October 10, 2012

Three years ago a new position was created by the NT government, to provide independent oversight of policy and service initiatives – The Northern Territory Coordinator-General for Remote Services. It was devised to be an independent oversight and was given its own office – Office of Coordinator-General for Remote Services.

The brief was to monitor and advise on all aspects of remote service delivery and produce a 6 monthly report. Which it duly has, with the last being delivered just a few weeks ago to the new Minister for Indigenous Advancement, Allison Anderson.

In what must be a spectacular case of mis-placed optimism, the introduction stated;
“I can only hope that a renewed emphasis on ‘bush communities’ by the incoming CLP Government will ensure these matters are given greater priority and cooperation.”.

Because on Monday the Minister not only sacked the Co-rdinator General, but abolished the office. Apparently, the Co-ordinator General gave too much advice, advice the Minister believed that she didn’t need.

Some measure of the precipitousness of the move is that as of today, you can go the MoIA website where, on the left, proudly on display are 4 “Key Initiatives” and one of them is, you guessed it, the Co-ordinator General for Remote Services.

Ah, the NT, were yesterdays ‘Key Initiative’ is today’s road kill!

For now, the reports are still there. Read them while you can.

Alcohol Policy – Already in a Pickle?

October 10, 2012

The CLP sailed under the radar with its wooing of the bush vote with promises of a return to full-strength beer sales at remote townships with Clubs. Around 2006 sales of full strength beer at some Clubs were replaced with mid-strength or low alcohol beer, with a marked reduction in assaults reported by both Police and health services.

Now the new CM, Terry Mills, has come out in support of relaxing alcohol restrictions, though with a twist – there seems to be some kind of thought bubble about a plebiscite on the matter. It’s hard to really know what the plan is because this was not in the CLPs election platform and there has been silence from the NTs new Minister for Alcohol Policy.

The announcement has drawn fire from the CLP Federal Senator, Nigel Scullion, who played a role in delivering the bush seats that won the CLP government, stating that “alcohol in Aboriginal communities has never been a good thing – never”.

Though, this may play out differently how some are expecting. If it really was to be a plebiscite, there is little doubt that most remote communities would vote for a complete ban on alcohol sales.

Red Letter Day

August 26, 2012

Not because of a CLP victory, they governed from the inception of self-govt in 1978 until the loss in 2001, but because they have for the first time won on the back of support from the bush electorates, ie those made up mostly of indigenous Territorians.

CLP’s past electoral success was based on a strategy of winning the major urban centres, which it did with ease. Its stance towards the remote seats could be summed up as – you don’t vote for us, so screw you.

Now all that will have to change. The first sign of that was that the new CLP leader, Terry Mills, actually got out and talked to people out bush, and that they did some good candidate selection.  The pre-selection of  Maralampuwi  for the seat of Arafura was a smart move. He is a well respected man ,and not just on the Tiwi Is.

Labor, strangely, seemed to have adopted the old CLP strategy of shoring up the northern suburbs (Darwin) vote.  While that worked fine for the CLP, they never had a swag of remote electorates to lose in a hung parliament (12-12-1).  Someone was clearly asleep at the wheel as the sense of disillusionment  with Labor was palpable, over 3 things. Firstly,  the intervention: people felt let down that the Labor party seemed to go along with it, when they had expected some support to oppose.  The Labor Party’s last minute re-branding of the intervention can be seen as a belated nod to this reality.  Second, Labor managed to give the appearance that they were walking away from the outstations, a central element in indigenous self-determination.  And finally, the very unpopular move to amalgamate community councils into Shires was a poor policy choice, badly implemented. Even if the others could have been overlooked, this was salt in the wounds and a real blow to local decision making.

For its part, the CLP had promised to restore local decision making, support homelands/outstations and focus on employment.  How it proposes to achieve this is another question entirely, and most of what we have to go on amounts to little more than motherhood statements. The Homelands ‘policy’ consists of a massive 2 page document.  The only firm commitment at this point is $50m for homelands housing, which is for maintenance only and amounts to around $4000 per house per year.  CLP announcements and statements have waxed lyrical about the need for infrastructure projects; roads, bridges, housing.  All perfectly true.  Yet they need to square this with their other significant pledges, standard conservation election fare; reduce waste, and reduce government debt.  The infrastructure needs in remote areas would easily amount to hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s quite a juggling act the CLP are promising to perform.

