When I joined the Central Land Council (CLC), 18 months ago, I knew I would be in for a learning experience. I never expected a pandemic that would turn our lives upside down. Yet the CLC constituents, members and staff demonstrated leadership under pressure and did themselves proud.
The crisis brought together, through weekly teleconferences, decision makers across the Northern Territory (NT) who would not normally talk with, let alone listen to, each other. I am very indebted to our constituents for the trust they put in their land council and their health services. The vast majority followed our advice, for example about returning to and staying in their communities and outstations where they would be safest from the virus. This advice has kept everyone safe so far, as the dramatic fall in influenza rates among Aboriginal residents demonstrates.
Amid the general anxiety I have also heard of people enjoying quiet family time on country. The exodus to communities and homelands also eased overcrowding in town camps. I am told the children were calmer and less stressed. No doubt alcohol restrictions also contributed to settling things down, and an increase in Centrelink payments helped people in remote communities to offset some of the high cost of living. Now that we have experienced the beneficial results of such measures, we need to build on them and extend adequate social security payments to remote community residents paying some of the highest grocery prices in the nation.
The CLC advocated effectively for remote community food security, which became the subject of two federal parliamentary inquiries. Remote stores seem to be better stocked and prepared and the retailers seem to have lifted their game. By June, we were no longer receiving the high number of reports of shelves being empty that we were getting at the start of the pandemic. I hope the new spirit of cooperation will extend to putting in place lasting reforms that will lead to affordable and healthy food, and other basics, in remote stores post-pandemic.
The Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, deserves special thanks for fast-tracking a $4 million Aboriginals Benefit Account (ABA) grant, which enabled us to deliver emergency support to our constituents during the challenging biosecurity area period and beyond. He understood that the land councils and other Aboriginal-controlled organisations are best placed to respond because they know the needs of their clients intimately. Without his trust, it would have been far more difficult for people across the CLC region to stay safe on country.
It was most impressive to see how quickly our staff came together to support the massive relief effort the grant made possible, and to implement other initiatives designed to keep constituents safe during lockdown. They worked long hours, seven days a week, to process thousands of permission letters for residents returning to biosecurity areas and permits for essential workers. They did so under high pressure and without complaint. Our IT team sourced hard-to-come-by equipment to support us all to work from home, whether in our region or interstate. All the while, we got on with our core business and met all our legal responsibilities. The CLC staff and executives remained flexible and adaptable during this ongoing pandemic and they can’t be thanked enough.
While the crisis unfolded, the urgent challenges we were responding to prior to COVID-19 continued unabated. There is mounting evidence that Central Australia may be getting too hot for humans and that this may happen during the lifetime of our constituents. Research by the Australia Institute shows that the number of Alice Springs days with temperatures above 40 degrees could increase from 14 to 52 days a year by 2030, if global heating continues at the current rate. Tennant Creek had a taste of this future in December, when the thermometer in the main street soared to 49 degrees. We also know that half the number of patients at the Alice Springs hospital on hot days are there because of the heat. Heat is a big but, so far, silent and unrecorded killer of vulnerable Territorians. Including environmental data on death certificates, as has been suggested by local doctors, may assist in making better policy decisions.
Our constituents want to make their communities more resilient to our increasingly hostile climate. Replacing, retrofitting and shading ‘hotbox’ houses and ensuring a safe water supply are among the council’s top priorities. We need to save existing trees that are at risk as the water table falls and to ensure all communities have access to safe water to drink and for cultural and economic use. A safe water supply, free from excessive levels of uranium and other toxins, is critical for all residents, especially the growing number of dialysis patients in our communities. These are all good reasons for governments to legislate to protect our water and to develop effective policies
to arrest climate change.
Traditional owners welcomed the announcement in October of federal government support for the Haasts Bluff Aboriginal Land Trust to become our latest indigenous protected area (IPA). The land trust is a piece in a jigsaw puzzle of protected areas connecting existing protected areas in the NT, Western Australia and South Australia. The new IPA would offer a great opportunity to increase the number of rangers caring for this unique environment, which is home to rare and threatened bilbies, brush-tailed mulgaras and princess parrots. More ranger groups with secure, long-term funding looking after these precious places would benefit our communities, our nation and humanity. It would also result in better protection for significant sites.
This announcement came during the celebration of the closure of the Uluru climb, a long-awaited and joyous day for Anangu. It was an honour to share the day with them. Hours before the event, I also had the pleasure of joining local leaders in Mutitjulu as they showed the CEO of the National Indigenous Australians Agency some of the projects they had funded with rent received from leasing the national park. Sensing the pride the locals felt about using their own money for the betterment of their community, Ray Griggs simply asked how the agency can better support what people are already doing for themselves. I look forward to continuing our discussion about supporting local project design through our successful community development program.
In a six-month period that was packed with significant events, the handback of a portion of Ammaroo Station stood out. The elders had waited five years for the handback to complete a native title claim settlement from 2014. As Minister Wyatt returned the strip of land next to the community of Ampilatwatja, which is significant to the emu and red kangaroo songlines, it was clear that, for him, the occasion was more than a photo opportunity. His personal engagement with senior traditional owners and residents appears to have shaped his views on further reforms.
Before the pandemic hit, Minister Wyatt was charting a course with the four NT land councils to reform the ABA. He committed to meeting with us three times a year about this and other reforms, a few of them more significant than constitutional reform. He understands that we remain unwavering in our support for a constitutionally enshrined voice to parliament. We trust he will continue to demonstrate faith and understanding, especially about the true meaning of cultural authority. We look forward to resuming our talks.
The pandemic has taught us that science and evidence-based policy serve our country far better than some of the populist and ideological approaches adopted overseas. Indeed, it has saved lives. I hope to see this lesson reflected in the Australian Government’s approach to reform in all policy areas. I have yet to see evidence that increasing the amount of cash quarantined by the proposed Cashless Debit Card produces good outcomes. I am not hearing anyone asking for it and believe it is unwise to put its administration in the hands of the private sector where there is little oversight.
There is also no evidence that there are enough jobs in remote communities for the government’s community development program to benefit the unemployed or that real jobs await them if only they participate in work-for-the-dole activities. The program may suit regional Australia but is ineffective, punitive and harmful in remote areas with severely challenged employment markets. The remote jobs plan of the Aboriginal Peak Organisations of the NT, in contrast, has been designed with residents to deliver real jobs and traineeships and a lot more control over their lives.
Community control and enterprise have seen Aboriginal art become an undisputed economic success story. It is fitting, therefore, that the Vincent Lingiari Art Award – our ongoing collaboration with Desart and Tangentyere Artists – celebrates how our art and our land rights have evolved together and continue to nurture and inspire each other. It was an honour to meet the winner of the second Vincent Lingiari Art Award, Eunice Napanangka Jack from Ikuntji Arts. I met Ms Jack at the launch of the award exhibition in September 2019 and admired her painting Kuruyultu with four of Mr Lingiari’s granddaughters. The exhibition entries responded to the theme Our Country – True Story in surprising and thoughtful ways and a wide range of media. With the continued support of the Lingiari family and the generous sponsorship of the Peter Kittle Motor Company and Newmont Goldcorp, the award looks set to become a fixture of the Central Australian art scene. My sincere thanks go to all who have believed in this event from the start.