July 30, 1997
Uncertainty surrounding the Alice to Darwin railway proposal is delaying some road transport investment in Alice Springs and causing bitterness in the industry.
However, truckies say generally speaking, itÍs business as usual for them, and theyÍre cynical about politiciansÍ promises about the rail link.
Dean McBride, of McBride Transport, an executive member of the NT Road Transport Association, says even if the line is built, many customers will continue to use road transport.
"Even if the rail is heaps cheaper, road is more reliable," says Mr McBride. He's doubtful of private investment in the line: "No-one in private enterprise is stupid enough to back a loser, and Johnny Howard's too smart to put money into it.
"Mr McBride says his company is "only a small wheel" yet it puts $6m a year into the Alice economy, for wages, fuel, tyres and services.
He estimates the total value of the industry to Alice Springs at between $50m and $60m. Mr McBride says Barry Coulter should not be the Minister for Transport and the Minister for the Railway at the same time, because there is a clear conflict of interest. "This could only happen in the Territory."
He also says the industry is kept in the dark about any progress with the railway: "All we know is what we read in the papers."
In his view the rail proposal - and the imminent elections in South Australia - are delaying a decision to allow "double" road trains into Wingfield near Adelaide, although passing lanes and dual highways are now in place all the way.
At present, the second trailer must be disconnected from the road trains at Lochiel, some 120 km west of Adelaide. Another local transport manager says while around 60 per cent of freight to Alice Springs comes by rail, there has been a steady trend back to road transport in the past two years.
"There's a swing away from rail," he says. Prime Minister John Howard's failure to commit Federal funds to an Alice to Darwin project, and a new proposal for a line from the eastern seaboard via Mt Isa - bypassing The Alice - have made "everything uncertain".

Behind each screamed exchange, each staggering drunk on our streets is a very human story - of a man or woman with their memories, longings, frustrations, dreams and pain.
What's more, they hate the grog and what it's doing to their lives. In her latest book, Alice author Alexis Wright warns that the "reconciliation" process is forcing Aboriginal people to lock inside themselves their stories.
Wright says in her introduction to Grog War: "Constraining the sting of the memory of a painful and shameful history will only make it grow more poisonous.
"All Aboriginal people need to be free to stand up without fear and to be able to tell their own stories themselves." Wright goes on to use her narrative gifts, powered by her passionate desire for social justice as well as the collaboration of Julalikari Council, many Warumungu people and other residents of Tennant Creek, to tell the story of that town's war on grog.
The story starts before grog, with a beautiful evocation of the land that nurtured the Warumungu before their world was turned on its head, spearheaded by the arrival of John McDouall Stuart in 1860. Before we meet Stuart however and proceed through the years to the present determined campaign to beat the grog, Wright introduces us to a fictional Warumungu couple Lucas and Devine, in a chapter that drives home, like a long shard of glass, the focus of Grog War.
This chapter, and another later in the book revisiting the same couple, brings to life, from the inside and with painful intensity, that increasingly well-worn phrase "anti-social behaviour".
For all the interest of Wright's otherwise factual account, delivered in a highly readable narrative style, her insight was to realise the provocative power of fiction.
It could remind the reader that our present fixation on eliminating public disturbances, unpleasant and even harrowing as they may be, is in danger of becoming, like "reconciliation", a policy of containment, rather than one of healing to achieve a lasting, inclusive peace.
Through Wright we meet Lucas, drunk and getting drunker, sitting in the middle of Patterson Street, the main street in Tennant Creek.
Drivers are blasting their horns and yelling abuse as they are forced to drive around him. His countrymen, gathered on the footpath outside the nightclub, occasionally back him up, while his wife Devine, also drunk, screams at him to get off the street.
Wright tells us: "Feeling sick enough to die [Lucas] took another sip from the ïgreen can'. Usually, if he drank all day it would be enough to dull the pain.
"A pain which was like sledgehammers with blunt knives attached, hammering inside his head. "But for some reason the grog was not working today.
"And today his heart had been beating quicker and he was feeling that he was not breathing in enough air ... "Cars and trucks had been forced to slow down to avoid hitting either Lucas or his dusty old ringer's hat, which he had placed with a casual toss on the bitumen a few feet away.
He offered a toast with a curse from his ïgreen can' to those who had got through his obstacle course, particularly if they had shown respect for the hat.
"Why don't you at least pick up your hat?" said some bloke, a middle-aged man. "He spoke as if the hat was the only thing that mattered ... "Devine was getting persistent and would not stop yelling and screaming at him to get off the street. You're a fool. You're like an old dingo. Stop making me feel shame and get off the street,' she hissed between moving traffic from the edge of the footpath ... "He was angry that she was drunk and she was bonier and more rundown than ever and only thought of the grog the same as him."
Lucas' mind wanders back to his days as a ringer, breaking in horses all over the Barkly, the Top End, the Channel country and far beyond from the age of 14. He reminds his kids of how hard he worked, urging them to get "off their butts and get themselves a job".
He remembers the referendum in 1967 which meant "he was as good as any man", with the legal right to walk into a pub and get his own beer: "I felt full of power."
He also remembers the equal pay decision in the 1970s: "That was it. Round up everybody. Chuck them on the back of a truck. Then all them pastoralists just drove everyone into town and we got dumped.
No one wanted you to ride their horses anymore." He thinks about Devine cutting herself with broken glass just so she can get sent to hospital, jabbing herself with a needle in front of hospital staff, once even stabbing herself in the chest, so great was her longing for a bed in the hospital.
He thinks about the terrible fight they had when Devine found him "cheating on her". She hits him with a crowbar before she cuts herself, screaming and crying "I only want to die now and be with my baby girl."
Lucas also remembers visits from government people, coming around all the time to talk about culture, meaning, he knows, "we want you to do corroborees for tourists". Slim Dusty's words comfort him, because they express what he feels: "They had my future wrapped up in a parcel and no one even thought to ask me."
Lucas' evening ends when he is hit by a panel van. NEXT WEEK: Lucas has recovered from his injuries and he's off the grog but it may be too late for Devine and their children. Grog War by Alexis Wright Magabala Books 269 pp., paperback.

Where does covering-up finish and outright lying start? The Alice News last week followed up a tip-off about a riot in Alice Springs' new and highly controversial gaol.
The report came from someone we had good cause to consider a reliable inside source. We rang Correctional Services Minister Steve Hatton's office and spoke to his press secretary, Warwick Sinclair.
The answer he gave us was that no riot had taken place, but that we would no doubt write the story, anyway, and so why don't we leave him alone.
We didn't publish a report but made more enquiries on Wednesday last week. We again spoke to prison insiders: All of them were loath to give us their names for fear of losing their jobs - no doubt a consequence of the NT Government's draconian muzzling of its "public" service.
This story emerged: A number of prisoners hurled objects at prison officers, shouted abuse at them and refused to go into their cells as a protest over "time out of blocks", visiting arrangements and access to telephones to receive calls from their relatives. Several fires started. The prison cells surround an enclosed courtyard; there are outdoor areas where sport can be played.
The inmates' gripe was over a reduction of time they were allowed to be outside the cells and outside the courtyard. One of our sources says the protest was directed "at the system, not the officers".
The Alice News finds it highly likely that these reports are accurate. We faxed this update to Mr Sinclair - no response. Mr Hatton and his handler are making a farce of Chief Minister Shane Stone's assurances of open government.

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