Council gets the drum on community harmony, Port Augusta style

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.

 

RELATED REPORTS AND READER COMMENTS:

Port Augusta’s Mayor: When softly-softly diplomacy isn’t enough to get a town out of the morass

Council debate happening in closed meetings 

Sweetness and light in council meeting as factions keep truce

The elusive ‘Port Augusta model’

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2 Comments (starting with the most recent)

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  1. John Reid
    Posted June 27, 2012 at 11:56 am

    Salutations!
    I don’t want to go into too much analysis of the reported outcomes of Mr Wilson’s consultancy report; suffice to say that there are a few points that need clarification. Having been born and bred in Port Augusta, and as an Aboriginal person who has strong cultural ties to the region, and whose family still lives there, I feel it necessary to value add to those comments already made in this report, more particularly about some oversights I have identified.
    Firstly Bungala Aboriginal Corporation which is responsible for CDEP, does not have a very low profile. In fact because of its very high profile it was awarded contracts to deliver CDEP to not only Coober Pedy, Oodnadatta and in Aboriginal communities across the Northern Flinders Ranges,but also in 2007 it began delivering CDEP to people living in communities on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands. As of the 28th February 2011, there were 356 CDEP participants employed through this program from the APY region alone. Obvioulsy the CDEP is administered from Port Augusta with on site managers co-ordinating this service from those remote locations.
    This activity makes Port Augusta the point of reference for people employed in this program for a number of reasons – some of it is cultural, some of it is extended family connections, some of it is access to services offered by the township. Nonetheless, what needs to be considered is, even though Davenport community has a population of 200, the nearby Blaxter camp (euphmistically called by locals), located between Davenport and the old Bungala Estate, has accommodation facilities to service the large number of visitors to the town from remote parts of the state during peak periods throughout the year due to some of those previously above mentioned factors. These visitors come from many different cultural backgrounds, some from the west, the north, south and east. Not all seek to be accommodated in Blaxter but many do because of the cost factor, large family groups etc. This puts an enormous strain on those other programs such as the Pika Wiya Health Service, Aboriginal Hostels Limited, Bungala Corporation (a company that does not only offer CDEP but other support/assistance programs as well) and other Aboriginal organisations of the area when large numbers come into town in such concentrated waves of migration, for long or short periods of time.
    The collaborative, participatory approach taken by the Port Augusta Town Council in conjunction with the Social Policy Co-ordinating Committee (made up of NGOs and government agencies and Aboriginal groups) have managed to accommodate difference by using a socially inclusive approach to problem solving those previously identified complex social and economic issues that have afflicted the town.
    This coalition of the willing seems to get that grog (abuse and relative anti-social behaviour) is but a symptom of a bigger and more complex sickness infecting the populations of this municipal jurisdiction, and consequently they have taken a socially inclusive approach to dealing with these issues. Dry zones have only moved the problem from one location to another, therefore looking at the big picture is the way to go.
    So what can we here in the Alice learn from this process? Well rather than reverting back to the big stick method – the flogging the dog approach through law and order punitive actions, which has lived its used by date – let’s try something different.
    In summary, I have lived here in Alice Springs for 25 years, I am a part of the Aboriginal community, but I was born and raised in Port Augusta and return there often for work and leisure purposes. I can therefore comment from an informed position, that through the eyes of an Aborignal person who is involved in a couple of migration studies through work, that the context of the Port and the Alice when it comes to the demographics are not that different. Numbers and statistics mean very little when it comes to social and economic disadvantage – living it means everything.
    Give the Alice Springs Transformation Plan some room to breath and it will deliver positive results, of that I am sure.
    Remember the real essence of a socially inclusive approach, such as the one being used in Port Augusta, is to overcome poverty and disadvantage by incorporating the voices of those very marginalised in the community in the decisions that impact their lives. I have heard some other divisive definitions of this paradigm by others who seek to propagate their own political agenda through the misery of others, but the premise on which they rationalise their argument is wrong.
    “United we stand,divided we fall.”
    PS: “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.”

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  2. Hal Duell
    Posted June 27, 2012 at 8:12 am

    Harmony does not come from being precious.
    It is an old truth that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Alice Springs is such a house. We have the Town Council, Tangentyere Council and Lhere Artepe as competing players. Not until they learn to speak with one voice will our common problems be identified and dealt with effectively.

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