$25M TO FIX HOSPITAL. Report by ERWIN CHLANDA.
The cost for ongoing work to rectify faults in the refurbishment of the Alice hospital more than four years ago is approaching $25m, according to a well informed source.
That is almost equal to the cost of the original job, $30m, meaning the Territory Government is paying double for the work.
The repair cost is now 10 times the original estimate.
Yet the government has still not made any claim for compensation to the contractor engaged for the work, the Victoria based John Holland Group.
The source says the government is now briefing legal counsel to formulate a claim.
However, a spokesman for John Holland says it is "absolutely not" accepting responsibility.
"The government has not made a claim.
"We are aware that work is going on but not with the knowledge of John Holland.
"There are questions about pre-existing problems and the roles of other contractors.
"We have not been informed about any costs.
"We have been seeking details for several months.
"There are allegations via the press and we've analyzed media comments Š but we've not had someone [from the government] detail allegations."
The Alice News understands that John Holland's work has been certified as complete and up to standard by the government appointed certifier.
Neither Minister Peter Toyne, who is involved in the issues through all three of his portfolios (health, Central Australia and justice), nor Minister Chris Burns (infrastructure) agreed to be interviewed about the issues.
In February 2004 the Alice News reported the NT Government is investigating whether it can recover $2m from John Holland Constructions for "significant and serious" defects in the $30m upgrade of the hospital.
"Health Minister Peter Toyne says an audit has uncovered a lack of compliance in the construction of firewalls, faults that will cost $1.5m to fix," the report said.
"And the air conditioning Š is faulty in about 20 per cent of the hospital, including the children's section.
"Dr Toyne says the government has made $2m available so that work can start immediately."
In February 2005 we reported that a government report leaked to the Alice News "casts new light on the relentless pursuit by the Opposition of the Health Minister, Peter Toyne, over the problems with the refurbishment of the hospital.
"MLA Jodeen Carney (CLP) is leading the charge, but she's mum about the fact that many of the woes Dr Toyne is now being blamed for seem to be the product of incompetence by her own party colleagues.
"Dr Toyne says the full story about the fiasco needs to come out, especially the level of project supervision by the Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Environment (DIPE)."
The company, on its web page, says: "Since its establishment in Victoria in 1949, the John Holland Group has expanded operations across Australia and is now one of the largest contractors in the nation.
"Annual revenues are close to $2 billion and work in hand currently stands at $3.4 billion.
"The John Holland Group prides itself on its ethical behavior, high governance standards, strong client partnerships and leadership in health and safety."
GAS ROYALTIES TO COME UNDER THE MICROSCOPE. Report by ERWIN CHLANDA.
The board of Ngurratjuta, an investment company owned by Western Arrernte people, is meeting this week to discuss an apparent shortfall of royalty payments for gas and oil produced on their land.
Ngurratjuta CEO Chris Pearson says in 2004/05 the total of royalties received was $173,000 for gas worth tens of millions of dollars.
Prominent Aboriginal businessman and mining advisor Bob Liddle has for some time been calling for an audit of the process.
Natural gas from Palm Valley, on Western Arrernte tribal land, is the major fuel for electricity generation by the NT Government owned Power Water Corporation.
The gas is piped from the field near Hermannsburg to Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Katherine and Darwin. The gas deal with the "Mereenie Partners", who also produce oil in the area, headed up by Santos, was made in 1984 and will end in 2009.
Aboriginal interests are entitled to a 10 per cent "statutory" royalty.
This is paid by the Federal government, and it is supposedly the same amount as the producers are paying in royalties to the NT Government, hence called "royalty equivalent".
The split-up is 40 per cent for the land council of the region, 30 per cent for the "affected" traditional owners, and 30 per cent for the Federal Minister, currently Amanda Vanstone, for the benefit of Aborigines across Australia.
The question is, 10 per cent of what? And is Canberra really paying the same amount to the Aborigines as Santos is paying to Darwin? Firstly, the actual amount Power Water pays for gas is a closely guarded secret, because it is "commercially in confidence", because the traditional owners have requested it not to be disclosed (they themselves clearly have no idea what it is), or for whatever other reason.
The Power Water 2005 annual report quotes a figure of $242m for the cost of gas.
The Alice Springs News (Nov 23) was in error describing this as the cost in that year.
We discussed at length, before publication, our use of this figure with a spokeswoman for Power Water.
She did not point out our error.
In fact, the $242m is a forward commitment for gas.
As the agreement has four years to run, it may be reasonable to speculate, based on that commitment, that the annual cost of the gas is $60m. Another part of the annual report says a "major operating expense is gas and distillate $178.3m ($160.5m in 2004)".
This apparently includes transport for which $183m is listed under forward commitments.
Assuming that figure is also for four years, the net value for gas and distillate (excluding transport) would be around $133m, the lion's share of which would be for gas.
On these figures the annual "royalty equivalent" to be paid to Aboriginal interests would be between $6m and $13m, making Ngurratjuta's 30 per cent share worth between $1.8m and $3.9m a long shot from $173,000.
Enter another puzzling element, the well head price.
The NT Treasury, the recipient of the Mereenie royalties, says the well head price is the "relevant costs from the point that an arm's length value can be established for the product, usually at the point of sale."
This means it is the price paid for the gas, in this case by Power Water, minus the cost of producing the gas.
The price "ex field" is set by the Mereenie Joint Venturers and Gasgo, a wholly owned subsidiary of Power Water.
Santos says the royalties it pays to the NT Government is 10 per cent of the purchase price.
In other words, it's tantamount to a 10 per cent discount because the NT Government owns Power Water.
Santos says the well head price doesn't come into the calculations of the royalties it has to pay to the NT Government.
