BREAK GHAN TRIP: SLEEP-OVER FOR RAIL TRAVELLERS MAY BE BOON FOR ALICE.
Ghan passengers are being encouraged with new package deals and a third weekly service to leave the train in Alice and spend a few days in Central Australia.
Cooperative advertising campaigns by the NT Tourist Commission (NTTC), Great Southern Railways (GSR) and an undisclosed industry partner, with a focus on Central Australian touring, will be launched over the coming weeks.
The first of the new Ghans - the third weekly service to Alice and second to Darwin - arrives in town tomorrow (Thursday).
It will run during the Centre's peak tourism season, from May to July, leaving Adelaide every Wednesday, returning every Saturday.
Passenger trains are the railway's success story, with a 16.5 per cent increase in travellers in the period January to March, over the same period last year.
"Bookings for the coming year have continued to exceed expectations," says Tourism Minister Clare Martin, who urged GSR to promote the stop-over in The Centre.
There have been 13,060 passengers on the train to date this year.
The imminent promotion will be targeting:-
• regional NSW, from the Central Coast to the Gold Coast, with a potential audience of 1.87m, "covering traditional key regional source markets", according to Ms Martin.
• and, the half million members of the Royal Automobile Association of South Australia.
The NTTC have also run advertorial campaigns in regional NSW and Victoria and will do so early this month in all major capital cities.
The advertising will be supported by online marketing initiatives, directing visitors to the travelnt.com website and targeting "conversion" through product deals.
There will be on the ground support from CATIA, including visitor information inside the Alice Springs terminal and at Keswick Railway Station.
The CATIA visitor centre also sells tickets and offers information about rail experiences.
A glance at the GSR packages, however, shows that Alice still has work to do to establish itself as a "must-see destination" in the Centre.
Days at Ayers Rock, The Olgas and Kings Canyon are packed with activities, but the days in Alice are described as "free" with "optional tours" available.
There is as yet no sign of the themes, such as indigenous art and pioneering heritage, identified by Destination Alice.
Minister for Central Australia Peter Toyne says spending on infrastructure in the NT Budget will provide more work for Centralian businesses and boost local jobs.
Highlights include:-$1.7m to complete Stuart Lodge upgrade.
$1.2m over two years for air conditioning upgrade at Ross Park Primary School.
$1m for renal and acute care upgrades at Alice Springs Hospital.
$1m for upgrades at Flynn Drive renal services.
$1m to upgrade and expand visitor facilities in West MacDonnells.$800,000 for new Alice Springs Drag Strip.
$800,000 for upgrades to Maryvale beef road.
$650,000 for staff accommodation upgrade at Alice Springs Hospital. $500,000 for upgrades to Sandover Highway.
$500,000 for bores and main at Areyonga.
$1.02m for ongoing works at the Larapinta subdivision.
New apprentices and trainees will also be able to access up to $500 through a new WorkWear WorkGear cash bonus.
Businesses will be able to access incentives worth $3000 for taking on a trainee or $7000 for taking on an apprentice in a hard-to-fill trade.
$850,000 in continued support for the Desert Knowledge Australia Corporation and Desert Knowledge Research Centre.
$600,000 for Flexible Response Funding for training in remote communities.
$600,000 for tertiary programs through Charles Darwin University and Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education in Central Australia.
$50,000 for training for young people with disabilities.
$400,000 to train and employ traditional owners to work on parks.
$680,000 for repairs, maintenance and minor works to police, fire and emergency services facilities.
$100,000 for a mobile police station in Alice Springs.
$210,000 for an emergency services presence at Kings Canyon.
$230,000 with Voyagers for expanded fire and emergency services at Yulara.
$520,000 for the Office of Crime Prevention to work with remote communities.
$480,000 for a juvenile holding facility at Aranda House.
$270,000 for the Community Harmony Strategy to address anti-social behaviour.
$37,000 for volunteer bushfire brigades.
$1.94m additional ongoing to improve medical staffing levels in Alice Springs Hospital's Intensive Care Unit and Emergency Department.
$540,000 for Volatile Substance Abuse rehabilitation services.
$130,000 to expand disability support services in Santa Teresa.
$250,000 to provide a drop-in service for the Youth Outreach Program.
Funding for a school breakfast program for students in the region.SCHOOLS
$200,000 for extensions at Laramba School.
$200,000 for extra secondary education space at Harts Range.$200,000 for work at Ipolera School.
Every government school in Alice Springs will also receive a share of an extra $500,000 in funding for new school equipment.
An extra $42m over four years for secondary education and 19 new counsellors in the NT.An extra $500,000 for teacher housing furniture.
More spending on minor new works by 40 per cent or an extra $8m.
Indexing grants to health and community services non-government organisations to help them meet the real cost of services.
That is an increase in grant payments of $1.13m in Budget 2005, increasing by an extra $500,000 a year ongoing.
CLARE MARTIN: DOLLARS AND GOOD DEEDS. Report by ERWIN CHLANDA.
Chief Minister Clare Martin says her government is committed to spending during 2005-06 $18.5m on the construction of the Desert Knowledge precinct, and to sealing 90 kms of the Mereenie loop road.
On the social front she says there will be new legislation clarifying police obligations in dealing with petrol sniffers.
And Ms Martin says she has personally started talks with the Federal Government, and will be continuing them, about improving the CDEP "work for the dole" scheme.
Ms Martin told the Alice News that the procedure so far to get the Desert Knowledge precinct up and running had been "complex" and "there have been issues to do with the increasing cost of building in Alice Springs.
"But in 2005-06 you'll start seeing some development.
"The administration building has a September date [for the tender to be called], that's nearly $6m.
