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.

There have been examples elsewhere in Australia where councils have been closed down and the Commonwealth will get agencies like Mission Australia and others to deliver those services. Now I can see some very large [external] agencies like Mission Australia coming in to just take over CDEP and other programmes. So the Federal government comes in and chops the money off, engages those big agencies that the Federal government trusts, and they will then come into those communities to deliver services. So where does that leave the local community that used the flow-on monies they were able to get to deliver a range of other services? The money goes out somewhere else, out from the community so the local community can no longer fund those additional cradle-to-grave services that they have been funding and providing and that are far in excess of the sorts of services that local government’s provide elsewhere in Australia.

She predicts that this privatisation would have disastrous consequences for communities:

This intervention, and the confusion about the roles of both the NT and Commonwealth government will result in further disempowerment of local communities. Good people working for these Councils are going to say: ‘Well, if we’ve no longer got a say in what’s happening in our community, we can no longer decide that we want to run programmes like say, a suicide prevention program where we’ll take kids out bush and fishing to get them to know some of their Aboriginal law’. If it doesn’t happen to be on the Commonwealth manager’s radar then those programmes just won’t be run. The people who have had pride in their communities will see that they no longer have any say in what’s happening in their community.

Couple that with taking away the permit system, with the assumption of leases and what have they got left? That’s the terrifying aspect for me, that they will be disempowered, and instead of them emerging as leaders once the Commonwealth leaves, people are going to have great difficulty taking back the role and the pride that they had as leaders in their community.

Alderman Moir has every right to be concerned for her member communities and, if the history of the manipulation of local government administration in the NT by successive NT governments and the sheer contempt that the Federal government obviously has for the NT administration is any guide, there is every indication that the NT’s small councils will be the meat in a very messy political sandwich.