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Almost Impossible To Find A Functional Aboriginal Community Anywhere In The Northern Territory: Ah Kit

A speech by the Northern Territory Minister for Community Services, Mr. John Ah Kit, in which he claimed “it is almost impossible to find a functional Aboriginal community anywhere in the Northern Territory”, has caused some controversy in recent days.

Ah KitIn his speech to the Northern Territory Parliament, Ah Kit said: “I am talking of the dysfunction that is endemic through virtually all of our communities, both in towns and the bush. We cannot pretend that a community is functional when half the kids don’t go to school because they have been up most of the night coping with drunken parents, or because they themselves have been up all night sniffing petrol.

“We cannot imagine that a community is functional where less than one in ten people can read or write. Or where people are too ill through chronic disease or substance abuse to hold onto a job let alone receive training. Or where kids are born with illnesses that have largely disappeared from most of the third world and those who survive into adulthood can be expected to die two decades earlier than their non-indigenous counterparts. Or where only 14% of our kids reach year 12 compared to 80% of their non-indigenous brothers and sisters in the cities and major towns.”

Uncorrected proof of a speech given in the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly by the Minister for Community Development, Mr. John Ah Kit.

Mr AH KIT (Community Development): Madam Speaker, I am not the first Aboriginal minister in a parliament. That privilege belongs to a countryman from Western Australia. Nevertheless, my position as a minister in the Martin Labor government is an enormous privilege as well as a humbling experience. There is no way, as an Aboriginal kid growing up in the Parap Camp, that I could even have contemplated becoming a parliamentary representative. Indeed, who else could have imagined that a bare-footed rat bag running round the camp would have ended up in this place. However, here I am, and I hope what I learnt as a kid and later in my working life will continue to inform and inspire me in this place.

The first thing I learnt is the importance of family and community. That means learning about my Waanyi heritage through my father’s side and, much later, of my Warrumungu descent, long hidden from me as my mother was taken away as a young Aboriginal girl in Tennant creek. It meant learning about my other relations and friends of the family at the Parap Camp and beyond. It meant in the context of old Darwin knocking around with kids from a variety of different ethnic backgrounds including the Greek, Italian and Chinese communities.

It was when I grew up and started work, first as a labourer and truck driver, my eyes were opened to a life in which I left behind the simple pleasures of childhood. They were opened to the many instances of unfairness and inequality, particularly for Aboriginal people, that were part of Territory society in those days. It awoke in me for the first time a sense of responsibility to my people and a sense of purpose in attempting to achieve justice for my people.

After I graduated, I got to travel to many of our Aboriginal communities out bush. Sitting around the camp fire yarning with the old people and watching the faces of kids in the fire light reminded me of my own childhood and of how the lives of Aboriginal people are inextricably linked with each other through family and community. In an important sense, these links are forged by the social interaction that is symbolised by the way us mob, Aboriginal people, gather together around the camp fire.

I remember those camp fires and they are my personal light on the hill. The light on the hill, the family fire in the camp, that will show the path forward and in my darkest moments, that is the image I return to. My work here in this place finds inspiration in that simplest of human activities: gathering around the camp fire in the companionship of family and community, yarning about the past, talking about the present and finding hope for all of us in the future.

Many words have been said in this Assembly in the years since Self-Government about the state of indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. Some of those words have been said with good will and great knowledge, some with hostility, some with plain ignorance. Yet for all those words, for all those debates over the years, today we must acknowledge some brutal truths about the situation that is faced by Aboriginal Territorians.

Aboriginal Territorians are facing a stark crisis. To say anything else would be to lie, and I believe that now is the time for the truth to be told. We cannot – indeed, must not – continue to gild the lily about what is happening on our communities. The lack of transparency about what is happening on our communities is not an indictment of any particular political tendency. Rather, it is an indictment of all governments of all colours over recent decades.

What I am saying here today is aimed at indigenous as well as non-indigenous Territorians. For years, Aboriginal people have been saying that their communities are facing disaster, but not just because of a lack of government resources. Many, many Aboriginal people acknowledge that the rot lies within their own communities: the high rates of sexual assault, domestic and other violence are no more acceptable to Aboriginal people than they are to anyone else.

Aboriginal people feel enormous shame at the anti-social behaviour of their countrymen and women, of drunks and beggars in the streets, and of the lack of will from so many Aboriginal people to take charge of their own lives.

