August 8, 2001.


Massive Federal subsidies to the NT Government are under the spotlight as candidates are making campaign promises in the lead-up to the Territory elections on August 18. With law and order issues again at the top of the agenda, urban voters are concerned that neglect of people in the bush is accelerating the drift of anti social elements into the major towns. Despite per capita funding from Canberra nearly five times greater than the national average for more than a quarter of a century, "we still have a lot of catchup to do in the remote parts of the Territory," says CLP Senator Grant Tambling. And Labor MHR Warren Snowdon claims the lack of government services in the bush remains "scandalous," with education, health services and housing lagging far behind the rest of the nation. The Territory Government has an annual budget of $2b. Canberra spends a further $2b on its own services and programs in the NT. Senator Tambling estimates the private sector contributes around $2b to the Territory's gross domestic product.Canberra's annual contribution – $1400m in untied payments, plus $425m in specific purpose payments – makes up more than 80 per cent of the NT Government's Budget. Four fifths of the Federal grant is allocated on recommendation from the Grants Commission, which seeks to provide access to a similar level of services for all Australians.The Territory receives its level of funding because of its special problems: "They are largely distance and Aboriginality," says Senator Tambling. Yet Mr Snowdon says far from fixing the problems in the bush the NT Government is pouring money into the capital: "The further you get away from Darwin the less facilities you have. The old Berrimah – now Palmerston – line is alive and well." He says the NT Government "has the responsibility to govern for all Territorians". "It's very clear it doesn't. "When people in the bush get sick they come into town. "If they want to send their kids to school, after primary school, they have to move or send their kids away." He says three high schools in remote areas have now been promised by the NT Government, but they will all be in the Top End. Mr Snowdon says payments under the Commonwealth State Financial Agreement are "untied" – they can be spent as the states see fit. However, the process in the NT is far less transparent than elsewhere because the Territory has no open estimates committee process where politicians and public servants are compelled to answer questions, and has no freedom of information laws, nor processes for administrative review. He says he has raised the Territory's accountability with the Federal Auditor General and with Prime Ministers: "How do we get to audit the NT Government's books? "Of course we can't unless they give us access, and they're not likely to give us access. "It's about time the NT Government is held accountable for the resources it has available from the Australian taxpayer." Senator Tambling says "it's going to take a lot more effort and another five or 10 years" until the Grants Commission's objective – providing an equality of services – is achieved: "We certainly have a lot of catchup to do in the provision of housing which underpins the expenditure on health and education. "I can see vast improvements in many communities. "There is a tremendous good will and good management, and an improving management. "There is still a long way to go, but in the large Aboriginal communities, where they have size and responsibility for management, you can actually see the improvements of facilities. "It depends on the maturity and the quality of the leadership, and on proximity to grog."


