Rowan Foley and wife Michelle with supporters – Andre Burgess, Sandra Ball, Andrew Ferguson, Barbara Ferguson (obscured), and Paul Acfield – at a community barbecue where he wanted to hear from Greatorex residents about their concerns.
By KIERAN FINNANE
Labor candidate for Greatorex Rowan Foley has chosen a possible future uranium mine at Angela Pamela, 23 kms south of Alice Springs, as the point of difference between him and Country Liberals incumbent Matt Conlan. Apart from the “I love Alice” tag, opposition to the mine is the dominant message of Mr Foley’s initial campaign flyer, handed out in tandem with a petition opposing the mine, which calls on signatories to “Stop Matt Conlan and the CLP”, who “have committed to proceeding with the mine if elected to government” (an overstretch, given that it won’t be up to them).
As a core campaign message it seems to turn back the clock to the 2010 Araluen by-election campaign when the Labor Government, a little more than a week out from polling day, announced it would not allow a uranium mine to proceed so close to Alice Springs. Labor candidate Adam Findlay claimed that the government had listened to the views of the electorate but any bounce for him was nullified by the Country Liberals following suit, and their Robyn Lambley going on to win the by-election.
How much currency does the issue have now? Activity at Angela Pamela is at a minimum. And apart from the petition Mr Foley is promoting, opposition to the mine has also gone off the boil. For instance, the latest post at www.stopangelapamela.org.au is dated May 2010. The Cameco-Paladin joint venturers reduced their activity “taking into account the uncertainty created by” the government’s decision and in mid-2011 the partners agreed that Paladin would assume control of the project.
It is an “active project”, Paladin boss John Borshoff assured the Alice Springs News Online this week. The resource has been confirmed; the next stage will be determined “once the uranium outlook improves”.
To go ahead obviously discussions would have to take place with the NT Government but ultimately uranium mining comes under Federal Government jurisdiction, he said.
If there were a change of government, would he expect a more favourable policy environment with regards to uranium mining?
“It’s been stated as such,” he said.
“Due process” should be allowed and it involves “enough criteria to deal with any concerns”.
Back-flips and u-turns
With the Territory Labor Government on a knife edge, relying on the vote of independent MLA Gerry Wood, every seat counts. They have obviously judged this as an issue where the Country Liberals (CLP) are exposed in Alice Springs and especially in the seat of Greatorex where Mr Conlan is seen as saying one thing in public, another behind closed doors – famously giving Cameco some very frank advice about how to use the media to “outmuscle” mine opponents, “the Greens and ALEC”. (To his and the party’s credit, these emails have been posted on the CLP website). Despite his statements in the Legislative Assembly’s Alice sittings in March last year – “There is great concern in the electorate of Greatorex about the Angela Pamela mine – extreme concern about the potential of a uranium mine. I support my constituents 100%.” – Mr Conlan voted with his party, as did the other Alice MLAs, against Labor’s motion to oppose the establishment of a uranium mine at Angela Pamela.
However, Labor can’t really make too much of the CLP’s “U-turn” as they also back-flipped on the Angela Pamela project for purely political reasons. Mr Foley does not demur, but reiterates Mr Findlay’s message: Labor was listening to the people, the majority of townspeople don’t want the mine.
What are the figures, has there been a poll? He believes so, he’s heard a figure of 70+% in opposition, he’ll find out.
So what other arrows are in his quiver?
He says that Greatorex hasn’t had proper representation in the parliament. During door-knocking he’s “hardly met anyone who knows who Matt Conlan is”.
“Sure, he’s probably a good bloke, but he doesn’t seemed suited to the role of parliamentarian.”
The News obviously would have liked to put this to the man in question, and to have clarification of his stance vis a vis Angela Pamela but Mr Conlan (at left, in 2008) did not respond to our invitation to answer questions.
CLP stranglehold on Alice?
The News puts to Mr Foley the perception in some quarters that the Labor Government has not done much for Alice Springs. He counters that the CLP has had a stranglehold on the town for over 38 years and while they haven’t been in government for the last 10, “all MLAs can help their local communities”.
And the Labor Government has responded effectively to the town’s law and order issues, he says, pointing to the much improved last summer compared to the year before and applauding the recent multi-agency taskforce established by Police Commissioner John McRoberts.