As an Aboriginal person myself, I feel no good when people are hassled and humbugged as they enter shops. I want those Aboriginal people to become a part of our society instead of existing on the fringes. Aboriginal people in the Territory must escape from the cargo cult mentality of government doing everything for them, of relying on the empty rhetoric of playing the victim. Aboriginal organisations must bite the bullet and develop new, innovative strategies to overcome the cancerous ideology of despair.

The other side of that coin is that the government, in partnership with Aboriginal people, must allow the development of forms of governance that allow Aboriginal people the power to control their lives and communities. There is no turning back. The Martin Labor government will not be party to deceiving the Northern Territory electorate. We will tell it like it is, openly and frankly, to both indigenous and non-indigenous citizens from the city to the bush.

The simple fact is that it is almost impossible to find a functional Aboriginal community anywhere in the Northern Territory. I don’t just mean the 10 or 15 communities that my department tells me that, at any one stage, are managerial or financial basket cases. The fact that a community may not get their quarterly statements in on time is only a part of the story.

I am talking of the dysfunction that is endemic through virtually all of our communities, both in towns and the bush. We cannot pretend that a community is functional when half the kids don’t go to school because they have been up most of the night coping with drunken parents, or because they themselves have been up all night sniffing petrol.

We cannot imagine that a community is functional where less than one in ten people can read or write. Or where people are too ill through chronic disease or substance abuse to hold onto a job let alone receive training. Or where kids are born with illnesses that have largely disappeared from most of the third world and those who survive into adulthood can be expected to die two decades earlier than their non-indigenous counterparts. Or where only 14% of our kids reach year 12 compared to 80% of their non-indigenous brothers and sisters in the cities and major towns.

Madam Speaker, it is a downward spiral of despair for far too many of our fellow Territorians. A spiral of being ill before birth, of being poorly fed in childhood, of being deaf at school. Of a life without work that would be cut short by a litany of disease and violence. For far too many people each week that goes by it is not marked with the simple joys of living but with the need to organise funerals.

I am not suggesting that these problems are unique to the Northern Territory but one cannot escape the conclusion that things here are markedly worse for indigenous people than in most other areas of the nation. On virtually every measure, Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory are at the bottom of the socioeconomic heap. Indeed, according to the Commonwealth Grants Commission, on nearly every measure the Northern Territory remote ATSIC regions demonstrate amongst the greatest relative needs of any indigenous groups in Australia. The list of statistics demonstrating the dysfunction in our indigenous communities is staggering. So much so that when counting them here in any detail would be pointless. There have been a thousand reports and a hundred inquiries to the point where it is easy to become numb to reality and incapable of acting but we must not remain numb or blind. We must act.

There are two imperatives as to why we must respond to the crisis I have outlined. Firstly, if we do not begin to turn this spiral of hopelessness around, the Northern Territory will cease to function as anything other than a financial basketcase itself. As my colleague, the minister for Health, has already pointed out in this place the increased financial burden of indigenous ill health threatens to blow out the economy faster than it can grow. Renal disease alone has been doubling every four years and threatens to take 56% of our current annual hospital budget and this in a jurisdiction where we already spend nearly half our hospital budget on acute care -more than any other state or Territory. As it is, the hospital separation rate indigenous people is 460% higher than for non-indigenous citizens of the Northern Territory and higher than anywhere else in Australia.

As my colleague, the minister for Education, pointed out in this place last week the economic cost of poor educational outcomes among indigenous citizens of the Territory is immense both in direct and opportunity costs. The enormous growth in the number of non-indigenous people living on Aboriginal communities in the last quarter century is directly attributable to the rise and demands and complexities of administration coupled with an almost complete abandonment by government in providing the fundamentals of education and training required for indigenous people to be running their own affairs. If we do not turn things around for our indigenous citizens we risk the creation of a permanent underclass for which future generations, both indigenous and non-indigenous, will pay potentially overwhelming economic social and political costs.

Secondly, we must act on the basis of the principles of social justice to which the Martin Labor government has committed itself, and on which we will be judged. The objectives of that social justice policy include equity in which all citizens of the Northern Territory receive a fair distribution of economic resources and power. Equality of rights in which equal effective and comprehensive rights are available to all our people. Access to essential services in which there is a fair access to employment, education, training, transport, health care, housing and child care. Access to information so as to protect privacy as well as ensure freedom of information and the rights to full participation in social and community decision making which affects our citizens.

