ALICE SPRINGS NEWS,
June 22, 2001.


$10M PUBLIC HOUSING IN DECAY: PEOPLE MOVE BACK TO HUMPIES! Report by ERWIN CHLANDA.

People at Willowra – population 450 – are being forced back into bush humpies as public housing worth $10m is decaying because of a funding wrangle between the community's council and the NT Office of Local Government (OLG). Council clerk Alan Riley says inadequate maintenance has rendered many of the dwellings hazardous. Some 15 of the 50 homes, each costing around $200,000 to build, are already unfit for occupation.The council owes $126,000 to Alice Springs businesses, $177,000 to Case Credit, a finance company, the remaining payments for a $232,000 bulldozer already repossessed, and $32,000 to the Australian Taxation Office.Three machines used for municipal work and garbage collection have been broken down for months. "We have no garbage collection and with the dozer gone, we have no tip maintenance," says Mr Riley. The night patrol vehicle has been off the road since last November despite escalating grog running. And money for staff has dried up. The essential service manager resigned, leaving Mr Riley as the sole remaining council employee. Meanwhile details have surfaced about apparent massive losses by the community when it bought and sold Dingo's Restaurant in Alice Springs, said to have occurred with the consent of the OLG. Last week senior OLG officials failed to turn up for a community meeting at Willowra, 330 km north-west of Alice Springs, despite – according to Mr Riley – their earlier assurances to discuss a last minute bid for a solution before the end of the financial year. He says a senior OLG officer made the commitment to visit in the presence of more than 100 people, including white school and health staff, at Willowra on June 7. Local Government Minister Richard Lim had also been invited but " didn't come", says Mr Riley. "We don't know what we'll do after June 30." Dr Lim did not respond to a request for comment from the Alice Springs News. Mr Riley, who last November became Willowra's eighth council clerk since 1994, and the fourth since 2000, with gaps between appointments, says documents suggest the community started falling off the rails as early as 1993. ATSIC queried financial issues in 1997 and cut funding in 1999. The wrangle with the NT Government clearly goes back several years and came to a head with a "ministerial letter" from then Minister, Loraine Braham, which curiously was undated. Mrs Braham – now the independent MLA for Braitling – said this week she can't remember the date but "there would have been reasonable notice" of the demands made in the letter. It advises that the "continuation of the status of Willowra Community as a recognised local governing body is now under review."The long running financial and administrative failures that have occurred in the organisation require that I reconsider whether this organisation is able to provide local government services to the people of Willowra."Mrs Braham's letter says "minimum requirements" would be to have a clerk approved by the Minister; a business plan; audits; and fees for power and rent must be collected. "All current practices whereby funds or council facilities are being misused [are] to cease immediately through decision of the Council published in the community through a community meeting called for the purpose of setting out new arrangements."MLA for Stuart Peter Toyne says OLG should have acted when it became clear that there were irregularities in the way funding was being used. "They were repeatedly approached by community members who were expressing concern, particularly that decisions were being made without consulting the community. "Instead of going out there and helping the community deal with the situation, OLG and ATSIC each tried to blame the other for the problem. "The situation has since been used by OLG to force its own agenda on the community, urging it to amalgamate with another council. "The message seems to be, we'll starve you out unless you join another council. "In doing this they have lost sight of their responsibility to provide basic services to more than 450 people, including sewage, garbage collection, safe housing, power and water. "Once this funding finishes, all these will stop working."Mr Riley says the letter required a "compliance audit" in February 2001 but none took place. "We had no funds to prepare it," he says. He describes the financial reporting system to the OLG as highly inappropriate. Only one of the eight councillors is literate yet they are required to sign off on monthly reconciliations. Mr Riley says the OLG had "drip fed" $100,000 of the 2000-2001 financial year's budget without giving the council any control over finances. The community will go into the 2001-2002 fiscal year with a $126,150 deficit plus debts of $336,806 accumulated in "previous years". Mr Riley says the OLG provides $1700 per house per year for maintenance – an amount that is completely inadequate. OLG had estimated it would cost $337,000 to repair the houses, " but we're offered only $50,000," says Mr Riley. Mr Riley says without a home keeper's course providing conventional houses is "a waste of money. "This is no reflection on the people of Willowra. "They don't know how to use an oven. "The majority think they are heaters." However, with the council finances in continued disarray, starting a home maker's course is out of the question, Mr Riley says, as is restarting the night patrol, despite growing importation of contraband booze. He says the community has no police: the nearest station, with just two officers, is 150 km away, more than an hour's drive from the "rum gate" 25 km outside the community. The night patrol vehicle has been at an Alice Springs repair shop since November last year, waiting for a repair job which would cost no more than $3000. Mrs Braham says: "Whatever the council decides is valid under their constitution. "When you give this authority to a council and they make these decisions, what can you do? "It was my understanding that the Willowra Community Inc. purchased Dingo's Restaurant apparently utilising, in part, funds made available by local government. "While this action was not illegal, and was within the powers of the incorporated body, it is not good practice by a local governing body. "Funds made available for local government services should continue to be available for that purpose. "A lot of councils work well, often it's not the rules but their interpretation. "You can't take back responsibility you have given to them." Mrs Braham says this applied equally to the purchase of Dingo's Restaurant in Alice Springs in 1998. "Ministerial approval was sought after the purchase and not provided," says Mrs Braham.This was done when Mike Burrows was the council clerk. He would not say how much was paid for the restaurant but says the money came from "surplus funds from the previous 12 months". The Willowra Community Inc. became the sole owner and the deal was done – as was the subsequent sale at a substantial loss – "with full knowledge of council as well as the OLG in Alice Springs and Darwin". He himself had helped the restaurant's manager in Alice Springs for six to eight weeks at the beginning. Mr Burrows says although the restaurant was making a profit, an OLG officer stopped funding of the community in March or April 1999. Mr Burrows says with lawyers and accountants in attendance he was required to give answers to 48 questions – "most of them petty, but we satisfied all of them. "The OLG said it would resume funding, but it did not." He says this forced the community to use cash flow from the restaurant for its municipal functions. "The restaurant was left short," says Mr Burrows. At about the same time the restaurant came under the management of Denise Corey. As the financial situation of the community continued to decline Dingo's was put on the market. Mr Burrows says two offers were received: one from Mrs Corey, and a second one which was substantially higher. In the end the people making the higher offer could not raise the finance, and the business was sold to Mrs Corey, says Mr Burrows. Mr Riley says he understands the sale price was $70,000. The Alice News has learned that an offer for $150,000 was made but the bidders proposed to pay it off over time. Mr Burrows says: "$70,000 was the best offer with money on the table."