Is the well head price used for the calculation of the royalties paid to Aborigines?
It seems so, because the total paid in royalties for Palm Valley gas in 2005, according to a reliable source, was $926,000.
The "statutory royalties" to be paid to Aboriginal interests is 10 per cent. That means the royalty was calculated on a gas value of $9.3m clearly tens of millions below the purchase price.
Were royalties paid on the well head price? Why is it so low? Who calculated it? How? It's not clear.
The other absent answers are about the distribution last year of the $926,000.
We reported on November 23: "You may think that of this relative pittance the traditional owners, via their organisation, Ngurratjuta, will get their square 30 per cent, amounting to around $278,000, less four per cent tax, leaving $266,000.
"The money comes via the Central Land Council (CLC) which last year paid to Ngurratjuta just $173,000: The CLC had syphoned off 40 per cent for administration.
"Of course, they had already received 40 per cent of the total royalty sum for you guessed it administration."
We still have no response from the CLC.
There is also a negotiated royalty paid by the oil companies.
Santos says this is "more than 1.5 per cent" of the sales price.
It is negotiated between the affected owners and the company, and is paid in "cash, kind, education, training, and other things like the camel farm" set up recently 300 km west of Alice Springs.
LAND COUNCIL WITHDRAWS PARKS CLAIMS - PRELUDE TO HANDOVER? Report by ERWIN CHLANDA.
There was an unexpected twist in the national parks saga when it was revealed that the Central Land Council (CLC) had withdrawn its land rights claims over Central Australian parks, including the West MacDonnells.
While both the NT Government and the CLC remain tight-lipped it appears this is a sign that both expect the Federal Government will ratify the Martin government's decision to transfer ownership of the parks to Aborigines.
Senior staff of the Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Amanda Vanstone has told an alderman of the Alice town council, Melanie van Haaren, that a decision would be made in March or April next year.
The council has called on Senator Vanstone to halt the process until the NT Government has provided more information about its policies.
WITHDRAWAL The withdrawal of the parks claims came to light with the release last week of the 2005 annual report of the Aboriginal Land Commissioner.
It appears that the Howard government can decline the amendment, in which case the Martin strategies will collapse.
The parks cannot be reclaimed under land rights because a sunset clause took effect on June 5, 1977.
The CLC had lodged claims over the parks, thought at the time to be immune from land rights, the day before.
However, the Ward High Court decision in 2002 is thought to have opened the door for the claims to be heard.
All eyes are now on Senator Vanstone, and the Territory Country Liberal Party (CLP) politicians Nigel Scullion and Dave Tollner, to see if they can influence their political friends in the capital.
The CLP is strongly opposed to the handover of the parks.
Ald van Haaren says she is not opposed to joint management with Aborigines, so long as the parks remain in public hands.
However, Federal Government sources say by convention Canberra does not to stand in the way of land grant decisions agreed upon by the NT Government and the land councils.
Earlier Canberra sources had said the Federal Government would be reluctant to accede to changes not based on thorough consultation by the Martin government.
The majority of Alice Springs aldermen have said in their view there had been no consultation at all, or inadequate consultation.
MARK STAFFORD SMITH: 21 YEARS OF CHANGE. ERWIN CHLANDA talks with noted scientist.
Mark Stafford Smith has his roots in the UK but he came to Alice Springs as a desert systems ecologist 21 years ago.
He worked for the CSIRO first on the management of plants and animals, progressing to studying industries and regional development issues, which made him the obvious choice to head up the fledgling Desert Knowledge CRC.
During his time in Alice Springs his work on desert ecology and the impact of climate change gained him an international reputation.
He'll be going with his family to Canberra early next year but fortunately not for long.
Dr Stafford Smith spoke with Alice News editor ERWIN CHLANDA. NEWS: As global warming angst is reaching fever pitch, how's this for a real estate sell: Alice Springs is 600 metres above sea level so we'll never have a tsunami. We're 2000 km from the ocean, so we'll never be hit by a cyclone or typhoon. We've got practically zero pollution. Would you sell your house here?
STAFFORD SMITH: I'm certainly not selling my house but it's not because of that, but because I love the place and I'm coming back and I'm going to die here but I hope that's not too soon!
In terms of direct impact, things like the sea level rise and even storms and cyclones, the effects on Alice Springs will be small. But we will get increasing temperature, more days over 40, and even with little change in rainfall, that means there will be a drying over all, so far as plants are concerned.
There probably will be an increase in extremes, slightly bigger storms.
Flooding in Alice will be an issue we do need to address, which doesn't mean, necessarily, sticking a dam on the river, but other flood mitigation and building houses in sensible places.
These are all easily managed issues in one sense.
I think the biggest challenges for Alice Springs will be the indirect effects of rising fuel prices and cost of transport.
That's what is behind the Desert Knowledge idea, to come up with industries and concepts, services and widgets that are high value and easy to transport - or something that you just can't get anywhere else.
Tourism is one of them. You can't see the MacDonnell Ranges anywhere else. But then you can see other ranges elsewhere and we'll have to deal with that smartly.
Charlie Carter made some good points [at the Environment Day rally on December 3].
The times during the year when you can walk in the West Macs may get shorter.
Maybe there are smart ways in which you can deliver that experience, such as walking at night, spotlighting as you go, and that means you need to make sure, for example, that the populations of possums in the creeks recover, and there is something to look at.
Other aspects are managing the land on behalf of society and improving the safety of people traveling through.
People living here can do that best.
We need products and services that we may be able to produce here, which are cheap to transport in comparison to their benefits.
Obviously you don't have a car factory here. That would be ridiculous.