Madam Speaker, what this means to indigenous people of the Northern Territory is that policy will be for the first time in our history informed by principles of inclusion rather than the past policies that have contributed to exclusion and inequality. Social justice for the Martin government is not an empty phrase but a major cornerstone of our approach to good government.

For indigenous communities equity will mean building their capacity to engage in the economy in a meaningful way and investing in their own future. For these people equality will be gauged by how effectively they can exert their rights as citizens of the Northern Territory. Access to essential services so long limited or denied indigenous Territorians; we will give them the tools to achieve real advancement for themselves and their children. Access to information will allow informed decision making about their own communities that will enable indigenous people to develop strategic solutions to the problems they face and all of this will enhance and confirm the capacity of indigenous citizens of the Northern Territory to fully participate in the economic, social and political life of the Territory, from within their own communities through to the work of parliament.

Indeed, the critical importance of developing economic partnerships with Aboriginal people is a focus of last year’s Economic Summit and has been endorsed by the Martin Labor government as a key to the future development of the Northern Territory.

Madam Speaker, since self-government successive government in the Northern Territory has seen various forms of local government as the primary interface between Aboriginal community members, their representative structures and government agencies. The primary focus of government has been through the Local Government Act and, in particular, part 5 of the act concerning community government councils. It has been said by many people over the years that the legislation has been innovative and progressive allowing as it does for the incorporation of at least some traditional decision making structures in the constitutions and operations of these councils.

It has also been said by many people over the years that the community government council structures have allowed Aboriginal people on those communities the freedom to make decisions about a very broad range of services that are provided on their communities. It has been said also that these structures have allowed the potential for great strides towards self determination.

All of this may well be true, but I believe we must now openly and honestly acknowledge that the community government process has failed in these objectives. In fact, as documents generated by my own department reveal, there is still considerable suspicion of local government across much of the Territory. The fact that many communities have refused to incorporate under the Territory Local Government Act is testament to this and there is no point in blaming the land councils for this. The two largest land councils, for better or worse, in the large part, advocated the field of local government 15 years ago and, as for local government generating the capacity for self-determination, where’s the results? As I have mentioned before, at any one point in time, a significant number of community government councils are in dire straits, and virtually every one of the other local government structures in the Territory are heavily dependent on external support by government agencies and their officers. None are self-reliant financially or structurally, and as government subsidies have shrunk or been frozen, their capacity for self-determination has withered. Local government in the Northern Territory, as the principal focus of service delivery, or interfaced with other service deliverers in the Northern Territory, has failed abjectly in improving people’s lives.

As I have outlined above, the lot of Aboriginal people is to sit at the bottom of the socioeconomic heap, and on some health and employment measures, their situation is getting worse. A fundamental reason for this failure is the complete lack of local economies providing the basis of productive activity and wage labour on Aboriginal communities in both town and bush.

The long term economic basis of Aboriginal communities cannot rely on welfare supporting whole populations. It is critical that regional strategies be developed to provide the basis for local and regional economic development. The local government reform and development agenda announced by the previous government in November 1998 was not just an exercise in saving money by reducing the number of councils, it was an acknowledgement of failure.

This is not an attack on the hundreds of Aboriginal people who have, through their councils, attempted and continue to try to make it work. It is not an attack on the hardworking members of the public service who, for much of the time, saw the ideas and policy proposals crushed by the ideological position of the previous government, nor is it a criticism of officers of the Local Government Association of the Northern Territory who have endeavoured so hard to build effective local government on Aboriginal communities.

I believe there are three major reasons for these failures, and these reasons point to a long term strategy towards a solution in local governments on Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. Firstly, the field of local government on Aboriginal communities has for too long been a politicised battlefield in an attempt not to improve people’s lives, but to win the hearts and minds of Aboriginal voters. Previous governments used Aboriginal local government as a part of their trench warfare against the Land Rights Act, and used special purpose grants as political carrots around election times. Secondly, the Aboriginal community councils have been given far too much to do. Bob Beadman, former head of local government, and a very experienced public servant in Aboriginal affairs, pointed out on a number of occasions that Aboriginal community government councils have administrative responsibilities that far outweigh those of the Darwin City Council. Thirdly, Aboriginal community government councils have been grossly under-resourced in carrying out those responsibilities. I am not just talking money here, though the previous policy of encouraging ever greater numbers of community government councils has meant the same amount of money has had to be divided between more and more communities – I am also talking about human resources.

