Article – The only path to advancement is via the bush bloc

12 April 2014
Alison Anderson
The Australian

Powerful factions in the major political parties have failed Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. That failure can be attributed almost wholly to a poor understanding of the aspir­ations of remote Aboriginal ­people. It’s simple — the people in power do not want to take the time to sit in the dirt and communicate with the most dis­advantaged people, even if those same people gave them their power at the ballot box. Rather, they treat us as useful idiots.

Labor threw money at our problems, but did not invest effectively or wisely in what could have provided “Stronger Futures”. Large-scale projects such as the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program were not strategic in the least. A huge opportunity was lost to co-ordinate housing and infrastructure programs with local workforce development. This would have left a lasting legacy in remote communities.
More recently, in the 2012 NT election, the conservative Country Liberals promised the world and recruited popular local bush candidates to deliver their message. Even though the CLP had been branded a redneck party, Aboriginal people believed this time things would be different. We trusted their leader, Terry Mills. This time, we believed the remote electorates were key to the Country Liberals win and the issues of remote residents finally would be front and centre.
However, that was not to be. Within a short time of gaining power, the Country Liberals turned their backs on the bush: they deposed Mills and installed a new cabal in his place. They turned their backs on their own Aboriginal members. Those of us who refused to toe the line were shut out of policy development. When we brought our complaints, questions and input to parliamentary wing meetings, we were shouted down, belittled and sworn at. It was the frontier again, only this time with suits and ties.
Meanwhile, out bush, the tide was quickly turning. Indigenous people were awake. Concerns grew that the refashioned CLP government didn’t share the same concept of remote economic development. People worried that large chunks of land would be signed away with 99-year leases and, once again, development would proceed without real Aboriginal involvement and participation. Funding seemed no longer available for remote projects, while the siphoning of funds meant indigenous people continued to support urban Top End jobs. Remote schools suffered cutbacks. Roads funding, promised during the previous administration, wasn’t even repackaged into more fin­ancially prudent projects, but was simply announced again.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was the atrociously mishandled transfer of remote tenancy management and housing maintenance contracts. Local jobs were killed off. For a government that supposedly espoused job creation as well as local participation, this was a mortal sin.
Our remote constituents began complaining directly to us that the Country Liberals government wasn’t listening to them. Our constituents protested that they couldn’t hear us sticking up for them anymore. Our voices, which were once so strong, had been reduced to a whisper.
At that point, if all the bush members had unified, we would have been a significant force within the Country Liberals and could have applied appropriate pressure to address remote issues. If only. We had the numbers, won fair and square at election. Three of us: me, Jawoyn woman Larisa Lee and senior Tiwi man Francis Xavier Kurrupuwu — all strong traditional people — remained unified throughout negotiations with the Chief Minister and party power brokers.
When talks failed, it was impossible for us to sit quietly on the backbench any longer. If the major political parties won’t serve our constituents, we will not serve the purposes of those parties. It’s a simple message we have for them: you can govern with and for us with our backing, but work against our interests and we will fight you. Yes, we will co-operate with wise, co-operative political partners, but from now on we will do so on our terms, as a bush bloc.
For our power now lies outside of Labor or Liberal. The big parties have lost the true path. The north cannot be developed without our advancement, too. What is required now for remote Aboriginal people is a strategy beyond the election cycle. There are numerous complexities in coaxing participation out of welfare-dependent communities or productivity out of government-funded community programs. Part of the solution is developing an environment where private businesses can grow, in order to foster private wealth. That requires a strategic and efficient program of infrastructure development, including the local ­Aboriginal workforce.
Bitumen roads for improved transport are key, along with improved communications and leasing arrangements that benefit the local community as well as private investors. But the federal government does not have to be our lease nanny. Our own land councils can administer leasing and ensure that our land rights are not usurped or overridden.
Instead of driving remote economic development, the Labor and Liberal parties continue to treat remote Aboriginal people as a uniquely unresolvable problem. Australia’s Northern Territory has become a new colony — a moral crisis zone. By now it should be obvious there will be no change in remote Aboriginal communities unless the residents are willing. The arrogance of the major political parties will never inspire willingness.
Courtesy of The Australian