The town is safe in public servants’ hands: forum told

Report figures on the proportion of Aboriginal people expected in Alice by 2030 “way, way off”. Researcher now says she got it wrong.

By KIERAN FINNANE

 

“Rest easy, the public servants are onto it. But if you’ve got any (cost free) new ideas, let us know.”

This was essentially the message from Tuesday’s feedback forum on the Alice Springs Community Action Plan. The fact that the forum did not cover new ground or open up a space for new insights, directions and initiatives would have given comfort to the boycotters (see separate report), although Alderman Eli Melky did attend.

First up, consultant Jane Munday summarised the report she had compiled, “intended as the first stage in developing” the action plan. This is described as a “research report”, commissioned by the Department of the Chief Minister. Ms Munday is experienced and well-qualified in public relations and marketing. Her report is essentially about a number of consultation exercises she conducted; its “research” is not of the probing kind. For instance, she repeats what is frequently heard in public fora, that “the proportion of Aboriginal residents (now 21%) is expected to increase to about 45% by 2030”. She sources the figure to a presentation at the Kilgarrif forum by the Department of Lands and Planning.

Such an increase would be huge, a radical change to the demography of the town and with potentially far-reaching implications, but it is “way, way off” according to Dean Carson, Professor for Rural and Remote Research at Flinders University.

Professor Carson explains: “Alice Springs has about 20% Indigenous population. We would expect 2011 Census to show about the same – the increase from 15% has taken about 15-20  years. So, [with] another 20 years, and even a similar rate of proportional increase, you may have 23-25% Indigenous at a stretch.

“This is different for the region as a whole – where, outside of Alice Springs and Yulara, Indigenous people are as much as 80-90% of the population in specific locations. So a regional 40-45% is about where it sits now, and about where it is likely to sit for the next 10 or 20 years (going up a percent or two, but staying pretty much in the same band).

“Even if you make major ‘tweaks’ of the assumptions of population distribution (a much larger out-migration of non-Indigenous people and in-migration of Indigenous people, for example), you still don’t get anywhere near 45% for the town itself. In fact, you have to have pretty drastic assumptions to even get to 30% or so.

“Compare with Katherine, for example, where the 1998 floods resulted in a substantial out-migration of non-Indigenous people and an in-migration of Indigenous people. The population base there is much smaller (about 7500 people compared with 30,000 people), but still the proportion of Indigenous [people] only went from about 20% to about 25% during the ten years of transition in that population.”

This is only one example but it is about a very fundamental issue in terms of planning for beyond this summer, and it is about time that the government, and its consultants, got on top of the data so that everybody knows what we should actually be talking about.

The meeting then heard from John Adams, the government’s coordinator of youth services, based at the Youth Hub, whose presentation was particularly futile. He read, word for word, from a two and a half page document an account of the so-called Youth Action Plan. This is something everyone could have done for themselves as copies were available at the door of the meeting room.

A good part of the document has been the subject of various government media releases since the announcement of the Youth Action Plan in 2009. What may be new were some numbers quoted on young people transported to a safe place, notifications, provisional protections and so on, but without any data on the size of the problem – that is, numbers of young people at risk or who are a risk to others, such as those who were creating trouble on the streets last summer –  how meaningful are such figures?

Mr Adams then nearly put everyone to sleep with an account of the various committees, implementation groups and interagency meetings that the government has set up. Not a single insight into who the young people they are dealing with are, how they come to be in a situation where they are vulnerable, neglected or abused. Not a single story, let alone a quantum, of a young person’s life changed by whatever intervention, or of a family managing a whole lot better as the result of whatever effort. No account whatsoever of the young people who fall through the cracks; no analysis of how that happens and what can and has been done to try to prevent it. No shadow of doubt that everything is hunky-dory in youth services land.

We heard about the provision of extra safe houses and that they have never been full but no analysis of why that might be the case. We heard that there are no duplications of services, but this was not substantiated by, for instance, explanations of the ways different groups are being catered for.

The next presentation was from the NT Police’s Assistant Commissioner for Regional Operations, Mark Payne, who had the good sense to not read a blurb. He briefly described the dimensions of the problems: that property offences last January and February had been at an “all time high”, that violent offending had gone “through the roof”, that there was a level of public drinking that police “hadn’t seen before”. He said police had made a promise last March that they would return the town to the state it had been in before and “I think we have been successful”. He cited one figure on decreased offending to support this, but did not say how much of the reduction was due to the normal decline of offending in winter months.

Critical to police being able to deal with the problems, he said, has been the availability of short-term hostel accommodation, the increased capacity of safe houses for young people, and the ability to direct young people through the Youth Street Outreach Services towards a coordinated response.

He mentioned the usefulness of the coordinator position for patrol agencies and the work of the Interagency Tasking and Coordination Group. He described all this activity as “community-based problem solving”, saying it means that the town will not be in the same position that it was in last Christmas.

He also said there had been increases in school attendance but did not supply figures.

On dealing with alcohol-affected people, Commissioner Payne said that legislative change had given police wider grounds on which to take people into protective custody. Officers are able to rely more on their own observation and conclusions about what a person may be likely to do, to themselves or to others: “This has opened up some doors for us,” he said.