Dramatically increased accountability requirements from both the Commonwealth and Territory have exacerbated the need for highly skilled and dedicated council staff. As we all know, it is extremely hard to recruit and retain such staff in remote areas, and we all know the other side of this coin. There have been any number of incompetent or crooked people working for Aboriginal communities and, as the Collins Report pointed out, there was no effective strategy by the previous government to supply the education and training necessary for Aboriginal people to run their own lives, let alone the complexities of the local government councils.

For those dedicated and committed people working out on the communities in partnership with Aboriginal people, this has been doubly frustrating as they have watched the fruits of their work wither away due to malign neglect and indifference on the part of former governments. The reform and development agenda in local government is nearly four years old. In the Tiwi Islands local government, it has only a single run of the board, and since I have come to this ministry, the Tiwi Islands local government has had to have financial controllers put in place amidst an atmosphere of widespread discontentment and with the amalgamation, and the reason why – it was too rushed, and it was pushed through too quickly.

It is my intention that the reform and development agenda be completely re-cast to look at regional government issues relating to specific service delivery functions, rather than narrowly looking at the amalgamation of community government councils. What this means is, firstly, a whole of government, whole of community partnership in our approach to regional service delivery. Government agencies will be required, at a regional as well as Territory level, to work together with indigenous people and their representative organisations in the efficient and equitable distribution of resources and services.

The Martin Labor government will be developing this whole of government, whole of community approach across all government functions, and will be putting financial and managerial mechanisms into place to ensure the success of these partnerships between the government and the people of the Northern Territory. It also means that we must focus on building the capacity of Aboriginal people and their representative organisations through the recognition of such organisations as fundamental building blocks in regional economic, social and political development in the Northern Territory, as well as being accountable to their constituents with equitable distribution of resources.

At the same time, whenever appropriate and practicable, funds pooling arrangements within service delivery functions should be encouraged, such that funds from all sources in different government agencies, Territory and Commonwealth, are pooled in a single purpose regional service delivery fund. We must also adopt an emphasis on needs-based rather than submission-based funding of services supplied to indigenous communities and, critically, we must ensure the maintenance of local autonomy on our communities within a framework of regional service delivery.

I am not talking vague theory here. We have a number of models in the Northern Territory that have enjoyed levels of success. The Indigenous Housing Authority NT, commonly known as IHANT, in particular, with the recent evolution of the Papunya model of regional service delivery in housing construction, repair and maintenance, linked with employment and training, is one such model. Another is that of coordinator care trials, such as the Katherine West Health Board. The Katherine West Health Board experience has shown that capacity building in communities is absolutely vital.

Building on these trials, as well as the wealth of experience of Aboriginal community controlled health services, the Northern Territory Aboriginal Health Forum is extending this idea of regional health service delivery and enhanced emphasis on primary health care. The forum, a partnership between the Northern Territory, the Commonwealth, the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance of the Northern Territory and ATSIC, is a good example to the whole nation of a successful model of working together for a common cause. Each of these models fulfils the objectives I have outlined above. They work on the basis of having strong and effective Aboriginal input and control. Each works on the basis of pooled funds, so as to achieve economies of scale, and each works on the basis of closely identifying need. Much more work has to be done in strengthening the work of such organisations through a whole-of-government, whole-of-community approach. There will be broader liaison, at regional officer level, with other agencies such as education, police, sport and recreation, and the arts.

IHANT, Katherine West and the Northern Territory Aboriginal Health Forum provide models for the kinds of organisations that may develop to take on other functions throughout the Northern Territory. Federated – not necessarily amalgamated – community government councils may well take up these challenges in some regions. Service function specific bodies may evolve in other areas. The emphasis of the Martin government will be on flexibility and workability rather than the narrowly prescriptive approach that has previously existed in approaches to community governance and indigenous development.

I must emphasise that the sheer scale of the problems will mean that progress will be slow. Indeed, in some areas we are looking at the need for generational change and not quick fixes. I would like now to announce important initiatives that will make contributions to the approach of the Martin Labor government in indigenous affairs:

(1) An extended role by IHANT: To complement the renewal this year of IHANT bilateral agreement with the Commonwealth through ATSIC, the government has transferred responsibility for essential services provision to my Department of Community Development, Sport and Cultural Affairs. Negotiations have commenced with ATSIC to achieve greater coordination in housing and infrastructure, planning and delivery, especially in remote areas. There is the potential to achieve better outcomes, from the full range of indigenous housing and infrastructure funding to link planning and priority setting in this area to regional planning and development, and to achieve sustainable training and employment for local residents.