But you can have Aboriginal art, which is very high value per unit and cost of transport, things that we can do well in desert areas, including education we can deliver across the web or even to people coming here.
NEWS: What about personal safety? It's getting rarer across the world and yet we have it in abundance.
STAFFORD SMITH: That's a very nice marketing thing. There are other forms of safety as well.
One is the quarantine, biological type of safety where one is thinking about the introduction of weeds and pests and keeping Australia safe from those. Aboriginal people, through CDEP, are already doing work on Athel pine down the Finke River.
Also, it can be dangerous for tourists to travel through the wide open spaces around here.
Early this year three parties of people lost at different times were found by an Aboriginal group, by a pastoralist and by local tourists.
NEWS: Alice has one of the highest per-capita numbers of tertiary educated people with hugely varying interests and opinions. Do you find it to be an interesting place?
STAFFORD SMITH: Fascinating as well as frustrating. The number of community groups we have that do different things, I thinks that's very significant. Even if some of them get up some people's noses, having that diversity is part of the fun of it.
The frustration is that the organisations are small, funded for different reasons, and without enough critical mass within each one to have the capacity to spend much time talking and collaborating.
That's the challenge for Desert Knowledge, creating networks and partnerships.
We are ridiculously fragmented. We have great chats at parties but in their work people are so overloaded that, with the small efforts of a whole lot of organisations, we find it very hard to get a coordinated, collaborative effort going on things generally.
NEWS: This morning's environment rally was preaching to the converted. You and I could have drawn up three days ago a list of who's going to be there.
STAFFORD SMITH: In most places there is a small number of people who put a lot of the effort in, but if you can sustain that effort it does grow outwards gradually. Having been here 21 years I can see some dramatic changes.
NEWS: Which are the major ones?
STAFFORD SMITH: One is the attitudes and makeup of the town council. If you compare the incredibly narrow factional interest when I arrived here, when the council consisted mainly of real estate agents and people protecting their own business interests, to a much more representative council today.
Another is the real partnerships between Aboriginal organisations and, for example, the town council, and some other organisations as well.
NEWS: Are they achieving anything?
STAFFORD SMITH: Yes, I think they are, they are slowly achieving things. But we still don't see anything like enough Aboriginal people employed in business, particularly in white businesses in town.
But there is a much larger number of Aboriginal people employed in town, even if the majority are in Aboriginal organisations. You have to go through these stepping stones. Taking the long view I can see big changes there.
And a third change is, and I hope this doesn't sound patronising, a much stronger sense of self-confidence in Aboriginal run organisations. It is a fact of life that people have to establish their own self confidence before they can reach out and engage with others.
Fourthly, there has been a huge sea change in the attitude towards land management. People are much more aware of environmental issues.
Twenty years ago the reaction of quite a number of people on the land to conservation was that there is no issue of degradation, it's just complete rubbish.
But now the issues are recognised, and while we may not be doing enough yet, there's been a huge shift in attitude.
NEWS: Pastoralists like Dick Cadzow at Mt Riddock station and Bob Purvis at Woodgreen, widely using small dams to optimise the use of surface water, are they now seen as showing the way in land management?
STAFFORD SMITH: They are. And the environment movement has become much more accepting of the reality of the balance between the need to make a living and environmental management.
On the other hand I'm dismayed by the degree to which buffel grass has taken over the landscape in the last 20 years.
It is one thing that really strikes the eye that's changed hugely over that time. It is one of the really complex scientific and social issues, wicked issues as it's called in the literature.
NEWS: The Territory Government has promised an announcement in November, last month. They didn't. We asked what's happening and got no answer.
STAFFORD SMITH: The critical issue is the community getting together and talking it through. There is no simple political solution. Buffel isn't just a weed. It has values and it has problems, and they are overlapping. The social process is at least as important as any scientific understanding.
NEWS: If you're left wing you hate buffel. If you are right wing you like it.
STAFFORD SMITH: Because of these alignments, and while there is conflict in the community, you won't get a political solution. It needs to be a social solution where the views of the people in the community have to converge. And that's not a trivial thing but the issue has moved quite a long way in the last five or 10 years, thanks to organisations like the Threatened Species Network and the Centralian Land Management Association. But it will be along time yet before this one is resolved.
NEWS: In a small and extremely isolated town like Alice, which finds it near impossible to attract, in adequate numbers, the people needed to run it, is there a case for offering some reprieve from environmental obligations? For my own part, to people who tell me to use little or no air conditioning I usually say, yeah, whatever.
STAFFORD SMITH: One of the opportunities in Alice Springs is to embrace the constraints, but get ahead of them. This would create short term pain but almost certainly long term opportunities.
NEWS: That's pretty general. On a 45 degree day there's no chance that the orientation towards north of a house or small windows are going to make you feel comfortable. You turn on the refrigerated air conditioner, redline it, pay $4 a day and you're happily adjusted to summer in Alice.
STAFFORD SMITH: The answer is, try and make it $2 a day instead of $4, which you can do by these design changes. And you actually make it a requirement to make it $2 a day. That's the balance I'm talking about.
Saying to people, go and do whatever you like is the wrong signal. The right signal is saying we've got some strict standards here and we're going to help you meet them.
Even with stricter standards you'll be a higher energy user that someone living in Sydney but there are reasons why we believe it's worth you being here and so we'll support that.
Part of the argument is, if as a nation we want people living out here, and there are a number of strong reasons why we might want them to, then there is a strong case, on a national level, for paying people to do so.
This needs not to be seen as a subsidy but as a legitimate transfer of resources.
The balance is, Alice Springs should be prepared to accept stricter standards, but there is a bigger economy with reasons to support people up here.
As carbon taxes come on and fuel prices go up, maybe there should be a tax rebate to make it easier for people to live here.