PARKS FATE NOT SEALED. Report by KIERAN FINNANE.

"Consultation on the cheap" is how one Gillen resident described the town council's response to swelling protest over its proposed sell-off of some of the community's parks and open spaces.Margaret Carew, organiser of a residents' protest against sale of Finlayson Park in Gillen, was responding to assurances by Alderman Michael Jones.He suggested to the crowd of about 60 residents on Sunday morning that they would indeed be listened to by council. Ald Jones said he did not support "asking every man and his dog" about the sell-off but if residents drummed up enough support for specific parks, then they may be saved. By contrast, where there is no protest, Ald Jones suggested that would be taken as tacit approval of the sale.He said council had received no letters or complaints in relation to the proposed sale of open space in Ashwin Street and Lyndavale Drive. He said in order for council to provide more Frank McEllister- style parks around Alice, residents basically have a choice between the sale or a rise in rates.Ms Carew said that publishing a sell-off proposal and then responding to the reaction was an insult and a very cheap way for council to find out what the community wanted. Ald Jones replied that council is reviewing its consultation processes, including on alcohol issues. Ms Carew referred to the council-commissioned consultants' report, Planning and Management of Alice Springs Open Space Resources, finalised just last year.This report identified "the lack of qualitative information on community needs and expectations"."Therefore it is difficult to assess whether [the town's open space] meets community needs," said the report.Although collecting that type of information was beyond its scope, the report said such information would "become critical" in making recommendations on open space provision. Minister for Central Australia Richard Lim, despite appearing to support the residents' protest, opened his remarks by reminding them that council has limited resources.He continued the "we'll help those who help themselves" line, citing the Gosse St and Kurrajong Drive parks in Eastside where residents have incorporated and become very active in the development of their parks. The associations have each benefited from $5000 and $7000 grants from the NT Government for their troubles. He encouraged the community around Finlayson Park to "show this kind of commitment", but suggested that the park may be "a bit too big" and that a large flat area of mown grass does not really belong in The Centre anyway. Ms Carew defended the park: it could be improved but some of the trees were doing OK, kids use the informal BMX track, local residents do weed out the prickles, and, gesturing towards the imposing backdrop of the MacDonnell Ranges, asked; "How good does it have to be? It's really great to come here at sunset and let the dog have a run," she said. Meredith Campbell, resident in nearby Standley Crescent and independent candidate for the area in the next Territory elections, said the park is an important link in a pedestrian thoroughfare through the suburb. She said council had recently spent money on upgrading a laneway that gives access to the park and questioned the logic of the proposed sale. She referred to the press advertisements in which council announced the sell-off to residents, listing Finlayson Park among "the first open spaces earmarked for sale", implying more will follow.