"We've committed this year for $18.5m to be spent at Desert Knowledge.
"This includes the second stage of head works."
Ms Martin denied local rumors about delays with the Mereenie loop road being caused by an impasse over royalty demands from the Central Land Council for extraction of water and sand.
"We have to reach agreement about the [Aboriginal] trust lands on access to gravel pits, but that's further down the line," says Ms Martin.
Tenders for 14 kms of new seal at the King's Canyon end will close on May 11 and during 2005/06 90 kms of new seal will be completed: "We have a schedule."Infrastructure Minister Chris Burns last week announced a further $4.5m for the broadening of the loop road's existing seal.
Ms Martin says legislation for dealing with petrol sniffers "is a gray area from the police point of view and we are changing the law.
"We are making [petrol sniffing] illegal because the law has not underpinned accurately enough what the police can do, but they will have a much clearer line about what they can do in the future.
"Rather than [adopting an] overt punitive approach we want to get these kids off sniffing and rehabilitate them if we can."
Ms Martin rejected suggestions put to her by the Alice News that existing legislation is adequate to deal with sniffing, and that her government had every opportunity of acting decisively in the nearly four years since coming to power.
(The Community Welfare Act says: "The Minister, an authorized person or a member of the Police Force may, where he or she believes on reasonable grounds that a child is in need of care, and that no other action would ensure the adequate care of the child, take the child into custody."
And the Police Administration Act says: "The [police] Commissioner shall exercise and perform all the powers and functions of his office in accordance with the directions in writing, if any, given to him by the Minister.")
Ms Martin replied: "I'm not going to argue with you about semantics. It's irrelevant to the issue.
"It's a pedantic point that is not to do with getting some outcomes in terms of petrol sniffing.
"We have some targeted strategies and we are funding them."
Ms Martin says she is "working closely with the Federal government" on CDEP, in use for 30 years now without tangible success in integrating Aboriginal people into the mainstream work force.
There is strong evidence that the scheme is widely abused.
The Federal seat of Lingiari (essentially all of the Northern Territory outside Darwin) has an official unemployment rate of eight per cent.
If the CDEP participants were included in that figure it would skyrocket to 25 per cent, making the region the nation's basket case.
Says Ms Martin: "There is a considerable amount of work to do, something that I have personally taken up with Amanda Vanstone, the [Federal] Indigenous Affairs Minister [especially] about how to move some of the positions that are currently funded under CDEP to real jobs in the workforce.
"That certainly will have a cost to it."
Unlike, for example, housing and the arts, CDEP is not "Territory specific" and that creates an extra hurdle.
"I can't give you a time line on that."
Ms Martin says efforts will continue to bring more residential land on stream in Alice Springs.
She says: "We will continue to work with Lhere Artepe [Alice Springs' native title body] and sort through any outstanding issues."
How long will it take?
"I can't say how long it's going to be."
She says she is not fully aware of disagreements within Lhere Artepe, especially threats by the members of the Liddle family to take court action if it is not fully involved in the negotiating process for land in the Mt Johns Valley (Alice News, April 6).
"I do not know the specifics," says Ms Martin.
"We will continue to work with Lhere Artepe.
"There are three groups and we'll sort through any outstanding issues.
"We're spending money on head works in the coming year," says Ms Martin.
The Alice News asked Ms Martin to explain her expectation that transferring ownership of national parks to Aborigines will lead to a boom in indigenous commercial activity, given that in the past 30 years, hardly any opportunities have been taken up in the regions controlled by the Central Land Council (CLC).
Says Ms Martin: "I'm not accountable for 30 years.
"What happened at Watarrka [King's Canyon] over the last 30 years is fairly significant.
"Are you going to tell me that quarter of a million tourists is nothing?
"There have been significant indigenous investments through Centrecorp in Watarrka.
"That's nothing? I actually think that is quite significant."
The majority share of King's Canyon Resort is owned by the Ayers Rock Resort Company. No Aboriginal people from Central Australia work at the Kings Canyon Resort as full time or permanent employees but, according to a spokeswoman, during the high season some part timers from the nearby Upinguli community are employed.
Centrecorp, deriving it funds principally from mining, oil and gas royalties, is owned by the CLC (three fifths) as well as Tangentyere Council and Congress (one fifth each).
Ms Martin says while sealing of the Loop Road takes place the government will be looking for investors in tourism ventures on Aboriginal land.
She says she has had discussions with Aboriginal people, including those from Hermanns-burg, about their future involvement in tourism, gauging the interest in participating in the tourism industry, particularly once the loop road is sealed.
She says children, especially Aborigines, need better education to become involved in tourism."We will continue to see that as one of the goals we need to achieve" – and stepping stones to that goal will be creating "safer and more stable communities."
FEDS RECKON ALEC NOT SO SMART. Report by ELISABETH ATTWOOD.
The Arid Lands Environment Centre (ALEC), which has been operating in Alice Springs for 25 years, may be closed down because the Federal Government sees it as "too political" and has reduced its funding.
The organisation researches and carries out projects in Central Australia, including promoting good pastoral practice, sustainable arid land living and eco tourism.
It has over 100 members and 350 on its mailing list, representing "a steady strong increase in membership" over the past seven months.
ALEC's funding for operational costs was cut by 70 per cent last financial year (2003-2004), and for 2004-2005 the maximum it can apply for is $10,000, a further 30 per cent cut.
For the past five years the Federal funding program, called Grants for Volunteering, Environmental and Heritage Organisations, had $7m available for organisations across Australia. The funding available for this year is $750,000.
ALEC coordinator John Brisbin believes the government has changed its funding practices to stop criticism of its environmental policies. "It seems to be that the Federal Government is seeking to silence all debate at the level of policy and instead spread funding out in a thin layer so all that environmental groups can do is plant trees.
