by Charlie Ward
I recently travelled to several remote communities and small towns in the Northern Territory. In each place I spoke to the locals and was told that “things are going backward now,” that “there is no work for us anymore,” and that “we can’t do anything, the shire does it all.” Without exception, the mood was bad, varying only between depressed and angry. The reason for this is that several large policy shifts and reversals by the Northern Territory and Federal Governments in the last few years are now starting to impact severely on remote Territorians.
Both governments have rejected almost forty years of self-determination policy direction and are now withdrawing funding and services, "mainstreaming" service provision to these areas, and leaving residents to take their employment chances in the "real economy".
Some of these policy shifts were implemented as part of the Northern Territory Emergency Response launched by the Howard Government and perpetuated under Rudd and Gillard, though many were not. The national Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) program has been one notable casualty, and this was causing the most despair among the Territorians I spoke to.
The CDEP was created more than thirty years ago to provide subsidised employment opportunities in places where little work exists. The program provided work activities and jobs to some eight thousand people in remote Northern Territory communities for decades. Over the last year, however, up to two hundred and fifty CDEP positions have been axed from each of community, with only a handful of "real jobs" having replaced them. This has resulted in a government-caused direct increase in unemployment of 80 per cent. One old man I spoke with, a hard-working friend, was livid with frustration.
Similarly, in the past, government funded the creation and maintenance of outstations - small housing clusters where about 15 per cent of the Northern Territory’s Indigenous population live. The work required to maintain outstations was often done using CDEP-funded labour. Funding to outstations outside selected areas is now also a thing of the past, a factor which, in time, will force residents to move elsewhere.
On top of these changes, the local government councils or associations of each community have been absorbed into nine new centralised "shires" which now provide local government services - often to an area bigger than Tasmania. Twenty Territory "growth towns" have also been named, although the fine print of the growth towns policy doesn’t actually include provision for their growth.
Sixteen of the designated communities will receive a number of new houses from the huge Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP), provided they sign their land over to the government to hold in forty year leases, however most communities will receive no additional SIHIP house funding. For the lucky ones that do, the housing shortfall is so severe that, at best, the new SIHIP-funded houses will simply reduce overcrowding somewhat (down from fifteen people to ten people per house, say), rather than provide sufficient accommodation for an increasing town population. In most cases the SIHIP money will be used merely to upgrade neglected housing stock. Similarly, the growth towns policy promises only to provide the sorts of services that are taken for granted in towns of the same size anywhere else in Australia.
In both cases, population growth due to economic migration (caused by remote area unemployment) is not being planned for. This is inexcusable when we also consider that natural trends (for example, in many remote NT communities up to 50 per cent of the population is under age 25) mean that the number of people migrating to larger centres is already set to go through the roof in the coming decades.
To summarise: safe houses, reliable maps, working plumbing and internet connections for a lucky few. This is progress perhaps, but are we meant to applaud it?
But what now for the eight thousand newly unemployed former CDEP workers? There are many men and women in the bush who have worked hard their whole adult lives and their anger at the indignity of their situation is real and justified. It will soon turn into toxic despair.
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