By KIERAN FINNANE
It would not have been comfortable being Brent Warren, sitting alone last night in the public gallery of the Town Council, taking verbal bullets for the Chief Minister.
Mr Warren (pictured below) is now the senior public servant in the Department of Chief Minister (DCM), with the happy task of navigating the fractious relationship between the NT Government and council.
The Chief Minister sets the tone by taking pot shots from afar, in the media or via tardy correspondence.
A letter from him which sparked council’s fiery debate last night was received on 19 January, two months after council wrote to him about their concerns over “community safety” (read youth antisocial behaviour and crime).
That delay in itself was “an insult,” said Mayor Damien Ryan.
He also noted that while the Chief Minister’s disdain for council was all over the front page of the NT News yesterday, today he will be in town and has “not bothered to make an appointment.”
Councillors have previously noted that the Chief Minister has never set foot inside the Council Chamber in his official capacity.
The language of the Chief Minister’s letter appears innocuous but he fails to acknowledge any legitimate concern by council or to recognise council’s contribution to local youth. His government has “invested more than any other Government in police, youth after hours services and youth diversion,” he wrote.
He invites council “to join us in our efforts in this space”: “The Council has many options available for youth and community activities and Government has offered funding for facilities that will engage the town’s youth.”
This response didn’t cut it in the context of the recent escalation of vandalism, break-ins and theft.
Councillor Eli Melky, already smarting from bad press that his latest suggestion of a curfew has drawn, was incensed: “Show us how our people have power to arrest, to detain … This is not addressing unlawful behaviour, criminal behaviour, those who throw rocks at cars, those who steal cars, those who steal food … those who beat people and get beaten themselves …”
If the Chief Minister is saying council should get involved, council could, he suggested, adopt the UK model of “a police and crime commissioner”, an elected official within local government.
He didn’t get into the nitty gritty but this would be revolutionary in terms of how policing is managed in the NT. The PCCs’ roles include appointing the Chief Constable (and potentially dismissing them), holding them to account for running the force, setting the police and crime objectives for their area, and setting the force budget.
In his remarks Cr Melky also took on youth services. They have “made youth a cash cow”, he suggested, with millions invested for questionable results. They need to be held to account.
The victims are not only those suffering the break-ins etc but the youth themselves, he argued, through their exposure to alcohol, violence, ill health, lack of education opportunities. And they need to be protected from the “organised” older people using them to commit crime.
The rhetoric and decibels built to a crescendo. Write back, he urged the Mayor, saying, “Dude, you failed this community, you’re just not welcome in this town anymore, we don’t want you here, don’t show your face, just send someone who can do the job.”
Cr Jimmy Cocking tried to lower the temperature, acknowledging Mr Warren in the gallery, saying that council needs to talk with him: the Chief Minister needs to be made aware of the work council is doing, for example, with their youth empowerment initiative.
He argued against sending another letter to the Chief Minister but rather to “keep cool heads” and keep working with him – democratically elected to his role, after all – and his department.
Cr Jamie de Brenni agreed, sort of, but he also caught Cr Melky’s fire, eyeballing Mr Warren: “I hope you’re taking on board the sincere desperation and passion in this room … Go back to the Chief Minister, get off our back, and join us.
“This isn’t political … this is pure community frustration …Be our voice, we are ratepayers, taxpayers, we are paying you, be our voice.
“… We have worked bloody hard, we’ve copped nothing but criticism … it’s about time the Chief Minister’s Department worked with us.”
Cr Catherine Satour spoke of the “very, very challenging” experience of councillors as they are confronted every day by their constituents asking about what is being done.
“It’s hard to be sensible at this level of crisis,” she said.
Social services are “not working effectively”: not getting “the outcomes of happy and safe community.”
Government and community need to come together, “talk it out, change it”, “change is difficult”, the conversation will be hard – “You’re not going to like what you’re going to hear.”
“It’s been a tough couple of months,” she said with emotion. “The community needs us.”
Cr Marli Banks drew a connection between “looking at trying to make inroads on dysfunction” and the dysfunctional relationship between the NT Government and council.
Both parties need to have “maturity” about sitting down together: “If we point fingers, we’re not going to go anywhere.”
Acknowledging first “frontline staff who keep us safe” – police, ambulance – Cr Matt Paterson said he looked forward to working with the DCM and Mr Warren.
Cr Glenn Auricht did not take to the microphone in this debate; Deputy Mayor Jacinta Price was an apology at the meeting (she was also absent from the last council meeting although then she was on personal leave.)
Out of it all came two actions: one, request a meeting between council CEO Robert Jennings and Mr Warren – “sooner rather than later”, said the Mayor – to fully understand what the government’s inter-agency taskforce on these issues is doing; and two, request a meeting between council and the Chief Minister.
(On the first, it would be surprising if Mr Jennings were not across that detail, as he already meets fortnightly with the DCM and senior police, but he did not comment on the proposed action last night.)
Cr Cocking recalled the early hope for a fruitful relationship with the then young Labor government back in 2017 when they set up the Inland Capital Committee and a master-planning process that have disappointingly yielded little.
A new framework for dialogue – something like a National Cabinet arrangement – is needed, he said.
Council could ask for that at the meeting with the Chef Minister, said the Mayor.
Last updated 29 January 2021, 4.05pm.