If the best time for seeing Member for Lingiari Warren Snowdon in Alice Springs is in election campaigns, that’s perhaps because he is “never at home”: Apart from duties in Canberra, he is getting around the vast electorate, as he has been for three decades.
Right: Celebrating a Labor victory in the last NT election, hoping for the same on May 18. Photo from our archive.
He is deeply familiar with the issues yet has few answers for the electorate’s thorniest problems, from juvenile crime to the cost of flights in and out of the electorate and its impact on tourism, to economic development on Aboriginal land and the disadvantage besetting many Aboriginal families.
He has a clear commitment, however, to reform the controversial CDP (work for the dole) program.
He explains why he’s changed his mind on Pine Gap, dismissing concerns as “frivolous” and “unsubstantiated”.
Boosts to the economy will come from outside: defence spending , an injection of money into Aboriginal housing, and fracking, “public debate” notwithstanding. As for the Territory’s fiscal crisis, that’s a Territory Government responsibility.
Mr Snowdon spoke to Alice Springs News editor ERWIN CHLANDA.
NEWS: You’ve been in Parliament almost continuously for a generation, 30 years. Congratulations! But at the moment the Alice Springs population is stagnant, many businesses have closed, juvenile crime is out of control, tourism is in sharp decline and people are living behind high fences. Where to from here?
SNOWDON: That’s a very good question and I don’t know that I’ve solely got the answer. The community wants answers to what has been driving some of the social issues. Some of those can be resolved by changing the way we’re doing our business in the bush. For example, people are relocating to Alice Springs because they don’t have access to benefits as a result of being cut off CDP [Community Development Program]. That creates pressure on the town. If we are successful in the election we are going to scrap CDP and develop a new program. We will need to talk to people first to see what they want, but potentially, it will look like the old CDEP [Community Development Employment Program], so we can provide people with a lot more certainty, not knock them off benefits for six to eight weeks at a time, and not create a reason to relocate out of the community somewhere else.
NEWS: You basically started CDEP and it went through many changes over the years. What should be changed to its present form?
SNOWDON: Firstly it would be a program designed in partnership with communities across the bush. I’ve been talking to them for a number of months now. We are certainly intent on scrapping the car [parts recycling] program, and the punitive aspects that are causing a great deal of harm. [The revised program] may well look like the old CDEPs, part time work for part time pay, no work no pay, money unexpended being reinvested back into the community for wages top-up, which is very popular, jobs allowing people working longer than 15 or 20 hours.
On tourism, Mr Snowdon said his “take” was not as “bleak” as the picture put to him by the Alice Springs News: “I think there is an issue around flights but the industry is doing pretty well here compared to other parts of the NT.”
NEWS: I was talking about the earnings in Alice Springs, which are decreasing, compared to the Ayers Rock Resort region, where they are on the way up. Is there something the Federal Government can do about airfares? Qantas is now a private company.
SNOWDON: Sadly, I guess in retrospect … when Qantas was privatised I remember one of the arguments was that people in regional and remote areas would be disadvantaged. And that’s potentially what’s happened. I am not sure what a government can do to interfere in the flight market other than putting moral pressure on the companies.
NEWS: Is the Territory viable as an administration? It gets, per capita, around five times the national average funding but it is currently some $3.5bn in debt, and losing $4m a day. Will a federal Labor government bail out the NT?
Mr Snowdon replied by pointing to extensive commitments announced by Labor during the election campaign, “investing a huge amount of money directly into the Territory.” He continued:
SNOWDON: Bill Shorten and his Shadow Treasurer have said they are happy to have open discussions with the Territory Government after the elections [about the fiscal crisis]. Historically the Territory has been dependent on the Federal Government for 75% to 80% of their budget. This has been the case since self government and will continue.
NEWS: Would there be a direct grant from Canberra for what the NT Government calls budget repair?
SNOWDON: That discussion could happen, absolutely, but I’m not in a position, and neither is anyone else, to commit a future Federal government of whatever persuasion.
NEWS: Who or what guarantees the money the Territory is borrowing? It is not a state. The final responsibility of what happens here is in Canberra. Could the lender not come to Canberra and say, hey, the administration in the Northern Territory, for which you are responsible, can’t pay us back. Give us the money.
SNOWDON: The NT Government is responsible for any debt it incurs. It has a responsibility to repay it. And it will.
Mr Snowdon says substantial Federal funds are ready to be injected into the NT, including for defence in the Top End: “There have been packages of defence contracts which have been able to be let but which have not been let.”
He says he has met with the business community which wants that expenditure to be brought forward: “There is no reason why it can’t be. It has been budgeted for.”
Another initiative under Labor would be “a decade’s worth of funding” for housing – $1.1bn with matching funding from the NT Government, 2700 new dwellings: “Because the Aboriginal population is increasing quite rapidly demand for housing is increasing almost exponentially. The replacement housing stock hasn’t been sufficient to meet demand,” he says.