"Planting trees is important but it's not what ALEC does. The higher level of debate independent organisations like us do is important – a critique of policy and practice.
"It's ironic because ALEC is all about on the ground works which the government is encouraging. It's just that because we focus on people not trees, we're seen as a voice of political activism."
ALEC has been awarded $30,000 for funding projects, but a maximum of 15 per cent of this ($4,500) can be used for administration costs like rent and telephones.
"Having money for operational costs is absolutely critical to us – we need it to pay rent, man the telephones, pay my salary. Without that money, people like me don't have jobs."
Mr Brisbin is the only full time paid member of staff at ALEC, which otherwise relies on volunteers or contracting staff for particular projects.
The skills shortage in town is another problem faced by ALEC, according to Mr Brisbin.
"We're a small organisation and it's difficult to find project workers. Most people are over-employed."
What is the future of ALEC?
"We have six months of operational funding left in the bank. In that six months we need to find a new financial footing that doesn't depend on Government funding," he says.
The organisation is currently investigating partnerships with businesses to raise funds: "We're interested in developing micro-enterprises based on sustainable lifestyles.
"There's a growing niche market for providing products for sustainable living here in Alice Springs, like high end water filtration to conserve water, renewable energy devices, utilising local food produce and also resale recovery – like the Bowerbird Tip Shop.
"There are very few commercial operations offering these products. "We're in touch with the expertise and we'd like to be in touch with the business community so we can capitalise on this."
Mr Brisbin is enthusiastic about the future of ALEC but not entirely positive: "It's a long shot and a terrible gamble. Most small business fail.
"We're giving ourselves six months to stabilise our financial situation."
The Alice News requested comment from Ian Campbell, minister for the Environment and Heritage on the changes to funding.
A spokesperson says they were made "because smaller groups had expressed concerns that they were missing out on funding.
"The government has listened and acted on these concerns and any voluntary group that is directly involved in on the ground environmental work will be eligible to apply for funding.
"Those groups that are taking part in activities like planting trees, repairing damaged vegetation and protecting endangered wildlife will now have better access to funding under this program.
"Smaller groups often don't have the capacity to generate enough money to pay for their day to day operations. Despite this these groups go on to deliver some spectacular results in our environment.
"The new guidelines do not prevent any group that engages in lobbying or making public statements on any matter. As long as groups can demonstrate that they are involved in on the ground environmental work they may apply for funding."
Territory Environment Minister Marion Scrymgour has been vocal in her disagreement with the new policy: "The NT Government values the work of environment organisations and this is why we have funded both the Environment Centre and the Arid Lands Environment Centre – the first time an NT Government has provided ongoing funding to these organisations.
"It is disappointing that the Federal Government has cut funding to these organisations and I would urge the Federal Government to match the Territory's commitment to these organisations."
BLESSED FOOLS. Review by DOROTHY GRIMM.
Nonsensical dialogue that makes sense, that's the delight of Fools, Alice Springs Theatre Group's latest production.
Fools, by American playwright Neil Simon and directed by Darrel King, opened at the Totem Theatre at the weekend.
Additional performances will be Friday and Saturday evenings at 7.30pm and again on May 13 and May 14, also at 7.30pm.
Simon is probably best known for his plays Barefoot in the Park, based on his own experiences as a newly wed in a New York City walk-up apartment, and The Odd Couple, which looks at the theme of personal relationships.
Both plays later became very successful films.
Fools is set in a small village in the Ukraine which has been blessed with a curse for the last 200 years, that no one would have any more intelligence than a bump on a log.
Leon (Luke Horsfall) is a young teacher who answers a misspelled newspaper ad to come to the village and teach.
Countless previous teachers have come but failed to spend even two nights in the village because of the curse.
But Leon is smitten with young Sophia (Rodell Rojo) who really does want to become educated. So he decides to stay and rid the village of its curse at all costs.
The setting doesn't matter as the humour comes from the dialogue and the basic questions asked of the audience by the characters and the play.
What is the purpose of man's existence? What is the point of being educated if it causes frustration and anger? Is being rich and smart better than being happy?Scenes which give an inkling of the type of humour include: checking the morning newspaper outside one's door to see if it is wet to determine whether or not it rained during the night; and pushing an upside down cow from house to house to deliver fresh cream.Then there's opening the 'knock' when someone's raps on the door.If you don't see the humour, Fools is not for you.
The cast do an excellent job of creating their parts and delivering their lines as if this nonsensical dialogue (which makes sense if listened to) is something they do and say everyday.
The premise stands the test of time; stupidity is stupidity, intelligence is intelligence but which is smarter and less stressful, a question which playwright Simon leaves the audience pondering as the final curtain comes down.
One also is left pondering if today's world has been similarly cursed.
The historic Totem Theatre is located between Anzac Oval and the Todd River has been recently renovated with new roof, new wiring, new paint among others.
Fools was originally set to open on April 1, April Fools Day, but delays in the theatre's renovations resulted in delays in the production's opening performance. Tickets are available at the door or at Dymocks.
ALL FOR THE BIRDS: THEY FEEL THE PRESSURE OF THE DROUGHT. Report by KIERAN FINNANE.
Every morning and sometimes in the evening Iain Campbell walks in an arc from his home on the banks of the Todd River just south of the Gap to the Heavitree Causeway and along a river track to the John Blakeman Bridge.
He's on the lookout for birds. He's always loved them, often painted them but now he has become a systematic observer, contributing detailed data to the national ornithological organization, Birds Australia.
In fact Iain was atlas observer #28054 in their recently published, magnificent Bird Atlas.