(2) Indigenous knowledge centres: The maintenance and transmission of knowledge is of critical importance to any culture. Libraries have come to represent the prime repository of knowledge in our society, but with the advent of the IT revolution the shape of libraries is rapidly changing. It is for this reason that I have directed my department to immediately embark on developing proposals for the establishment of indigenous knowledge centres on a number of Aboriginal communities. These are designed to make full use of a range of multimedia technologies in the delivery of training information and content creation, to better accommodate differences of cultures based on oral, visual traditions. The ability to create online content and provide materials to remote locations, has the capacity to build e-commerce through the dissemination of indigenous knowledge. Two communities, Galiwinku and the Anmatjere Community Government Council are well advanced in this development.

(3) Training and development for frontline housing staff: The Chief Minister has consistently committed the government to support for our hardworking public servants. They are, I believe, the backbone of good government. It is for this reason that my department is committed to ongoing training and career advancement for staff. Frontline staff in Territory Housing will be eligible to receive accredited training through the Northern Territory University in public housing management. By improving the skills of frontline staff and by developing their capacity to identify innovative and creative solutions in service delivery, they will be better able to meet the diverse needs of indigenous clients.

In a first for Australia, this will be on-the-job training utilising an e-learning program called ‘Blackboard’. This initiative will boost the level of base-level frontline staff from AO2 to broad-band AO2-AO3. As officers progress through off-the-job training and the acquisition of on-the-job skills, pay levels will increase commensurately.

(4) Community capacity building in developing regional agreements: The Martin Labor government is committed to achieving workable regional agreements, particularly in the area of service delivery. The development of regional agreements must not be a ‘top down’ process, but one driven by indigenous people. My department has set aside $600 000 immediately, and for the next two years, to assist representative organisations within regions to build the capacity to negotiate to achieve the best possible outcomes in regional partnership agreements. There are currently many people in regions who will be able to negotiate, to great effect, with the government. There are also regions where there may not be people who will be readily able to negotiate the best possible arrangements for their people, at least not without assistance.

It is not the intention to be too rigid, for the moment, about what projects or activities might be funded under this initiative, and we appreciate that there may be different needs between regions. However, it’s important that, when people come to the table, they are in the best possible position to negotiate arrangements for which they, and those they represent, are prepared to be held accountable.

In conclusion, the initiatives I’ve outlined are but small steps along a very long road, but it is how I intend to act as a minister in the Martin Labor government, putting into place concrete, constructive actions rather than playing the political game of headline seeking. My mission, through these concrete actions, is to contribute to real improvement in the lives of indigenous citizens of the Northern Territory.

Fellow members of the Assembly, the time has come to focus our attention on a society here in the Northern Territory that has, at it’s core, the ideas of social justice. As I have said, social justice is not an empty phrase; it’s a fundamental development principle which includes economic development as well as social advancement.

In this context, it’s worth noting that the cooperative arrangement between the Northern Territory and ATSIC in the field of indigenous housing, doesn’t just achieve better and healthier housing for our people, but it is a major economic stimulus to our economy. In the current year, the impact of this program alone, will be $72.4m. Next year it will come to approximately $79m. Clearly, this benefits all members of the Northern Territory society, as well as our economy. It’s not good enough, as so many people have done over the years, to speak of indigenous Territorians as the ‘other’, as ‘them’, as ‘the problem’. As an Aboriginal citizen of the Northern Territory, it’s an attitude I have long been aware of, and it is something that has often angered me.

Rather than seeing Aboriginal people as being ‘the problem’, the Martin Labor government understands that solutions will be found through inclusive policies guided by the principles of social justice, and not policies that exclude or deny a rightful place at the table for more than a quarter of our population

The Northern Territory has a proud tradition of electing Aboriginal members of parliament. It is a vital part of the development of the democratic traditions here in the Territory. The fact that we now have four indigenous members of parliament can be a source of pride to all Territorians as we move beyond the politics of exclusion towards an open, just society.

Madam Speaker, I began this statement talking about what inspires me to work in this place. Much of that inspiration comes from my life and experiences as an Aboriginal person, but it is also nourished by my friendships with so many Territorians who come from different non-indigenous backgrounds. I am working to a future where we might all gather around the campfire in the companionship of family and community. In this way, each of us will no longer talk about ‘them’ or the ‘other’. Instead, we will use the phrase ‘us mob’ and that will include all of us.

Members: Hear, hear!

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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