Basic health services at a level recommended by reports and health planners over and over again "do not exist in most remote communities of the Northern Territory today – it's clear, there's no doubt about it, they are far below adequate". So says Director of the Alice-based Centre for Remote Health, John Wakerman. The CRH is a joint venture of Flinders University in SA and the NT University, researching remote and Indigenous health, and educating health professionals in these areas. Dr Wakerman says funding for the Primary Health Care Access Program (PHCAP) – a collaboration of Commonwealth, state and Aboriginal medical services to boost health services in remote areas, commencing in the NT and more specifically in Central Australia – is a positive move. REMOTEHowever, funding has been available for over a year and has not yet been spent on the ground in remote communities. "The money for the rollout in Central Australia was allocated by the Commonwealth in their 2000 budget and there were some additional funds allocated in their last budget." He says the parties have all agreed to a coordinated plan of action and a reasonable model of service delivery. "Preceding the allocation of the funding there was several years worth of work done by a range of people – consultation, health planning work, a regional health plan. "In some communities it has been done several times over. "Meanwhile, every year that we wait there's an avoidable mortality – people die. "It's taking far too long to put some resources on the ground where they are needed." One stumbling block appears to be that not all communities are ready to take control of their health services, the desired long-term goal. Says Dr Wakerman: "Some communities are ready, others aren't or don't want to and that should be fine. "But we should not be delaying when we recognise that there's an urgent need – the basic services need to go in there. "The basics are about doctors, nurses, Aboriginal health workers, managers, allied health professionals – a comprehensive primary health care model. "We know what that is. It's now about getting it on the ground." Surely most communities are covered for basic health care, aren't they?Dr Wakerman: "No, of course not. In the NT very few communities would have the sort of level of funding and services that you would call adequate, very few. "The Commonwealth have funded the coordinated care trials at Tiwi and Katherine West. Their funding may be approaching an adequate level. "Nganampa Health Council in the north of SA might have an adequate level of funding, but there are very few other services I would call anywhere near adequate, let alone optimal." How does he define "adequate"? "In simple workforce terms, this translates to a doctor for every 500 to 700 people, a health worker for at least every 100 people, and a nurse for every 200 to 250 people. "Then you also need appropriate management of the service, administrative and clerical support, transport and the other health professionals who form part of the team. "This planning work has been done and has been reworked several times over. "Work we carried out four years ago recommended a modest 50 per cent increase in expenditure to bring primary health care services to a basic level. "PHCAP involves a two to four times increase to account for the costs of delivery in remote areas and the higher rates of disease in remote communities. "There's been a recent major national Indigenous health workforce modelling project. "There's another paper being prepared now on the Indigenous health workforce for the Australian Health Ministers Advisory Council. "I'm impatient – the communities know what services they need, it should not take this long." Dr Wakerman says Indigenous people are not well served by the " terrible fragmentation of health services in Australia"."There's a real lack of clarity about who's responsible for what, at federal and state levels. "This is in contrast to, for example, the situation in the US and in New Zealand, where Indigenous health has significantly improved. "The gap between indigenous and non-indigenous mortality rates in North America and NZ is much narrower than the gap here which is still unacceptably wide," says Dr Wakerman. He says commentators have described a number of factors that may account for that difference. "Some relate to the relationship between those indigenous populations and the state. "In NZ and in North America, people point to the existence of treaties which have given those groups some leverage, some stronger mechanisms for negotiating with government." In the US for example, there's a federal Indian Health Service that looks after all aspects of Indigenous American health, both primary and secondary care. "You don't have that fragmentation where people fall through the gaps, and funding responsibility and accountability is hard to sheet home because it's not clear what belongs to the state and what to the Commonwealth."Another contrast between those countries and Australia is the proportion of the health workforce across different disciplines that is indigenous, and the sorts of health professional jobs that Indigenous people tend to be in. "In North America and even NZ, for example, the proportion of Indigenous doctors relative to the population is much higher than it is here. We're a long way behind." Is this because of low levels of general education or cultural barriers? "Those factors explain it at one level, but at another it goes back to those fundamental problems about the relationship between the population and the state. ACCESS"Are people's human rights in terms of access to appropriate education and health services being met? "If you look at the situation in many parts of Australia, you would have to say no." Does Dr Wakerman, in his professional capacity, thus support the call for a treaty, as Karen Phelps, President of the Australian Medical Association, has done? "I would see our role as providing support to Indigenous leaders calling for a treaty through an assessment of evidence that links the existence of a treaty or compact between the Indigenous population and the state, with improved health outcomes. "There are certainly suggestions from some of the emerging literature that if people feel more empowered they have better health outcomes, and that there is a link between racism and ill health. "There is indirect evidence that a treaty would positively affect health outcomes of the Indigenous population."


A ground-breaking deal to create a citrus farm involving a private company as joint ven-turer, a lease of 200 hectares of Aboriginal land at Utopia and an invest-ment of $9m, has fallen through. The project has been replaced by a "commercial trial" on 30 acres, and a new Aboriginal organi-sation, Centrefarm, which will now have charge of horticultural develop-ment on Aboriginal land in Central Australia. It has received a $100,000 grant from the Indigenous Small Business Fund administered by Commonwealth De-partment of Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business. The grant will be used to set up a structure and an office, and to develop a business plan. Part of the plan will be to oversee the com-mercial trial of a citrus and table grape farm at Utopia. A detailed submission for the trial will go to fund-ing bodies – ATSIC, the Indigenous Land Corpo-ration (ILC) and Aborigi-nal Benefits Account (ABA) – within the next couple of months. "Basically, the fund-ing bodies have told us to crawl before we can walk," says the Central Land Council's Economic Projects Officer, Toly Sawenko. "They want to know that the project will be viable." Mr Sawenko is confident of obtaining funding for the trial, expected to cost more than $1m. That should see pre-paratory work on the land at Utopia going ahead early next year, with planting in the spring. It is intended to put in 10 hectares of citrus, and 20 of table grapes (the same varieties as are be-ing successfully grown at Pine Hill, in the same climate zone).