The number of bird species sighted on his patch now stands at 74. He started in 2000 with 30 odd, but says part of the increase must be due to his improved powers of observation and recognition.
On the morning that I spoke to him he had seen a black kite, galahs, a long-billed corella, a little corella, an Australian ringneck, a spiny-cheeked honeyeater, a yellow-throated miner, a white plumed honeyeater, a brown honeyeater, grey-crowned babblers, magpie larks, a willy wagtail, a pied butcherbird, crow species ("I find it hard to tell the difference between a little crow and a Torresian crow"), an Australian hobby, and a black falcon.This last is "quite rare" but Iain's seen one 10 times in the last month.
"It's got a tree in the middle of the river that it uses as a perch."
Iain is reluctant to draw any conclusions from his observations – "I'm not a scientist" – but he says this year he is seeing more raptors (flesh-eaters), including the falcon, and fewer seed-eating birds.
Iain ventures that this may be due to the warm dry weather – according to the Bureau of Meteorology, Alice is now in its eleventh month of virtually no rain (37mm in total recorded at Alice Springs Airport since the beginning of last June), the driest such period on record.
(There has been a drier 11month period, from December 1964 to October 1965 inclusive when only 35.8mm were recorded. The next driest June to April period, from 1963 to 1964, received a slightly healthier 63.3mm, though in the context of a somewhat more extended "rainfall deficient period".)
For Iain three bird species in particular stand out as largely absent, the sacred kingfisher, the rainbow bee-eater, and the zebra finch.
Iain's meticulously kept charts allow him to establish within minutes when he has last seen a species in his patch.
Take the zebra finch for example. This year he saw none in January, two in February, none in March.
In 2004 the numbers were also low: two in January, none in February, three in March.
But in 2003, there were five in January, 16 in February, and 30 in March.
This month Iain has spotted three but he thinks the setting was significant – grass around irrigated gum trees.
"That's the only green growth in the area."
The sacred kingfisher and the rainbow bee-eater both migrate to the Centre to breed.
Last year the kingfisher bred twice. In fact there were four kingfisher nests just in Iain's patch. This year there was only one and Iain is uncertain if the young fledged.
"I found egg shells under the nest but I didn't see any young."The bee-eater makes its nest in the ground, burrowing into the riverbanks. Iain observed one ill-fated attempt in the last breeding season: "The ground was too friable and the nest-tunnel kept collapsing – that would seem to be a consequence of the dry weather."
Iain's observations are echoed by wildlife ranger with Parks & Wildlife, Kim Schwartzkopff.
"Waterholes are drying up and animals are moving towards town, where they find easier water and food in gardens and parks," says Kim.
"There are larger birds around – like parrots, galahs, crows, hawks – but there's a lack of smaller birds, like the finches, and this is going back for some 12 months now."Small animals are perishing so there's easier prey for hawks, especially the falcon breed.
"Our scientists have noticed a lack of small mammals in their traps."However, Kim has observed birds, such as mud larks and small honeyeaters, continuing to breed.
Kim has been in the Centre for 27 years and this is the driest he's seen it.
"People I've spoken to say it's the closest they've seen to the ‘sixties drought.
"A lot of waterholes and springs that haven't been dry since the ‘sixties are now drying up.
"All the east side of the Alice region is very dry and dusty – Ringwood Station, Andado, Owen Springs.
"Out west the water in Ormiston Gorge is a lot lower than normal. I've seen it drier but no one has ever seen it totally dry.
"Ellery Big Hole has also dropped noticeably – you can see a lot more of the sandy banks on the other side.
"Closer to town the waterholes on Bond Springs Station have dried up and the last time I saw Wiggly's it was just a green puddle. That would be dry now."
There've obviously been no summer grasses and Kim says some acacias are now dying off, and while larger trees are still green, "they're not as flush as usual".
"Right across the NT we need really good rain in the next 12 months, otherwise things will be grim for a next couple of years."
What's the likelihood of rain?
Sam Cleland, manager of Climate Services at the Bureau of Meteorology in Darwin, says the seasonal outlook does not show either above or below average chances of rainfall.
"The sea surface temperature patterns are not indicative of drier than normal conditions at the moment, but then a break in the current conditions is not immediately obvious.
"Comparisons are being made with the ‘sixties. The airport figure for the 10 months to the end of March is lower than the equivalent figure in individual years in that period but we have not yet experienced several years in a row of very dry weather which was a feature of the ‘sixties."
The temperatures for this month are "remarkable", above average by more than five degrees: the mean maximum for April is 28.1 degrees centigrade, but so far this April the average has been 33.4.
That's close to the highest on record, experienced in April, 2002.
"STRENGTH, DEPTH OF THIS MOB'S CULTURE". Report by ELISABETH ATTWOOD.
Family and feeling, singing and dancing, and fine art made for a joyful celebration at Araluen on Saturday of Warlukurlangu Artists' first 20 years.
The occasion also opened two exhibitions: one, the art centre's own collection, developed since 1989; the other, a selling exhibition of small works by contemporary artists from Yuendumu, 300 kilometres north-west of Alice, in the heart of Warlpiri country.
Many of the artists were accompanied by their daughters, grandmothers and other relatives.
Jacinta Castle, apprentice curator at Araluen and the daughter of Warlpiri woman Bess Nungarrayi Price, was first to speak:
"I feel honoured and privileged not only to see paintings that are so heartfelt and meaningful here, but also that many of the artists who painted them are members of my family, and some very close.
"We want to teach the world about our creation stories.
"There has been lots of bad news in town about communities – anyone who can read can see that – but amongst all the bad news, there is something good. The strength and depth of this mob's culture.
