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Getting positives from the negative

By David Coles - posted Monday, 9 July 2007

As a former Northern Territory public servant who spent more than 20 years dealing with policy development and program management in a range of fields relating to Indigenous people, I won’t dwell on my anger at the way the Brough-Howard plan was announced or my occasional fury at some of the ill informed commentary. Rather, I will look at what experience might tell us about the chances of success of the plan.

Success in this area requires more than dramatic statements. If the Brough-Howard plan had been put up by officers working for me I would have sent them away to come back with: a process that offered some chance of a positive result; clearly articulated outcomes that relate to the issue at hand; and an approach that set out the strategies and actions that would deliver the outcomes sought - in the context of the cross-cultural environments in which it must operate.

The environment

Shared trust and understanding are not notable characteristics of the environment in which governments - federal, territory and local - are interacting with Aboriginal people in remote communities. There, the experience is often marked by the development of expectations of government action that either never happens or takes so long that the original undertaking is long forgotten.


Some in governments find it hard to appreciate that what works in other parts of society doesn’t achieve the same traction in remote Aboriginal communities, or from one community to another.

The lack of a shared understanding is often at the heart of this lack of shared trust. Many politicians and bureaucrats seem to be unaware that the assessments and judgments they make are based on their own cultural mores. This lack of awareness is, perhaps, one thing that they do share with the Aboriginal people they seek to influence. Both “sides” appreciate that the other mob are different; neither necessarily appreciates the extent to which their own culture dictates their decisions.

Lack of shared knowledge of the systems in place creates another barrier. A politician tells an Aboriginal family “I will get you houses if you clean up your houses/get a job/send your kids to school”. The Aboriginal family knows their house is as clean as it needs to be, the kids go to school a couple of days a week and there are no jobs available. So the houses promised will come - soon. The politician flies off and the program managers move in and make the decisions they are required to on the basis of need. The houses don’t come.

The process

Contrary to some views being put, there have been successes in this environment, albeit too few. A careful process, though, is critical. Muck that up and your chances of successful outcomes are drastically diminished or destroyed.

No sensible person would deny that the situation of children in remote Indigenous communities is serious or that action is overdue. Whether the issue is sexual abuse, a more general maltreatment or a widespread failure to give every kid a chance of a reasonable quality of life, there is a need that is not being effectively addressed. I understand the Federal Government’s desire to intervene - although I am cynical about the timing. Unfortunately their process has been very poor to date.

The Brough-Howard plan, we are told, relies on moving in, taking over, “stabilising” the communities and then moving to “normalise”. We are yet to find out what “normalise” means in detail. “Stabilising” seems to mean establishing a dictatorship of some nature in each major community, backed by the police.


In my experience, dictatorship and the direct action that it allows can work, at least for a while. Time and again in the Northern Territory Government I saw the benefit that could be delivered in management and development of a community by strong and direct action, through the installation or support of a “dictator”. At times these dictators were CEOs of councils and at other times they were dominant elected people, sometimes traditional owners, from the community.

To all appearances things would tick over nicely with services being delivered, infrastructure being managed and people having an apparently reasonable quality of life - until the dictator left, died or lost interest. The collapse that often follows is not inevitable but, for the people living there, it can be extremely destructive. People often vote with their feet. A township of 500 can drop to 150 in a very short time.

It is possible to intervene with direct and possibly harsh action, and move on to something more sustainable but it is critical that you know precisely what you are doing and that you follow a clearly thought out plan.

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First published in Club Troppo on July 2, 2007.

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About the Author

David Coles left government two years ago as Executive Director Local Government and Regional Development with the Northern Territory government and over his time in public service managed the Indigenous Housing program and led the DCM Aboriginal Development Branch as well as being a senior Ministerial Officer to the CLP Minister for Health and Community Services at one stage. David was also appointed in May 2006 by current NT Chief Minister Clare Martin as co-ordinator of government responses for the Wadeye community in the wake of the major riots there, which in considerable part (along with Dr Nanette Rogers’ revelations on ABC Lateline) stimulated the current national focus on matters Indigenous in the Northern Territory.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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