July 1, 1998


More than 30 business people aged between 18 and 40 are setting up a Junior Chamber of Commerce in Alice Springs "to get the town buzzing, to bring it to life," according to the group's president, Irma Versluijs, who owns the tour agency, Outback Travelshop.She says included are owners or managers of tour companies, hotels, design companies, accountants, lawyers, committee members of the Chamber of Commerce, and even a staffer from the office of MacDonnell MLA John Elferink "who is very positive towards the idea".Ms Versluijs says the objective is to "help each other out, to be a network of professional and business people."We want to develop contacts with this state's future driving force, energetic go-getters, all desiring to succeed."Ms Versluijs says the group doesn't want to become a mini chamber of commerce "because the main chamber in Alice Springs has all the expertise on staff and industrial relations matters".The group wants to focus on making the town "much more attractive, bubbly"."Look at the mall here. "There have got to be presentations, music, things happening."There are people in our group who play music - we can do it ourselves!"Although the town council has expressed interest, some established groups are hesitant to become involved: "We're saying, let's go for it, do it ourselves, although we're all very busy already."In a bizarre twist, the Chamber of Commerce in Darwin - despite support from its Alice Springs counterpart - appears to have denied permission for the use of the name "junior chamber", and the group is now considering reviving the defunct Alice Enterprise.Another option would be to become a branch of the vibrant Gold Coast Junior Chamber of Commerce, "because the Northern Territory didn't want to accept us," says Ms Versluijs."We chose the name Chamber of Commerce because it is an established organisation that opens doors."Senior members of the Alice chamber, including president Eric Neal, were "very positive," says Ms Versluijs."It was 99 per cent yes. In principle the junior chamber was accepted."We were told you've got your name, go ahead, keep doing what you're doing, but be patient because the final agreement has to come from Darwin."She says she has now heard "through the grapevine" that the request has been "denied" by the Darwin head office."We had meetings, represented ourselves to the chamber, put a lot of energy and effort into it."But we still haven't got an official letter, which is disappointing."Ms Versluijs says Mr Neal speculated the reason could be that "we don't know how you would use the name. There could be a misuse of the name."The chamber in Alice Springs "don't really have any say at all," says Ms Versluijs."It's Darwin that finally makes the decisions."Ms Versluijs says the group could make a significant contribution towards turning around The Centre's moribund economy: "There are many young, successful business people in Alice Springs who want to get the town buzzing, to bring it to life."Since coming to Alice Springs five years ago, after travelling the world for several years, Dutch-born Ms Versluijs says she's become "much more careful" about speaking out."Coming from Holland I'm used to always ventilate my ideas."Then someone ventilates back, and I'd say, hey, that's a better idea, I accept it and go ahead with that."In Alice Springs, whenever you come up with new ideas, people look at you, turn Ôround and walk away."I've become very careful about what I'm saying. Not afraid, but careful."She says the overruling of the chamber in Alice Springs by Darwin "says it all about the kind of voice Alice Springs has in the Northern Territory".The town is lacking a progressive and positive attitude: "Don't look back all the time with a negative view of what has happened in the past. "Learn from it, but keep looking forward and think positive."That's what I don't see in Alice Springs. "Everything that's new, everything that's a bit progressive, close the door on it, close you eyes."I think that's what's happening with the Chamber of Commerce at the moment."She says the public inertia is in contrast to many success stories: "A lot of people have been very successful in Alice Springs by doing it their own way."People from all over Australia and even, the world, come here because they see potential for business, with new ideas, new ways of working."Long established businesses find that their ways of doing business "isn't working that well any more."But instead of saying, OK, I'm going to take a look at someone new, work together with them, and get stronger, they work against them. "I find that's a pity. I have never experienced this as strongly as I do in Alice. Everything successful creates jealousy!"


