June 11, 2003.


While a standard visit to your GP costs around $40, the Alice Springs based health organisation Central Australian Aboriginal Congress is charging the taxpayer $223 per consultation.
And that's not all. Only one third of these consultations are carried out by GP level medical practitioners (10,558), and specialists (573).
Half of the clients are seen by Aboriginal health workers (15,022) or others with a lesser medical qualification.
So the figure of $233 per consultation applies to consultations across the board, not just to consultations with doctors.
These figures are ex-contracted from the Congress' 2001 annual report, the most up to date information about the organisation available to the public.
That report must be a strong contender for the Guiness Book of World Records for the skimpiest disclosure of financial information.
In the 43 page document it occupies just one page, showing three graphs (no actual figures) covering the years 1997 to 2001: income (now just under $7m a year); expenditure and programs.
Several requests for further details from the Alice Springs News have not yet been acknowledged, let alone answered, by the organisation which has a staff of 144 and turns 30 years old this month.
The annual report consists principally of puff pieces about staff, including four pages about Director John Liddle (since departed) but remarkably lacks any evaluation of Congress' impact on Indigenous health over three decades of support from the taxpayer.
The News understands that currently the bulk of Congress' money, $4m, comes from the Federal Department of Health, which equally declines to give details.
This is against a background of tragic circumstantial evidence about ongoing ill health and earl death of Central Australia's Indigenous population.
There is no comprehensive information about the health of Indigenous people in the Centre.
This time of the year The Centre is a marvellous place for Canberra politicians wishing to escape the dismal winter climate.
They flock to The Alice and environs in significant numbers, open nice things or launch feel-good initiatives , such as Lifeline or a clinic at Kintore, last moth given the kiss of life by Federal Health Minister Kay Patterson.
But the good senator wasn't going to have her trip to the sunny Centre spoilt by probing questions, such as to what avail her department has been paying tens of millions of taxpayers' dollars to Congress.
We would also have liked to ask her about a whole range of other things constantly on the national agenda.
For example, how it is that in other nations with significant ethnic minorities, the mortality gap between them and the mainstream is closing, as is the case in New Zealand, Canada, and the US, while it remains tragically high in Australia?
What has the spending of Federal funds in The Centre achieved in terms of Aboriginal life expectancy, illness, alcohol dependency, substance abuse and nutrition?
The Federal Governments stock answer: We're spending more on Aboriginal health than ever before.
And just this weekend, the Australian Medical Association called for an extra $300m for Indigenous health.
Does the government provide for scrutiny of how its money is spent?
No, it doesn't.
Congress, for one, certainly can't complain about the cash it's getting, whilst being shielded absolutely from public scrutiny.
While Senator Patterson was in Central Australia we asked her for a 15 minute interview.
Her press secretary told us we might get five.
In the end we didn't even get that, despite our several follow-up phone calls.
So, here are some of the issues we wished to raise with the Minister.
We're hoping – and so, no doubt, is the taxpayer – to get the answers for our edition next week.
There is a fundamental problem with transparency when organisations such as Congress get public money.
If the funds are used by a government department in it's own right, such as, for example, by a hospital, the public has a variety of means to find out how the money is spent.
You can ask the department, your Member of Parliament, check annual reports which actually disclose the salient details, to go to the Auditor General or even the Chief Minister or Premier, use Freedom of Information.
It's a different story when the money goes to a non-government organisation.
For all we're allowed to know, a lot of taxpayers' dollars may be disappearing into a black hole.
Not only is the funding recipient allowed to remain mum, the department donors are as well, because, they say, the information is "commercial in confidence".
Sen Patterson's department will only say its money is being spent as agreed.
Where the money goes remains a tantalising question.
In late 2000, acting on a tip-off from three Aboriginal people, approaching us independently from each other, the Alice News conducted an investigation into a trip to the Olympic Games, at Congress expense, by senior Congress staff, board members and Hangers-on.
When we published a series of reports Stephanie Bell (now the director and then the deputy director) and Mr Liddle commenced private defamation proceedings against me and the company publishing the Alice Springs News, Erwin Chlanda Pty Ltd.
During these proceedings, it transpired that Congress was paying Mr. Liddle's and Mrs. Bell's legal bills, including the fees of a QC, all possibly mounting to $50,000.
Unable to match Congress' financial resources, I requested, and was granted, leave from the Supreme Court to appear for the publishing company.
The court proceedings over 18 months imposed an extraordinary strain on the operation of the Alice Springs News.
The matter was settled by consent last year, with each party bearing their own costs.
The order required the Alice Springs News to conduct it's editorial work no different to the way the News has done prior, during and after the Olympic junket investigation and reporting.
In essence we agreed to advise Congress when we're doing a story about them, and if requested, give them a right of reply.
So the questions we're asking the good Senator include these: Does the money the Congress spends on a trip to the Olympic Games, and for litigation against a newspaper asking legitimate questions on behalf of its readers, come from her department?
If not, how come her department is funding an organization with spare cash for purposes decidedly outside it's charter?
Why does a consultation cost nearly six times as much as in a privately run clinic?
Not only would the taxpayer like to know; I suspect the many present and potential clients of Congress, the poorest and most disadvantaged members of our community, would like to know as well.