And there is a little internal tension within the CLP. Former Federal MP, now MLA, David Tollner, has made no secret of his wish for the top job, and would be only to happy to depose Terry Mills.  Yet, Tollner has been very explicit in his opposition to outstations calling them “hell-holes”.

I predict a rocky road for this new partnership between the CLP and the bush electorates.

Stronger Futures

July 18, 2012

The NTER is officially dead, with the new stronger Futures legislation coming into effect on July 16.

Details of the changes have been slowly released over the last few months.  The official legislation is here, there’s a   Policy Statement, or, for the concentration impaired, the brief version.  Heck, there’s even a video.

The basics; RDA is reinstated.  Compulsory 5 yr leases go. Income management stays and so too, restrictions on alcohol and pornography.

RDA – the previous government had no choice but to exempt the NTER as it obviously targeted indigenous Australians.  While the RDA now applies, this current legislation, skirts in it intent, though not in principle. Income management now applies to places other than remote Aboriginal communities, but when you see the list of those places, it is clear that non-Indigenous Australians finding themselves subject to these new laws are mostly ‘collateral damage’. And it relates to a practical problem (one predicted here, IIRC) that the NTER encountered – people simply moved out of ‘prescribed areas’ to the nearest regional centre; Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Katherine, or Darwin. The SF legislation complies with RDA because it now encompasses Alice, Tennant and Katherine. Hang on, aren’t we missing one there??   Well, the fine upstanding citizens of Darwin can’t be tarred with this particular brush.

Compulsory leases – always a dumb, dumb and totally unnecessary policy.

Income management – stays and is extended as above.

Alcohol restrictions – little effect to date (again, as predicted).  As an example, alcohol related violence is up 25% in Alice in the past year, though this is part due to the migration effect from the NTER. There is little new here – planned changes continue to be punitive or restrictive (AOD Tribunal being an exception).  There remains too little emphasis on treatment services, especially on the ground in remote communities. Apparently there is going to be an independent review…..with a report due in 3 years.

Pornography restrictions remain in place, still with no evidence to support the original move, no evidence it has made a difference to anything in the last 5 years and none that it will do anything in the future.

Other stuff – there is an emphasis on school attendance, with a link put in place between school attendance and welfare payments, though I’ve yet to hear of many people actually being cut off . Truancy officers are on the ground.  After a short term increase in attendances in 2007-2008, things seem to be back to where they were. A vital area, but one where we seem to have made almost no progress.

Jobs – SF has identified more jobs as a priority and as a mark of its commitment to this, the Federal Govt has announced 50 new jobs as rangers across the NT.  Fifty.  50.  Yes, a five and then a zero.   Well, that’s unemployment taken care of……..

Outstations –were for the chop, but in a minor outbreak of commonsense, funding will continue and be somewhat increased over the next ten years.

Health – there is some interesting health stuff going on, not all directly related to SF, but I’ll look at that in the next post.

SF has its origins in the consultation on the NTER that the Federal Govt undertook in 2011 and the SF consultations in the same year.  I wrote a long post about it earlier in the year (WP ate it), but let me say that the claims of success are somewhat underwhelming when you look at the details behind the headlines.  It’s here  if you want to take a peek.

SIHIP: The Back Ground

September 13, 2010

I recently ran into the head of a small company that has been doing some great stuff in remote housing for about 20 years and I was keen to know why they weren’t involved in SIHIP.

But before we get to that – this company has had a focus on local employment and sustainability that would be invaluable to SIHIP. And by sustainability, I mean building stuff that is still working 12 months, and much longer, later. The problems common to remote housing are; use of incorrect materials for the setting, poor workmanship and failure to deliver ongoing maintenance. They have all these issues licked and the proven results to back it up –a recent study showed a decrease in hospital admissions by around 40% (no, this is not a typo) in communities where this mob were doing the housing. And just to address some common misconceptions, their survey of indigenous housing categorised housing issues based on cause, as follows; abuse/misuse – 10%, poor workmanship/incorrect materials – 25%, lack of routine maintenence – 65%.

So, why aren’t they involved in SIHIP? Didn’t want to maybe? – no. They were very keen and were part of the original consultations, but as described by my informer, the Government was very quickly swayed, and captured, by the major construction companies who argued that only they could get this going quickly and deliver the required cost efficiencies.