Getting out of the darkroom. MEG MOONEY, thrid prize winner of the ALICE SPRINGS NEWS SHORT STORY COMPETITION 2005.
Meg Mooney, third prize winner in this year's Alice Springs News Short Story Competition, has lived in Central Australia for 18 years. A lot of her work focuses on country and communities around Alice Springs.
She has had poetry published in a number of journals and anthologies and has twice won the poetry section of the NT Literary Awards.
For the dry country: writing and drawings from the Centre, by Meg and artist Sally Mumford, was launched at the Alice Desert Festival this year and has been well received.
Getting out of the Darkroom
By MEG MOONEY
I'm leaning over a sink, trying to get tongs to hang on to photos long enough to move them between trays of chemicals. Yellow sloshes from the trays have stained the bench and walls. I'm mumbling to myself, wiping my hands on a blotchy apron.
I'm not entirely relaxed because I'm trying not to inhale too many chemicals: the exhaust fan isn't up to its job. I have to watch where I put my feet, because of dead cockroaches lying with their legs in the air. In this dank scene there is, at least, the satisfaction that comes from a job being done. And the absence of ragged gospel music playing on a dying tape player.
There is a set of double doors sealing this room off from the printery, where red dust oozes in through old metal louvres. I've just started working here, and the job is rather different from that described at headquarters in town.
It's turned out that I'm to be the last and frustrating point on a conveyor belt producing school booklets in the local Aboriginal language. Stories rambled on to tape are written down, then chopped and kneaded into books, hundred-copy pile s of which are being chewed by mice and covered by the red ooze on nearby shelves.
A week later. I'm standing with the boss. The conveyor belt is her pride and joy. She's marked with crosses on my proof sheets the photos she wants printed. There are rows and rows of large black crosses, many hours in the darkroom worth. I look dismally at them.
"I can't see the proofs properly with all those crosses," I say. "You should have put little crosses underneath the photos." Then, scrabbling for a way out: "It's going to take a long time, you know, doing that many photos."
"You could teach Patrick, couldn't you?"
Enter Patrick, an Aboriginal man in his mid twenties. He's sitting at a scribbled-wooden table drawing a picture of a man walking toward a corrugated iron humpy. This is for a page in a reader: "Wati ananyi ngurrakutu: The man is going to the camp". There is a jolting and whining of music as Patrick rewinds a favourite song on the cassette player next to him.
He is the young artist whom, according to the office mob in town, I am to train to do the production work here. He hasn't taken to me. His last boss and all previous Literature Production Supervisors have been men.
It's an awkward couple of hours with Patrick. I wonder what on earth the old women think about me closeting myself in this small dark room with someone who is not young enough to be my son. I wonder myself what I'm doing.
It's tricky explaining a procedure with lots of little steps done in the dark to a man from a very different culture whom I've only just met. Patrick and I both treat with serious faces this process it seems we have to go through. He produces a few out-of-focus prints.
"Aaahh... These aren't quite right, Patrick," I say.
"That be alright. I do drawing now," he says. And disappears out through the double doors. I follow him out into the dusty white light of the printery, but he's gone. Uh-huh, I think. Who's going to do the layout, photocopying, collating, stapling, folding, laminating and binding?
I lay all the books-in-process out in cardboard trays marked "photocopying", "laminating" and so on. There the work to be done lies for all, especially Patrick, to see. I methodically draw up a list of all the jobs he needs to learn. There's the photocopier: switch on/off, copy single sheets, copy books, double-sided copying.
I write all this, with spaces to tick as each step is learnt, on a piece of green cardboard and stick the cardboard up on the wall. "I do drawing now," becomes a familiar refrain.
I brave the linguist. He's been here for three years, eons for a whitefella, and Patrick talks to him. I ask him to tackle Patrick about his work. He reports back that I interrupt Patrick all the time when he's working, wanting him to do some other job, too much work. There's an implication that someone else should be doing this work, probably me.
I finally accept that Patrick doesn't want to do the photocopying, collating, stapling, folding, laminating and binding anymore than I do. It occurs to me that no-one ever asked him if he wanted to take over this job. If they had, he might have said, "Yes", depending on who was asking, but he would've meant "No!"
A year later the old boss leaves and the conveyor belt flies off with her. We do posters and collage books to encourage teachers to compete with the mice for the piles of booklets.
We give up on many of the machines. Instead of one person babysitting the collating machine, checking for mistakes, we have a mob collating by hand. I pick hungrily at the scraps of conversation as Patrick, drunk drivers doing Community Service Work and young women wanting a break from camp routine pass pages around the scribbly table.
You almost get in and drive the big, noisy stapling machine, while binding books involves sitting at a table and moving a lever up and down. So we staple books instead of binding them.
I don't find a way to make photocopying fun.
We struggle on with lessons on the photocopier, because I hate always being the one who has to stand next to it, trying not to breathe in the carcinogenic fumes, praying that it won't jam before it's done fifty copies even though it despises double-siding and viciously crumples up sheets that I've already done one side on.
It runs out of toner and as I pour in the fine black, cancer-causing powder it puffs up towards me. Then the infernal machine breaks down altogether and I have to spend hours in the Council Office trying to get through on the radio telephone to the technician in town.
That doesn't work, so I have to load the hefty great machine, grudgingly swathed in bubble wrap, on to the back seat of my car and take it into town.
Patrick manages to have nothing to do with all of this.
He does take to making comics, one of my many attempts to inject interest into printery life. The comics are snapped up before the mice even get a look at them. Patrick writes and illustrates the stories. In one a young man goes to town, spends the night in the pub near "the woman", wakes up in the gutter. A dog, a lizard and a bird cry out joyfully "He's back!" when he comes back out bush.
