Local Government in the NT – Howard & Brough’s plan for privatisation by stealth?
Local Government in the NT has been in a mess for decades and Howard and Brough’s intervention is about to make it a lot worse. The six "municipal" councils of Darwin, Palmerston, Litchfield, Alice Springs, Tennant Creek and Katherine are the subject of separate parts of the Local Government Act to the 57 or so other small remote Councils. These small Councils are mostly on Aboriginal land and vary from well-run and effective local administrators to grossly dysfunctional centres of corruption, nepotism and benign neglect and it is they that are in the sites of Howard and Brough’s intervention.
Clare Martin’s Labor administration inherited the legacy of poorly-run local government from the 26 year reign of the Country Liberal Party. To her credit she has decided to bite the bullet and implement long-overdue reform of the sector. Whether Martin’s reform proposals are appropriate or not will be left for another day.
What is of greatest concern at the moment is the cumulative effect of a number of recent decisions by the Howard and Martin governments that have and will negatively affect the administrations of local government in the NT. Of particular concern are a raft of recent decisions relating to the Howard & Brough intervention in the NT.
Crikey spoke to Kerry Moir, a current Darwin City councillor and President of the NT’s Local Government Association (LGANT) – the peak-body for all NT local government authorities. Alderman Moir has lived and worked extensively throughout the NT and she is intimately familiar with and concerned for the future of many of the small councils scattered across the NT.
Moir is particularly concerned that the Commonwealth intervention has been so poorly thought out that it will only worsen the current situation. She is particularly concerned that there appears to be no effective coordination between the NT Government’s Local Government Reform program and the elements of the Commonwealth intervention that will affect local community administrations:
I don’t believe that the people the Federal government will send up here will have any idea of what they are going to do or where they will be going. It won’t be like working in their nice air-conditioned offices down south. I don’t believe they will know anything of how remote community Councils work and the constraints they work under. They will have no understanding of local Aboriginal cultures.
Moir and LGANT argue that the formulae used to calculate the Financial Assistance Grants that the Commonwealth provides to all local governments have particularly disadvantaged small community Councils in the NT:
There’s never been enough money provided to communities to do the sort of jobs that have been expected of them. Some communities are dysfunctional, but there are others who struggle, with good people in charge, to try and do something about the housing, do something about the infrastructure. They’ve just never had enough money to do so.
Moir has grave concerns about the uncertainty created by the lack of information provided by Howard and Brough:
Have you seen a plan? No – there isn’t one, at least that they are releasing to the public and my members. At least the NT government has prepared some information on its website about its role in the intervention. My members are fearful for their jobs, they are incredibly worried about their own circumstances and for their communities. I mean, imagine how you would feel if you saw a statement from the NT government that it ‘…will seek to use the Commonwealth appointed administrators to deliver its programs’ – that is the jobs of my members that the government is talking about. Of course there is fear and uncertainty.
But her biggest concern is for the continuing existence of LGANT’s member communities. She is particularly concerned that services currently provided by remote councils will be contracted out to private service providers and that Howard and Brough’s intervention might be an attempt at privatisation by stealth.
And then there's the process for evaluation so that an assessment can be made about how things have gone, how effectively policy has been implemented:
No signs of benchmarks in NT intervention
Health journalist Melissa Sweet writes:
Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that the Federal Government’s foray into the NT is more about achieving policy goals rather than political objectives. In which case it’s timely, four weeks after the Government announced its "national emergency response" to s-xual abuse of Aboriginal children, to ask: how will we know what difference the initiative has made? More importantly, how will we know that any potential harms -- and it’s hard to think of a health or social welfare intervention which doesn’t involve risks -- outweigh the benefits? Harms are particularly likely when policy is being made on the run and without consultation, careful planning or drawing on the evidence base about what interventions are most likely to be helpful. (If you doubt that’s what’s been happening in the NT, check the Government’s statement of June 21 announcing plans, which were quickly shelved, for "compulsory health checks for all Aboriginal children.") These are important questions, deserving serious attention. But there are no signs the Government has any intention of putting in place an independent, credible evaluation process. Professor Ian Anderson, Director of the Centre for Health and Society and the Onemda VicHealth Koori Health Unit at the University of Melbourne, is one of the country’s gurus of Indigenous program evaluation. If any evaluation was planned, he would likely know about it. But he hasn't heard a whisper. Anderson supports some of the Federal strategies, including ensuring a police presence in remote communities, but worries that pressing children to disclose s-xual abuse without providing long term follow-up may lead to harm. "Any focus which brings a child to disclosure without having in place adequate and sound referral and follow-up services is quite risky," he says. "Children are at risk of suicide for some time after disclosure. "Suicide is one of the extreme consequences but there is a whole range of possible emotional harm that results from well-intentioned interventions by people without the appropriate experience." Anderson says enforced alcohol bans are "bad policy" when they are not linked to a more comprehensive strategy and are likely just to transplant problems -- he has already heard of groups of people moving across the NT border -- rather than solve them. They also encourage sly grogging and more risky forms of drinking, and many also encourage the use of other drugs, such as cannabis. Evaluating the initiative wouldn’t be easy -- an increase in child s-xual abuse notification rates in the NT might be a positive development if it means, not a real increase in cases, but an increase in children and families getting help. But Anderson says there are plenty of existing health and criminal justice data systems to provide a basis for evaluation. The main problem in evaluating the initiative would be its lack of forethought, he says. "In evaluation we identify program logic and the over-arching goals of a program," he says. "This is a policy initiative that doesn’t necessarily have a coherent program goal." If the Government really wants to understand the impact of its initiative, it should be speaking to people like Ian Anderson. But he’s not expecting that call anytime soon. "There’s been no talk of evaluation at this stage and, to be frank, I’m not sure the Australian Government is that interested in it," he says. Which suggests that the opinion polls may provide the only measure that really counts in the current political climate.
So, dear and gentle Reader, had Howard and Brough any idea what they were going to do and where they were going to go? And will they be able to recognise when they have done it and when they have got there?