Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Of Aboriginal hubs and rims

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STOLEN

Work of Hazel McKinnon, wife of Bob Randall

The Stolen Generations haunts black Australia.  It haunts some white Australians as well.  When the Howard Government announced The Intervention in 2007, memories of child removal methodology informed the initial response within black communities in the Northern Territory.  These same memories have been articulated in response to the Northern Territory Government's plans to focus on twenty 'hub' communities.  

Nyinkkanyinu is a Town Camp in Tennant Creek.
The signs below are at the entrace to the Town Camp.
Town Camps in one sense are gated communities.
I wonder how they upper end of the socio-economic scale
would welcome signs like these at the entrance of their gated homes.

Governance in remote Australia for black and white communities is problematic.  Remote Australia is out of sight and out of mind of the populous urban fringes - most of whom have no connection to and have never lived in remote Australia.  I have been speaking out for remote Australia, black and white,  since I first took up residence there in 1977.  

I once recall a couple of us in Mount Isa in north-west Queensland speaking to a visiting capital city dignitary on needs in the north-west.  He remarked on how outspoken we were.  I always recall our community health nurse saying "We have to shout to be heard".  For myself, I always felt like it was shouting to be heard over the Great Dividing Range which separated The Outback from the coast.  

But bad as it might be for some whitefella communities, the neglect has been much worse for black communities.  In all my years, the best material I have read on living conditions in remote Australia is by Lieutenant General John Sanderson AC when he delivered the 2007 Annual Oration of the Order of Australia Association. Please download the speech and John Sanderson's bio here.

While ignorance and ineptness and vested interest impacts negatively on the governance of remote Australia, real difficulties should not be overlooked.  We are talking about sparse population in remote areas separated by huge distances.  For myself, I have difficulty in thinking of Victoria as a state.  Because of the distances I am used to in Northern Australia, I think everything within the bounds of Victoria's borders is a suburb of Melbourne.  

A lot of remote Australia is within a harsh arid environment with extremes of heat and, in the lower latitudes, chilly winters.  Water - and its relative, sanitation - is an issue for most remote communities in arid zones.  Recycling can be next to impossible because material needs to be transported to large centres, if not interstate.  

And speaking of transport.  Everything related to transport is an issue - delivery of health and other professional services; prices for everything and the time taken to order and receive anything; roads - and if there are any, bitumen or gravel, maintenance.  In fact, some Outback communities have had to give up bitumen roads - believe it or not - because they can't afford the maintenance.  They have found that it makes more sense to have an affordable, maintainable gravel road than a pot-holed bitumen road which they can't afford to maintain regularly. 

And housing - the only housing developer in these areas is a government housing authority, if it still exists and provides social housing.  And education - the post is already long enough and that topic is too complex for a limited space.  But by now, I hope you are getting the picture.

That is the generality - now translate that down a few rungs to Aboriginal communities afflicted by poverty, substance abuse, poor health, lack of sporting and leisure facilities, and lack of opportunity.

So we are left with limited and limiting government budgets and city based bureaucrats and politicians (most are not from the remote areas) to manage equitable policies.  Are we licked before we start?  This is the political reality - irrespective of which party is in government.

Now to the current issue - the Northern Territory government is to focus on twenty community hubs.  Controversial though this may be, I support the concept in principle and I will read with interest reports due out to-day which will give more information about what the NT government has in mind.  Economic development is badly needed to undergird any progress in Aboriginal disadvantage - and I am not trying to sound like Noel Pearson.  Enforced poverty provides little benefit.  Economic progress provides much.

How does a government (hopefully working with the private sector and properly consulting with the communities which it seeks to serve) bring some semblance of equity into this situation?  Firstly, it is impossible to do it in each and every homeland across The Territory for the reasons stated above.  I take on board the comments of Professor Jon Altman but I am also conscious of Bismarck's  famous quote - Politics is the art of the possible.  

Surely, the imperative of economic development demands a focus on the larger communities.

My view, though, is that the people in the homelands must not be ignored.  In short, I support the 'hub' focus while providing strategies to enable ease of contact with those who have homelands interests.  In short, the hub should be seen as either the centre of a network, a spider's web.  Or it should be seen as the hub of a wheel with spokes radiating to an outer rim.  The rim in this analogy would represent the homelands and the spokes would represent easy access from homeland to hub.  

Practically, it might mean that Monday to Friday people might live in the hub to access professional services, health services, schools and so on.  Week-ends would see an exodus to homelands.  White commuter communities operate this way - and so do many Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory who may reside in major centres like Tennant Creek or Katherine and then "go bush" at weekends.  

When I read to-day's reports, I will be reading them with an eye on whether they have the scenarios of whitefellas charging like a bull at a gate or whether there will be an attempt to reach accommodation with diverse Aboriginal nations and communities across The Territory.

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