In another comic an old man tells a bed-time story, to some boys lying in the shelter of a sheet-of-iron windbreak, about their grandfather's spearing exploits and how he was eventually speared himself by a revenge party. I'm getting used to stories like that, recent history here.
It's several years later. Patrick is around at my house. He's a bit drunk. "I'm worried," he says, "worried for my heart, you know?
"I've been working at the school a long time, I've been working with you, now you're going."
"I'm sorry," I say.
"People always going. You send me photos photographs, you know? From Sydney, the sea. Send them to me here!"
"I'm only going to Alice Springs."
"You send me those photos!" he insists. "I been working long time, too long. You been teaching me, now you going.
"I'm lonely, too lonely. It's like my heart is broken, you know?"
I don't know what to say. "I'm sorry. I'll be in Alice Springs. Come and see me there," is all I manage.
Patrick doesn't seem to hear me. He turns and walks away.
THE CAMEL, THE STRAW. Report by ERWIN CHLANDA.
When shooters hired by the Territory Government "culled" camels and left their carcasses rotting in the King's Canyon national park, under the flight path of tourist helicopters, government media minders went into damage control.
But they put their foot in it and made it much worse.
One minder claimed that there had been consultations that clearly hadn't taken place.
Another described the emerging multi-million dollar camel industry as a "minute detail" not deserving the attention of the Minister, Marion Scrymgour.
The Alice News broke the story of the shooting on Monday, November 7, and rang the parks service for an explanation.
Today, a month and a week later, vital details of the scandal remain undisclosed.
Peter Seidel, who travels the world seeking markets with growing success for the tens of thousands of camels roaming The Centre, says he wasn't consulted in advance about the slaughter.
As the executive officer of the Central Australian Camel Industry Association he acknowledges that there are lots of camels left.
But who would want to pay good money for something that we discard without hesitation?
Mr Seidel said at the time that "potential investors will be dismayed" and the beasts shot in the park would have been an "easily accessible resource".
James Pratt, the media manager for the Department of Natural Resources, Environment and Heritage, when the Alice News rang him the day after the "cull", claimed the association had been informed about it in advance, and had rejected an offer of the camels.
Mr Pratt could not say exactly who within the association had been informed.
A letter from his own department to Mr Seidel suggests the Mr Pratt was telling a blatant untruth.
Suzie Healy, the Senior Park Ranger of the Watarrka (Kings Canyon) National Park, wrote to Mr Seidel, saying: "Unfortunately we have been unable to make phone contact with you to this point in time.
"Please be aware, that as previously discussed with you, the camel shoot has taken place at Watarrka National Park on Sunday, 6th November."
Ms Healy's fax was dated November 7.
Funny she couldn't reach Mr Seidel. We had no difficulty doing so on the same day.
We rang Mr Seidel's office number in Alice Springs, and were promptly patched through to a mobile phone which Mr Seidel answered within seconds.
At the time he was standing on the site of the Trade Towers tragedy in New York.
We rang him again later that morning (Alice Springs time) and reached him sitting on a Manhattan train.
He has since made it clear there has been nothing "previously discussed" with him about any shooting of camels.
It was time to talk to someone higher up.
On November 9 we sent the following email to Maria Billias, media officer of Marion Scrymgour, the Minister responsible for parks.
"Hi Maria, I'm doing a follow-up on a story we're running today ... about camels being shot.
"Would you please let me know how were the camels shot (from a helicopter, car etc); by whom; how much did it cost; whom in the Central Australian Camel Industry Association did your department inform the shoot would take place; and how was that person informed.
"Peter Seidel, pretty well the only person working there, says he had no idea.
"What is being done to control [feral] cattle in the West MacDonnell national park; and what's happening about buffel [grass] control in national parks.
"Please let me know with 24 hours. I may have some further questions.
"Kind regards & many thanks for your help, Erwin [Chlanda, the Alice News editor]."
When there was no response by November 25 - two weeks and two days after our email - we rang Ms Billias, and were informed that she was ill, and Gemma Buxton was looking after her duties.
Does that include clearing Ms Billias' emails? Clearly not.
Should we resend the email, we asked Ms Buxton? No, Ms Billias was likely to be back on Monday.
We asked Ms Buxton to ring us on that Monday if Ms Billias was still absent. She promised she would.
She didn't, and neither did Ms Billias call us.
On Tuesday we rang Ms Billias and she could barely contain her exasperation: Don't we realize that these were operational questions, and that we need to speak to the department?
"You can't expect the minister to be across, in minute detail, absolutely everything that's in her portfolio," Ms Billias blustered.
This statement bears some examination.
We hadn't asked Ms Scrymgour, via Ms Billias, whether her department was using small or medium sized paper clips, and how many.
We'd asked about an action by her department affecting an emerging industry that can complement the cattle industry, enhance dramatically cattle stations' earnings; provide a major source of income for Aboriginal people in remote areas; introduce commercial animals whose impact on the environment is far more benign than that of hard hoofed cattle; and are eminently suited to Central Australia's climatic conditions, for which there is a market without any foreseeable limits, especially in the Middle East. (Alice News, October 5, "Camel boom ahead").
A "minute detail" as suggested by Ms Billias because its happening south of the Berrimah Line? Maybe.
That left the question of whether Mr Pratt had misled the public about any consultation in advance with Mr Seidel.
"I'd be very reluctant to doubt James," said Ms Billias.
"You believe Peter Seidel as opposed to a qualified public relations manager of a department."
Gosh, what a hard call!
After all, humble Mr Seidel is a mere official honorary ambassador for Alice Springs.