A native title claim was lodged last week over the Western MacDonnells National Park. The claimants are Western Arrernte people from seven estates throughout the Western MacDonnells area. A spokesperson says the claim is a bid to pre-vent exploration and min-ing in one of Central Aus-tralia's most important tourist destinations. The claimants are worried about the detri-mental effects on sacred sites, tourism and the en-vironment. The applications cover all of the Western MacDonnells National Park but exclude Ellery Creek, Simpsons Gap, Ormiston Gorge, Mt Sonder and Mt Zeil. Central Land Council director David Ross said the native title holders had other agreements with mining companies else-where but were firmly opposed to this type of activity in the Na-tional Park. "The Western MacDonnells are rich in sacred sites, home to a number of endangered flora and fauna, and – as a very popular tourist spot – extremely important to the economy of Central Australia. "This is a place which is special to the Aborigi-nal traditional owners and to the many thousands of people throughout the world who have enjoyed its magnificent land-scape," he said. "Exploration or min-ing in this national park would be a terrible blight on the Territory's image as one of the few remain-ing unspoilt holiday des-tinations. "Furthermore, it raises serious concerns over the processes of gov-ernment here. In the NT exploration and mining in national parks only re-quires the Minister for Resource Development to take into ‘considera-tion' the views of the Minister for Parks and Wildlife. "In the past in the Northern Territory, these ministerial positions have been held by one person. "We don't believe that this is a sufficiently trans-parent process for good governance since there are no opportunities for public scrutiny as would happen elsewhere in Aus-tralia," Mr Ross said. The area containing the West MacDonnell Ranges (430 000 hec-tares) has been nominatedfor the Register of the National Estate and is under evaluation.


You didn't hear "Sorry" and "Treaty" all weekend but lots of "Pride" and "Passion" when the clans gathered in Balgo to open their new cultural centre. Balgo?It's about half way between Alice Springs and Broome, a day and a half from either place by car, unless of course the roads are washed out. Then you can't go there at all. It's three hours by light aircraft. To the whitefella it's godforsaken country, spinifex, sandhills, semi desert, even in a year when the few claypans are brim full of water after huge rains. You fly for an hour 45 from Yuendumu to Balgo Hills and there is nothing in between. It's a different story for the locals and they tell it on canvas in bold strokes, brilliant reds and yellows, chunky lines and dots which in the past 10 years have made them a sensation on the nation's art scene. The Kukatja and Walmajarri people tell in vivid colour the dreams of a country that to us looks so drab, yet to them is so full of beings deserving to be known, to have songs about them passed on. This is what the new $1m art centre will celebrate and foster. Some vignettes begin to tell the story: the Federal Arts Minister shares the stage, on the wide veranda of the ochre coloured building, with a thin old man in a faded stockman's outfit, the ceremonial chief of the region; with a Catholic bishop in full vestments; a big black man in a brilliantly white shirt and tie, Jimmy Tchooga, the president of Warlatyirti Culture Centre; and two camp dogs. Later Mr Tchooga tells me the centre will be used for "training the kids" so they can "go ahead with the culture, pass it on to the next generation". He says the community needs to "train the kids to dance, hunting tribal way, Aboriginal way" while in the school "the whitefellas are teaching them English".In front of the chequered official party some 200 Aboriginal children and adults – men and women apart – sit in the bright winter sun and dust. On the step of the veranda, in the shade, are 100 whites from across the country – arts bureaucrats from Perth, Melbourne glitterati – who've come in a flotilla of small planes, and whitefellas who'd bumped their four wheel drives across hundreds of kilometres of desert roads for the big day. Mr Tchooga is the MC and he addresses the crowd in a rapid fire pidgin English most non locals can't understand. Just outside the building, planted in the middle of a dirt road, is a white cross where a few days earlier a child had been killed by a road train. A white man was nearly lynched by more than 100 people who thought he was the driver, who in fact had run off into the bush. White arts centre staff saved the man's life by dragging off the attackers in a screaming melee. He'd just been trying to help. Some days later the community profusely apologised to him. And that's the end of that, although the tragedy of the child's death nearly caused the cancellation of the opening. As the ceremony unfolds, a white woman distributes leaflets to the visitors, saying: "Due to a recent death of a child, adjacent to the culture centre is a large cross and an area marked by white stones. "No one is permitted to walk through this area or look in the direction of the cross. "Under no circumstances should anyone go near this area!" Further out are a church built from unhewn stone, a store, old and new houses, surrounded by tall fences, or their verandas encased in weldmesh with locked gates, to keep out the petrol sniffers. Further out still are the camps where the Aborigines live. It's time to cut the ribbon. The honour goes to the old ringer and senior law man, Robert Wirrimanu. He enters the new hall followed by Richard Alston, and two young men with smouldering leaves in buckets, performing the smoking ceremony. The Senator and the custodian sit down on the floor and talk. The crowd stays outside where Bishop Christopher Saunders now addresses them, surrounded by members of his local flock, mainly women who sing and pray, their hands raised in the air. As some of the women are forbidden by their culture to be in the same room as Mr Wirrimanu, they wait for him to leave the building, then enter it with the bishop and use twigs to spray holy water, the Catholic equivalent of the smoking ceremony.
NEXT: What role will Balgo art play in keeping in check forces that destroy many other communities.

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