When Julia Went To Alice

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Despite the rain, the media were directed to keep on the sunny side during Julia Gillard’s spin-heavy visit to Alice Springs yesterday, her first as Prime Minister. Amid allegations of mismanagement of government contracts and reports of continued overcrowding in town camps, the PM made a short, carefully managed trip, focusing on a mantra of progress and getting the job done. A full Labor cast of Gillard, Minister for Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin, local member Warren Snowdon, NT Chief Minister Paul Henderson and Minister for Central Australia Karl Hampton showed up to perform the chorus.

But the day did not begin according to plan. The Labor cluster had to postpone a visit to the 150-bed Apmere Mwerre visitor accommodation facility, opened in February, for a quick press conference regarding the death of the 27th Australian soldier in Afghanistan. "This is not an endless war," Gillard intoned. "This is an important mission… We are making progress, the people on the ground tell us we are making progress." She might well have been talking about the NT Intervention, which is two weeks away from its fourth anniversary. This is a government that manages, rather than changes, its problematic policy inheritance.

For all those four years, we are only just beginning to see signs of progress "on the ground" in Alice Springs. Those signs include the 35 houses finished in town as part of the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP), new alcohol restrictions, more welfare suspensions and a drug court. The Alice Springs Transformation Plan is manufacturing supported accommodation, and yesterday the full cast of ministers joined the mayor to open the new transitional housing centre Aherlkeme Village, which will provide 75 supported accommodation places to people moving into public housing, which is itself direly overstretched.

Each level of Government got up to congratulate the others on the expenditure: the project cost $8.3 million, part of the $150-million Alice Springs Transformation Plan put together by the NT Government in 2009 (two thirds of which was actually rerouted from SIHIP projects elsewhere in the NT). Alice Springs Mayor Damien Ryan glowed at all the positivity and the children’s drumming group, Drum Atweme, provided a post-launch photo op. The PM disappeared in a cloud of cameras, and before the media was ordered off to its next destination, I overheard a staffer instructing a couple of residents of the new facility not to answer any of our questions.

Like a mob of flies, the press followed Gillard to Hidden Valley town camp, with its rows of clean, colourful houses, running water and council waste service — a display town camp of the future which hides the embarrassment of poor conditions in other camps. Media liaisons, camp dogs, and crews of bemused construction workers stood around hopefully. There was no mention of the alleged plans for closure of Whitegate community — whose residents have been asked to move to these new houses in Hidden Valley, but are refusing to go. If the current Hidden Valley population of around 200 swells, 21 new houses will not fix overcrowding. But the houses, clean and well-kept, provide the image the Government needs.

On closer inspection, however, the construction teams were not so bemused. When I asked them how progress was going, they were deeply cynical about all the cameras. "It’s a circus. These houses have been sitting empty for weeks waiting for her to come along," one man told me, defying instructions not to talk to media. What about the training and apprenticeships for Aboriginal workers which the Government is so keen on promoting? "The training’s not happening," he told me. "They should have got their certificates by now." CDEP, the scheme under which 100 places have been offered to Aboriginal workers to work on the SIHIP program, pays in quarantined welfare and is widely considered to be a dead end with little training to improve job prospects for Aboriginal people. And allegations of companies cashing in on lucrative contracts have not escaped notice.

Territory Alliance is a collection of small construction companies thrown together specifically for SIHIP contracts. With $647 million on offer, and a shortage of competition, the contracts are open to exploitation. There has been much criticism of the expenditure of these lucrative government funds, most recently from the shadow minister for indigenous affairs, Nigel Scullion. Last year the NT Auditor-General told an estimates hearing in Darwin that SIHIP was doomed from the start and there was a "complete lack of management". Some argue the houses are still sub-standard and not built to last. But no-one was arguing yesterday with the carefully stage-managed optimism of Gillard’s visit.

The PM handed the keys to new owner Laurel Meneri and her young son, then went inside the house and clucked at the oven, put her head into the bedrooms, and went out the back to plant a tree. The hole had been dug for her and pre-filled with soft sand. She and Macklin joked happily, at home in the earthy photo opportunity, but then Gillard cut in to tell the cameras, "Okay, that’ll be enough, you guys".

Accustomed to being a political football of late, with growlings in The Australian and then Parliament about a crisis of anti-social behaviour, Alice Springs is a town in need of some positive stories; and it certainly needs plenty of progress. Yesterday Gillard was upbeat, focused on success, continuing the Labor strategy of resisting Tony Abbott’s negativity. But after four years of the Intervention, the town’s residents are wary about the process. Gillard did a doorstop outside Laurel’s new house, singing the positive song, praising "the sense of community excitement about this new housing… the things that people view as normal, roads, guttering, garbage collection, street lighting, and of course the sense of participation, kids going to school, people in jobs." But residents are keen to know when this "emergency policy" will be over.

"I’m also here to listen as we move to the next phase," she told the gathered media. "I’ll be meeting later today with elders and I’ll be all ears — to see what they want me as Prime Minister to know as we move to the next phase of the Intervention, as we move beyond the current days to what needs to follow so we keep building on the foundations that we have here… there is good progress being made but there is a lot more to do."

Does that mean an infinite extension of the punitive welfare laws criticised by the UN? Gillard is not telling. "We will be discussing with people what lies beyond the period of the Intervention, we want to work that through and I particularly want to have that discussion today with community elders."

It could be this visit is genuine evidence of the Government’s willingness for dialogue and consultation as they move through — and past — the Intervention. But Alice is struggling. Questions focussed on alcohol and anti-social behaviour. In their answers, Gillard, Macklin and Henderson focussed on law and order, not the new Drug and Alcohol court which is opening in Alice Springs, and not the expansion of rehabilitation services — as if they were aware these projects would attract criticism rather than the enthusiasm for tough alcohol restrictions now before the NT Parliament.

A floor price on alcohol is still on the table, but supply reduction and licence buybacks are long overdue. Again, Gillard says "I’ve got an open mind to what needs to be done beyond that" and cites a need for consultation. Calm and poised, Gillard repeated her trilogy of positivity: dealing with alcohol and truancy, building housing, and reducing homelessness, the heart of the Transformation. She talked about welfare reform, truancy and payment suspensions, but gave no new specifics.

What is certain is that welfare quarantining will continue, and parents are now getting cut off welfare for their children’s truancy. "We want to give people a hand up, but also require people to step up… The theme here is a very clear one, opportunity comes with responsibility," Gillard said, sounding like Uncle Ben.

It was hard to see how consultation of any depth could occur in amidst the stage-managed approach, but nevertheless, Gillard did end her day in a brief meeting with Aboriginal elders, where she continued the mantra of optimism. In another gesture, some 422 kmsq of the Finke Gorge, west of Alice Springs, and part of the Simpson Desert were handed back to their traditional owners, then immediately requisitioned on a 99-year lease to the NT Government. The land has effectively been handed from one arm of government to another.

Transformation, like the continuing Intervention, still comes at the cost of autonomy.

 

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