Doing ground breaking work for Central Australia's pastoral industry surely is no match for being a qualified public relations manager of a department committed to open government.
It's a dilemma, we suggested, Ms Billias would need to sort out.
"I call you back straight away," she replied, on November 29.
She still hasn't. [Footnote: Mr Seidel told the Alice News last week he is in sensitive negotiations with the NT Government. He was quoted on the ABC this week that some culling of camels may be necessary.]
"ORBITING" ANSWER FO REMOTE COMMUNITIES? Report by KIERAN FINNANE.
Many remote communities will not be economically viable unless their residents adopt a lifestyle pattern known as "orbiting". Basically this means that a community is "home" but it is not where you'll always live. In order to earn a living or to develop yourself through further education and training, you have to orbit out from the community, take the opportunities where they can be found. This is the economic model being discussed amongst Cape York communities in far north Queensland, says Gregory Andrews, manager of the Mutitjulu Working Together project who has recently returned from a visit to the area, as a guest of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership.
The institute is conducting an economic viability project which is analysing the potential for orbiting in and out of communities as a way of reducing dependency on welfare and improving access to education, employment and other opportunities.
Some families on Cape York are already living the model, moving into Cairns to support their children while they get through Years 11 and 12.
And some young people are moving to Cairns to take up short-term work or are heading south to take part in the fruit picking season.
"It's really no different from what a lot of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians do I'm orbiting right now," says Mr Andrews who comes from and will ultimately return to New South Wales.
He also points out that in the Pacific islands, the Philippines, and south-east Asia orbiting residents working in overseas countries and regularly sending back a proportion of their wages contribute significant foreign earnings to their national economies.
Pacific leaders have recently lobbied Prime Minister John Howard to allow their people to do seasonal work in Australia.
"This has been happening for 20 years in Canada," says Mr Andrews.
"And the benefits can flow both ways. In some communities in Canada there are now festivals to welcome the seasonal workers from the Caribbean and celebrate their culture, which enriches the lives of the Canadians as well.
"In the Central Deserts in Australia it appears that there is not nearly as much orbiting going on as in the Cape York communities. [Exceptions are the numbers of young people from the bush who are sent to boarding schools in Alice, Darwin, and Adelaide.] However, orbiting in and out of communities will be critical for the long-term economic future of desert communities."
Mr Andrews is also interested in the Family Income Management program he saw in practice at the Cape York community of Mossman Gorge.
"It's something like a mini shared responsibility agreement. A family sits down and looks at their total income, they pool all their resources and decide together how they want to spend their money. Then it gets split up, paid into different accounts, so much for a car, so much for a washing machine, so much for food each week and so on.
"Aboriginal people in Cape York are very excited about the Family Income Management scheme. They emphasise that it limits the resources available for drinking and gambling. And it's also led to a change in approach to consumption.
"There's a budget for the car, that includes ongoing maintenance, so the car is treated as durable rather than disposable and people are feeling the benefit of that.
"It's a way of balancing the Aboriginal culture of sharing with the reality of living in the mainstream society. The people at Mossman Gorge love it.
"The program is locally driven and the office is locally staffed."
He noted a strong "social contract" in the community about the importance of education and independence from welfare: "Cape York people are focused on the value of work and education." Mr Andrews says Mossman Gorge has some similarities with Mutitjulu: it's located adjacent to the world heritage-listed Daintree National Park that gets half a million visitors a year.
The community, although tiny with just 150 people, has made this work for them.
They run a tourism enterprise, the Kuku Yalanji Dreamtime Walks and Art Gallery, guiding visitors on a cultural walk through the rainforest. However, not only the guides are local Indigenous people. So are the booking clerks, the accounts people, the gallery staff.
Is that not the case with Anangu Tours at the Rock? Mr Andrews preferred not to comment.
The community is not without external support. For example, the Melbourne-based Boston Consulting Group is currently working with them to design new strategies to expand their business.
Indeed, the desire of Cape York communities to work for "radical change" "That's the term they use," says Mr Andrews earns them the ear and the support of government. For example, economists from the federal Treasury department have been seconded to the Cape to provide advice on the economic viability project.
It's not all smooth sailing, however.
There are still disincentives in place that slow the rate of change. For example, Abstudy payments are lower than CDEP payments. This discourages young people from furthering their education rather than going onto CDEP. Leaders are lobbying the government to increase Abstudy to overcome this obstacle.
"Selling" welfare reform is challenging as is the removal of separatist policies in, for example, education. Leaders spoke to Mr Andrews about the Queensland TAFE system, which was funded on the basis of certificates awarded rather than real outcomes. "They were concerned about this leading to the awarding of cornflake packet certificates," says Mr Andrews.
People also spoke about past policies at high schools where as long as the Aboriginal kids turned up, they received their graduation certificates.
"This set people up for failure and dependency," says Mr Andrews.
"Cape York has brave leaders," he says. "They've recognised that their leaders need to be able to operate in two worlds. This means that they don't necessarily put their elders into leadership positions that could be disrespectful to them if they don't have the necessary skills. "And the average age of the population is only 26, so it's important for young people to be leading. But the elders still provide inspiration." There is also an inclusive approach towards Aboriginal people in the region who have suffered dispossession. The Coen Regional Aboriginal Corporation is an example, says Mr Andrews. Its board comprises each of the traditional owner groups in the region, but also people who do not have traditional connection to country: "This recognises the reality of modern Aboriginal Australia.It fosters unity and minimises disputes," says Mr Andrews.
YOUNG FILM MAKER GETS TWO GORILLAS. Report by ELISABETH ATTWOOD.
A BMX rider cycles at full speed up a ramp, does a complete somersault and manages to sit upright on the bike before splashing into Ellery Big Hole.