The majority of residents in Alice Springs, including town camp residents, want some form a liquor restrictions to continue or be strengthened.
The report to the Licensing Commission evaluating the liquor trial as well as a separate report on the trial by the Evaluation Reference Group (ERG) were released yesterday.
The ERG itself is split over the detail of a restrictions program, but there is strong support for the continued restriction of takeaway sales hours.
Separately, the Chairman of the ERG, senior public servant Ian Crundall, and Chris Moon, in their "independent scientific and professional evaluation" have recommended that the restrictions be continued for a further three months, together with an additional restriction on two-litre Port casks.
This should be accompanied by "a focused campaign designed to reduce further substitution".
"This extension should be reviewed in three months and if there is no clear gain, then all container limits should be removed."
Members of the ERG – Congress, SMAG, Tangentyere Council, the Central Land Council and ATSIC – supported by a modification (an extension, in effect) of restrictions over the next three to twelve months "so that the sale of alcohol in unit containers (one can or one cask or one bottle etc) worth less than nine cents per pure alcohol ml is banned, except for ‘slabs' of beer."
SMAG has a comprehensive membership of Territory and Commonwealth government and non-government organizations and agencies concerned with alcohol issues, as well as the Alice town council.
This recommendation was opposed by the remaining members, including the Australian Hotels Association (AHA) and CATIA.
AHA alone recommended:-• That alcohol other than light beer should be available for consumption on licensed premises between 10am and 11.30am, but only in conjunction with food;
• And, that licensed premises that are also accommodation providers be able to sell liquor, other than light beer, to bona fide travellers who are guests of those premises for consumption on the premises, between 10am and 11.30am.
AHA alone opposed the continued restriction on alcohol sales other than light beer to b available for consumption at bars until 11.30am on weekdays.
CATIA and the police (notwithstanding their representation on SMAG) support container sizes reverting to what they were before the trial.
All ERG members except CATIA and AHA support the current restriction on opening hours for takeaways on weekdays.
The Crundall and Moon evaluation disclosed the results of the latest surveys of town camp residents.
The telephone survey of town households, with 402 respondents, the majority (over 80 percent) of whom have lived in Alice Springs for more than five years, revealed that almost half felt that the trial or restrictions and complementary measures together have no effect on Alice Springs as a whole.
However, more than half felt that the Licensing Commission should either keep the restrictions as they are (24 percent) or strengthen them (30 percent). A third (33 percent) felt that the restrictions should be removed.
The town camp survey achieved a sample of 277.
Respondents were asked if they thought the restrictions and complementary measures as a whole had "led to a slow-down in drinking" (that is, to a reduction in drinking and related problems) and what effect they had on people's families and communities. Most thought that the trial had not reduced drinking. Around a third believed it had. Nearly twice as many respondents identified the trial as having a positive rather than negative effect on families and communities. Around one in five indicated the trial had no effect on families or communities.
The majority of people surveyed on the town camps were in either keeping (22 percent) or strengthening (45.1 percent) the restrictions. In contrast, 17 percent thought the restrictions should be dropped. A similar proportion (15.5 percent) did not express a view.
It is now up to the Commission to assess the reports recommendations, not only on the trial and existing complementary measures, but on a range of new measures.

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