NEWS: What would be the difference to the cost of building houses in the bush, which is about double that of the cost in town, if the prospective tenants were required to help with the construction, as labourers, for example?
Right: A maintenance crew in the Utopia homelands in a program run by the Centre for Appropriate Technology, photo from our archive.
SNOWDON: I will be part of discussions about this if we are successful in the elections. We’ve done things very badly in the past. We haven’t engaged people in their community sufficiently for them to be responsible, and be part of the building process, having ongoing skills and being able to do the work themselves. That’s a key part of what we need to do [and enable them to] manage the ongoing maintenance and future development of new housing. We’d be spending around $200m a year.
NEWS: But amazingly this isn’t something that has happened in the past, to a siginificant degree. It is something that is in the future.
SNOWDON: I am very critical of the SIHIP Program [the NT’s Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program] for example. It produced a lot of houses but not a lot of engagement. I think the model itself is wrong. The current NT Government, with its community to community place-based approach, can deliver that sort of outcome in partnership with the Commonwealth and Aboriginal organisations.
NEWS: How do you reconcile Labor’s support for an expanded unconventional natural gas industry and the need to respond to climate change? The Centre, as with the rest of the country, has experienced record-breaking extreme weather conditions during the past summer, and the BOM has stated this is consistent with human-induced climate change.
SNOWDON: There is a clear ongoing demand in the Australian economy for access to gas reserves, conventional or unconventional, until we can change the mix of energy sources. Fracked gas is ultimately the responsibility of the NT Government. They have a commitment to develop the Beetaloo Basin based on the Pepper Report and its 135 recommendations. I think that’s not an unreasonable approach. The Commonwealth engagement is merely through the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and the water trigger. We have committed ourselves to a new environmental protection act which will no doubt contemplate the strength of those [Pepper Report] measures.
NEWS: There is much public opposition to fracking.
SNOWDON: Gas extraction is an important issue for public debate, however, that debate should not distract from our obligation to achieve the best environmental outcome possible and to continue to strive for the meeting of ambitious greenhouse targets as well as incentives for the development of alternative energy sources.
NEWS: During your long time in Parliament you’ve been in Opposition as well as in Government. Are there opportunities for an MHR to put forward well researched and costed proposals that can become reality across party and jurisdictional lines, with a MHR acting as a kind of broker? For example, the Federal Government recently built a railway overpass, generally considered unnecessary, near Alice, for $24m. That money could have built 24 kilometres of the sealed Outback Way if this were done by a Territory company, or 72 kilometres if done by the Boulia Shire Council in Queensland who are quite happy to work on the other side of their border. To organise that would have involved several administrations but it would have provided a much better bang for buck for the public. Could an MHR be the broker for this kind of thing? Have you been involved in that kind of deal?
SNOWDON: We can always have a role. There was a question about the overpass. It is built now so there’s not a lot we can do about that. But there is a need for far more rational discussion around those sorts of issues, and there should be partnerships. Political divisions should be at the margins. There are ways in which we should be able to work together, Federally, Northern Territory, CLP, ALP, whatever, to get a benefit for the whole community. It does happen from time to time. For example, we’ve tried to de-politicise the Aboriginal health space and I think we’ve done that pretty effectively. It’s an area I’ve been heavily engaged in for a decade.
NEWS: How often in your three decades in Parliament has that taken place – something’s taken off across administrations and parliaments?
SNOWDON: In terms of Aboriginal Affairs, for example, there has often been a bi-partisan view about things. There obviously hasn’t been since the Howard Government. There is a fairly consistent view about policing, border protection and defence. On the Northern Australia stuff we’ve got a committee which I am the deputy chair of. It’s very strongly bi-partisan. Committees in Parliament are bi-partisan.
NEWS: Can you give me a couple of examples in Central Australia where that provided tangible benefits?
SNOWDON: One is support for the Tanami Road. There was a desire by the people in the Kimberley to have that road developed and that has suited us, beyond Yuendumu and across to Hall’s Creek, and I know it will be a commitment which will be met. There are agreed positions about Aboriginal heart disease. These examples are not uncommon.
NEWS: You were involved in Aboriginal land rights from the beginning, as a staffer of the Central Land Council. As a politician you benefitted from the perception that Gough Whitlam played an important role in land rights. 40 years later, what are the benefits of land rights for Aboriginal people who now have inalienable freehold ownership of half the Territory?
SNOWDON: It’s given them the certainty of their ownership of the country, which is what their desire was, in terms of cultural maintenance and spiritual affiliation, as the original owners of the land. It’s given them control over their country, and it will now allow them, as they are doing, to enter into commercial agreements and arrangements with people around development on their land, whether it’s tourism or other infrastructure, mining and the like.