In preparation for summer, he said a taskforce operation similar to the one in March is being planned, it will be trialled over September, October – when there are expected spikes in the influx of visitors –  and be ready to go from December 1 through the summer. If required, the “big guns” will be brought in from Darwin.

Challenged from the floor on enforcement, for instance of the “2km law” (banning public drinking), Commissioner Payne replied that it is enforced daily and that the only reason that police would not be “terribly proud” of their arrest rates is that they are too high.

This speaker from the floor was the only one to become heated. This says something about the attendance at the meeting. Those needing to vent – the ones who feel frustrated and powerless – had largely stayed away. In their place were many public servants and members of non-government organisations.

A prominent figure from the NGO sector, Jonathan Pilbrow, asked about composition of the committee, commenting that it did not have NGO nor general community representation. From Mayor Damien Ryan’s explanation, it seems that he and co-chair Catherine Liddle had asked specific individuals to join them on the committee. Mayor Ryan said Brad Bellette, Neil Ross and Jenny Nixon were all non-government people.

Alderman Sandy Taylor asked Mr Adams about how many Family Reponsibility Agreements had been entered into. Mr Adams said “16, from memory”. She asked whether they include agreements around sending children to school; he said “yes”.

She asked Commissioner Payne whether there was room in the future for introducing a curfew for continual youth offenders. He said this was a policy issue for government, not for practical policing, but added that many things that are being done now have the same effect as a curfew, for example, if children go to school during the day, they are less likely to be on the streets at night.

Reverend Kate Fraser offered the expertise in restorative justice of a member of the Uniting Church. Mr Adams said he would be happy to talk to this person, adding that the youth justice review, the results of which will be announced soon, will see changes in the responses to youth offending.

Graham Buckley emphasised the importance of early childhood programs, to which the consultations had paid some attention, and said he was “heartened” by the meeting.

Hal Duell asked about parents of juvenile offenders being held financially responsible for the damage their children cause – it would give them a “vested interest” in ensuring that their children didn’t get involved in offending. Mayor Ryan thought it a “very good point”. A person from the Justice Department said this can be “part of the conversation” in the existing restorative justice process managed by the police, though it varies from case to case.

Ald Melky lamented the state of affairs whereby the town’s youth is “now the bad guy”, reminding those in attendance that it was not long ago that they were young too. He turned to speak directly to Minister for Central Australia, Karl Hampton, who was present at the back of the room (he did not speak at the meeting). Ald Melky charged him, “as the only one in the room with the power”, with the responsibility for keeping the streets safe.

Mayor Ryan commented that it was the responsibility of “each of us”. Ms Liddle suggested that a “mechanism” could be found to promote “some of the good things our young people do”.

Ian Sharp wanted to know if there was any data about the impact of negative publicity about unsafe streets on the tourism industry. He referred to recent comments by Michael Toomey, manager of commercial and retail operations at the Royal Flying Doctor Service in Alice, that big picture national and international factors are a much greater influence on the current flattening of business than specific factors such as negative publicity.

Peter Grigg, general manager of Tourism Central Australia,  said he has encountered “very, very little” by way of negative perceptions in the consumer shows that he has attended. When he did hear concerns, he was able “to put people’s minds at ease”. He said the town’s residents are the best ambassadors for the town and they need to get it out there that they love Alice Springs.

Ald Liz Martin, who is on the committee for the action plan, asked Commissioner Payne whether forensic investigators would be brought in help find who is responsible for the many recent deliberately-lit fires. He replied that the “greatest resource” for detection is people keeping their eyes open and reporting suspicious behaviour to police: “That’s how we catch people and we have had some success.”

The meeting was wrapped up at this point, but further enquiry by the Alice News revealed that the “success” amounts to one arrest and a couple of leads.

Meanwhile, the report and other materials as well as a list of actions that people are invited to prioritise is on the NT Government’s Safe Communities’ website.

The Family and Children’s Services number to call if you are concerned about a young person is 1800 700 250.

Jane Munday replies: 

Michels Warren Munday is a communication consultancy that, among other things, specialises in community consultation.

We were engaged by the Department of the Chief Minister to put together a community action plan.  The first step of this exercise was community consultation – the ‘research’ you refer to.  Consultation means listening.  Our job was to listen to the community.

We were not engaged as demographers or economic modellers.  However, we do recommend strongly that there is a need for mobility and social research like the previous Tangentyere mobility study to provide accurate data on a range of issues, including population trends.

Having said that, I have made a mistake in one of my dot points on page 9 of my report.  ABS figures show the proportion of Aboriginal people in the town of Alice Springs was 21% in 2006.  Government projections are that 43% of people in the Alice Springs region (including its hinterland) will be Aboriginal by 2021.  As the Alice Springs News has reported previously, there have been comments made that the Aboriginal population in Alice Springs will rise to 70% by 2030 – all the more reason for a study to provide accurate data and bust the myths.

