Remote Oz: neglect is just the beginning

The camp at the Granites goldmine north-west of Alice Springs. Workers fly in and out from all over Australia. Photo courtesy Newmont Mines.

 

By ERWIN CHLANDA

 

A recurring theme during the election campaign was the question, why bother voting this side of the Berrimah Line? And from that quite frequently flows: Let’s break away.
But how?
Answers to that seem to be taking shape in several quarters. Desert Knowledge chairman Fred Chaney suggested getting rid of the states and running the country from Canberra and through local governments on steroids. (How Territory blundering could help the nation.)

And the election has suddenly shifted the political centre of gravity from Darwin’s northern suburbs to the bush, through candidates and

even a new party.

Now Bruce Walker (pictured), long time supremo of the Centre for Appropriate Technology in Alice Springs, and now the director of remoteFOCUS, Desert Knowledge Australia, has argued in a submission to the Senate enquiry into Fly-In, Fly-Out (FIFO) that there are broad issues in remote Australia that need to be fixed.
Dr Walker is taking a guess what a bloke in the bush would say to the question: “How do you feel?”
• Powerless. We have no say over the decisions which affect our lives.
• We are served by bureaucracies which are remote, personnel are often transient, there is little or no sense that public servants are responsible to us as against their bureaucratic and political superiors in the metropolitan capitals.
• While we are heavily dependent on government, attention from governments is irregular and unpredictable.
• Financial flows are not sustainable.
• Elected governments do not mediate the sometimes very significant global influences on our communities and lives (FIFO is a case in point).
• We live in the forgotten backyards of the capital cities. We are not part of a national narrative which makes sense of the decisions made elsewhere and which affect our lives.
Across state borders, people of the inland have a lot in common.
Says Dr Walker: “Remote Australia [has] a dual economy and absence of a market that might deliver outcomes without government interventions.
“Local institutions are being overwhelmed, many are unsuited to the tasks they confront, and as a consequence, they are unable to create durable and equitable arrangements to manage conflict, deliver services or sponsor entrepreneurial activity.”
He says one answer is “decentralised governance and community engagement [but] these approaches are challenged by a highly mobile population moving across great distances.”
Do the people running the show really care? Maybe not. A growing number of them is “expatriate in their outlook and commitment, is not tuned to local diversity, and unlikely to be seeking durable innovations in business or service delivery”.
It could be worse still: “Remote Australia presents tough challenges, many of which may be immune to public policy.
“It includes citizens who are the most peripheral of all Australians to the mainstream economy and politics and, on the other [side], people who are intricately and beneficially linked with unprecedented global shifts in economic and political power.”
Despite the current attention to remote Australia, particularly Aboriginal disadvantage, “normal legislative politics are unlikely to result in the structural reforms needed to address these issues”.
So far we haven’t even made up our minds about what is “the national interest in remote Australia,” let alone formulated “a settlement pattern that supports that national interest.
“At present, governance is constituted, on one side, by departments and agencies in the federal or state capitals … and at local levels via a generally under resourced local government or groupings of Aboriginal organisations,” says Dr Walker.
“Authority remains almost wholly concentrated in the distant centres and the local bodies have insufficient scale or capability for the planning, coordination and representational roles that are required.”
The OECD has advocated regionalised or place-based approaches. They are at the heart of the Cameron-Clegg domestic agenda in the UK, he says, while in Australia, “joined-up or whole-of-government approaches” aren’t doing what they promise.
Dr Walker says a submission by shires also points to the impact of present rating arrangements and the undesirable dependency on corporate largesse which they induce.
In addition, the Fringe Benefits Tax (FBT) has the unintended consequence of creating economic incentives to bypass the development of communities in favour of a largely itinerant workforce.
For example, people living in Perth but working in remote locations, on a FIFO arrangement, can claim tax concessions for remoteness without that benefitting a remote community (they would spend most of their earnings in Perth).
On the other hand, if the employer provided houses for the worker’s families in the remote location, creating a community, they would be hit with FBT.
Says Dr Walker: “Taking the Pilbara again, decision-making is now largely centralised in Canberra and Perth or crystallised in those locations by decisions taken in boardrooms that are in some cases not even in Australia.”
While these companies have a legitimate interest, that of the local communities often comes second.
Says Dr Walker: “For much of remote Australia, public policy remains blind to the fact that geography and globalisation conspire against an even spread of economic opportunity.
“Viable economic livelihoods in remote Australia require an innovative blending of the formal economy, ‘hybrid’ or social enterprise economies, and public sector equity, risk mitigation and enablement.
“Dealing with this blind spot in our national interest requires skills and capabilities that successive governments have underinvested in.”

The remoteFOCUS group will soon be publishing its major report on the governance of remote Australia, including recommendations on major actions to address the issue. So, watch this space …

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2 Comments (starting with the most recent)

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  1. Hal Duell
    Posted August 31, 2012 at 6:58 am

    Says Dr Walker: “Taking the Pilbara again, decision-making is now largely centralised in Canberra and Perth or crystallised in those locations by decisions taken in boardrooms that are in some cases not even in Australia.”
    If true, and I see no good reason to doubt it, both our State and Federal governments are acting in the interest of mining corporations first, Australians second.
    For instance, when a mining tax is suggested the Federal Opposition howls to the heavens.
    But we need to not only keep some of that money in Australia, but in remote Australia.
    It seems to me that the danger is once the mining boom peters out, remote Australia will be left with holes in the ground and little else. After all, we are selling the country by the bucket-load, and eventually the bucket will come up empty.
    Perhaps a re-jigging of priorities is necessary. There are those who say that if we tighten up, the miners will go elsewhere. South Africa and Brazil are often mentioned.
    Well, let them go. And when those nations have exhausted their mines the miners can come back and ask again. They will still need our minerals, and we will still have them.
    Meanwhile, our proximity to China will keep things ticking over. Ask them to invest in more than just holes in the ground. They’re smart, they play a long game, and they just might do it.

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  2. Bob Taylor
    Posted August 30, 2012 at 2:49 pm

    Dr Walker and Fred Chaney appear to be on the money with this broader issue of remote OZ and Fly-In Fly-Out (FIFO).
    As I said at the recent Chamber of Commerce forum the Whitlam government tried a similar decentralising policy, but that – or was it the government – suffered a natural death. The CLP have promised (or was it Terry) a decentralisation policy and only time will tell on whether they can deliver. So both sides of politics have seen the need, have tried or are trying to introduce decentralisation as a policy. However as the article hints the present FIFO regime does not benefit remote OZ and the powers that be in the Australian government and/or private enterprise do not see any advantage to a decentralising policy for their bottom line.
    I don’t know who said “follow the money”, but the wealth of the nation might originate in remote and rural Australia, but it soon flows to the south east, south west or overseas. By placing strong conditions on mining permits and/or the purchase of land by overseas corporations or governments this flow could be slowed or reversed to a certain extent. For example permanent accommodation and facilities must be built within an half an hour’s drive of the mine and/or in the nearest gazetted town and all land purchases must be controlled or owned by a majority of Australian citizens or shareholders. This would help promote and focus “the national interest in remote Australia” – whether it would help foreign investment is another matter.
    Thanks to a democratic internal party vote Robyn Lambley is now the Deputy Chief Minister, congratulations and a win for remote NT. Her promise to protect the political back of Terry Mills might be tested during the term of this parliament. I have yet to be convinced that the powers that be in Darwin are in agreement with and will fully support the new paradigm shift, but I do have my fingers crossed.

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