By JULIUS DENNIS
Mayoral and council candidate Aaron Blacker says Alice Springs has become stagnant in recent times, and that “getting people outside” and engaged with the community will be key to Alice Springs back to its “full potential.
“We haven’t really gone backwards over the last couple of years but we haven’t gone anywhere.”
Were he to don the Red Robe, Mr Blacker says that he would push for the town to not just be a “hub” for tourism, but also a place that people want to stay and live, not unlike his own family did when he was a child.
“Full potential is the difference between where we were 20 years ago and where we are now. 20 years ago, we would be the hub for tourism in Central Australia and we were a destination for people to move to. At the moment, we’re sort of a byline in tourism.”
It was a quiet start to the mayoral race for Mr Blacker. In fact, it took the Alice Springs News over a month and three journalists to finally get a hold of the candidate who is best known around town for his affiliation with both rugby league and rugby union.
However, as the race has heated up and early voting has gotten underway, Mr Blacker is framing himself as a real contender for centrist voters in this jam-packed race to fill the void left by Damian Ryan.
Where tourism has been a subject that has dominated the COVID-era of this town, Mr Blacker says retaining people as permanent members of the community will be essential to the long-term health of Alice Springs: “The tourists are key to the tourism dollar for four or five months of the year, but we also need to make Alice Springs an attractive place for people to move to. And then once people get here, we need to retain them.
“We want to make Alice Springs not just a stepping stone, but a destination.”
Getting people out of their homes for events and engaging them with the community is the best way to transfer transient workers to residents, says the candidate.
Mr Blacker remembers fondly when bands like Powderfinger and The Living End that were “in the top 10 in the hottest 100” would come to town.
“We need to get that back for the people travelling to see that as well as for the people of Alice Springs.”
Mr Blacker would also like to see local music given more of an opportunity to shine, as well as become a hub for musicians living in communities to come and perform. He remembers “numerous” Battle of the Bands type events that would draw local and travelling crowds.
(That’s something that already exists in a somewhat limited format, the Bush Bands Bash will be held at the Telegraph Station this September and the NT Music School Battle of the Bands will have a regional heat in the Centralian Middle School.)
“We don’t want people traveling away for opportunities, we want people traveling here for opportunities.”
The candidate also sees bringing sporting competition to a sports obsessed town as an opportunity gone begging on multiple fronts.
“I can’t remember the last time we had a whole bunch of Northern Territory representative titles here in Alice Springs.”
He says that while the council “don’t have the ability to change sporting bodies’ decisions” they can influence them: “The Northern Territory Government provides every peak sporting body in the Northern Territory with a sum of money at the beginning of every financial year, for them to grow and promote across the Northern Territory.
“We need to ensure through the government that those Territory championships, whether that be under 16s, under 21s or A-grade senior competitions, across cricket, netball, softball, rugby union and rugby league … we should be having one of those, or two of those, or three of those tryouts in Alice Springs every year.”
Mr Blacker says this will give individuals and families “without the coin” to get up to Darwin for try-outs the opportunity to excel in sports as well as bring valuable visitors and money to the town.
A popular subject for mayoral and council hopefuls has been the concept of bringing a printed paper back to Alice Springs.
Mr Blacker says that he doesn’t want to create a “paper in a traditional journalist sense,” but rather something that is more tangible than the current Council Connects, the monthly online PDF only magazine.
He says: “A lot of people have Facebook and a lot of people don’t have Facebook,” and that the paper needs to be something that clubs can easily send information to about events and sporting clubs can send results.
He suggests that it would be a weekly edition rather than the current monthly model, and much shorter so that it could be easily printed and accessible in places like the Senior Centre.
“My daughter just finished going to St Philip’s. Every Friday afternoon, they sent out a five to seven page newsletter that told you what was going on at the school, and three to four pages of community events that kids could get involved in.
“I found more information in that school based newsletter than what I can from Council Connects.
“I think we need to expand that Council Connects to include the school newsletters, to include local sporting events and local music. That’s a community connection, that’s what I’m getting at.”
Also like many other candidates, Mr Blacker says he wants to bring “integrity and accountability” back to the chamber.
“There’s been a stalemate of sorts for the last four years in council. I want to see counsellors, walk into that room with an agenda and a clear way they want to move forward.
“I think we need to really focus and concentrate on fixing what the council can fix.
“Don’t make issues bigger than they need to be — focus on what we can do in respect of our charter and move forward.”
Mr Blacker will be urging his supporters to place Matt Paterson and Eli Melky in the second and third spots on their mayoral ballots, and Mark Coffey in the number two slot when voting for Council.
Jimmy Cocking is placed last on both of Mr Blacker’s how-to-vote offerings.
PHOTO at top: The Blacker family (from left) Aaron, daughter Sarah, wife Heidi and son Mark-Anthony.
FOOTNOTE: Unexpected events have caused an interruption of the interview between Mr Blacker and reporter Julius Dennis. He will now contact the candidate – councillor by then? – next week and speak with him about “retaining people as permanent members of the community” as well as “local music given more of an opportunity to shine, become a hub for musicians living in communities to come and perform”. In line with the topic of this series, this will explore questions of projected expenses for the council, assets needed and their cost, management, promotion, the benefit (social and financial) to the town, community involvement and examples of the impact of such policies in other towns.