SLOW ROAD TO UNIVERSITY. Report by KIERAN FINNANE.

Expanding the 12 year old Northern Territory University in Alice Springs is a slow moving business. What Vice Chancellor Ron McKay outlines for locally-based higher education possibilities in 2001 is remarkably similar to what he outlined in 2000, and for that matter in 1999. Money, of course, remains the main issue. The lack of progress with non-Indigenous higher education in The Centre is the local manifestation of what many condemn as the nation's " dumbing down" under the current Federal Government. While the number of students doing Business degrees, one of the two degree courses offered on campus in Alice Springs, remains steady, there is currently only one student doing a degree in Fine Arts, and she will be the last for the foreseeable future. "The learning space that's been created as part of the Tourism and Hospitality facility at Centralian College should allow the university to expand its offerings in Central Australia," Prof McKay told the Alice News last week.He made essentially the same statement in 1999 when the learning space was still in the planning phase, and again last year as it was being built. This year it has been built; on- campus offerings are yet to come, but demand from external students in everything from certificate courses to post- graduate studies is increasing, according to Course Promotions and Careers Officer, Michael Opie. The university would like to do some research here and is talking to the Desert Knowledge Consortium about developing a cooperative research centre (CRC).In 1999 Prof McKay also said the university wanted "to expand its research activities in the Centre".In that year the Centre for Remote Health, in which NTU and Flinders University are partners, did open its doors and has continued to grow.As for research in other areas relevant to Central Australia, it is still a case of "very early days": "We'll put some money towards exploring more the possibility of a CRC, we'll talk about priorities, about where we'll focus our attention," says Prof McKay.Meanwhile, NTU is a core member of five Darwin-based CRCs. These include the CRC for Sustainable Tourism; the CRC for Aboriginal and Tropical Health of which Central Australian Aboriginal Congress is also a core member; and the CRC for Renewable Energy, of which the Alice-based Centre for Appropriate Technology is a core member. This activity, along with Australian Research Council (ARC) funding to establish a Key Centre for Tropical Wildlife Management, earnt the university this year its largest research income ever. It is now placed 14th out of 38 universities around Australia in terms of its per capita research dollars. Nationally only eight ARC "key centre" applications out of 55 were successful.Says Prof McKay: "You don't get those grants unless you have very good research people." So why is it taking so long to get things moving in Central Australia?It's a matter of resources and low demand, says Prof McKay: " Resources flow with demand." To better understand where future demand lies, the university, with funds from the Federal and Northern Territory governments, has commissioned consultants KPMG to develop a Strategic Positioning Statement, which should be finalised by the end of this year. The consultants have called for submissions and conducted focus groups throughout the Territory, not just in Darwin.The Labor Opposition, in a recently launched plan calling for " building a smarter Territory", says the Territory's two higher education institutions, NTU and Batchelor Institute, are being "financially squeezed" by both the Federal and Territory governments.Education spokesperson Peter Toyne says the Commonwealth has stripped higher education here of $30m over five years which, at NTU in particular, has "inevitably led to cutbacks, and loss of staff out of virtually every faculty area". Prof McKay says funding is "very tight" but that is the case with every university in Australia: "We are doing it tough but, as I said to the recent Senate Inquiry into Higher Education, we are not a ‘basket case'."Particularly difficult, he says, has been the Commonwealth's cut to forward projections which has meant having to meet pay rises without any additional funding."It's a national problem," he says. In such a financial climate it is hard for NTU to maintain activity in areas of low demand and that may give it "an air of insecurity. But we are very strong in some areas." Prof McKay describes the demand for degrees in nursing and information technology as "incredible" and in business, tourism and hospitality, law, and education as "strong" or "getting stronger". Has the Territory Government offered the university adequate support? Labor says not, and, if it wins government, plans to divert some of the current money spent on consultancies – they say $36m annually, and most of that interstate – towards the university.Prof McKay says the Territory Government funded the university''s most recent pay rise and they fund on an ongoing basis the Chair in Clinical Nursing and Research, and the NT Centre for Energy Research. But "there's always room for greater support", he says. Labor's plan identifies indepeBndencd autonomy as a key issue for the Territory's higher education system. It says, "Labor will create a climate where government recognises the value of open enquiry and will encourage, not stifle, academic commentary and critique by the higher education system."Labor emphasises particularly the damage caused by "the recent and ongoing dramatic loss of teaching and research expertise in the social sciences and humanities". Prof McKay says the university exists under its own Act of parliament, is governed by a university council and has no involvement with government other than through requirements to report to the parliament and the Auditor-General."Our academics speak out from time to time," he says. "It would be nice if there were more of it. "I suppose it's a function of the areas we work in. "But there's noű reason for anyone to feel that they can't speak out." Labor's plan also talks about increasing access to higher education for "people in remote locations, indigenous students, ethnic groups, and families of low socioeconomic status".Says Dr Toyne: "Batchelor Institute is very decentralised, and probably could further decentralise by using open learning technology a lot more."NTU has only scratched the surface on open learning."When I first came to the Territory in the early ‘eighties, I spent five years as an adult educator, and we actually had far more people training in remote communities than we've got now."Labor would want to go back into that more decentralised and public provider model."Prof McKay says Indigenous students make up about 16 per cent of the total university population, but the challenge is to get more of them into higher education, where they make up only about six per cent.In the TAFE areas Indigenous students count for up to 20 per cent of the total, and indeed TAFE coÜurses are one of the routes to higher education.But Prof McKay also says Indigenous participation needs to be looked at in context. ŽAll of Batchelor's students are Indigenous. Together with NTU's Indigenous students, they make up some 26 per cent of the post- secondary student population at NTU and Batchelor, which Prof McKay says reflects population proportions.