I would be applauding public servants for showing up to after hours meetings and caring about their town.  They are also members of the community. Although some people in our report wanted the public service to ‘shrink’ or disappear, the actions they wanted are almost entirely dependent on government spending and public service delivery.

It can be daunting to stand up at a public meeting.  Sniping doesn’t seem like a just reward.  One of the findings of our report was that people want change, they want to work together but the barriers they reported were a prevailing negativity, personal attacks and divisions through just about all sectors in the town.

I am not sure why meetings are successful only if people ‘vent’.  Venting is important when people are angry.  There was a lot of venting in our community consultation and it was important to listen to this and understand people’s frustrations.  However, once people have vented, they are more prepared to listen respectfully to other people’s views.  This week’s public meeting was our feedback session, reporting on what the town had to say.  If previous meetings you have attended were full of fire and brimstone, perhaps this is because people hadn’t had the chance to ‘vent’ and be heard.  We report on the community’s feeling of disengagement from government that is the probable result of this.

Our report was intended to be the conversations of Alice Springs people.  It is only the first stage.  We welcome any further feedback but hope people can move forward constructively.

Photos: Top  the crowd thins as boredom sets in. Centre: NT Police’s Assistant Commissioner, Mark Payne. Above: Julie Ross, the head of the Chamber of Commerce,  and Mike Steller listening to Ian Sharp.

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5 Comments (starting with the most recent)

NB: If you want to reply to a previous comment, start your comment with this notation: @n where n is the number of the comment you want to reply to.
  1. Ray
    Posted December 19, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    Commissioner Payne says that if the kids go to school there is less likelihood they will be on the streets at night. Surely the reverse is true: if kids are not on the streets at night, they are more likely to be at school during the day.
    Is there any collaboration between the schools, with attendance records, and police with arrest / apprehension records, that get fed back to the Department of Family and Children’s services? Are the people who have the ultimate responsibility of providing for their children (that is the parents, not police or teachers), then consulted with on how to find a solution to this very obvious problem, that has massive ongoing ramifications to our entire community now, as well as in the future. There must also be support for those who are asking for help, because currently, nobody in power is prepared to help those parents who are asking for help.

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  2. Hal Duell
    Posted September 3, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    Not entirely fair, Steve. I agree that too much talk/talk gets us nowhere, but it’s still early days to write this summer off as one of mayhem, as we all agree last year’s was.
    Right now we need to pull together with our Council and give them the benefit of the doubt.
    I too recognise that the jury is still out. But let’s wait and see while hoping for the best. If we are proven wrong and they show themselves incompetent, that will be the time to cry doom and gloom.
    For the record, last Tuesday’s meeting was the first on this topic I have been to this year. And living right in The Gap, as opposed to out past the clay-pans, I am well aware of when the shit hits the fan.
    Also for the record, the sniping from the rear is coming from within Council, not from the gallery.

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  3. Steve Brown
    Posted September 2, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    Yeh Hal, leading from the front you reckon? Is it leading or submitting when as the Mayor you knowingly support a propaganda exercise by the government of the day that treats your citizens with complete contempt!
    Leaving them dangerously exposed to another disastrous Summer of Mayhem? Seems more like the role of a collaborator, to me. Leading from the front as you put it, Hal, should have consisted of our Mayor talking one look at the completely useless compilation of various utterings and propaganda that make up this so called action plan, refusing to have anything at all to do with it. It is harshly suggesting that the NT Government take the whole bloody thing back, put it together, make some decisions and act upon them, as they promised!
    But no. Instead of that, we have our Mayor taking on the role of apologist for the NT Government actively backing their inaction against his own constituents!
    So, yes, Hal there does come a time when boycotting more sitting on your bum and yapping is the right thing to do.
    This is especially when it is the same incestuous discussion by the same bunch of unimaginative bureaucrats and NGO officers in a never ending cycle of ineptitude.
    The time for talk has long passed. Right now we are supposed to be actively implementing an action plan put together by the Government of the day, following the advice they received from all of us much earlier in the year. It’s nine months on, and still no action! It might entertain you, Hal, doing the endless rounds of public meetings and forums, but it’s pretty cold comfort indeed to those who are having their lives smashed out there on the streets!

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  4. Hal Duell
    Posted September 2, 2011 at 8:05 am

    The Town Council is neither a housing authority, nor does it have any policing powers. The Rangers do what they can, but their power is limited to infringement notices dealing with by-laws.
    Boycotting public meetings is counter productive. Don’t attend if you don’t want to, but why make such a song and dance of it?
    The Mayor is attempting to lead from the front. Others are sniping from the rear.
    There is becoming an obvious attempt to “white ant” Mayor Ryan and the 11th ASTC.
    Social unrest is being used as a Trojan Horse.
    Our local politics have gone mad.
    Or has the March election started early?

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  5. Janet Brown
    Posted September 1, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    As I keep saying why is the government calling this meeting as well as the many others public meetings community consultation, when in reality it is government department discussions. None if any community input at all. Government selling its self. I would call it self consuming … with no respect for the people of the Territory. My query is why, Mr Henderson, do you and your lot seek us out at election time? People you have no time for between elections.

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