"They're wonderful, intelligent and creative people who are determined their culture will not die."
Bess Price, also an artist, then spoke: "I'm proud of being here today amongst all of our family. It's a special day. Many of the paintings here are from those who have passed on.
"The arts centre has become a place for old people at Yuendumu to sit and spend time together. A place to talk about the past as well as things that are happening at the moment and the future."
Bess later spoke to me about her painting in the exhibition: "The painting is about the rufus hare wallaby. The Mala people created a swamp in Yuendumu called Malawirri after performing a ceremony.
"They travelled north then but had left their essence behind, on the ant hills in the Tanami.
"I try to paint contemporary and traditional paintings. A bit of both. I want to be different."
I started to look at other work but was soon taken by the arm by Bessie Sims, another artist of the community, who wanted to show me some of her work.
She spoke about her incredibly colourful Flying Ant and Water Dreaming piece: "Water came out of the land like a fountain, a little bit of water.
"People helped me mix colours, white, orange, yellow, red, blue, they made all these colours.
"Sometimes I paint a little bit, sometimes a lot."
Former arts coordinator, Felicity Wright, who worked at the community during the 1980s, is writing a book about the art centre.
She said living on the community had "turned her whole life upside down".
Praising the artists for their work over the last two years, she spoke of an "extraordinary renaissance in painting"."The quality of art being produced is fantastic. Now everyone knows Yuendumu.
"The community has an egalitarian system – it supports everybody, there are no star artists.
"The arts centre is a focus for the older people, who bring their problems and issues to the table while they are quietly and methodically painting.
Young people go there for guidance.
"Yuendumu is a testament to why art centres work. The art centre has made something amazing happen there."
The exhibition at Araluen is significant, she says, because it brings together all of Warlukurlangu's major artists, some of whom are deceased.
"You don't often see paintings from living artists with those of deceased ones.
"Yuendumu has always been known for its fantastic colours, and the collection shows the development of this."
FIONA O'LOUGHLIN: FUNNY GIRL IS DEAD SCARED. Report by ELISABETH ATTWOOD.
There's only one place scarier than the Edinburgh Festival and that's Alice Springs," laughs our home-grown internationally successful comedian, Fiona O'Loughlin.
She's performing at the Araluen Centre on Saturday – for only the second time in six years in her own show, despite living here for 20 years.
"I'm really excited and terrified out of my wits. I care about this show more than I've cared for a long time. But I feel more than ready, I should have done it sooner."
Fiona has been a comic for 15 years, 10 years professionally. She's performed at over 230 international festival shows, including Melbourne, and has just been chosen for the second time as one of only six comedians to represent Australia on Granada's World Comedy Tour show alongside comedians from the UK and USA.
How did a girl from Alice end up getting the last laugh?
"Years ago I was watching the Melbourne Comedy festival gala on television and I felt like I was looking at all the other kids in the playground and not being allowed to play.
"Being disadvantaged by location must be a frustration for a lot of professions or dreams in Central Australia.
"But I felt like I had something really different from other comedians and it made me hell bent on proving that living here doesn't necessarily stop you from doing what you want.
"I don't know whether I would ever have become a comedian if I hadn't moved here."
Fiona says it took her about five years to realise her dream.
"I had a weird apprenticeship – usually comedians learn by doing stand-ups in clubs. But I had to learn long distance. I would get to Melbourne as often as I could, because it's the capital of comedy, and just study other comedians.
"I had to learn very quickly – I couldn't stay long because my children were just babies.
"There were times when I thought about moving, but I'm so glad I didn't. Alice Springs is a big part of who I am and I don't know how to define myself otherwise.
"When I'm overseas I use it as a point of difference to identify myself – in Montreal and Edinburgh, everyone is a bit fascinated with the middle of Australia."
Being known in the industry as ‘that female comedian from Alice Springs' has given Fiona originality.
"In a city, you're influenced so much by others. For me, there was no one to copy!
"It's predominantly a male profession but I've found being female is more of a help than a hindrance. There are so many urban 20 to 30 year old male stand-ups. Being a female separates you and once you're in, there's plenty of work."
While many female stand-ups are joking about being single and do a bit of entertaining man-bashing in their acts, Fiona, now 42, makes jokes about what she knows – being a wife and mum to five children.
"My stuff is all about the human condition really. I love stories so I tell a lot of them in my show, and they're all based in truth.
"I find it very hard to make up stories and I can only be funny about things I'm interested in. I know comedians who never tell a thing about themselves. But sometimes it terrifies me how much I tell the audience about me. I come off stage and think, ‘Did I really tell them that?'
"In this show I'm obsessed with family and the way family works – not just as a mum but among siblings. I love exploring the relationship people have with their parents."
Her own parents were head of a large Catholic family in rural South Australia.
"We grew up telling stories around the kitchen table and I soon realised I could hold my own with brothers. I suppose I was the class clown at school as well because I wasn't academic.
"I've always made it my priority to be funny."
Fiona writes all her own stand-up, though occasionally works with her sister, Emily Taheny, who is a comedy actress on the show Comedy Inc.
"I love writing with her because she gets me and I get her," says Fiona.
It was with her sister that Fiona wrote the act she first performed at Araluen in 1999, Fiona and her Sister and Some Guy. And it was with this one-woman stand-up and sketch show that she "first threw my hat in the national ring", taking it to the Adelaide Fringe.
"How you learn is by doing festivals. You have to do that show for 30 days every night and you learn something from every show.
"It's always been my goal to be as conversational as I can be on stage. I'm very inspired by Billy Connelly – I like his freedom of being able to head down one road telling one story, then digressing and telling another, then telling story C and then going back down the first road. It's a much more natural way to perform."
