This post by me was published on ABC’s The Drum Feb 4th 2011 –

Blogger’s Note Feb 21st: Since this piece appeared, Nicholas Rothwell has written about Alice Springs in The Australian.  Many in Alice feel his views are distorted and do not truly represent the situation at all.

Post Begins

I’d like to stress that this is a personal opinion piece and in no way represents the views of the bodies I am a member of – in fact those organisations could hold completely the opposite view. As I fade into my final year as a local government politician, there are some issues I have watched closely and I summarise my personal view on things here.

Sometimes I wonder whether the political labels that currently exist have any bearing on current Australian culture. I think there was a turning point in the Northern Territory 3½ years ago when the conservative Howard Federal Government rode rough shod over us and sent in the military solution dubbed ‘The intervention’.

Suited in army fatigues they arrived, ripping up programs which did good in a myriad of ways before considering the ongoing consequences. Sadly, the good intentions of this initiative were overshadowed by the speed of implementation and arrogance of those in charge. It was a charge of the light brigade when the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ report had recommended a slower, community by community approach, where each community owned their own solutions.

Remember that this was ‘justified’ by the NT Government’s slow reaction to the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ report into child neglect in the NT. In hindsight we realise that the Territory had nowhere near the funds required to do what was needed. This eventually cost the Chief Minister her position.

At the same time, the NT Labor government continued with their unrealistic schedule of Local Government reform. The mess and heartache caused by the process of the birth of the Shires has largely gone unreported – 63 community government councils were amalgamated into 8 massive sparsely populated shires. The systemic failures can hide under the veil of Intervention fallout, but those close to the process knew it was flawed by haste and many lives were damaged by it.

I’m not too fussed about whether the Shire reform was or wasn’t necessary, it’s the process and speed which caused damage. The IT systems failure to deliver and the accounting consequences that followed will be the subject of many a report in years to come.

Also, during that time CDEP (Community Development Employment Program – essentially work for the dole with training included) was scrapped by the ‘conservatives’ (federal intervention) and bi-lingual education in Indigenous schools was butchered by the ‘progressives’ (NT government).

Local Government struggled through the onslaught of the two ‘senior’ levels of government. The landscape changed, the rules changed and representation will never ever reach the level it had climbed to. I was privileged to have witnessed the ‘golden age’ of representation when 63 community government Councils actively communicated their good and bad stories through membership of the Local Government Association NT (LGANT).

Prior to the eve of destruction, LGANT’s 2 general meetings a year brought representatives from far and wide across the territory in one forum to discuss their local issues face to face. (This still happens but representatives come from 8 shires, not 63 councils.) At these meetings, where white faces were a low minority, I learnt more than I have ever known about the Territory and the good work being carried out on communities. I heard speeches from indigenous leaders with vision and I was inspired and filled with hope.

Where are those representatives now and how do they have their voices heard? Many are trying to hold their communities together, driving daily past the insulting ‘no pornography’ signs, still trying to get better roads, health care and education out to their homelands.

Another story could be inserted here about the rise and fall of support for indigenous homelands. Along with that they must bear the burden of having had the whole nation label all aboriginal people as dysfunctional and hopeless. Prior to the intervention and LG reform things were a lot less hopeless than they are now.

My soul burns with anger when I look at the mess made by the haste of the Howard government intervention and the NT government LG reform process. People left their communities in droves and gravitated to the urban centres like Katherine and Alice Springs, and many subsequently lost their way. When I brought this up publicly at a LGANT meeting with the Major General in charge, I was chastised and told that he could prove there had been no statistical effect on urban centres.

Consequently towns like Alice Springs could not gain support to access Intervention funding for additional social services required to support the influx to urban centres. In my opinion many aboriginal people gave up the fight to keep themselves together during this process, especially when CDEP was cut. I personally believe that CDEP was a thin thread that kept some people’s pride intact whilst they dealt with helping their families and communities.

So where to from here? We can only try to move on and help each other gain a level footing. I was personally approached by leaders from communities who were concerned about how we can work together to help get their youngsters back on track. Many worry deeply about kids getting into trouble in the urban centres.

In the wake of past overzealous government reforms, we had Rudd’s apology which was so very important. We also had our 2010 Australian of the Year who was a strong mental health advocate. Unfortunately, idealism and aspirational gestures do not filter down in any solid way unless there is a set of funded actions they are supporting.

This isn’t a left wing or right wing thing; it’s about recognising that all people have rights and responsibilities. The mystery of the sudden escalation in violence and waywardness on our NT streets can be attributed to the haste of specific government actions from both sides of the political spectrum.

Many people here in the NT are sad, broken, depressed and lonely. The most important thing is to resurrect conversations between the many groups, maintain respect and articulate how we can gather together and recreate a harmonious and diverse community.

More jails, more speeches and more radical political changes are not required. Let’s just get back to the plan set out in the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ report – the recommendations are sound, sane and simple – community by community, personal ownership of the solutions, compassion and joining together.