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.
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 …