There are few enough success stories here in the desert, but surely the Kurdu-Kurdu Kurlangu Childcare Centre at Yuendumu must qualify as one of the best. It provides real jobs, and real, accredited national-standard, training, to 14 local women. But maybe not for much longer – it appears that those jobs are at real risk of disappearing into thin air in two weeks, like paper bags swept up in the Yunparlara (willy-willys) that stalk the Tanami desert country at this time of year.

So much for the ‘real jobs’ rhetoric spouted by the intervention’s chief spinner, Jenny Macklin, her predecessor Mal Brough and just about every politician hungry for a column inch and a photo-opportunity that has come within a bull’s roar of the intervention.

Kurdu-Kurdu is a Warlpiri word that, according to Kirrkirr, the Warlpiri interactive dictionary, means:

Mangkurdu kujaka nguna, ngulangkaju ka kurdu-kurdu-rlangu kurdu-kurdu-pinyi, ngapangkuju; kurdu-kurdu ka pinyi, warrikirdikirdi-rlangu ka kurdulyurrulyurru-pakarni, manu katumparra-rlangu ka kurdulyurrulyurru-pakarni, ka kijirni, katumparra. Ngulajangkaju ka muku jinta-jarrimilki kurdu-kurduju ngapaju – muku ka jinta-jarri – ngulajangkaju ngapalku ka pata-karrimi – ngurrju-mani ka katumparra-juku ngapaku-ngarnti pata-karrinjaku-ngarnti.

When there are clouds, then the moisture forms many low clouds. It makes low clouds. All around it gives rise to low clouds which form all over the sky, which are made overhead. Then the ‘baby’ clouds all come together, all form a single one, and then the rain falls – the rain forms up in the sky before it actually falls down.

Kurdu-kurdu is where all the baby clouds come together.

And every working day from 8am onwards the women and the 50 to 60 baby clouds in their care gather at Kurdu-kurdu for a day of pure, inspired chaos – but that’s what childcare at Yuendumu, and just about everywhere else, is all about – organised chaos, cognitive and physical development, socialisation, regular, well-prepared food, safety, and fun…all those things that children need – every day. And the kids have been getting that in spades for the last 3 years.

Kurdu-kurdu started in 2005 at the local school as a play-centre for pre-school children. Soon, with the sponsorship of the then local community government council, the Yuendumu-Willowra CGC, it took over an empty house and has gone from strength to strength. It is now a well-resourced and staffed comprehensive child-care centre, much like those common in cities and towns across the rest of Australia.

It has developed into a ‘best-practice’ model for child-care in remote Aboriginal communities, so much so that in the 2007-2008 Reconciliation Action Plan Report, issued by Jenny Macklin’s Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Yuendumu was selected as the site for the “establishment of [an] innovative Childcare Service Hub”. That program has been transferred to the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and DEEWR advises that over $21 million has been set aside in the current Federal budget to establish 20 child-care hubs in indigenous communities like Yuendumu. The Hubs will:

“…provide child care and a quality early learning program as the core, but will also link with other local early childhood services…Access to childcare…is particularly important for Indigenous children who experience poorer life outcomes than non-Indigenous children. Indigenous early childhood development is one of three priority areas identified by the Ministerial Taskforce on Indigenous Affairs.”

But it now looks like Kurdu-kurdu may have to close its doors in two weeks – why? – well, it is a bit hard to tell at the moment, and Crikey smells the dead rat of bureaucratic blame-shifting.

Following the implementation of the NT Government’s Local Government Reforms on 1 July this year, the new Central Desert Shire took over responsibility for the administration of Kurdu-kurdu. Crikey understands that before July 1, the 14 workers at Kurdu-kurdu had been paid their wages by the local CDEP, with top-up funding allowing the workers up to 8 hours a day. This was apparently maintained by the Central Desert Shire when it took over, with the promise that Kurdu-kurdu staff would move to real jobs, and real training.

All was good – the 14 workers at Kurdu-kurdu would get some certainty in their lives and some much-needed training and support. The community would continue to get a valuable and valued service – up to the standard taken for granted elsewhere in the country.

In late August the 14 workers, and nine children, set off from Yuendumu on a professional development trip to Victoria. As the Central Desert Shire’s CEO, Rowan Foley said in a press release:

“It’s a great opportunity for our staff to experience new ideas and different ways of working with young children and to spread their own, very successful approach. The training does not only benefit the workers, it also helps with getting our youngsters ready for school and a better start in life.” Mr Foley said the Yuendumu Child Care Centre, widely regarded as a model for other Aboriginal communities, was also showing the way for Aboriginal employment in the Central Desert Shire. “We’re about growing our own Aboriginal workforce and supporting our employees with meaningful training.”

The Kurdu-kurdu workers returned from their trip full of enthusiasm and ideas that soon turned into real changes – they got a fish tank for the kids, they re-organised the building, the kids painted the walls and windows, all the workers signed up for nationally-accredited training and they had the promise of real jobs.

But this soon turned sour. On 1 October the Central Desert Shire issued a notice that was posted across Yuendumu. Out of the blue the workers and the community were told that Kurdu-kurdu would have to cut back its hours from 8 to 3 hours a day, and it is all the fault of the Federal Government. The Kurdyu-kurdu workers wouldn’t be getting their promised real jobs and faced an uncertain future on CDEP.

The next day Cecilia Alfonso, a client of the Kurdu-kurdu and the manager of one of the other real success stories from Yuendumu, Warlukurlangu Artists fired off an urgent email to CEO Foley at the Central Desert Shire, local MP Karl Hampton, and Noel Mason, the Australian Government Business Manager at Yuendumu:

“[Kurdu-kurdu] is actually doing what the intervention claims its intention is: To protect children and keep them safe…You should be celebrating its success, not tearing it down.

What happened to real pay for real jobs? All of the bloodsucking hangers on associated with the intervention who do nothing and are on crazy pay, bonuses etc…and this program has done more for the future of the children in Yuendumu than all of those people combined”

Central Desert Shire CEO Foley replied a few hours later, saying that Kurdu-kurdu:

“…operates extremely well and has the full support of the…Shire. We met with [the] DEEWR Regional Manager and her management team…We are going to continue to push for the childcare centre at Yuendumu to be adequately funded to operate Monday-Friday as it does a great job supporting the children and families.”

But Cecilia isn’t one to take such bureaucratic niceties lying down and replied:

“I am aware of the impact [this decision to reduce the hours of operation of Kurdu-kurdu] will have across the community and to the morale of the Aboriginal people who have been working there. It is like a slap in the face for all the effort they have put in, particularly after all the brouhaha about ‘real pay for real work’ No wonder the conditions out here continue to be so dismal when such inept decisions are made over and over…There seems to be plenty of money for lots of other projects which have no positive outcome.”

Kurdu-kurdu’s fate will be decided in the next few weeks – that decision will be made a long way from here – thousands of kilometres away in Canberra or 300 kilometres away in the Central Desert Shire’s base in Alice Springs. But the effect of that decision – whichever way it goes, will be felt here in Yuendumu – and if Kurdu-kurdu closes then the promises of real jobs will be just that – promises – sucked away by a Yunparlara.