COUNCIL REJECTS MOU WITH GOVERNMENT
Above: Custodian Doris Stuart addressing last night’s public meeting in the council chambers. To her right are Owen Cole and Harold Furber, to her left Ken Lechleitner. It was the first time local Aboriginal voices opposing the government’s plans for the location of the gallery and cultural centre had been heard in a public forum. They say the projects should go south of the Gap.
By KIERAN FINNANE
Government plans for the National Aboriginal Art Gallery took a pounding last night: Anzac Oval as a possible site, at least for the time being, is off the table.
Despite the best efforts of Mayor Damien Ryan, the Town Council rejected entering into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Territory Government to progress the “Anzac Hill Precinct” as the preferred site for the gallery.
At the end of a protracted debate, only Councillor Matt Paterson supported the Mayor’s attempt to “stay in the room” with the government on their plans for this site.
The popular revolt against the gallery being sited at Anzac Oval had continued. At least 100 visitors crowded into council chambers, mostly to voice their discontent with the plans in a 40-minute session with councillors before their meeting started. The visitors included, for the first time in this forum, prominent local Aboriginal people, some of whom are involved in planning the National Indigenous Cultural Centre.
The government has begun to talk about the co-location of this project with the gallery, but once again has failed to consult the people that mattered – the Aboriginal initiators of the idea.
“No-one has asked our families about this major international project planned by the NT Government to be at Anzac Oval,” native title holder Margaret Furber-Ross told the meeting.
She has been closely associated with the planning for a National Indigenous Cultural Centre. Her brother Harold Furber, who chairs the NICC committee, was also present last night, as was Owen Cole, a member of the NICC committee, Mparntwe apmereke-artweye (custodian) Doris Stuart, Philip Watkins, co-chair with Hetti Perkins of the snubbed gallery steering committee, Ken Lechleitner, Mick Liddle, Patricia Miller, to name a few.
At right: Mick Liddle on the microphone; Patricia Miller seated next to him; Councillors Cocking and Banks in the foreground (backs to camera).
Failure to consult with them and their families contravenes Australia’s international obligations under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, said Ms Furber-Ross.
Article 31 of the declaration upholds the rights of Indigenous peoples “to maintain, protect and develop their cultural heritage” as well as “the manifestations” of their cultures, including oral traditions, literatures, visual and performing arts.
Ms Furber-Ross said families want the project for Alice Springs, but oppose siting it at Anzac Oval “as it has too many issues and problems associated with it”. Rather, it should be situated south of the Gap “due to obligations towards our cultural protocols”. (This of course knocks out Desert Park, the location preferred by the steering committee.)
She implored council to not sign any agreement that “undermines Indigenous Authority according to the Native Title Act and the UN Declaration” and that impacts on “the shared public facilities we all have at Anzac Oval”.
There was strong support around the room for this stance.
“The aim of the gallery was intended to be a place of cultural exchange,” said resident Joan Carpenter.
“Instead it has turned into argument that is dividing this town.”
Mrs Carpenter did not mince her words about the process to date, one of “deceit, collusion, misleading information and disrespect”.
She deplored the disrespect shown to the citizens of Alice Springs but also to the steering committee, whose report was disregarded by government, wasting “$200,000 of our taxpayers’ money”.
She described the public consultation on the project as “pathetic”: “one of the greatest attempts by a government in Darwin telling the people in The Centre what is best for us” and then spending even more money “trying to convince us” (a reference to its extensive advertising campaign).
Above: Joan Carpenter on the microphone, flanked by Cr Eli Melky and Deputy Mayor Jamie de Brenni. Councillors seated from left, Jacinta Price, Matt Paterson, Glen Auricht, Marli Banks, Jimmy Cocking and Catherine Satour.
The gallery was “never intended to be an argument to revitalise the town centre”, continued Mrs Carpenter.
“It was never intended to be at Anzac Oval, the site rejected by the committee” and “it was never intended to be a trade-off of the town’s much-loved historical oval for two football fields.”
Deputy Mayor Jamie de Brenni responded to this speech, saying “we’ve been just as frustrated as everyone by the lack of consultation – we’ve been hung out”.
Custodian Doris Stuart continued the devastating critique: “I speak for this country. I‘m registered in the Federal Court as a native title holder. If they think that rugby is going to go in the foothills, no, no, no. That is very important to us.”
This referred to the so-called greenfield site between Bradshaw Drive and the Mount Gillen range that is being promoted by the government as an alternative home for the two rugby codes, freeing up Anzac Oval for the gallery.
Mrs Stuart said rugby can stay at Anzac Oval, “which also is on a sacred site and always has been”, but rejected it as a site for the gallery “if you’re following tradition”.
Like Ms Furber-Ross, she supported a site south of the Gap: “They talk about culture, that’s not culture, having that gallery up there. Culture is through the Gap, that’s where people had to wait before they could be invited into this country.”
“Why do we need to bring in [to Mparntwe] other stories that don’t belong here?” she asked, to applause.
Wayne Thompson, organiser with Yvonne Driscoll of the protest, spoke from a tourism industry perspective, having carried 25,000 visitors around Alice in his coaches last year.
