There are few enough success stories here in the desert, but surely the Kurdu-Kurdu Kurlangu Childcare Centre at Yuendumu must qualify as one of the best. It provides real jobs, and real, accredited national-standard, training, to 14 local women. But not for much longer — it appears that those jobs are at real risk of disappearing into thin air in two weeks, like paper bags swept up in the Yunparlara (willy-willys) that stalk the Tanami desert country at this time of year.

Kurdu-kurdu started in 2005 at the local school as a play-centre for pre-school children. Soon, with the sponsorship of the then local community government council, the Yuendumu-Willowra CGC, it took over an empty house and has gone from strength to strength. It is now a well-resourced and staffed comprehensive child-care centre, much like those seen in cities and towns across the rest of Australia.

But it now looks that Kurdu-kurdu will close its doors in two weeks — why? — well, it is a bit hard to tell at the moment, and Crikey smells the dead rat of bureaucratic blame-shifting.

Following the implementation of the NT Government’s Local Government Reforms on 1 July this year, the new Central Desert Shire took over responsibility for the administration of Kurdu-kurdu. Crikey understands that before July 1, the 14 real workers at Kurdu-kurdu had been paid for by the local CDEP, with top-up funding allowing the workers up to eight hours pay a day. This was apparently maintained by the Central Desert Shire when it took over, with the promise that Kurdu-kurdu staff would move to real jobs, and real training.

All was good – the 14 workers at Kurdu-kurdu would get some real certainty in their lives and some real support. The community would continue to get a real service – up to the standard taken for granted elsewhere in the country. 

In late August the 14 workers, and nine children, set off from Yuendumu on a professional development trip to Victoria. As the Central Desert Shire’s CEO, Rowan Foley said in this press release:

It’s a great opportunity for our staff to experience new ideas and different ways of working with young children and to spread their own, very successful approach. The training does not only benefit the workers, it also helps with getting our youngsters ready for school and a better start in life.

Mr Foley said the Yuendumu Child Care Centre, widely regarded as a model for other Aboriginal communities, was also showing the way for Aboriginal employment in the Central Desert Shire:

We’re about growing our own Aboriginal workforce and supporting our employees with meaningful training.

But this soon turned sour. On 1 October the Central Desert Shire issued this notice. Out of the blue the workers and the community were told that Kurdu-kurdu would have to cut back its hours from 8 to 3 hours a day, and it is all the fault of the Federal Government.

The next day Cecilia Alfonso, a client of the centre and the manager of the other real success story at Yuendumu, Warlukurlangu Artists fired off an urgent email to Foley at the Central Desert Shire, local MP Karl Hampton, and Noel Mason, the local Commonwealth Australian Government Business Manager:

[Kurdu-kurdu] is actually doing what the intervention claims its intention is: To protect children and keep them safe…You should be celebrating its success, not tearing it down. What happened to real pay for real jobs? All of the bloodsucking hangers on associated with the intervention who do nothing and are on crazy pay, bonuses etc…and this program has done more for the future of the children in Yuendumu than all of those people combined.

Central Desert Shire CEO Foley replied a few hours later, saying that Kurdu-kurdu:

…operates extremely well and has the full support of the… Shire. We met with [the] DEEWR Regional Manager and her management team… We are going to continue to push for the childcare centre at Yuendumu to be adequately funded to operate Monday-Friday as it does a great job supporting the children and families.

But Cecilia isn’t one to take bureaucratic niceties lying down and replied:

I am aware of the impact [this decision to reduce the hours] will have across the community and to the morale of the Aboriginal people who have been working there. It is like a slap in the face for all the effort they have put in, particularly after all the brouhaha about ‘real pay for real work’ No wonder the conditions out here continue to be so dismal when such inept decisions are made over and over…There seems to be plenty of money for lots of other projects which have no positive outcome.

Kurdu-kurdu’s fate will be decided in the next few weeks — that decision will be made a long way from here — thousands of kilometres away in Canberra or 300 kilometres away in the Central Desert Shire’s base in Alice Springs. But the effect of that decision — whichever way it goes, will be felt here at Yuendumu — and if Kurdu-kurdu closes then the promises of real jobs will be just that — promises — sucked away by a Yunparlara.

Read more at Bob Gosford’s Northern Myth at Crikey blogs.