Fiona is due to take part in her second Edinburgh Festival for three weeks in August, and has been asked to hold her show at the most popular venue, the Assembly Rooms.
Do international audiences always share her Australian sense of humour?
"It translates way better than I expected. When I played in Montreal, I found Canadians are so like Australians, they're just like us but with a funny accent.
"The only time I couldn't get on the audience's wave length was in LA. The Americans have a very different style to us – they gag it up more. I put my gags at the beginning of my act but my stuff is a mix of self-deprecation and some quite black comedy.
"I can be quite dark-themed at times so my gags were a bit darker than they were used to.
"I think they just thought I was an asshole!"
On Saturday night, Fiona says she'll be bringing back to Alice Springs what she's learnt over the last five years, as well as trying out new material for her Edinburgh gig.
"I suffer terribly from nerves at the best of times and I've been a scaredy cat about performing in my home town for a bit too long.
"I still feel when I'm on stage someone is about to tap me on the shoulder and tell me to go home. I'll be thinking that on Saturday night. But I guess it's the fear that feeds comedians."
LETTERS: Drunk or high not an excuse!
Sir,– The Criminal Code will be changed so people are held fully responsible for violent crimes, including rape even if they are drunk or high on drugs.
In the most significant reform to occur since its inception, the NT Criminal Code will be amended to make it easier to prosecute for manslaughter.
As Attorney-General, I will introduce this Bill in this week's Parliamentary sittings.
This is another crime fighting tool which can be used to tackle the causes of crime and build on the extra 100 police on our streets.
Having cut property crime in half we are now increasing our focus on reducing crimes of violence in our community.
This reform will send a strong message to violent offenders – you have to take responsibility for your actions.
For example, as the law stands now, someone who is drunk or high on drugs may not be convicted of manslaughter when that would be the appropriate result.
Instead offenders are often convicted of the lesser offence of "dangerous act" under Section 154 of the NT Criminal Code with a 14 year maximum sentence. The maximum sentence for manslaughter is life.
To put an end to that we are going to get rid of the offence of "dangerous act" (Section 154) – and bring the Northern Territory in line with the rest of Australia.
It will be replaced with a more modern range of new offences targeted at specific criminal behaviour including:
• recklessly endangering life;
• recklessly or negligently causing serious harm; and,
• dangerous driving causing death or serious harm.
Each of these new offences will attract penalties which are appropriate to the level of harm inflicted and will ensure violent offenders receive the kinds of gaol sentences they deserve.
The amendment to the criminal responsibility provisions of the Criminal Code will also make it easier to successfully prosecute rape offences.
At the moment, the prosecution must prove that the accused actually intended to have sexual intercourse without consent to secure a rape conviction.
This can be very difficult if the accused gave no thought to the question of consent because they were too intoxicated.
Following these reforms the fact that the accused may have not have bothered to turn their mind to the question of consent will be no excuse.
The amendment to Section 31 and the repeal of Section 154 will mean that victims of crime and their families will get justice.
The reforms also address concerns about our Criminal Code which have been raised by the judiciary and law experts for nearly three decades.
Dr Peter Toyne
Minister for Justice and Attorney-General
Sir,– The government's $5 million itinerants strategy has failed and the arrest of thousands of drunks over the past weeks by Territory police is proof.
The recent need to use police to arrest thousands of drunks was a problem predicted years ago when the return to country program was introduced.
When budget allocations were made in the 2002/3 budget for improving the services for itinerants in our communities by $5m, the opposition said that it would lead to more drunks on our streets.
Since that time the numbers have gone up in their thousands and this is reflected in police statistics from their annual report of last year. The number crept past 19,000, up from just 11,000 a few years earlier.
The CLP offered a solution by introducing a bill to target habitual drunks. The government rejected this bill and it was left with no mechanism to deal with drunks who could only be classified as frequent fliers.
The itinerant problem in the major centres is Clare Martin's fault. I repeatedly warned her of the folly of her policy in this area.The return to community program has failed and we now see the police having to try and clean up the mess that this government has made.
I offered the Government a tool to deal with this with habitual drunk's legislation which this government rejected.
The ongoing response is now to spend more money on housing itinerants in our communities, as shown by the expenditure of $2.2m on a lodge in Alice Springs.
Shadow Minister for Community Development
Movie money madness? COLUMN by VIKTORIA CORMACK.
For someone who was not born in this town or even in this country I have become very possessive and defensive about this place and the people who have ended up here by choice, accident or birth.
We get know the magic of this town and although we are more than willing to share some of that with visitors, we don't want outsiders to tell our story.The filming of the new TV series The Alice should be a great tourist booster, probably reaching many more Australians than a NT government tourist campaign. I did not see the pilot movie but several people who did told me they did not like it. I hope the series is going to be more popular with locals.However, it is not a series written or produced by locals and we are not the target audience. It will be the outsiders' view of the Outback. It is unlikely to please everybody.
Apparently the NT government has given $330,000 to Southern Star productions to entice them to film in Alice and employ locals.
Perhaps this money is also supposed to encourage the producers to consider other projects in the Territory.
It is probably money well spent. I just hope it came from the tourist campaign or business promotion coffers and was not money that had been set aside for local production endeavours in the arts.
Just like we should encourage our people to buy Australian made products, we should look after local talent in the Territory before we support New South Wales industry.Another idea in an election year like this would be to set up a special fund for support and promotion of the Territory generally.
Why not a literature prize of $300,000 for a best seller set in Central Australia? It wouldn't really matter if the author was German, Japanese or third generation Australian of Anglo-Irish descent, as long as she or he could sell us to the world.On the one hand I want to keep this place to myself; on the other I want to share it with others. The problem with the media, as any celebrity would surely tell you, is that once you become famous all sorts of things will be written about you and not all of them will be flattering or true.