And didn’t that go well.

The Amazing Shrinking Housing Program.

September 13, 2010

It’s been quite a while – fulltime work and post-studies have left the well of motivation dry. But now that is over, hopefully there’ll be some regular updates here.

SIHIP continues to be the most salient aspect of the ongoing NT Intervention, so I’ll give a brief summary of what’s been going on.

Houses are popping up all over finally. There are now around 30-40 completed new houses at Nguiu on Bathurst Is. Things are moving along at Wadeye, and there is finally some action at Groote Eylandt and Oenpelli, where the most dramatic events unfolded. One of the alliance partners was Earth Connect, which managed to get itself sacked earlier this year due to the absence of KPIs, i.e, houses. As of January this year, Earth Connect had managed to put up 2 houses in Oenpelli despite having been on the ground for about 9 months. It’s not straight-forward to build in remote locations, but this is what these companies tendered to do, so one would expect they had worked out how to do it. But you’d be wrong. Earth Connect was plagued with problems getting staff, keeping them, plus some good old cock-ups. Oenpelli is cut off in the wet, so if you want to build between December and April, you need everything freighted in before the road closes. A key shipment arrived just prior to the wet – with nothing in it. Just empty shipping containers. Oops. Naturally, very little building went on in the following months.

This is key to understanding the whole SIHIP saga. A fundamental premise underpinning the Governments approach to SIHIP was the involvement of the private sector, and in particular, the bigger construction firms. The reasoning was that they would bring experience, economies of scale and private sector efficiency to the process that would help achieve the Governments crucial strategy of reducing overall costs, so that the projected number of houses could be built within the allocated budget. Which always struck me as a dubious proposition, given that the private sector is about turning a profit, and that profit had to come out of the SIHIP budget. This requires a belief in the myth of private/public duality; private – lean, mean and efficient, versus public – fat, bloated and inept. Which takes us to a particular example, highlighting this flawed conception.

The NT Auditor-General has been having a look at SIHIP and found this little gem; some aspects of project management were overlooked, so a private firm was put in charge. This function was eventually put back to the public service, who managed to do it for only 20% of the cost of the private firm. Never underestimate private sector incompetence or their ability to get their snouts in the public trough.

Which leads us to the title of the post. While things have been going along OK at Wadeye in terms of building (in no small part thanks to the Alliance sub-contracting out the work to the local Thamarrurr Corporation), a new controversy has erupted. Funding hasn’t shrunk, in fact given the above problems, it’s been increased. But in light of the hoped for cost-efficiencies evaporating, the new idea is to reduce the size of the houses and sub-divisions! Brilliant. Elders in Wadeye are far from impressed. Understandable, given that the original designs and plans were negotiated with them in a lengthy consultation process. It’s this kind of thing that informs the general Indigenous view of Government – that you never know what’s going on. Just when you think you some kind of understanding, they change the rules.

This is as a result of the SIHIP review (here – PDF), which, not surprisingly, found that the anticipated savings weren’t materialising.

IMHO, this was quite predictable and the fault lies with an overreliance on the private sector. What should have happened is that the existing housing associations, woefully underfunded for decades, should have been the frontline workforce. If private sector building expertise was needed at the start, it would have been quite reasonable to follow the Wadeye model and have an Alliance partner support the local association with surveys, planning, scoping, technical expertise and training with a view to then funding the local associations directly once they had demonstrated their ability to do the job. SIHIP could have been a fantastic opportunity for training, job creation and local economic development.

With SIHIP due to finish in 2013, let’s hope that some lessons have been learnt and the Federal Govt is having a good hard look at sustainability in remote housing building and maintenance programs. My suggestion – dump all the Alliance’s.


August 19, 2009

SIHIP is really in the news. Mostly as there appears to be a game of pin-the-blame-on-the-donkey. The donkey so far is one senior alliance executive, Jim Davidson. Given the growing media frenzy, it worth revisiting the origins of SIHIP.

SIHIP was singed into life in April 2008 and this is what I said about it at the time,

There is a new program, the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP) which has a $647 m budget for the next 3 years. The plan is to build 750 new homes, demolish and replace 250 and refurbish a further 2500. …This isn’t enough funding to achieve the stated aim, so one objective of the program is to achieve significant reductions in building costs. Other than through economies of scale it doesn’t say how it will achieve this. By my reckoning, the cost savings will need to be in the region of 50%, which is highly unlikely.