Incredible tricks (and devastating falls) kept coming and coming in the high-octane, feelgood short film, Riding in Alice Springs a documentary about the BMX culture in town, set to (original) punk soundtrack by emerging local band Second Impression.
Evocative cinematography captured the effervescent energy and high spirits of the group of local riders especially in the scene when the camera swung from the driver's cheesy wave and grin to the backseat of the van, focusing the lads kicking back but squashed between BMX bikes and a ramp.
The late afternoon sun filtering through the window gave the piece a sort of Californian beach vibe.
Philip Drummond's documentary was the only short film to receive two awards and a highly commended at last week's Golden Gorilla awards, held at CDU and Centralian Senior Secondary College's media department.
Drummond (pictured at right with a still from his film and his golden gorillas), an advertising consultant at the Alice Springs News, won best documentary, the people's choice award and a highly commended for best editing.
"This year I was studying cert III and we learnt a lot more about using the editing software," says Drummond who says he'd love to take his film making further.
"It gave the film a more sort of professional look I could manipulate it to what I wanted rather than live with what I shot."
The Golden Gorilla film festival showed 24 short films from year 12 and certificate III students. The range was engaging and incredibly diverse.
Particularly impressive were two short animations, A Day in the Grass and Giggity, by Micheal Hill.
Both were technically brilliant and beautifully imaginative. Inspired by Japanese animation, they portrayed characters which had a lovely naivety mixed with grown-up humour.
Hill was "hands down" winner of the best animation award. A change of pace saw the closing scene of the short film A Kiss Goodbye by Lauren Shai Megnel as shocking, sad and memorable.
Two grieving faces are framed between a pair of pale swinging ankles as a lone piano plays. The screen goes dark and the credits roll.
Telling the story of a little girl's experience of her parent's divorce, I was particularly impressed by the sensitive details which Mengel included in her work, like a lingering shot of a neatly folded school uniform on a bed, or the slow turning of the pages of a discarded book.
Kelly, the young girl, is shown reacting to her parent's separation by rebelling refusing to wear her uniform to school, wearing makeup and an inappropriate hairstyle.
Her mother's character is painted succinctly (one of the necessities of short films) as being confused and unable to cope without her husband putting the phone in the washing up bowl by mistake, in another scene seemingly unable to hear her daughter's questions.
When Kelly is reunited with her father in the unmistakable landscape of Alice Springs, the mood of the film becomes upbeat but is brought crashing down moments later when father and daughter return home to find the mother hanging from the ceiling, dead.
Mengel received a Golden Gorilla Award for best cinematography for her nine-minute film well deserved in my opinion.
LETTES: Liquor Commission retreats behind Berrimah Line.
Sir,- Alice Springs will only have one out of the ten members on the Liquor Commission.
So, despite the acute and chronic problems the Centre has with alcohol, decisions by the commission with regard to liquor license applications will be made mostly by Darwin members.
There were suitable applicants from Alice Springs but the Minister preferred not to take local input seriously.
This means the decisions will be made by people who will not have to live with them.
People in Alice Springs take alcohol issues very seriously. They would not favour decisions that would increase the alcohol problem, but if they have only one voice out of 10, what control will they have?
Loraine Braham MLA
Independent Member for Braitling
School closure a mystery
Sir,- This year's mystery is: Why did Mr Stirling close Irrkerlantye Learning Centre? Some knowledgeable people have said that closing a culturally appropriate school is in direct contravention of the NT Labor Party Education Platform.
The cynics among us see politicians as having few strongly held beliefs, acting only to increase their rating in the polls. So, does Mr Stirling think that this is a minor issue, no one will care, that his action is somehow excusable?
The children from Irrkerlantye are destined to be absorbed into town schools. But when they can't cope, how will they be punished?
And isn't assimilation an outmoded practice? Don't we live in a multicultural society, where each culture is equally valid and valued?
Irrkerlantye is a bush school, in town. Because it is needed. Have we become inured to politicians' actions to the point where we feel unable to have an effect? Is this helplessness supposed to be so common in democracy?
If Mr Stirling's action goes unchallenged, if our silence tells the Minister that he has the right to make such drastic decisions without consultation, it is a practice that will spread. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Irrkerlantye is applying to a number of human rights, anti-discrimination and industrial agencies for their advice on the legality of Mr Stirling's action.
Sir,- While the Irrkerlantye community is facing difficult times of late, some of its members are launching a new film and music enterprise to ensure that their voices will continue to be heard in Central Australia.
Arrente musician Nooky Lowah, tech-wiz Sheldon Turner and Arrente language teacher Veronica Turner are teaming up with film-maker Vincent Lamberti and cross-cultural consultant David Burfield under the guidance of Irrkerlantye teacher Nicole Traves. The unit will eventually self-fund its operation through the creation of Arrente culture DVDs and music events for the local community. There will be a night of film and music at The Lane (58 Todd Mall) on December 15, showcasing short films made by the Irrkerlantye media unit and David Vadiveloo during the seven years of its original inception, including the acclaimed "Bush Bikes" and "Us Mob". Local band Kubakool will keep the evening lively and the newly formed Kakez will give us a preview of the music that might be produced at Irrkerlantye in the near future. For further information contact Vincent Lamberti on 0411 054 878.
DRAG DECISION: THE FINKE START LINE. Report by ELISABETH ATTWOOD.
Drag racers will finally be able to ride in Alice Springs after two years. The government confirmed on Monday that the start and finish line of the Finke Desert Race will be the location of the new strip.