Writing this column can lead to the most pleasant surprise encounters with people I have not met, who either stop me in the street or call by phone. Such a call came from Olive Veverbrants during Reconciliation Week inviting me to visit her home and the Gloria Lee Environmental Learning Centre which she has established some 30 kilometres from town on Iwupataka Aboriginal Trust Land. Through my articles she had become aware of my interest in conservation issues generally and that I chair the Alice Springs Water Action Group. Olive also felt that Reconciliation Week was a good time to extend a hand of friendship and I was delighted to respond.The day of my visit was one of those glorious Central Australian days of clear blue skies, not too hot and not too cold - the reason why so many of us choose to live here. Over a cup of tea Olive told me about her family background which is as captivating as her learning centre. Like many Aboriginal Territorians, her Western Arrernte grandmother, Ranjika, married a man from China. Ah Hong, after whom Hong Street is named, came to Australia in 1873 to work on the Darwin to Palmerston Railway. Arriving in the Alice he became a cook on the Overland Telegraph Line construction but eventually established an eating house on the site of the present Westpac Bank. Lots of bushies stayed with him when they came to town, appreciating his freshly grown fruit and veg and home cooked meals. A further market garden was developed where the Memorial Club now stands. Olive is delighted that her grandfather's story is recognised in the book, A Town Like Alice - What Was It Really Like, written by local writer, Bruce Strong. The book is a series of quotes covering the period from Foundation to just after the war, and is available from The National Trust Shop. Olive's mother, Gloria Ouida Lee, after whom the Environmental Learning Centre is named, was the youngest of three children. (Born in 1908 she died only a few years ago as the Centre was being built.) Ranjika died in childbirth when Gloria was only ten years old and Ah Hong took Gloria, her brother Dempsey and sister Ada, back to China to be cared for by his relatives. Gloria and her sister, who had both been taught by Ida Standley, spent ten years in China attending school and becoming fluent in Cantonese. Returning to Alice, Gloria later married Englishman, Alfred Purdy, and had four children - Olive, Peg Havnen, Valencia Pratt and Joyce Huppatz. Early life was spent on the mining fields of Hatches Creek but the girls all attended OLSH Catholic School and went on to matriculate, undertaking university studies later in life. Snatching moments between tea, Anzac biscuits and family history, I had been browsing a photo album covering the building of the Learning Centre, and talk inevitably turned in this direction. The project, conceived by Olive, has been developed on the permaculture principle of working with the land and environment and not just taking from it. Brendan Meney, a local architect well known for his creativity, worked closely with the Centre for Appropriate Technology (CAT) and the Arrillhjere Aboriginal Corporation in both the design and construction.The challenge of providing a comfortable living environment with our long hot summers, cold winter nights and scarce water resources would be well recognised by locals. The team's well-deserved efforts were officially acknowledged when they won the 1997 Ecologically Sustainable Building and Architectural Award.Showing me around the house and garden, Olive told me that she had seen the project as a means of opening a door for training and future employment of her people. Built between May 1995 and January 1997, training was undertaken by CAT with trainees being selected from Arrernte and Tangentyere Councils. The house, with large verandahs, is built from mud brick, taken from the site, on a self-supporting steel frame. A solar energy system is backed up by a combustion stove which also provides hot water during cold and cloudy days such as we have experienced recently. Room fans to assist with summer cooling automatically switch off after two hours. A fridge and stove are fuelled by bottled gas. A double batch dry pit toilet requires no water and minimum maintenance. All water for the property comes from two huge tanks which collect rainwater from the large roof. The only introduced plants are those which produce food or shade and they receive a watering only when absolutely necessary.Olive now conducts workshops in sustainable development, recycling, nutrition and healthy lifestyles. She is a woman who has turned sustainable living and "reduce, reuse and recycle" into a practical reality - a true role model in resource conservation.For Internet readers, or those like me, who like to browse the world wide web, more information about this project can be found on - search Arrillhjere Demonstration House.


"Town planning is the last big chook raffle in the Northern Territory," according to former Alice Springs alderman Daryl Gray.The current planning schemes are now widely regarded to be little more than devices for the CLP government to do favours for its cronies and to implement its "develop at all costs" philosophy.But this will come to an abrupt end if Planning Minister, Mick Palmer, implements sweeping recommendations made public last week.A review by Earl James, an Honorary Member of the Royal Australian Planning Institute, commissioned by Mr Palmer, finds much is wrong with the present Planning Act.It is barely five years old, and itself the product of a review by then Lands Minister Steve Hatton.Despite massive public pressure at the time for fairer and more democratic measures, especially in the aftermath of the "Hornsby" fiasco in Alice Springs' rural area, the changes made by Mr Hatton were insignificant and - some say - cynical.According to Mr James, the present law's objectives to make the planning schemes "less prescriptive, more flexible" while providing "greater input from the public ... are not being achieved to the extent desired".What Mr James puts forward would revolutionise town planning in the NT.
The Minister's influence over individual planning applications would be curtailed drastically: Mr James says ministerial "application of power in recent years came in for a lot of criticism".He says members of the public were "deeply concerned at the degree to which successive ministers have involved themselves in the development application process by directing the consent authority to make particular decisions".Under the model put forward by Mr James the Minister "should consider only whether the proposed development complies with the objectives of the Territory or the region. "He should not be concerned with the rights of the developer."While the ultimate say on any planning decision may continue to rest with the Minister, his interference in day to day matters - under the proposed model - would expose him to serious criticism.
The community would get a "shared ownership" of the process: with major projects the developers would be required to consult with the public before making an application; "facilitators" would be engaged to explain details.
Most significantly, objectors would get the right of appeal, a privilege at present reserved for developers who fail to get what they want.
"Merit, amenity, social impact and public interest" - which at present can be, and frequently are, ignored with impunity - would be defined and would need to be given greater weight in the planning process.
Local government - the town councils - would become the judges of whether or not these considerations have been dealt with adequately. This role would give local government, currently an impotent bystander in the process, greater control over it.Mr James has clearly prepared this report under unreasonable restrictions.His brief was that "consideration of the devolution of planning powers to local government is to be excluded" - an astonishing requirement considering that in all other Australian states, it's precisely local government that carries out most town planning functions.Mr James refers to a "restricted time frame" and his inability to "study planning processes in other places".He gives several examples from Darwin but not a single one from Alice Springs.Nevertheless, his review makes a strong and well argued case on behalf of the public, currently largely disenfranchised.The key to his proposals is the splitting up of responsibilities - and their clear definition. He calls for:-
A "planning authority" that develops a planning scheme.