Now we have the ex-head of SIHIP saying that a further $200-300 m will be required. Well, even that won’t be enough, as has been pointed out often enough, the current program will meet about 25% of housing needs. No matter which way you slice and dice it, no matter who gets sacked, or how many reviews are done on SIHIP, the funding is dwarfed by the scale of need. Without a $2-3 billion program, we will continue to see instances of people appearing in the media pointing out, quite rightly, how they haven’t had any change in their housing situation despite SIHIP.

One very unfortunate potential outcome of this is the perpetuation of a certain policy nihilism that pervades Indigenous affairs. It’s characterised by that oft-heard comment of – ‘so much money is spent on aborigines and it’s all wasted’, etc etc.

SIHIP will make a difference to many people, but at the end of it, there will still be people with quite dire housing needs. We need SIHIP every year for the next 15 years.

OK, now for some boring housing stuff. Part of the cost issue with SIHIP, is that SIHIP was tasked with simultaneously improving the standard of housing. Houses built under SIHIP are meant to be no different in quality to houses built anywhere else in Australia. This is a first for remote communities. This doesn’t mean that all previous housing was crap (but a lot was), but that relevant standards would apply. It’s basic stuff like all the appropriate certification (waterproofing, electrical certificates etc) which was always ignored before, and at the end, issuing a ‘Permit to Occupy’, certifying that the building is safe for human habitation and ensuring that the builders take responsibility for the quality of their work.

Housing and the NT Circus

August 4, 2009

The NT Labor Govt has again been teetering on the edge of oblivion thanks to some aspects of its Indigenous policy, and yet again so at the hands of one of its Indigenous MLA’s and Ministers, this time Alison Anderson.

It all started last week when the Minister for Indigenous Policy reacted to what she believed was news that 70% of the SIHIP funding was going into administration costs. It wasn’t, but it was an event that got the ball rolling, leading to her resignation from the Labor Party and NT Government today. How this came about isn’t clear, but one possibility is that Anderson was briefed on progress to date and might well have been told that 70% of expenditure to date has been on ‘administration’ ,which would cover a gamut of activities such as the housing surveys which are finding out what exactly is required on each house in terms of maintenence and repairs.

Anderson’s sudden disappointment over SIHIP is pretty odd given that hers was the face that co-launched the NT Govt’s new remote township policy just 6 weeks ago. And there have been no changes in the SIHIP program, and it all seems to running roughly to plan. Anderson’s concern that it won’t be adequate to address the housing issues is exceedingly odd, as that has always been obvious. SIHIP is a $600 m program, but that is roughly quarter the amount required for a comprehensive solution to housing issues in remote communities. As a result, a list of 16 priority communities was drawn up and they are first cabs off the rank . There are going to be plenty of disappointed people in remote communities waiting for some time for any change to their housing. As Minister for Indigenous Policy, Anderson should have been well aware of this. But given the number of people criticising SIHIP on procedural and administrative matters, maybe plenty of people aren’t.

But in a strange twist it wasn’t this that prompted her resignation, but this article in the NT News. It was critical of the political style of Anderson and her fellow Indigenous MLA’s. And again it’s not precisely this article itself, but the failure of the Chief Minister to defend her publicly from the criticisms in it, and she hinted that she believed the article was informed from within the Labor Government (local politics tip: the author of the article is married to an advisor in the NT Government). Anderson branded the article “racist”, but I think she was off the mark with this. Though it is certainly very wrong in its take on the political style of Indigenous MLA’s, describing them as “one-issue” and “self-centered”. There is some difference in political style which I’d attribute to a fairly robust Indigenous political environment, but that is a generalisation. It is apparent in Alison Anderson , much less so with Marion Scrymgour and not at all with Malindirri McCarthy. Anderson has a style which I call ‘crash-through or crash’, which I’ve seen a few times. And criticising the interest of the Indigenous MLA’s in Indigenous affairs as “one-issue” politics is quite something. I can only relate my personal experience with Malindirri McCarthy on this matter – she became the minister in my work area less than 12 months ago, but in that time we have had her visit our offices twice, just to meet staff and get a feel for the work area and what goes on – and that is two visits more than all other ministers combined over my 15 years.