Delia Lawrie, the minister for sport and recreation, said she felt confident that earlier concerns from Power and Water over the possible contamination of the town's water supply had been fully investigated. The government's announcement stated: "A preliminary report had already been done on potential environmental impacts posed by drag racing at the Finke Desert Race site which found that, subject to some precautions, the site was an appropriate location". Delia Laurie said: "CADRA [the Central Australian Drag Racing Association] will continue with their planning of the drag strip and will be seeking a development permit after they have developed construction and environmental management plans."
"The Northern Territory Government will work with CADRA to ensure all necessary environmental protections are in place."
Becoming a father is easy. Being one is not. COLUMN by STEVE FISHER.
Lately I have noticed that becoming a parent is more than the biological process that I copied out of text books at high school.
It also involves a series of adjustments that we never really notice until our offspring ask if we can leave the house so they can have friends round.
These gradual changes eventually bring about a nagging feeling that we haven't quite got this parental thing right yet and probably never will. As if dealing with growing children is not enough, the attitudes of society towards parents are unforgiving.
On the one hand, we are all supposed to have an outstanding work ethic because without it this country wouldn't be what it is today.
So whatever you do as the parents of young children, don't even think about leaving the workforce.
And on the other, we're supposed to be responsible supervisors of our kids who steer them to a future in which they have impeccable table manners, sensible haircuts and world-beating job interview techniques.
This is a game that we are never going to win.
I've known people, usually meaning women, who have flown the white flag of surrender at an early stage, telling themselves that they have no intention of re-entering the workforce until sometime fourteen years after their last child squelched into the world.
Instead of being caught in the bind between work and children, they pick staying at home and to hell with what anyone else thinks.
This sounds great and would make sense if only life was that simple. But there are bills to pay and a workforce with ever-growing knowledge that is sprinting off into the middle distance, leaving the hapless stay-at-home parent with fading letter-writing skills and worsening dress sense, not to mention no competence at all in Office 2003, for some reason an essential selection criterion for every job these days.
Modern workforce skills are hard enough to maintain if you work full-time. I keep a white flag in my top drawer.
Not only that, but life in the suburbs on a damp Tuesday afternoon is not exactly uplifting, especially if you enjoy the company of others and they happen to be at work.
At least it's sunny in the Alice, but a suburb is a suburb wherever you live. Look at some of ours; nothing but houses and golf courses with no semblance of shops or community centres or anything else to which people gravitate.
The conventional wisdom is that modern couples leave children until later because women wish to have a career first. Do me a favour.
I can't remember the last time I met a career woman. To leave it late is to put off the uncertainty of lone childcare, long afternoons and scraping nappy leftovers from under your fingernails.
Like any card-carrying bleeding heart, I always have some kind of guilt trip going on.
This week I started to believe that if I could have my time again, I would do things differently.
I would be a husband who stayed at home and looked after the children full-time for fourteen years and then was unemployable but still contented at the end of it.
I would put up with the jibes that I've downshifted and I need to get out more.
I would experience my children's developmental accomplishments.
I would share the special moments they have with Santa and his unwelcome knee in the Alice Plaza and the joys of working out where the toilets are in the Yeperenye.
Of course, I would do this if it wasn't the hogwash of a social liberal. Please, you stay at home.
I'll spend long Tuesday afternoons in the office.
Have dinner ready when I get home because I surrendered a long time ago.
Silence is golden. COLUMN by VIKTORIA CORMACK.
I'm telling my children that if they have nothing good to say they should say nothing at all.
So far they haven't got the message and instead they have perfected the art of whingeing. My grandmother used to say to her children, "you should live they way I preach and not the way I live".
We all know that we learn a lot from copying and children will do what their parents do, say what they say. We must be whingeing quite a bit without even realising we are doing it!
The problem with not complaining when something is upsetting or bugging you is that no one will care to help you change things or to treat you differently.
A squeaky wheel gets oiled. But how do we express our dissatisfaction without coming across as accusing or as a whinger? I have started several letters of complaint for different things but as I'm trying to explain why I'm so upset my anger vaporizes like the steam from a pressure cooker when you turn the heat off and lift the lid.
I'd rather not go through with it. I don't like confrontations, but the issues remain unresolved.
My expectations on my fellow citizens of Alice Springs may be unreasonably high. We share a lot and our population is small.
Many faces become familiar, and are almost like friends or at least acquaintances.
It is the informality and friendliness of this place that I cherish and that is probably why I get upset when it seems as if some people could not care less.
In a big place it is not as surprising if you are treated as a number rather than an individual. In the modern computerized world we have all become numbers.
But in a smaller community like ours we are still neighbours, still people of flesh and blood.
I had two different people serving me in the same shop on two different days last week.
The first one was positive and helpful chatting about the merchandise I was after and although she was unable to help me with everything I wanted I felt good when I left the shop.
The second one must have been having a bad day.
She seemed to want to get rid of me and would not smile.
Just like the first time I got some of what I wanted and was unable to sort some things, but I felt a bit sad and uneasy after I had left.
It is a busy time of year and customers can be difficult but like I tell my youngest daughter when she complains about the heat: "You are not the only one who is hot."
In this heat my own tolerance levels have shrivelled up and my sunburnt skin is hypersensitive to everything but the softest and coolest of touches. I know I'm not the only one.
All around I hear hisses and grumbles.
It would seem as if civil war and not Christmas was around the corner.
We need to help each other, be a bit more compassionate and understanding, try to cooperate. I have found writing down my complaints helps me calm down and think twice about blowing my top.
Maybe instead of wish lists and wishing wells we could have lists of complaints, a corner for posting grievances or perhaps a wailing wall.
We need to be able to process negative feelings in a way that sifts the wheat from the chaff so that we can give constructive criticism and instigate change where and when it really matters.
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