He says the CLP’s stance on alcohol would “open up the rivers of grog” – “a complete disaster”. He says maintaining the current restrictions regime and the Banned Drinkers Register (BDR) is “the way to go”. On the introduction of at least one take-away alcohol free day, he says “all options should be on the table”. The effectiveness of the BDR should be assessed first but “we also need to keep our minds open to other options”, adding that he lived “alcohol free” at Mutitjulu for six years and “I didn’t miss it at all”.
Mr Foley first came to the Territory in 1989 as a ranger with Parks Australia at Uluru-Kata Tjuta. He stayed three years, enough time for “the desert to get under my skin”, returning in 2005 as park manager.
$21m sunrise on the Rock
He claims credit for obtaining the funds to build the new sunrise viewing area in the park, a $21m development. He brushes aside criticism of the area – “there’s only two months of the year when there’s not a full sunrise on the Rock” – and of the difficulties commercial photographers and filmmakers can experience in obtaining permission to work in the park – “hundreds do get permits every year”.
He was at Mutitjulu when the Federal Intervention began, when six Toyotas full of government officials, including police and army, rolled into the community.
“I was the only person of any official status standing between them and 300 people in the community. It was a very tense moment. I was there to smooth the way and it went well. When the time came, I had the courage, I guess, to stand there and do the right thing. I had known the community over a 20 year period. I wanted to make sure I could help.”
This was soon followed by another big shift in remote community affairs, local government reform. Mr Foley became the first CEO of the new Central Desert Shire: “I enjoy a challenge,” he says, “and you only get so many opportunities to set up a completely new organisation.”
He stayed in the job for two years and gives himself a number of ticks for his performance: managing a $30m budget, putting in place a management structure and a sound financial system, establishing accountability “for the first time”, developing 20 policies, setting up an economic development committee.
He says the shires need to be given time: “Any major reform is always difficult.” A move by the Country Liberals, if they won government, to break up some of the shires would be a waste of resources, he says, arguing that no CEO would accept not having full control over finances and so all of the associated services would have to be duplicated: “More whitefellas in more Toyotas won’t solve the problems on communities.”
What will? As far as local government goes, he says strengthening the local boards (at present advisory), giving them more power and resources is the way to go.
Since then Mr Foley worked for Centrefarm, an Aboriginal-owned not-for-profit company with close links to the Northern and Central Land Councils (NLC director Kim Hill is its chair, CLC director David Ross is a board member, company secretary is Bob Kennedy, general manager of the Aboriginal investment company, Centrecorp).
Mr Foley’s role has focussed on carbon farming and about six months ago he became general manager of the Aboriginal Carbon Fund, another not-for-profit company looking to engage traditional owners in carbon farming: “It’s another option for them to make money from their land, he says, apart from mining, cattle and tourism.”
Will it also engage people in activity, give them daily purpose, the lack of which so clearly feeds the social malaise in Alice Springs and the region’s communities?
That depends on the kind of project that is developed, says Mr Foley. In wetter areas, fire management is a key activity; in the dryer Centre it’s more about rehabilitation of country back to its former good health. Mr Foley says he is promoting an “enrichment” approach, involving fire management, weed and feral species control, and tree-planting, especially bush tucker species. He says people are still deciding on how they want to proceed.
Of course, if he becomes the Member for Greatorex Mr Foley won’t be there to see the carbon farming projects through to fruition.
Long-time Labor man
He’s been a member of the Labor Party for 20 years and president of the local branch for the last four years. He sees the party as standing for “social justice and fairness”, the right fit for the son of an Aboriginal woman from Fraser Island who grew up in “desperate poverty”. He was raised in very modest circumstances, at times living in housing without power, remembering his very first can of lemonade when the family celebrated his mother getting a job as a mail sorter with Australia Post. He’s grateful to his mother for her staunch belief in education, which saw him ultimately studying at the Queensland Agricultural College, laying the foundation for his career as a ranger.
He lives in the rural area off Heffernan Road – he’s at pains to say that it’s just 300 metres from the boundary of Greatorex and that his two sons go to Ross Park Primary, which is in the electorate. Many of the issues for Greatorex are common to the whole town, of course – the perennials of “health, education, the environment, law and order”. He’s working on ways to make himself available to Greatorex residents so they can let him know what their concerns are. A few turned up to his “community barbecue” last Saturday in Francis Smith Park. “It was a start,” he says. “What’s important is, I’m available.”
