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'Rebuilding from the ground up' would destroy from the top down

By Bob Durnan - posted Friday, 17 June 2011

"Winter is icumen in". Here in central Australia the car windows are filling with frost. The solstice is nigh.

With the winter solstice, as in the three years just past, comes the anniversary of the announcement of the Northern Territory Emergency Response, and thus also the ritual gatherings of the anti-Intervention Shushers at street parades, and in other gatherings, endeavouring to defeat the NTER demons.

Prominent amongst the Shushers, besides some Aboriginal leaders, are several sub-groups. Some tediously dogmatic socialist fragments, the moralistic section of the Greens, distinguishable by their emotive sloganeering about the Intervention. Foucauldian oppositionists (a determined band of anti-governmentalists), who recite obscure theoretical mantras. There are the white rastafarians as well, who about this time of year are heading north on their annual pilgrimage to jamboree in the warm Arafura sun.


Meanwhile, down at the Jumbunna House of Tweets, Shusher researchers are busy issuing new edicts.

One such has come my way. It is titled "Rebuilding from the Ground Up". It is a virtual manifesto of post-Intervention Shushism, and is bound to form the basis of much fervent shushing in the next few months.

As proof of its status, Rebuilding’s demands “have been widely endorsed” by the Intervention Rollback Action Group (Alice Springs), the Stop the Intervention Collective (Sydney), ‘concerned Australians’ (Melbourne), and unspecified “Aboriginal community leaders”.

The content of the document signals a continuing commitment to naiveté about Aboriginal issues. It embodies the Shushers’ perennial romantic idealisation of Aboriginal society, but with freshly focussed anxiety about one of their central concerns: that they must never contemplate, or admit to, any limitations or problems associated with slogans such as “community control”, “culturally appropriate” or “self-determination”.

The first demand clearly illustrates the extent of the Shushers’ flight from reality: it advocates a return to the system of “community government councils” in the remote Aboriginal communities of the NT. It demands that we “Restore decision making power and administration of municipal services to these councils” – the same principle that three successive Aboriginal Ministers for Local Government under Clare Martin described as wholly dysfunctional.

The present Shire system may be inadequate and needing reform, but a return to the bad old days of ever escalating social problems, chaos, corruption and waste in many communities does not readily recommend itself as a way forward for the residents of remote areas. The Shushers here display their incompetence as policy thinkers: they are amateurish in their response to this genuine crisis and its policy challenge. They clearly demonstrate this by their advocacy of a return to the very system that allowed twenty-five years or more of ruinous irresponsibility in many places, where non-accountability became the enabling mechanism for the creation of generations of grossly neglected children, dysfunctional families and early deaths.


They also advocate the removal of the GBMs -General Business Managers without any thought being given to ensuring an ongoing Federal Government presence. (One of the great benefits of the NTER has been its implementation of a new Australian Government commitment to guaranteeing the quality and co-ordinated delivery of government programs on the ground. The removal of this presence would be another giant leap backwards. Comparable to the sudden, very premature withdrawal of Commonwealth public servants from remote NT communities in the late 1970s).

The second major demand is that rivers of government money must flow to provide full services “wherever Aboriginal people choose to live”. This demand doesn’t broach the question of what equity principle might be operating here. Will other needy and vulnerable citizens (including Aboriginal workers, students and pensioners) support such an open-ended and costly policy? What evidence is there that the funding invested, in previous decades, in hundreds of now abandoned outstations, was a wise investment? How does that investment compare to what might have been achieved if the money had been spent on other priorities, such as early childhood and parenting skills programs, and effective education? Would other impoverished citizens mind if their living standards suffer because a huge proportion of the Australian Government’s budget were to be absorbed providing a full range of services to single family outstations in extremely remote places?

The enormous cost implications of this demand is compounded by demand number three, which wants good jobs created for everybody who wants one, wherever they want to live. This again is to be, presumably, via the government payroll, and regardless of the economic logic of the investment or productivity of the jobs, just so long as they are “under community control”. The approximate quantum of dollars needed to achieve this utopian ideal remains un-estimated here, as in all parts of this document.

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About the Author

Bob Durnan is a community development worker and member of PAAC – the People’s Alcohol Action Coalition in Alice Springs. He lives in Alice Springs and has worked in Aboriginal town camps and remote communities, including health services, in the Northern Territory and Queensland for 35 years. He has also worked as an adviser to NT and Federal Labor governments.

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