“I‘m for it going south of the Gap. I’m for it being a greenfields project, I’m not for ripping something down, spending millions of dollars to rip something down, dig it up, throw it away, that’s a waste of money.
“I’m not for spending $20m plus to build a couple of football ovals when we’ve got a perfectly good one here!”
Above: Anzac Oval looking down from Anzac Hill / Untyeyetwelye.
Mr Thompson urged councillors to listen to the Traditional Owners: “What I think doesn’t matter, two TOs have spoken here tonight, they’re saying respect, south of the Gap, ask to be invited in.”
It is safe to say that these comments reflected the view of a strong majority in the room. But among the visitors there were also supporters of the government’s project.
Dave Batic spoke as general manger of Alice Springs Airport, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce and of the RSL.
The Alice Springs economy is in decline, he said, the airport data is irrefutable evidence of this. It needs a capital injection “of anything, doesn’t matter what it is”. But an iconic project could do it, something comparable with the Stockman’s Hall of Fame which had turned around the fortunes of Longreach in Queensland.
He said the chamber preferred a CBD location for the project, for the flow-on benefits to other businesses. He made no reference to the gallery’s cultural purpose but did refer to the military history of Anzac Oval and government’s assurances that it would be preserved – although he didn’t know how. This was greeted with cynical laughter.
He urged council to enter into the MOU with government: in this way every question raised last night could be answered.
This was the logic of Mayor Ryan’s motion to work with the Department of Tourism and Culture to develop a draft MOU, to progress its plans for the gallery on the Anzac Hill Precinct site.
Through such a process “we can control a lot of the discussion in the community”, said Mayor Ryan, who attended the meeting by phone.
His colleagues, though, were inclined to listen to the discussion, rather than control it. The question remains how.
Ms Driscoll had suggested canvassing views in the same mail-out as the rates notices. CEO Rex Mooney said that would be possible.
Cr Eli Melky supported consulting ratepayers as a starting point.
Cr Jimmy Cocking said this was jumping the gun, when council does not even have a position on the gallery and cultural centre.
Later in the evening the councillors rectified this, voting unanimously for Cr Cocking’s motion supporting Alice Springs as the home for both.
Cr Glen Auricht noted the support of a lot of business people for the Anzac Hill site, as well as a lot of misconceptions about the project. Nonetheless when it came to voting he did not support Mayor Ryan’s motion.
Neither did Cr Jacinta Price, who thought council needed to “put the brakes on”; the town needs an “economic injection” but it has to “bring the whole community along”.
Cr Marli Banks was concerned that neither site, Anzac Hill and Desert Park, meets the cultural values identified by the native title holders who had spoken earlier. She questioned the “legality” of the project proceeding in contravention of the UN declaration. Not only had the “right people” not been consulted, there had not even been a conversation with them, she said. This was the “wrong way of doing business”. She was unwavering in her opposition to the MOU.
Cr Matt Paterson agreed more consultation was necessary – not only with ratepayers, but the whole community including the traditional owners – but he was “scared” that if council didn’t sign the MOU with government, it would get “left behind”. His was the sole vote in support of Mayor Ryan’s motion.
Cr de Brenni reiterated that the consultation to date had been “appalling”. An MOU would have to look at all concepts for the gallery, not be limited to the Anzac Hill site.
However, that was not what the Chief Minister’s invitation to council said and it was not what Mayor Ryan was seeking support for.
Cr Catherine Satour said the town needs a much broader vision than the MOU was offering. This would be by way of a masterplan, looking at other ways of rejuvenating business, including by addressing the issues of antisocial behaviour and alcohol.
Cr Cocking said a masterplan (a plank of his election platform and unanimously supported by council in a motion last year) would provide the opportunity to move beyond project-driven development. If the future of Alice depended on a single project, such as the gallery, it was lost anyway, he argued.
Councillors later carried another motion from him, turning the tables on the government, inviting them into an MOU to develop a long-term integrated masterplan for the sustainable development of the town, including the development of a National Aboriginal Art Gallery and National Indigenous Cultural Centre.
They also voted for his motion, encouraging the government to “engage appropriately with a range of relevant Traditional Owners and Aboriginal stakeholders” over the two projects.
Without this being done “the right way”, the Alice Springs gallery would lose authenticity, it would be “the gammon gallery”, said Cr Cocking.
The Mayor’s final plea for support had nothing to say on the deficiencies of the consultation to date nor on the cultural purpose of the projects: his focus was on the jobs and business opportunities that they would bring. His colleagues however were not swayed.
“Centre of controversy: Contours of cultural recognition in a desert town” by Kieran Finnane in Griffith Review 60, First Things First.
This 343 page edition of the journal, released yesterday, “robustly examines what is at stake and what needs to happen for Indigenous and other Australians to come together after struggle”.
My essay looks at the faltering steps forward, but just as often backwards, when it comes to working with the town’s Arrernte custodians on cultural projects. It focusses particularly on three, the proposed Arrernte Living Cultural Centre, the staging of Parrtjima, and the proposed National Indigenous Art Gallery. The journal is available for purchase (online access for the next three months is limited to buyers or subscribers).