The whole affair has exposed Anderson as being not particularly astute. It’s not clear what she hoped to gain from her resignation and, before it happened, whether or not it was just an idle threat. Perhaps she hoped to join with the CLP to change the government, but that hasn’t happened. But what did happen should have been obvious to her – within a few hours the other rebel ex-Labor MLA, Marion Scrymgour, rejoined the Labor Party and kept Labor’s slender majority alive. The NT Labor Government though does find itself in a weaker position. With Scrymgour as an independent it could still count on her vote for all important matters. That is less clearly so with Anderson. The biggest loser appears to be Anderson herself. While she is now one of two balance of power MLAs, she is no longer Minister for Indigenous Policy and is in a far weaker position to influence government policy on a day to day basis.

SIHIP will continue, renovations are on-going and the first new houses are due to start on Groote Eylandt in the coming weeks. This won’t be the last controversy over the new housing program, but until they focus on the manifest inadequacy of SIHIP, despite it being the largest Indigenous housing program in the countries history, it will all be a bit like arguing over the deck-chairs on the Titanic.


June 15, 2009

The NT Labor Govt has shot itself in the foot with its announcement of a new remote community policy. In fact it may be much more serious than just a flesh wound, with the policy playing a significant role in causing MLA Marion Scrymgour to resign from the Labor Party and become one of two balance of power independents in the NT Legislative Assembly.

This is the new policy that has been the cause of so much trouble.

What’s of particular note is that this is mostly a policy targeting remote communities in general, outstations being only one part of it, yet almost all the negativity that the policy has generated has come from the outstation component of the policy.

In a piece of spectacularly poor communication the government managed to create the predominate understanding in remote communities that outstations where no longer going to be supported. This isn’t quite the case, though that was the distinct impression that I had from listening to the news on the day the policy was announced.

The key components of the policy are,
– increase in services in the 20 ‘hub’ towns
– improved transport to ‘hub’ towns
– continued support for outstations not located near a ‘hub’
– outstations need to be occupied for at least 8 months a year to be funded.

I can’t say that I think it’s a particular good policy, not least from the perspective that it caused the former Deputy Chief Minister to defect from the government.

The episode is a good reminder that opinion in the Indigenous community is a very broad church. Here we have two prominent Indigenous MLA’s, Marion Scrymgour and Alison Anderson, who are quite at odds over this issue. Anderson, from the Centre is clearly in favour of it, and I suspect has been a significant driver of some aspects of it, with Scrymgour from the Top End, so opposed that she has endangered the very survival of the Labor Government. This is at least partly a cultural issue, with the outstations movement being a much more significant issue in the Top End, much of which is Scrymgour’s electorate. And it’s not the first time the two have clashed, with Scrymgour’s outspoken attack on the intervention in her 2007 Charles Perkins Oration, and Alison Anderson’s response.

Outstations emerged as the indigenous response to the missions and government settlements, where the close living quarters tended to create conflict. In a piece of particularly bad timing, the new policy effectively decrying outstations was preceded by only 2 days by a piece of research published in the Medical Journal of Australia, which found that people living on and caring for country (ie outstations) have significantly better health than those living in the larger communities, precisely those that are to be the expanded ‘hub’ towns. The research is no big surprise as this has been widely believed to be the case for quite some time. The CSIRO has come to similar conclusions regarding land management.

The NT Government now has quite a task ahead of it – it has created a political and policy dilemma for itself in appearing to back away from outstations at just the time that the medical and scientific evidence is pointing towards them as having significant health and ecological benefits.

Movement at the Station

April 16, 2009

I was out on the Tiwi Islands last week and there was a sight to behold – no, not the first brick being laid on the first new house under the SIHIP Program – but the first renovations.  The owners are out and the workers are in, gutting, replacing, etc.

Hopefully the first new homes aren’t too far behind, as the laborious process of putting together the consortiums that are doing the building was completed late last year and the housing surveys of what will be demolished and what renovated appears to have been finalised in a few places (eg Nguiu, Bathurst Is).

Though problems remain.  There is no schedule for new housing as yet at Milikapiti (Melville Is) as the Commonwealth has been unable to secure an agreement on the 99 year leases that it has been demanding.  Unfortunately the new Federal Govt has continued with the misguided approach of the previous one.  Several senior landholders in Milikapiti perceive (quite correctly) the no-lease, no-new-housing ultimatum as pure coercion.