Just when you thought things could not get any more shambolic in the remote communities of Central Australia — now Aboriginal people are having to cope with yet more bureaucracy-inspired chaos.

In addition to the upheaval and consternation created by the Federal Government’s NT Intervention, a new NT local government shire system has come into effect as of 1 July. To complete the chaos, a major re-structure of NT government departments is also going on.

There is no doubt that NT local government needed some reforming, but the shires have so far shown every sign of repeating the administrative mistakes of previous assimilationist and Aboriginal “protection” areas.

Aboriginal remote community government councils are a thing of the past, thanks to the NT Government. The rationale for the new shires is cost-saving through economies of scale, and centralisation in the name of the streamlining of service provision.

What has actually occurred is a ballooning of bureaucracies at the expense of remote and regional communities. The resources that used to belong to the communities and councils now belong to the shires, including the small local businesses that were developed under remote community council or CDEP auspices.

Aboriginal people have lost control of almost every aspect of their lives. More than twenty years of community development activity has been dispensed with in the name of administrative expediency.

The Shires’ apparent agenda is to establish control and ownership of remote community populations and resources, and to enforce their own corporate structures and aims.

The result has been an exodus of skilled and experienced staff from remote communities. Many have chosen to move interstate or change careers rather than work for the shires which, despite being the new kids on the block, already have a poor reputation as employers.

Without a skilled and experienced workforce, the shires do not have the capacity to deliver services in remote communities. The shires most certainly do not have the skills base or seemingly any interest in community development.

Despite the large body of evidence that Aboriginal community ownership of programs and services is key to their functionality and success, the shires are seemingly not concerned with supporting Aboriginal initiatives. Aboriginal advocacy is unpopular with the shires, as it interferes with the imposition of the corporate agenda.

Top-down managerialism has never worked in a cross-cultural context — come to think of it, it has not been a good strategy even within whitefella culture.

Aboriginal people in remote communities were promised jobs and houses. What they got was whitefellas with jobs and houses. Remote Aboriginal communities are now besieged by bureaucrats in new Toyotas, all busily shifting the goalposts (again), and providing services to government, not to Aboriginal populations in remote areas of the NT.

Jenny Walker has worked with remote Aboriginal communities and families for the past twenty years. An anthropologist by training, she has spent the last decade working as an advocate for and coordinator of remote area Night and Community Patrols in the Central Australian region. She is currently writing a Masters by Research (Criminal Justice) thesis on remote community patrols.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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