NEWS: One way of gauging the benefits of land rights would be the number of Aboriginal owned companies operating on Aboriginal land, in Central Australia, and how many people they employ, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal.
SNOWDON: I have no idea. One of the issues which confronts the development opportunities is education. We’ve provided access to education with varying degrees of success. We’ve got to do a lot better to give people access to further training, including to run their own business. In 1996 we had mobile business incubators.
NEWS: Yet so many years later we still cannot identify how many functioning businesses there are on Aboriginal land in Central Australia.
SNOWDON: I’d have to go to every community and do an audit to see what’s going on. And I haven’t done that.
NEWS: Why is there so little take-up of land leasing opportunities under the Land Rights Act on Aboriginal land, by Aboriginal people as well as non-Aboriginal people?
SNOWDON: I don’t have an answer to that. I ask myself the same question. If you visit some of the larger communities across the NT – Wadeye, Maningrida, Galiwinku – they are bigger than Tennant Creek. I ask myself, why is it that there is not the same diverse economy as exists in other centres around Australia that are about that size. I don’t have an answer to that question. I ask it all the time.
NEWS: The Top End seems to have more entrepreneurs that Central Australia.
SNOWDON: It could well be a factor of the size of the communities. There are business opportunities but whether people want to take them up is a different question. If you and I had the answer, mate, we wouldn’t have to ask the question.
NEWS: The present Labor Government in the NT is spending vast amounts of money on consultancies and on departmental staff in the child welfare system. There are programs to assist parents, but there is no resolute initiative to place enforceable obligations upon them to look after their children. Should there be? The law says they must provide the necessities of life for their children.
SNOWDON: I was at a meeting last week with Linda Burney and a number service providers in the town here. [Ms Burney is the first Aboriginal woman to be elected to the Australian House of Representatives, winning the seat of Barton in the 2016. She was the NSW Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Minister for Education and Shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.] We were looking at a $600m package nationally on issues to do with family violence. I don’t think there is a simple answer to any of this. Clearly, it’s a problem in some families, not all. In some cases there are inter-generational mental health issues, trauma. There is a lot of undiagnosed foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. It’s not as simple as saying parents have to actually assert their responsibilities.
NEWS: Does the state have to step in all the time?
SNOWDON: I think there are sadly some who find it very difficult to understand how to carry out these responsibilities. We need supporting structures. We’ve got a notion that what we must do is spend a lot more time working with women and their partners before they become parents, and beyond, so you have got healthy children born in a healthy environment in a safe place. Family Partnerships in Alice Springs is around having visiting professionals, nurses and health workers, visiting mums in their households from pregnancy till the age of two. That’s the sort of thing that would make a very material difference.
NEWS: We have a hundred plus kids roaming the streets in Alice Springs every night. What should we be saying to their parents?
Left: Volunteers feeding and talking to kids on the street at night. Photo from our archives.
SNOWDON: We need to find out their individual circumstances and I don’t know that. We have announced what we call a Foyer for kids between 16 and 24. Those who are homeless will be given two years of accommodation provided they participate in education, health and well-being.
NEWS: Again, it’s the state doing something. We’re not saying to the parents, it’s your obligation to look after your kids.
SNOWDON: There are some parents who are incapable of it. And they need assistance. [If we were] all well-educated, middle class people without any health issues, without any inter-generational issues, who understand their obligations we’d all be living in easy street. But that isn’t the case. We have to be very careful we don’t stigmatise people for who they are. Violence and abuse cannot be accepted. There absolutely must be interventions. But at the same time I think we’ve got to be working with young people in particular. That’s an exercise that involves the whole community, not just the families.
NEWS: You were involved in protests against Pine Gap in the 1980s. You were also strongly opposed to Australia’s involvement in the Second Gulf War of 2003. What’s your attitude to the current role Pine Gap plays in clandestine operations in other countries?
SNOWDON: You are asserting what they are doing. I’ve had the privilege of being a Minister in the Defence Portfolio and have a deep understanding of the role of Pine Gap. It’s just wrong to make frivolous assertions which are unsubstantiated. It’s very important that we appreciate the strength of our relationship with the United States, the importance of Pine Gap in a whole range of areas, and I admit absolutely that my views about this have changed – changed quite dramatically since the days when I was demonstrating against Pine Gap’s presence here. But I still haven’t changed my attitude towards war. I am not quite a pacifist but I am very anti war.
NEWS: So you have a fair understanding what is going on there but you are not allowed to share it or you don’t want to share it with the public.
SNOWDON: There are things where I have been privileged to get an understanding. Because of the nature of the understanding, I am not at liberty to talk to other people about it. I am not in a position to make any comment beyond what is available from publicly available sources about Pine Gap’s information and intelligence gathering operations.
Mr Snowdon says he visits major communities in his electorate two to three times a year. “I’m never at home, let me put it that way.”