Helen Hughes and Mark Hughes; 26/7/08;Emeritus professor Helen Hughes is a senior fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and Mark Hughes is an independent researcher.
Kevin Rudd’s community cabinet meeting in Yirrkala this week left untouched the failures of public policy in the town’s region of the Northern Territory, East Arnhem Land. The cabinet’s decision to support a constitutional amendment to recognise indigenous Australians will not close the gap in living standards. East Arnhem consists of two contrasting parts: the prosperous mining town of Nhulunbuy, with more than 4000 non-indigenous inhabitants on the one hand, and 10,000 Aborigines Living in Third World conditions. About 800 of these Aborigines live close to Nhulunbuy in Yirrkala and Marngarr, but the rest of the East Arnhem population is widely spread. There are alcohol-free Aboriginal communities in the Laynhapuy homelands. But Yirrkala itself was notorious for high rates of alcoholism and associated violence, against which women’s night patrols struggled in vain.
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Thankfully, kava imports were stopped by the commonwealth in July 2007 and the Howai;d government’s intervention alcohol restrictions have reduced drunkenness. Money has flowed into food and other essentials, visibly improving health.
Yet living standards remain appalling because the Aboriginal population is still almost totally dependent on welfare. Housing is substandard and crowded, and health and education are inadequate.
Cabinet met in the Yirrkala school, where most students fail the standard benchmark literacy and numeracy tests. In the homelands, learning centres take the place of primary schools. The recent grant of $2 million to turn one of these centres into a primary school indicates the extent of their shortcomings.
Because most Aborigines in East Arnhem are illiterate and innumerate, they cannot get jobs. Most administrative and service jobs in the Aboriginal hinterland therefore are held by non-indigenous staff.
At the Yirrkala cabinet meeting, the Rudd Government announced a location short list for three new secondary boarding facilities. As children are leaving primary school unable to read and write, funding secondary schools before fixing primary education is a waste of resources. A recent ABC Four Corners program showed a new indigenous residential high school teaching children the alphabet.
Education is the key to employment and employment is the key to the deep division between Nhulunbuy and the rest of East Arnhem.
The Rio Tinto Alcan bauxite mine and refinery is the largest private employer in the NT, with more than 1100 workers, almost all non-indigenous. In keeping with its Australia-wide policies, Rio Tinto has shown welcome initiatives to enable Aborigines to become highly skilled and well-remunerated employees. Many could commute to work in Nhulunbuy daily.
Those more distantly located could live with their families in Nhulunbuy during the week and send their children to school there. They could return to second houses in the country at weekends, just as other Australians do. Fishing and pearling are developing and there are opportunities for horticulture. Nhulunbuy has shops, primary and high schools, a hospital, medical and dental facilities, and recreation areas. Yet it too has been starved of resources by NT governments.
For half the year you can’t drive to Nhulunbuy because the Central Arnhem Road from Darwin and Katherine is impassable. During the wet season, the region is dependent on barge transport for goods and air transport for people. The resulting freight costs to Nhulunbuy are almost twice as high as they would be by road. The NT’s published figures show that grocery prices in Nhulunbuy are 23 per cent higher than in Darwin. Improvements to the road base, a bridge and some large culverts over creeks would make the Central Arnhem Road passable in the wet except for short periods after heavy rain. Other minor road works would open up travel within the homelands.
But the NT’s spending priorities lie elsewhere. Despite the record minerals boom, which is leading to so much exploration that it is impossible to hire geologists and drillers, the NT Government is offering to pay half of costs for drilling and geophysical surveys in greenfield regions.
The region’s annual Garma cultural festival is a tourist attraction. All-weather roads would increase tourist arrivals during the rest of the year with opportunities for small business (Small Business Minister Craig Emerson, please note) in Nhulunbuy and throughout the region.
The region’s renowned artists would benefit from a larger market not only from higher sales through the Buku-Larrngay Mulka Art Centre at Yirrkala, but also through direct sales. Nhulunbuy has two motels and no caravan parks. Caravans are not welcome on the Central Arnhem Road.
Accommodation is so scarce that Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin had to stay overnight in the Gove Hospital nurses’ quarters and the rest of cabinet had to fly in and out in one day. Kununurra, a town of similar size and isolation but on an all-weather road, has seven motels, seven caravan parks and a thriving tourist industry. An all-weather road is not the only barrier to tourism. Inconsistent administration of travel permits by the Northern Land Council in Darwin discourages road transport even when the road is open.
Aboriginal communities complain that they are not consulted about to whom permits are granted or refused. Abolishing permits for travel on the Central Arnhem Road. and moving administration of permits into each community, is essential for the region’s development.
Governance is clearly a problem. July 1 marked the welcome inauguration of the East Arnhem Shire, covering all 10,000 hinterland inhabitants, as part of the territory’s local government reform.
But two issues were left outstanding. Nhulunbuy is the fourth largest urban centre in the NT. But it is a company town where Rio Tinto, through the Nhulunbuy Corporation, is responsible for services including water, sewerage, road building and so on, services that should be provided by local government. The territory is agitating for statehood, yet it can’t take on responsibility for Nhulunbuy.
Rio Tinto’s business is mining. It does this extremely well. It should not be expected to drive the development necessary for the regional economy to grow and diversify and thus enable Aborigines to enter the labour force in large numbers. Nhulunbuy citizens, moreover, deserve the same say that other Australians have in their local government.
A second issue concerns the integration of the homelands into the new shire. There is doubt about when responsibility for services to homelands will transfer from homelands resource centres to the shire. Homeland residents deserve the improved delivery of services that East Arnhem Shire, with more expertise and economies of scale, can deliver.
Oversight of the millions of dollars of government grants going to homelands resource centres would improve.Nhulunbuy could become the hub of a thriving East Arnhem, as tourism, horticulture and other industries developed to complement mining. Indigenous Third World conditions could be ended.
The solution does not lie in rewording the Constitution but in the NT and commonwealth governments fulfilling their existing obligations, starting with education.