the latter achieves the same turnover from half the number of visitors.
NEWS: The taxpayer funded promotion by the NT Government controlled Tourism NT, which has a budget of $50m plus a year, appears to go to The Rock in much larger amounts than to the MacDonnell Ranges. What are the actual figures?
WAKEFIED: Central Australia is a big priority for Tourism NT. The international figures for Alice Springs were up 14%.
[What Tourism Minister Lauren Moss in fact said on September 20 was that “domestic visitors to Central Australia were up 14%”.
[As Central Australia takes in Alice Springs as well as Uluru Ms Wakefield is failing to engage with the subject of the News report we had put before her for comment: It includes that there had been a minimal 3.5% increase in tourism earnings in Alice Springs while Lasseter, where the Ayers Rock Resort is located, had a whopping 47% growth from 2016 to 2017.]
WAKEFIELD: We know there are a lot of people going to Uluru at the moment because of the lights. We want to promote Alice Springs as a destination in its own right and one of the things we’re doing is a reinvestment into the CBD and the Indigenous art gallery, building identity … the dinosaur exhibition … to lengthen people’s stay.
NEWS: How much is being spent by Tourism NT on Uluru and how much on the MacDonnells?
WAKEFIELD: I don’t have those figures.
We told the Minister that a reader of the News, Justin Allen, provided us with information suggesting that her department’s wilderness camp program, an alternative to juvenile detention, involves an interstate company and a consultant who appear to have a conflict of interest.
At the same time three local operators, Bush Mob, Tangentyere Council and a third provider are largely bypassed by her department, in favour of the SA based Operation Flinders, said Mr Allen.
Ms Wakefield said that during the recent holidays funding had been provided to the Tangentyere Women’s Safety Group for taking “some girls out for one or two nights” resulting in a rap video now on her Facebook page.
Mr Allen provided documentation to the News that psychologist Ivan Raymond of Connected Self is a provider to the NT Government as a formulator of early intervention youth boot camp program guidelines, as well as an evaluator of such programs. He also has close financial ties to the Operation Flinders.
Local industry sources say that some of the recommendations from Dr Raymond can be met only by Operation Flinders. Ms Wakefield denies that. The News is asking its informants to provide further, more specific information, and will publish it when it comes to hand.
WAKEFIELD: That review was commissioned under the previous government.
NEWS: You are now sending children to Operation Flinders.
WAKEFIELD: The report gives some very specific recommendations about what worked well. They declared their interest in the report, so it’s all very transparent.
NEWS: What is the benefit?
WAKEFIELD: What we’ve heard anecdotally, and it hasn’t been all reviewed yet because we haven’t finished the last bit of the process, but some of the workers said they really noticed that kids had come out of their shell, that their leadership skills were really to the fore, and these are the things [the youth workers] are now working with them about putting into place in their life, as they continue to work with them post camp. It’s not a summer camp, it is a therapeutic camp about kids really facing some challenging issues in a supported environment. We think the Royal Commission will make recommendations in this area so we didn’t want to set up anything too permanent. This is not a long term contract.
The following was the most direct answer Ms Wakefield gave in our 28 minute interview:-
NEWS: If there is going to be no fracking, what’s going to flow in the Tennant Creek to Mt Isa pipeline already under construction (photo from Jemena’s website)?
WAKEFIELD: There is more than enough gas off-shore.