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.