ABOVE AND BOTTOM OF PAGE: Moving the treasures of Alice Springs to the centre of the town’s commercial endeavours: Looking west from the top of Mount Gillen, and view to Mount Sonder in the West MacDonnells.
By ERWIN CHLANDA
Pushing the government to more vigorously promote tourism and get cheap flights, a “yes” to fracking if it’s “sustainable and environmentally friendly,” a new privately funded tourism asset in the West MacDonnells that’s still under wraps, and getting the national Indigenous cultural centre out of the starting blocks after seemingly endless consultation.
All that’s part of the town’s 2018 agenda as seen by Kay Eade (at right), Executive Officer of the Chamber of Commerce in Alice Springs.
Likely to remain in the too hard basket, she thinks, are Family Minister Dale Wakefield’s grappling with troubled and troublesome kids, black-white collaboration on antisocial behaviour and getting a handle on what Lhere Artepe actually does.
Asked how she would describe Alice Springs to someone who’s never heard of the place, Ms Eade said: “It’s a service centre for about 260 communities in Central Australia home to staff of NGOs and businesses providing those services.”
NEWS: That seems a bit mundane. What happened to the romantic town surrounded by stunning scenery and full of people steeped in pioneering adventures and the world’s oldest living culture?
EADE: The town is still on every tourist’s bucket list but unfortunately, a lot of negative media, especially social media, has highlighted issues no different to those everyone has. Look at Melbourne at the moment, we have nowhere near what they are going through, but people don’t stop visiting Melbourne. We’re an isolated place and that magnifies the issues. The media turn it into a war zone. We do have a high level of crime but not the murders and the drive-by shootings. People don’t know and don’t respect our town and our way of life.
NEWS: Quite a few of the disturbances are caused by kids. Minister Wakefield has started some initiatives. Have they been successful?
EADE: It’s too early to tell. Some of these kids are outside the fringe even. There is nothing anyone can do to harness those kids. But you’ll always have those elements, no matter where you live, of kids who run amok and have no respect for anything or anybody, including themselves. We have this issue every year.
EADE: The judicial system, human rights groups, the Don Dale Royal Commission are just tying up everyone’s hands behind their backs. You can’t fix it.
NEWS: Some of the kids are eight or 12 years old. The Minister is responsible for their safety and care if no-one else will look after them.
EADE: What do you do? Take these children off the streets and put them where? We’re flat out attracting enough foster carers for those who are in the system now. You’ve got some grannies looking after six or seven kids. Do you find other accomodation for them and then be accused of creating another stolen generation?
NEWS: Has it come to this: We need a place of care for them where they are safe and loved, but are not free to leave until a permanent safe place for them has been found?
EADE: There is nothing to stop kids from doing whatever they want. Take them to a home? An institution? Boys’ homes? Girls’ homes? The human rights people have put the kybosh on that. It’s gone by the wayside because people think it’s inhumane to do that.
NEWS: An approach to the town council by senior elders, including Phil Alice, seeking collaboration in dealing with troubled and troublesome kids has gotten nowhere so far.
EADE: I’m not sure whether Phil is part of Lhere Artepe [the town’s native title organisation]. When we had unrest here in 2011, with some 200 people from out bush staying here and causing havoc, Mayor Damien Ryan visited all the bigger communities. He told them when we come to their communities we respect their rules and customs. We don’t come and trash your communities and explained our expectations when they come to our town. That had a really good effect. But anti-social behaviour has escalated again in the past 12 months and I don’t know why. There are a lot of people in town again from communities who are not going home.
NEWS: What, in your view, is Lhere Artepe and what should it be doing?
EADE: I have no idea. It always eluded me what it is that they actually do.
NEWS: Tourism at Alice Springs and tourism at Ayers Rock Resort. What comes to mind?
EADE: Ayers Rock Resort has a lot of backing. Airfares for a start. I don’t understand how they can get such cheap flights. I hope our government makes itself heard by the Senate Standing Committees on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport.
NEWS: Should the $20m earmarked for the revitalisation of the CBD be spent in the West and East MacDonnells instead? Because after all, they are more likely to be the destination for tourists rather than a central business district.
EADE: Some should be spent in the CBD, because tourists to a region always visit the main town as well. You go up the Mall, see what shops there are, find accommodation. That’s the first impression people get. First impressions leave a lasting impact. For example, in summer this Mall is too hot. Maybe we need more trees, rip the paving up and put grass down. But that’s up to the experts. It’s quite a pretty town, neat and tidy, but it needs to lose a bit if its, put simply, brownness. We need to become a bit more vibrant.