An "approval authority" that approves it.
A "development control authority" that makes decisions as to whether or not a proposed development can proceed.
And an "appeals authority" - preferably a supreme court judge - that deals with developers as well as with objectors.This scheme would do away with many of the present absurdities, and create the kind of certainty which developers and private investors alike have been demanding for years.For example, Mr Hatton's 1993 law requires that the Planning Authority can approve only projects that comply with the current Land Use Objectives (LUO).But then the Minister is free to change the process by which the LUO are drawn up.At present the public has no influence early in the development approval process, is relegated to making submissions after an application has already been lodged, and witness helplessly as these submissions are routinely ignored by the Minister or the Planning Authority.This has clearly led to a feeling of disempowerment, and a reluctance to become involved, even when the stakes are high: the current "consultation" about the new LUO for Alice Springs has generated only 19 comments, including just nine from individuals.Indeed, Mr James' own review relied on submissions from just 18 "individual community members"; the bulk of the evidence came from five local government bodies, seven community associations, six professional associations, three professional planners, two developers and one politician.Only last week the Alice News reported that Eastside residents felt angry, confused and misled over the Greenleaves residential development, and the resulting Eastside drain enlargement.Mr James says public distrust is further exacerbated by the use of departmental officers in the process, who are suspected to be "simply doing the government's bidding."If they attempt to facilitate public meetings, no matter how efficiently, they are seen as imposing solutions rather than accepting consensus opinions."Such perceptions are strengthened by the fact that the same officers then prepare the draft proposal which will be put to the Minister."Any subsequent public submissions ... are assessed by those same officers before being considered by the consent authority."Mr James says the public should be helped by independent facilitators, capable of putting across the complex matters; the departmental officers should act only as advisors. The Planning Authority currently is loath to knock back any application - no matter how poor - "probably for fear of criticism that [the Planning Authority] is slowing the process down", says Mr James.The present law requires applications to "contain an assessment of the effect of the proposed development on the area".However, all that's presented in many cases is a "one line statement that there is no effect or that the development will enhance the area".Mr James splits the process for development approval into two broad categories:
Firstly the technical matters, ideally defined by clear legislation governing land use, population density, block sizes, approved uses and so on, leaving little to interpretation;
and secondly, the "esoteric" matters that "can only be determined by subjective reasoning".Mr James places great importance on on the introduction of "performance based assessment", and to "planning merit, social impact, public interest and amenity".These "esoteric terms" would present the "main target of public intervention".Mr James says "it behoves the [developers] to pay some detailed attention to these subjects but they rarely do".It's in this area where the community should get its say on day-to-day matters.Mr James concedes that a definition, for example, of "merit" or "amenity", is all but impossible, and depends on a wide range of preferences and interpretations by each community affected."Under the present regime these matters, including amenity and public interest, are all considered and reported on by departmental officers," says Mr James. "It would be prudent to consider the delegation of this task to another entity."That entity, says Mr James, should be "those local governments with the appropriate resources".He comments: "Local governments are the spokespersons for the community. "Elected aldermen are best equipped to determine local community attitudes and concerns."It is clear that action on this would do away with one of the most bizarre elements of the present regime: while the Minister must appoint Planning Authority members from nominees by local government, the people appointed - usually aldermen - are prohibited from pursuing the policies of their own councils. In fact, Alice Springs Mayor Andy McNeill resigned from the authority because of this unresolved conflict of interest.The councils could make a judgment about the "lifestyle" aspects, and although the Planning Authority could have a different opinion, at least the community would have its concerns aired publicly and fairly.Mr Hatton, during the preceding review, steadfastly opposed "third party appeals" - those from the public, specifically objectors - on the basis that vexatious appeals would bring development in the Territory to a halt.Mr James says "the available evidence does not support this claim", and says third party appeals were in fact available under the Town Planning Ordinance preceding the Planning Act.Mr James says appeals shouldn't be decided by the Minister while he has "the power to direct the Planning Authority to make a particular decision".Instead, the appeals authority should be a court that can "implement informal proceedings".Surprisingly, Mr James doesn't comment on the selection procedures by successive Ministers, appointing members to the Planning Authority.In the recent past, the southern region's Planning Authority consisted of three male, middle-aged, Caucasian business persons. Whilst they are outstanding members of the community, as a group they were hardly representative of our hugely diverse society.However, if the three proposed authorities are merely concerned with policing firmly laid down requirements, they could consist just of technical experts.Under Mr James' model, democratically elected bodies - the town councils - would take charge of the "lifestyle" issues which in the past have caused so much anguish and disenchantment.Then town planning would cease to be akin to a chook raffle and - at last - play the role in our lives it so desperately needs to.Local Government Association president Margaret Vigants has urged the government to "respond positively" to Mr James' report and release a response to the recommendations as soon as possible.Let's see which way Mr Palmer will now jump!

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