By KIERAN FINNANE
While he was “really impressed” with the many “community harmony” initiatives taken in Port Augusta, and with their apparent success reflected in the town’s general appearance and atmosphere, the consultant reporting back to the Alice Springs Town Council was at pains to point out the “very significant” differences between the two towns.
Alice has twice the population, said Craig Wilson of Craig Wilson Consultancy, formerly an employee of the Alice council, now based in Mt Gambier.
Port Augusta has only one Aboriginal community on its periphery, Davenport, in contrast to Alice’s 18 town camps.
Davenport, which is not a dry zone, has a population of around 200, compared with the 2000 to 3000 living in Alice’s camps.
Around 1300 people from outlying areas use Port Augusta as their regional hub, as opposed to the 11,000 to 12,000 for whom Alice is the regional centre, said Mr Wilson.
There are no unusual restrictions on the trade of take-away alcohol in Port Augusta, nor is there any requirement to produce ID when buying alcohol (unlike in Alice, it goes without saying).
Port Augusta does however have a dry zone across the city, banning public drinking.
There is one Aboriginal corporation in Port Augusta, with a 15 year history. Primarily a CDEP organisation, it has a “very, very low profile”, whereas, Tangentyere Council, for example, has “a very high profile” with 175 employees and a budget “similar” to that of the Alice town council.
Leaving councillors to make of that what they will, Mr Wilson went on to outline the key initiatives seen to have made a difference to community harmony in Port Augusta.
The Port Augusta Aboriginal Community Engagement Group, formed as a “Closing the Gap” initiative, is composed of 20 Aboriginal people who enquire into budgets and outcomes of various government departments and agencies, and then feed back information to them about how to better engage with Aboriginal people.
Mr Wilson said the group was initially seen as “threatening” but “have proven that they know best” and are now “seen in a positive light”.
The group works with a high-powered steering committee composed of the state manager of FaHCSIA, the CEO of the SA Department of Aboriginal Affairs, the Mayor and CEO of the Port Augusta City Council and two independent appointments with relevant expertise.
(Reporting on his interview with the co-chair of the group, Rachael Schmerl, Mr Wilson notes her comments on the composition of the group: “Don’t look for ‘family’ groups – look for a mixture of young and old who have and do demonstrate leadership qualities”.)
Mr Wilson extolled the virtues of Port Augusta’s City Safe Program, and particularly the contractor who runs it, Tony Edmonds, an “extremely popular guy”, who enjoys the strong support of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike.
Mr Edmonds sees his role as “helping not hindering”, said Mr Wilson, and has good “infrastructure support”, such as transport services and a sobering-up centre (no detox).
(In his report Mr Wilson notes the flexibility that Mr Edmonds’ contractor status allows, including the possibility of informal action, such a buying someone a bus ticket or a hamburger. He notes that Mr Edmonds is a Pitjantjatjara speaker and is assisted by a multi-lingual Aboriginal man. The contract is worth $214,000 p.a. and is operated seven days a week, from 2pm to 2am. Two Alsation dogs travel with Mr Edmonds. Mr Wilson reports that the “suitably trained” dogs have not been used to date.)
Councillor Jade Kudrenko asked how the City Safe program differed from the night patrol operating in Alice Springs.
Mr Wilson said patrolling was only one aspect of the program. Its access to other programs is crucial. For example, there is a day care centre (a substance, including tobacco, rehab centre, operated by the SA Government) where people can get free breakfast, cheap lunch, shower, wash their clothes and enjoy recreational activities, such as painting, fishing, table tennis.
Mr Wilson said City Safe was set up by the council with a view to protect council property, but the contractor takes “a more human perspective”: he’ll do “everything possible” to avoid police involvement in the situations he deals with. But this approach is “a little easier” in Port Augusta because of its smaller population; it’s possible to deal with issues “on a more personal level”.
Mr Wilson discussed concerns about the displacement from public spaces to domestic of the issues arising from excessive drinking.
He says reviews of the dry zone in Port Augusta have not established “quantitative data”, but there is “qualitative data” to suggest that this is what happens to an extent.
He says the community view is that moves to address the “underlying problems” should be strengthened rather than the dry zone be abandoned.
Cr Liz Martin asked about the issues of youth on the streets.
Mr Wilson described a large and “very active” youth centre and associated transport services to take young people home. They are not dropped at the gate, he said, the home is checked to make sure it is a safe place for them to be.
He said that his interviews in Alice, conducted as part of his consultancy, suggested that many people feel that youth issues are greater than alcohol issues.
“I tend to agree,” said Cr Martin.
Cr Martin also wanted to know whether the day care centre was only for people involved in anti-social behavior.
“Not at all,” said Mr Wilson. Its facilities are open to anybody (sober) who wants to use them, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike. He commented on the standard of “hygiene and dress” in Port Augusta as “really excellent”.
Cr Brown, thanking Mr Wilson for his efforts, said that the exercise had been one of gathering as much information as possible for the Alice council to then design its own plan.
Mr Wilson has made a number of recommendations. Primary among them is that council decide whether it wants to be a lead proponent in working towards greater community harmony, or whether this responsibility can be transferred to, for example, the Alice Springs Transformation Plan, which is “doing some really good work”. (This is not likely given the political impetus behind commissioning Mr Wilson’s consultancy.)
In his report he notes surprise in Port Augusta that the Alice council is not a participant in Closing the Gap’s Urban and Regional Strategy. He recommends that the Alice council makes enquiries with its southern counterpart on the merits of such participation.
He also recommends that the Alice council invite co-chair of the Port Augusta Aboriginal Community Engagement Group as well as the City Safe contractor to speak to them (Mr Edmonds has apparently indicated that he will visit Alice at his cost).
He recommends that council think about whether it wants to initiate a community dialogue on community harmony issues as Port Augusta did in late 2010, through the ANU’s Centre for Dialogue.
His final recommendation is that council encourage a closer relationship with Tangentyere Council (noting that council has such a strong desire and that such has been expressed to Tangentyere in recent months).
COMMENT: Significantly Mr Wilson himself was not able to “achieve a meeting” with Tangentyere (although the 6cm thick supporting documentation for his report includes a copy of their 2010 report on Social Inclusion and Town Camps).
He does not appear to have attempted to interview any other Aboriginal organisation or individual in Alice Springs (all interviewees, apart from Crs Brown and Kudrenko, are bureacrats).
A weakness in the analysis of the differences between Port Augusta and Alice Springs is the failure to note the strength of the Aboriginal organisation sector in Alice and the entrenchment of separatism in the delivery of services. Indeed, it was not so long ago that council whole-heartedly embraced such separatism in its own domain (through its MOU with Tangentyere Council, only dismantled in the wake of the Federal Intervention).
In recent years council has attempted to have a high level relationship with the native title holder body, Lhere Artepe, particularly around community harmony type issues. This does not get a mention in the report. It would be useful for council and the public to get some clear and frank information about what this relationship has yielded and for a realistic assessment to be made of which individuals, groups or organisations can join council in a fruitful partnership to advance the cause of greater community harmony.
Meanwhile, the stick approach to anti-social behaviour is being pursued with councillors voting to “explore the option to increase penalty units” for offences to council by-laws on liquor, litter and anti-social behaviour, and to improve the recovery of fines for infringements.
PICTURE: Port Augusta’s ACEG in session. From left – Khatija Thomas Commissioner for Aboriginal Engagement, Aaron Stuart, Katy Burns, Alwyn McKenzie and Corey McKenzie.
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