Interior decorating is not a high priority for a remote indigenous radio station. Walls are meant for keeping the dust, heat and insects off the equipment, not for hanging paintings on. One station was therefore baffled recently when it received a departmental review questionnaire asking them how many artworks it housed. The broadcasters carefully filled out the form, writing “Not Applicable” on every line.

The questionnaire, sent by an arts bureaucrat who mistook the station for a gallery, was a tiny blunder within a bigger mystery. Indigenous media was moved from the Communications portfolio into Arts when Labor took office. Last week, indigenous broadcasters gathered at the Remote Media Festival in Yuendumu to discuss the situation. This week, a delegation is heading off to Canberra to deliver their message to minister Peter Garrett: Arts is “Not Applicable” to remote media.

Firstly, the Backing Indigenous Ability money, intended to provide broadband to indigenous communities, is still held in the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, under Senator Conroy. These days, with media convergence in full swing, it seems backward to separate ICTs from “the media”. Even the BIA report stated clearly that Remote Indigenous Media Organisations are important for ensuring that telecommunications infrastructure gets used within communities.

Secondly, the indigenous media sector fears that it is becoming disconnected from other developments, such as digital broadcasting transmission. Instead of being part of the “digital economy”, it has been grouped in a government department alongside the flora and fauna (Environment), as well as things that exist in the past (Heritage). How could they not be offended?

Jim Remedio, Chair of the Australian Indigenous Communications Association speculated that perhaps indigenous media has been grouped with Arts (in DEWHA) in anticipation of a new ATSIC-like body. That would make sense, as indigenous media was previously dealt through ATSIC, but so far it’s just speculation.

When quizzed on indigenous broadcasting by the ABC’s Media Report last month, Mr Garrett repeatedly stated his support for NITV. But the Indigenous Broadcasting Program also includes 77 community broadcasting licensees across remote, regional and urban areas, as well as scores of retransmission sites. If you want to p-ss off indigenous radio broadcasters then the way to do it is to talk about NITV, which received $50 million from the Howard government, when the radio sector received no funding increase then or since. These local services address important community needs — informational and language — that fall outside of NITV’s mandate.

Garrett did make one sensible point: both the arts and broadcasting are important for language and culture. If this rationale leads to more funding for cultural productions — such as oral history projects or music recordings — then DEWHA could prove useful.

But media is also a techie’s domain. The remote media mobs are not just about content production; they fix telephones and TV sets, and when a transmitter breaks down they send someone out to get it working again. Will the arts bureaucrats understand that?

The feeling at the festival was that Indigenous media can be good for culture and language — but it will find it hard to fulfil that role until some more urgent media matters are addressed. The Community Broadcasting Foundation has almost completed transmitter and equipment upgrades for remote Indigenous community broadcasters. The new equipment won’t last long if it remains housed in substandard buildings. So forget the paintings and start by giving them some walls, Mr Garrett.

Peter Fray

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