XXX CLUB NOT ALL BEER AND SKITTLES! Report by ERWIN CHLANDA.

Alcohol angst is sweeping the town and threatened take-away restrictions are causing headaches bigger than the worst hangover, but there remains a select group blissfully untouched by all this public agony. It's the XXX Club. No, there isn't an X missing, although it's all about drinking beer. The three Xs are the Roman numerals for 30, and therein lies the small congregation's biggest problem. XXX has a limit of 30 members, but at present they're pushing to get a third of that to their monthly get togethers. In the good old days there used to be a waiting list of more than 20 people. They were people like major car dealers, bank and airline managers, stock agents and insurance blokes, recalls the longest serving – or, rather, enjoying – member, Peter Wright, who joined 17 years ago. In those days George Milne ran the Telford pub which used to be Uncle Ly's Alice Springs Hotel before, with a dodgy lift entombing people for hours on end, a great first floor balcony and a cricket pitch on the roof. All that's left of Ly today is his portrait in a slick bar which took the place of the Telford after it was demolished in the wake of a fire. Ernest members of service clubs such as Rotary, Apex and Lions would find XXX's meeting format familiar but the objectives devoid of altruism. The aim is, well, to enjoy beer – or in fact four different brands, if last week's function at the Todd Tavern is any guide. The main challenge, which most members get wrong, is to guess what brand is being drunk from time to time during the lunch cum afternoon tea cum – for some, at least – dinner. "From 12 o'clock on the day just doesn't exist," says Peter. Public speaking in the early part of the proceedings consists of critiquing the amber fluid on the table at the time. If you guess the brand wrong it costs you five bucks which goes to a very good cause: the XXX Club, of course. Later in the proceedings blokes take turns telling jokes. If these are boring or have been told before at XXX it's another $5 into the silver cup. Other meeting business, such as it is, may be inducting a new member (a rare event these days), who has to drink a "yard", preferably without stopping (it's only been done once, by Steve Paynter, member number 49, the former manager of Pioneer Park). How much beer is in a "yard"? A yard, of course, silly. There is absolutely no attempt to elevate the community to a higher plain, nor to save the world: the blokes are there to have a great day out. No excuse is offered. So why are they dwindling? "People are just too busy," says Clive Duffy, a committee member. Tax deductions for long lunches were abolished and people just don't get an afternoon off any more, not even once a month. What IS the world coming to? XXX members are mostly self employed, eliminating the chance of getting sacked. The question of women is a little delicate. They're not admitted to meetings because the jokes and fines sessions can get a bit colourful and "the magic word gets used a bit," says Peter. However, there's a Christmas party each year for the families with Paul Hodgkiss (beard already in place) as Santa, dinner and treats for the mums, and gifts for the kids. "It earns us the leave pass for the next 12 months," says Clive. Low numbers create a lot of problems. In the good old days venues used to vie for the lunches attended by 30 people, spending a flat $50 each, but no-one's keen to set aside a private room for just a half dozen. Overseas beers have been cut out: "We haven't got enough money to pay $70 or $80 for a carton," says Peter. A membership drive is under way. Guest speakers are being considered. "If we had a male mayor we'd invite him," says Clive. Liquor commissioner Peter Allen has not made it onto the short list.