It’s an approach he shares with Phil Walcott (at right), who declared his candidacy as an independent two and a half years ago, running under the slogan “Phil the Gap”.
He’s a psychologist by profession, currently in both private practice and under contract to the Education Department. He intends to resign from the government job at the end of the month and to suspend private practice so he can throw himself full-time into campaigning.
Listening to business
An important part of his CV is that he established a bed and breakfast operation in the electorate in 1999. Called the Rainbow Connection, it caters for gay and lesbian travelers and in 2008 won Mr Walcott the Tourism Central Australia Industry Achiever Award. The venture gives him an affinity with small business and with the town’s major private sector industry. The electorate has its share of both, from the Eastside shops to the major hotels and the convention center along Barrett Drive. He’s started talking to the small business operators – some of them telling him that it’s the first time anyone has ever asked them how government could help. One way is for government to address accommodation shortage and high rents, he says, as these have a big impact on staff recruitment and retention.
Meanwhile, people can also help themselves: operators in the tourism industry need to be “more creative”. For instance, the town has the people in alternative therapies and practices and the right kind of environment to promote health retreats, physical, mental, spiritual: “The quality of people in town is tremendous, there’s a broad dynamic, a rich tapestry of people.”
Some creativity in the government and bureaucracy would also be in order: there have got to be ways to reduce the duplication and waste that leads to an expenditure of $1.2m to deliver $100,000 worth of services into a remote community, he says.
He expects “a lot of stuff around social order” to be raised by residents. His answer: “There’s no magic wand. You’ve got to work with people to help them make different life choices. Government needs to work in partnership with agencies who can do this.”
Like Mr Foley, he’s very supportive of the “whole of community” approach recently launched by the police. Unlike him, he has little faith in current alcohol management policy.
Grog ID system has to go
The ID system has to go and with it, in consequence, the Banned Drinkers Register: “The reality is those people can always get a drink, they just can’t buy it themselves from a take-away. It’s the reality that needs to be looked at.”
He moves closer to the CLP in wanting to liberalise trading hours: “By restricting the hours you drive the stuff underground.”
In seeming contradiction, he says “it wouldn’t hurt to try” a take-away alcohol free day, anathema to the CLP.
He also rejects their idea of mandatory rehabilitation for drunks: “I have problems with forcing change. The only thing that makes a real difference is people choosing themselves not to drink.”
On “wet canteens” (for on-premise drinking) in communities, he says communities should be able to choose. He says he has talked to people about it and some say, “No, no, don’t do it, it was horrendous, everybody got really drunk and there was a lot of fighting”. Others have told him that it will help prevent people coming to town to drink and could provide economic opportunities.
He speaks of the “learned helplessness” of many Aboriginal people, which some organisations perpetuate by drip-feeding them money and services. Here he’s thinking more of Aboriginal organisations than Centrelink: “They are disempowering people, keeping them in the welfare trap.” Their language needs to change, he says, they need to see people as “survivors, not victims”: “We hear too many ‘don’t’ stories rather than ‘do’ stories.”
“Aboriginal organisations need to be more transparent about how much money they’ve got and how they are spending it. I’d like to see partnerships between those organisations and government, for instance in developing homelands. Help people now rather than squirrel away money for the future. If there’s no present, there won’t be a future.”
Informing the debate
These are the kind of perspectives Mr Walcott would bring to the parliament: “As I wouldn’t be in government, I wouldn’t be forming policy but I would be able to inform policy debate,” he says.
Together with staying in touch with his constituents, contributing to health and education policy would be his top priority, “especially early childhood”. He’d like to see early childhood centres created at each of the primary schools in Alice, bringing clinic and school under the one roof.
His key point of difference from Mr Foley and Mr Conlan (‘opponents’ is not a ‘Phil the Gap’ kind of word) is that he would represent the people, not a party. He’s firmly opposed to Angela Pamela although not to uranium mining per se. His stance has been consistent all along unlike the “back-flips” by the political parties.
The Alice News puts to him that he is in a position now, through his professional practice, to assist people to make changes in their lives. Why seek political office?
“It easier to change things if you’re inside the tent,” he says. “I can still have those conversations with people about personal empowerment, but inside parliament would be another way of having an influence.”
Mr Walcott is organising a gathering on August 1 for Greatorex residents to meet their candidates: “I see being a candidate as a job application and the job interview will be conducted by the voters.”
He’s inviting the other candidates to take part. So far Mr Foley has confirmed that he will.