I imagine that the series is unlikely to reflect more than a fraction of the character of life in Central Australia and will be biased by and towards city dwellers' perceptions and stereotypes of the outback. But then there is a saying that all publicity is good publicity and the series will give us exposure in the media.
It is always exciting with visitors in town, especially when they show and communicate appreciation for our humble abode! If they choose to buy souvenirs made in China and look for their own Outback out here so be it. As long as we keep telling our stories our way and support local artists we can afford to share some of the benefits of our paradise with the Channel Nine network.
Wrestling with remembrance. COLUMN by STEVE FISHER.
Just for a week, I'm going to try not to ask anyone how they are. In fact, let's go the whole hog; I'll attempt to ask nobody at all how they're going, what's up, what they are doing or any other inane enquiry that doesn't merit a considered reply.
Instead, I'll just say hello to people, like they did in the old days. So when a person approaches me and says "Steve, how ya going mate?", I'll just say "Hello". It should be a good week and I am quite looking forward to it. I'll let you know how I go.
In case you are wondering what brought this on, it was a single incident. I asked someone how he was. He then spent 15 minutes explaining how he had sustained a wasp sting when emptying the skimmer basket in his swimming pool because he didn't realize that the wasp within it was not yet dead.
As a result, he is taking anti-histamine tablets and he feels drowsy all the time. To be honest, he didn't seem any drowsier to me than he usually does. To feel sleepy, surely you have to be awake in the first place. Anyway, listening to the story was a much more arduous experience than listening to myself talking about my infected toe knuckle.
This tale of skimmer box injury came hard on the heels of Anzac Day and those annual reminders of the horrendous time that soldiers endured on the cliffs of the Turkish coast. It made me wonder whether one generation has to pay the ultimate sacrifice so that the next one can spend weekends trying to get their pool spotless. I suspect I'm not the only one who feels this way.
Apart from the emotions of gratitude, loss, the fight for freedom and the strength of emerging Australian nationhood, there's a heavy dose of guilt mixed into the Anzac Day experience. It grows just a bit stronger every year.
For example, look at the development of the south-east coast of Queensland. I cannot imagine that the Anzacs fought on foreign fields so that following generations could spend their lives chasing a coastal lifestyle by successive relocations up the coast to escape hordes of people from NSW doing the same.
Did they do it so that we could buy low-cost consumer durables from China or have internet access to our air miles accounts?
If my Grandad was still here, I'd ask him. William Taylor died when I was seven, but I remember going to visit him in hospital and being told the story of how he developed gangrene in his legs in the trenches at the Battle of the Somme.
He was one of the lucky ones who survived the war, but years later he had an amputation and endured poor health until it finally caught up with him in the late ‘sixties.
I'd be embarrassed to relate the trivia of the skimmer box story to anyone like William, not to mention the time when I dropped an over-sized piece of rock mulch on my foot.
Or my rule of Outback household safety, which is don't put your hand anywhere that you cannot see unless reaching to the back of the fridge for a low-carbohydrate alcoholic beverage.
But then again, William was a pragmatic man and would be probably be pleased that at least his grandchildren didn't have to endure what he did.
Either way, there's a consolation in knowing that Alice Springs is more sheltered from the contradictions of our generation than other places. It is a long time since I last heard myself or anyone else wittering on endlessly about interest rates, house prices, holiday destinations and trust funds. Like previous generations, I'd like to think that we have more important things to worry about.
OLDFIELD HELD THE ACE CARD IN $75,000 CUP. Report by PAUL FITZSIMONS.
The party atmosphere at Pioneer Park came to a head at a little after ten past five on Monday afternoon when the revelling crowd saw Shrewd Ace – trained by Vivian Oldfield with Scott Leckey in the saddle – take out the $75,000 XXXX Gold Alice Springs Cup.
At the gates Southern Renegade again proved a handful and held the rest of the field up. However, once the starter flashed the red light things began in earnest, with Radiant Society bounding to the lead and piloting the field past the post the first time.
At the 800 metre mark it was time for the former Darwin Cup winner to take off and invite the field to catch him if they could.
By the turn Brave Decision had claimed a four-length lead and looked the goods.
In the race game, however, the ability of Oldfield to prepare a winner can never be underestimated, and apprentice Scott Leckey drove the three year old gelding to the line, winning by a neck. Brave Decision did well to hold on for second, with Prince Paree a fast finishing third.
For retiring Pioneer Park boss, Steve Smedley, the Carnival could not have been a better way to go out.
Young Guns Day back on April 16 was again a bonanza for the young and the young at heart, with the NT Guineas also taken out by the Oldfield trained Shrewd Ace.
Then on Ladies' Day the feature race, the Chief Minister's Cup, saw Terry Gillett's Doolam Player get to the line by a short neck over Prince Paree.
On Family Day last Saturday the crowd swelled to witness the Darwin trained Sacred Shield backed heavily and good enough to charge home a two and a quarter length winner.
Off the track the carnival was also a winner with the 24th Red Centre Yearling Sales on last Friday night breaking all records, and the Sydney trainer Graham Rogerson a prominent purchaser.
From the sales it was a matter of Saturday night fever at the Cup Ball, and the ever popular traditional Calcutta giving punters a chance on Sunday, to round out the celebrations.
EVEN STEVENS IN A GRADE FOOTY. Report by PAUL FITZSIMONS.
Teams appear to be evenly matched in A Grade Football, with both the weekend's matches resulting in a draw.
Federals and Scorpions drew two all, while Verdi and Vikings finished their contest without scoring.
