Alison Anderson. Photo: ABC
Alison Anderson. Photo: ABC

Seems like I’m always driving on the Stuart Highway when “Big Things” are announced in the NT.

Two years ago I was driving the 800 kilometres from Yuendumu to Ti-Tree when the the Prime Minister John Howard and his Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough, launched their “NT Intervention”, an extraordinary and failed attempt at social engineering on a massive scale.

This week I was driving from Adelaide to Alice Springs while the latest folly unfolded.

On Wednesday this week NT Minister for Indigenous Policy Alison Anderson and her embattled Chief Minister Paul Henderson announced their newest attempt at recovering the failed administration that is the NT: Working Future – Remote Service Delivery.

Back in 2007  the NT intervention was justified by the straw man of the drunken Aboriginal male sexual predator that was apparently preying on Aboriginal women and children in all remote NT townships.

Many knew this to be a lie from the start but Howard, Brough and their running dogs in the press weren’t about to let reality get in the way of a political beat-up.

And it seems that the only real success of the NT Intervention, apart from lining the pockets of several hundred southern public servants and the hire car companies, has been to fill the NT’s jails to capacity – as the ABC reported yesterday:

Increased policing under the federal intervention in the Northern Territory has led to a dramatic rise in the number of people being sent to jail, a Senate inquiry into remote Indigenous communities has heard. The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency told the inquiry, which is being held in Darwin, that the Northern Territory now hands out three times more prison sentences than the national averageA Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service officer, Mark O’Reilly, says there has been an increase in police charging people with a range of offences but the penalties were mostly jail terms or fines, with very little in between.

The director of the Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission, Suzan Cox, QC, has told the inquiry she has not seen a sentence for a community work order in a remote community in years. “I haven’t seen anyone do a community work order for years. “They just don’t get them.”

And now, almost two years down the track, the NT Government has released Working Future – Remote Service Delivery, a plan that envisages a utopian future of jobs, education and prosperity for Aboriginal people living in remote communities.

As Lindsay Murdoch revealed earlier this week in The Age:

Thousands of Aborigines living on their remote Northern Territory homelands will be forced to move to larger communities to receive key government services in a radical shake-up of indigenous policy. The NT Government is set to announce that 20 communities will be developed into regional economic hubs with a wide range of government services such as housing, schools and clinics. But about 580 smaller communities will be deprived of many government services, threatening the fruits of what became known in the 1970s as the homelands movement when thousands of Aboriginal people moved back to their ancestral lands.

Lets be clear on one thing – the policy behind this brave new world for remote townships in the NT was not an original idea of the NT Government, Minister Anderson, her advisors or anyone else north of Canberra – no-one in Henderson’s now-marginal, single-seat majority government has the intellectual or moral wit, rigour or vigour to think outside of the prevailing  assimilationist paradigm that now runs in Australia’s management of indigenous affairs.

This policy comes straight out of the Canberra office of Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin, and the chief drivers of this, and similar policies in her office is her left-hand man, senior advisor Mike Dillon and a group of like-minded cronies.

As Lindsay Murdoch noted in The Age, Working Futures – Remote Service Delivery will:

…bring the Northern Territory into line with the Federal Government, which announced in March that only selected larger communities would benefit from initial funding in a 10-year program to build 4200 houses in remote indigenous communities across Australia. Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin said at the time the Government would, as a first step, bring selected communities up to a standard equivalent to other non-indigenous towns of similar size in Australia.

And just what is the brave new world that Working Futures – Remote Service Delivery will bring?

All new policies need a few hooks to lock into the public’s five-second attention span – a few catch phrases and key words. Minister Anderson revealed a few of her favourites in an opinion piece published in The Australian – “the dripping tap of dependency“, “reservoirs of opportunity“, “gaps sealed by equality, respect and shared responsibility“, and most bizarre of all “Territory Growth Towns“, which, Minister Anderson, or more likely her flowery ghost writer, tells us will be “proper towns“.

Territory Growth Towns will:

…not be black towns or white towns – they will be proper towns. They will have town plans; secure land tenure; private investment; integrated transport links; high schools; police stations; hospitals; cafes and recreation facilities. Strategically placed, they will be the service delivery centres for the vast majority of Aboriginal people living in the bush. From this day forward, we will move with urgency to build our Territory Growth Towns – our reservoirs of opportunity – in partnership with the federal Government, remote shire councils and, most importantly, local Aboriginal people.

Anderson’s utopian “Growth Towns” will come at a substantial cost to the many small homeland communities – small remote hamlets nestled in the heartland of traditional Aboriginal lands – that will be effectively de-funded by the NT Government.

The abandonment of support by governments for people living on these remote places is nothing new – in one of its first acts in coming to power in 1996 the first Howard government removed Commonwealth support for homelands, also known as “outstations”.later they gave what little responsibility was left to the NT government – who now seem prepared to abandon them completely.

Over the intervening years many homelands have strugged to survive and some, unsurprisingly, have been abandoned. But in all corners of the NT there are small hamlets where people live close to their land – often barely connected to the economy of mainstream Australia – by choice rather than circumstance.

And the broader social vision of Anderson’s brave new Northern Territory?:

The growing and youthful populations of our remote areas will be viewed as a demand-driven opportunity rather than a sinkhole of future welfare transfers. Local people will be encouraged to own property, build wealth and establish real economic independence. As a self-governing jurisdiction, the NT is young. Through recent tumultuous events we are a little wiser and a lot more aware.

I hope you can make more sense of that gobbledygook than I can – this is a home-grown NT version of the neo-liberal ideal of the “maximised human economic unit” – each person in a society represents a notional capital value to be exploited to their maximum potential for the so-called “common good”.

There is no room for any other model, i.e. welfare or what economist Jon Altman of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University calls the “indigenous hybrid economy”.

And it is the reality of this indigenous hybrid economy – which is the only reality in much of remote Australia, that the Anderson plan fails to recognise.

And by failing to recognise this reality it has sown the seeds of its own failure.

Altman and his colleagues at CAEPR have written widely on remote economic realities and this speech to The Fabian Society in 2005 provides some insights into his research and the nature of remote Aboriginal economic reality:

The hybrid economy:…this is about a three sector economy that includes the customary rather than the more conventional two sector private and public model. The hybrid economy also has four segments of articulation rather than the more conventional one.

Realistic: suggests that development needs to be context specific recognizing the very remote regions where Indigenous people own land

Sustainable: is inclusive not just of the economic but also of the ecological, recognizing that the Indigenous estate is relatively in tact and that customary activity is dependent on species; and that the socio-cultural looms large, again the customary is dependent on reproduction of practice

Development: is a term that is used in a wide sense to refer to livelihood and choice and the processes of improving well-being.

The focus here is on remote Australia where only 27 per cent of the Indigenous population resides, about 130,000 people at over 1,000 remote communities ranging in size from townships to tiny outstations. These are the most difficult of circumstances for economic development owing to remoteness…Much of my model of the hybrid economy is premised on the notion that customary non-market activity is undertaken…In this research, we referred to the hybrid economy, including the customary sector, as the real ‘real’ economy in remote Australia, because in very remote Australia only 15 per cent of Indigenous adults are in mainstream employment, 42 per cent are in CDEP employment and if one takes away CDEP then the unemployment rate increases from its current 7 per cent to 76 per cent.

These are the positives of living on country, often at outstations, of land rights and native title laws that are rarely reported.

Minister Anderson talks a lot about failure in her article in The Australian – but it is  the failures of others, not the failures of her own government, that she chooses to highlight.

Perhaps this will be be the biggest failure of all – are we witnessing the last desperate attempts of a failed government in a failed state?