NEWS: Do you think the experts have been doing a good job over the last decade or two in terms of revitalising the centre of the town?
EADE: I don’t think so. We need something to bring people here. It could be something simple, like a little fountain they have in the Darwin mall, for the kids. There’s a cafe, people could sit there with their kids, they’re attracted to water. It adds a bit of vibrancy. Everything is just brown, the paving, shops are painted ochre, most of them.
NEWS: Do you know of any private enterprise initiatives to create tourism assets, such as local business people getting together and building wilderness lodges in the West and East MacDonnells?
EADE: I don’t know about this year but I know it’s on the table.
NEWS: Whose table is it on?
EADE: I can’t say, until they make an announcement. They are doing a business plan.
NEWS: Are the people making the plans you speak of local or interstate?
NEWS: In the West Macs?
NEWS: When is this likely to pop?
EADE: I don’t know. They’re doing feasibility studies. It would be a great initiative. There are some great eco lodges around the world. All our infrastructure, including Glen Helen and Ross River, is very old. Some tourists like the old world charm, but many would prefer a different experience. We need to be able to provide accommodation to suit all visitors.
NEWS: Is Tourism NT promoting Alice Springs enough, and this would include the MacDonnell Ranges?
EADE: I really don’t think they are. Before I came down here, from Darwin, 14 years ago I had never heard of Ellery Bighole, I’d heard vaguely of Ooraminna, never heard of Glen Helen, Ross River, Hermannsburg. I knew of course about the Rock, and about King’s Canyon and Ormiston vaguely. And that’s living in the same Territory.
NEWS: Are you suggesting, in terms of promotion, not much has changed?
EADE: It has improved. The government has done a lot with operators to help them with their own marketing. I’m not quite sure what else they have done.
NEWS: Do you know why sealing the Outback Way costs twice as much in the NT as it does in Queensland and WA?
EADE: It could be because of the road is going in part through Aboriginal land. Permits may be needed. Where do they get the gravel from? Are local pits not being made available? Does it have to come from Alice Springs? I know there was an issue like that with the Mereenie Loop. The traditional owners would not allow the use of gravel from their land.
NEWS: Are the big lobbies in town, your Chamber of Commerce, the Town Council, Tourism Central Australia, Congress and Arid Lands Environment Centre collaborating to put pressure on the government about the development of Alice Springs?
EADE: Congress and ALEC have their own agendas but the first three used to meet quite regularly. We haven’t done it recently but we’re on the same page.
NEWS: What has that collaboration achieved for the town last year, 2017?
EADE: We have pushed for lower air fares.
NEWS: But we still don’t have them.
EADE: No, we do not. The Queensland and WA governments pushed prices down. We need our government to really push for that as well. We are having a survey of businesses on that issue right now. Current air fares are detrimental to business and tourism and even population growth. The cost of flying to see families is having a huge impact.
NEWS: Where is the national Indigenous cultural centre at?
EADE: I’d like to see some of these projects the government is working on come to fruition. How may times have you been asked to have your say? Consultation is great but let’s move on. How much money is being spent on consultation? I understand that after the last government, this one wants to involve the community. I get that. But how long has the fracking moratorium been going? You can’t please everybody as they have their own beliefs, and governments are elected to make decisions on our behalf. If the majority of the community is in agreement, and the project will benefit the people of the Territory, government should make a decision, and make it happen.
NEWS: Should there be fracking?
EADE: We are trying to cope with our reduced GST allocation. We have the resource sector, rare earths, precious metals, salt, on our doorstep. It has the possibility of topping up some of this revenue shortfall but we’re still waiting for answers. Starting a mine, from go to woe, can take up to 10 years.
NEWS: Should fracking go ahead then, do you think?
EADE: The Chamber makes no assertions regarding the science of hydraulic fracturing, other than to note that it has been safely carried out at Mereenie for many years. We also note that hydraulic fracturing is acceptable in other states, giving these states a significant competitive advantage over the Northern Territory in attracting investment and meeting the needs of the nation. We would like to see the NT in the same position as the other states, to ensure that Territorians have similar economic opportunities. We hope that if onshore gas development it is to proceed, it is done in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner. It’s up to the regulators to ensure this occurs.
NEWS: Who would make the judgment whether it is safe or not?
EADE: Isn’t that what Judge Pepper and her inquiry are doing? [A scientist from CSIRO] told me in Australia there have been no incidents. A lot of people take their data from America whose fracking procedures and infrastructure are outdated. These are not true facts from Australia. It’s different. It’s chalk and cheese. But at the end of the day there is always risk, and it is up to the government to minimise that risk and look after the community.