DRAWING THE GREEN LINE. Review by KIERAN FINNANE.

Pip McManus's exhibition "green line", which opened at Watch This Space on the weekend, is all about boundaries, the tragedy of being stuck behind them and the mostly unrealised possibilities of crossing them. It takes its name from the demarcation line in Jerusalem which separates the Israeli and Arab parts of the city. It's one of the most fraught demarcations on earth but, as McManus so poignantly demonstrates in her show, our world is full of them. In her very practice, McManus has forcefully crossed the boundary between craft and art. A ceramicist of refined skill, in this work she draws on the resonance of the clay tablet to reflect on conflict and division between peoples, leading to displacement and dispossession, around the world, and from ancient times to the present day. Raised in Perth, McManus was first confronted by large-scale dispossession when she travelled in the Middle East after leaving school. She has made several return trips to the Middle East, spending a year in Egypt in 1985. By this time she was also living in Alice Springs and becoming increasingly aware of dispossession suffered by Indigenous people in Australia. Yet her ceramic work until quite recently was light-hearted, decorative, delightful ... and little by little, no longer quite satisfying. Starting with the Rwandan genocides of 1994, McManus began to evolve her major piece about genocide, "The Poisoned Well", first exhibited at the Alice Prize in 1999. This new work leads on from it. The starting point is life force and the natural world, expressed by numerous exquisite plant intaglios. These also strongly evoke mortality, history, captivity – each plant finite and isolated in its beauty under the glaze. These universalities are made specific in an understated yet mournful piece on the dislocation of the "stolen generations". McManus uses the raised hand motif with its plant intaglio from "The Poisoned Well" to symbolise the people at the heart of this history. From the hand, suspended on a thin red line (struggle and pain), is a tiny golden bell (church, school and, through them, the state). Above the hand, like the list of names on a soldiers' memorial, is the list of institutions in the Northern Territory where the mixed race children removed from their Aboriginal families were placed. On the other side of the world (and the opposite wall of the gallery) another child has his life buffeted: a series of tablets tell the story of Valentine, a Roumanian boy, who with his family, waited for 18 months in crowded, chaotic Cairo, existing on UN rations, until Canberra finally said Australia had no place for them. That the 1985 story could equally be told today speaks of the ugly continuity of humanity's and Australia's failings.The loss of homeland and the anguish it unleashes is picked up in the show's title piece dealing specifically with Jerusalem, where co-located in a place sacred to all of them, the world's three great monotheistic religions and their believers make " the rampart and the wall to lament". McManus again uses the hand icon, this time the "hamsa" seen in Jewish and Muslim quarters alike, stamping religious and cultural identity and conflict on the history of the city. Christianity, for its part, is represented by a fragment of a sixth century mosaic map of Jerusalem, from a Greek Orthodox church in Jordan. McManus stamps it with a single green leaf – vulva-like perhaps, and thus an expression of life force and renewal, but also, with the bleed of its glaze, wound-like, evoking the stigmata and more generally human suffering. And across centuries and oceans, the tiny golden bell rings: "The survival of everyone is related," says McManus.

Return to Alice Springs News Webpage.