Wadeye township
Wadeye township

I’ve written here recently about the fantastic (in the original sense of that word) approach that The Australian and its dwindling number of northern correspondents take to just about anything to do with Aboriginal affairs here in the NT.

This past weekend The Weekend Australian continued this dubious tradition when it ran this piece from its northern correspondent, Nicolas Rothwell.

Rothwell examines apparently new economic and governance developments at the troubled remote township of Wadeye, in the west of the NT’s Top End.

And Rothwell, after many years in the NT, has apparently finally realised what anyone with any experience in remote Australia would have found out a long time ago – that Wadeye, like most small townships in the NT, and elsewhere – is a town that is “mostly ordered and peaceful”.

If you take the assertions in Rothwells piece at face value you would think that the good citizens of Wadeye had turned their backs on all forms of Australian mainstream governance and were boldly charting a course of their own, free from the controls imposed by Australian governments at all levels.

As Rothwell says:

“…what bureaucracy gives, it can also take away. Not only did the federal intervention of mid-2007 sweep through Wadeye; the Thamarrurr local council was wound up as the Northern Territory unveiled its new regional shires. The council, though, gave birth to a new Thamarrurr Development Corporation, which was bolstered by strong support from the Rudd government. The upshot of this administrative upheaval was a deepened desire among the Wadeye leadership group to pursue their own path.

“The idea aims to assert control over their own region and in time to supplant the long-established Northern Land Council, which is widely seen as a moribund arm of the Territory Labor Party. “We will set up our own council,” Nganbe says bluntly. TDC’s Berto says: “There’s a lot of people here not happy with the NLC and its complete lack of service, and its standing in the way of progress. We want to set the political agenda from the ground.”

And notwithstanding the brief reference to “strong support” from the Rudd government, Rothwell reckons that the people of Wadeye:

“…don’t like the deal on offer from mainstream Australia’s authorities. They want to keep their own culture, they want economic development and they want it on their own terms, under their control.”

What Rothwell is of course talking about here is localised Aboriginal self-determination, an aspiration that he has frequently, and as recently as six weeks ago, condemned to the dustbin of Australian political history:

“For some time it has been clear Aboriginal self-determination has had its day.”

Due credit should be given to the good citizens of Wadeye for getting their act together in what are incredibly difficult circumstances. By all accounts they have established a range of business enterprises that will provide real jobs and offer economic opportunities to locals.

Rothwell implies that the people of Wadeye have achieved these successes in spite of the bureaucratic and administrative barriers set up by governments at every turn. But it may be that a few inconvenient facts – for Rothwell’s thesis at least – might explain a somewhat different basis for some of Wadeye’s recent successes.

The bureaucracies that Rothwell says have taken so much from the people of Wadeye with one hand have been very busy giving bucketloads of money to the recently-established Thamarrurr Development Corporation Ltd (the TDC) with the other.

The TDC is a non-profit commercial operation limited by guarantee with no shareholders – just members that represent the 20 clan groups of the Wadeye region.

In the 2008/2009 round of funding for the Indigenous Heritage Program announced on 7 July 2008, the TDC was given two grants to a total of $62,704 for “the investigation and management of cultural heritage” of the Thamarrurr region.

On 8 October 2008 Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin announced that TDC would receive $500,000 as “an establishment grant to deliver a range of business services” to the Wadeye region.

At it’s meeting of 10 February 2009, the Victoria Daly Shire Council (the Council), the local government body that replaced Thamarrurr’s predessor, the Thamarrurr Regional Council, passed the following Motion:

“That Council agrees to lease for one dollar ($1.00) to Thamarrurr Development Corporation for the period from the 10th of February 2009 to the 7th of December 2009 all non – fixed assets.”

At the following meeting on 7 April 2009, the Council, in the course of the Confirmation of the Minutes of the previous meeting, amended that Motion:

“The minutes of the ordinary meeting, item (8) TDC were amended with a further dot point
added, saying that if all the above conditions were met the vehicles would then be sold to the TDC for the sum of $1.00. The minutes were  then taken as read and accepted as a true record of the Meeting.”

The value of the assets leased to the TDC for $1, according to the Report provided to Council, was $760,073.

According to the same report, the insured value of the vehicles to be sold to Tharmarrurr upon it meeting Council’s conditions was $482,273.

You can read the Minutes of Council meetings and the Report from Council staff for yourself here.

On 4 March 2009, by joint press release Minister Macklin and Member for Lingiari, Warren Snowdon announced that TDC would receive a total of $650,000 to provide painting services and the purchase of civil construction machinery.

On 11 June 2009, in another joint press release, Snowdon and Macklin announced that TDC would receive a total of $1.422 million to purchase a mobile concrete batching plant and to provide accommodation for “key staff” at Wadeye.

As the ABC reported last month, the Thamarrurr Association, (also based at Wadeye but a separate entity to the TDC) following representations from then NT Indigenous Policy Minister Alison Anderson, received a $250,000 grant from the NT government in circumstances yet to be fully explained:

“Ms Anderson secured $250,000 of taxpayer funds for a corporation run by the powerful Yunupingu family in Arnhem Land, including Galarrwuy Yunupingu. The only other organisation to get $250,000 for community consultation is the Thamarrur Association at Wadeye, which has never declared an income before. The Government has not announced the payments and is yet to explain how the companies were selected. It says the money will pay for consultation on the Working Futures policy to help the Government get its service delivery right.”

I’ve not yet been able establish any direct connection between the TDC and the Thamarrurr Association – other than that they both do the same kind of business in the same small town.

On my back-of the-envelope reckoning the TDC has received control over $760,000 worth of assets for the bargain basement price of a single dollar from their local Council and, including the grant to the Thamarrurr Association, close enough to $3.5 million from the NT and Federal governments.

Not bad for a group that Rothwell says, “…don’t like the deal on offer from mainstream Australia.”

And what of the assertions in Rothwell’s article by TDC’s John Berto of the Northern Land Council’s “…complete lack of service, and its standing in the way of progress” at Wadeye?

John Berto should know all about the NLC and service delivery at Wadeye. After all, he had been a long-term employee of the NLC and for a period up to late 2006 he was the NLC’s Deputy CEO.

But Rothwell and Berto would also be aware of the benefits to the Traditional Owners of the Wadeye region (and beyond) resulting from the NLC’s negotiations on their behalf over the Blacktip gas plant and pipeline.

The deal negotiated by the NLC has given, and will provide into the future, significant economic and social benefits to the traditional owners and residents of the Wadeye region.

Indeed, there is every appearance that Rothwell consciously excluded these well-known and readily available facts from his piece because they did not support his oft-repeated spurious claims about the NLC. I found all of the material noted above after about ten minutes of searching on the web and a bit of scurrying about in the backblocks of various websites.

Rothwell ends his piece with a dubious comparison between Longreach in far-western Queensland and Wadeye, implying that Wadeye should be accorded the same services, government support and facilities as Longreach.

Longreach is a service centre in a region with a long history of extensive & highly productive mining, pastoral and agricultural activity. It is also has roads that lead from somewhere to somewhere else.

Wadeye services only itself and a few small homelands. It is at the wrong end of a long and rough road in a region with no history of pastoral, agricultural or any other significant development – apart from the above-mentioned Blacktip gas project.

Pity about those annoying facts getting in the way of a fantastic story.

Declaration: Bob Gosford has worked for the Northern Land Council as a legal advisor, most recently in 2008. He had no involvement in matters at Wadeye apart from a single meeting with an early version of the Thamarrurr council in about 2000.

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