In the Federals camp goals went the way of Neil Rutland and Sonda Dersken, while it was Roger Smith and Paul Milne who balanced the books for Scorpions.
It was a quite different outcome for the B Grade players. Buckleys continue to be the measuring stick of the competition, recording a handy 3-0 win over ASFA. Daniel Yamada, Brandon Dienes and David Jaggar netted the goals.
Busy Bees then really felt the effect of an opposition sting when they went down to Dragons, 11-0. Eric Butler led the charge with a hat trick, Stephen Brannon and Tom Hoskins each contributed two goals, and singles went to Sean Arm, Jason Shaw, Andy Doran, and Todd Nopella.
The Federal and Scorpions result was a replica of the A Grade game in that it ended in a two all draw. Feds' Martin Lawlor and Josh Whiles did the damage, Scorpions' points came off the boot of Theo Ilaramanidos.
Desert Spinach did their supporters proud when they took on the Vikings and won, 2-1. The veteran Peter Yates set up the win with a goal, and Joe Firmu then put the result in safe hands. Tyson Mann wasVikings' scorer.
The Stormbirds then had their colours lowered when Scorpions scored 3-0 in the second C Grade fixture. Jordan Zahla scored twice and Vanessa Goddard found the net to complete the statistics.
In the colts division Celtic simply ran amok to record a 12-1 win over Yirara. Roy Graham led the charge with a double hat trick, and on field he was ably supported by Fabio Dos Santos and Jad Daet. While Neil Kilgariff scored for Yirara , Sheldon Hayes, Dillon Kingston and Dale Jackson were prominent.
Memo then accounted for Vikings, 7-2. A hat trick to Chris Hunt did the damage at the net but other impressive performances came from Edme Tickoft and Ben Borchers. For Vikings good games came from Chris Constable and Josh Wiles.The under age competition is again keenly supported in all grades.
In the Under 14s Scorpions downed Memo Red 5-2, with Elliott McBride and Hugh Brocklebank scoring two goals each for their respective sides.
Memo White enjoyed a 7-0 win over Yirara, with Lincoln Dangley and Luke Bathern each recording memorable games.
Vikings then got home by the barest margin when they beat Celtic 5-4. Maasi Toupu made a name for himself with a hat trick, while Chris Dos Santos netted two goals for Celtic.
Two games were conducted for the Under 12s. Memo White cruised to a 10-2 win over Celtic Green. Dominic Barry and Cole Hayes stood out with hat tricks. Scorpions then had a one all draw with Celtic White and all played well.
The non competitive Under 10 games revealed stars of the future in Alex Vulk, Dion Bandiera, Ben Halls, Christine Zurbach and Luke Sitzler.At Under 8 level Justin Brown, Sam Hall, Johnathon Hitt, Jacob Bonanni, Aiden Dermody and Zack Craig impressed.The Under 6s strutted their stuff with two games. Nick Schmull, Ethan Brown, Mitchell Bartells and Kai Simpson certainly looked the goods.
BATTLE ROYALE. Report by PAUL FITZSIMONS.
Pioneer and Federal came head to head on Saturday afternoon for a battle royale, the result of which was only determined after the final siren.
Fittingly the fixture was also marked as the inaugural Cup challenge in honour of the late Rhett Henry, who during his career had spent time at both clubs.This match was to be the litmus test for Federal. Driven by the enthusiasm of coach Willy Willshire, the club has recruited from within local ranks as well as picked up new players to town.
The nuggety Andrew Turrell, newly arrived from South Australian, was proof in the pudding: having kicked five goals in the Reserves the week before, he produced a best on ground performance for Federal.The early game predictably went the way of the Eagles, who had the would-be future AFL player Joe Cole dominating, while the experienced Graham Smith was again the lighthouse for Pioneer.The Eagles rested at quarter time with a 12 point lead and were able to maintain this momentum till the half time break, going into the sheds 7.6 to 5.2.
In the second half Federal anticipated fitness to become a telling factor with their opposition and this was proven in the run home. The Eagles maintained a lead of 10 points at three quarter time, but Federal through tireless commitment were able to grab a five point lead which they held till the death.
Then a desperate Pioneer wrestled victory from the jaws of defeat with a vital last kick of the day.
For Micheal McDonald the day was a pearler. He registered seven goals for the Eagles, while Shane Hayes with three, and both Shane McAuliffe and Ivan Presley completed the tally.
In the Federal camp Brenton Forrester again showed he has settled in well with a bag of five goals. The key forward Dave Atkinson bounced back from injury to contribute four, while Sheldon Palmer scored three. Single goals went to Martin Patrick and James Braedon.
Around the ground for Pioneer Cole and Smith were ably assisted by Jeffery Taylor, Andrew Baker, Daniel McCormack and Aaron Kopp.
In the 14.8 (92) to 14.7 (91) result Bradley Turner, Braedon and Forrester were conspicuous for Federal.After the best game of the season to date, the South versus Rovers clash was a let down. The Roos took all before them to score 19.20 (134) to a paltry 4.3 (27).
South booted 7.10 to 3.1 in the opening half and then sailed away to record a further 12.10 to 1.2 in the run home.
Charlie Maher and Darren Talbot were the play makers for South and had players of the calibre of Gilbert Fishook, Sherman Spencer, and Darren Young in the forward zone to capitalise.
In contrast Rovers again found the going tough. Daniel Molloy and Adam Davis gave of their best, while individual goals went to Darren Porter, Ray Brown, Glen Swain and Adam Davis.
This weekend Rovers have Pioneer to contend with, while South and West complete the round.
In country football Central Anmatjere will face Yuendumu, and Western Aranda will play Ti Tree.
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