Last Thursday evening, in one of those late-evening pressers that sneak out somewhere between The Big Bang Theory and RBT, the NT government’s Indigenous Development Minister Malarndirri McCarthy announced the appointment of Olga Havnen as the new Co-ordinator-General for Remote Service Delivery. Havnen will replace Bob Beadman, who retired in May after two terms in the position.

Havnen’s job will “oversee, monitor, assess and provide independent advice on the delivery of remote services”. She will report directly to McCarthy.

Havnen’s appointment was a well-guarded secret here and has been met with positive responses all round — the comment by one long-term observer of government affairs was typical: “Wow.”

Havnen is a Western Arrernte woman who grew up in the tough (then) mining town of Tennant Creek in central Australia and is certainly well-placed to advise government on remote service delivery. Most recently she has worked for the Red Cross and in a busy working life has worked for a range of non-government agencies active in international human rights and indigenous rights issues.

Havnen’s role as Co-ordinator-General will be a tough gig and she’ll take over an office established in 2009 at the same time as the NT government’s widely criticised “Working Future” policy and closely tied to the federal government’s intervention in the NT.

Unlike her Commonwealth counterpart Brian Gleeson, Havnen won’t have much more than ministerial goodwill for support. She will have no legislative powers and her job description is about as vague as you could find in any public service HR manual. She will have an office and modest staffing and support resources but not much more.

And if any government or non-government agency wants to ignore her, they can do so at will and without any comebacks.

The most challenging part of Havnen’s new job will be to renew the shattered faith and trust in governments as service providers of choice — at all levels — among the NT’s Aboriginal communities. This is the elephant in the room that few in the NT and Commonwealth public services — and depressingly even fewer in the respective parliaments — can see.

For mine, accepting that there is a fundamental breakdown in these key relationships should be the first order of business for Havnen — and a relatively easy one. Doing something about it — and convincing those to whom she’ll report that it is a major crisis in governance — is altogether another matter.

No less a task will be to build confidence in her position among the NT’s public service.

Havenen’s politics are at distinct odds with her predecessor Beadman. Soon after the intervention legislation was passed in August 2007, Havnen made her views clear to Damien Carrick on the ABC’s Law Report:

“… overall I think people’s general view is that it’s a pretty appalling piece of legislation. And, what’s more, the view is that it does absolutely nothing to address the central issue of child protection …

“… out of the $500 million which has been earmarked for this intervention in the Northern Territory, more than half of it will be consumed by the bureaucracy and setting up these administrative structures. You’d have to ask, given the level of need that we’ve got out there, whether that should be the first priority. The fact that they’re prepared to commit $88 million to administer the income management regime in its first year of operations alone, seems to me to be extraordinary. Why wouldn’t we put that kind of money, good public money, into the kinds of programs and services that we so desperately need?”

Havnen has made few public statements about her view on the intervention in recent years but the Women for Wik (of which she was a co-founder) website records a more recent comment from her that reflects her long years of fighting against injustice wherever it may occur:

“This wouldn’t be accepted by any other section of the Australian society. If they tried to implement this against women, or Jews, or gays, the country would be in an uproar. Why do we accept it for Aboriginal people?”

For many in the NT the hardest part of Havnen’s new job won’t be the oversight, monitoring and assessment of the delivery of remote services but overcoming the legacy left by Beadman. Beadman was a retired public servant in mid-2009 when (then) NT Labor minister Alison Anderson appointed him as the first Co-ordinator-General. A few months later Anderson exiled herself to the crossbenches in a dummy-spit at Labor chief minister Paul Henderson and the NT News. She said in a statement at the time:

“I will not stand by a leader and a party that fails to defend me when the race card is played. Last Saturday’s NT News article by Nigel Adlam attacking me and my indigenous ministerial colleagues was blatantly racist: the chief minister’s office knew what was in it before it was published.”

Anderson has recently joined the Country Liberal Party in opposition. But Beadman remained and served out two years as Co-ordinator-General, producing four six-monthly reports that, apart from some mentions in media outlets keen to give the NT and federal governments a gratuitous kick in the head from time-to-time, were largely ignored, particularly by Labor.

For some, Beadman’s reports were a breath of fresh bureaucratic air, perhaps best typified by Nicky Rothwell’s gushing praise in The Australian earlier this year. For Rothwell, Beadman’s reports were full of:

“… insights, some quirky, and of recommendations, some eccentric. He is an advocate of regulating burial practices and of screening ‘behaviour-changing’ scare campaigns on TV. Some of his positions are libertarian.

“Beadman’s last report is nothing less than a call to push through a wholesale shift in many areas of policy towards the indigenous communities in the NTER and, by extension, the rest of the remote Aboriginal domain. It could be read as a manifesto, were it not the testament of a man at the end of his life in the public service. Now Beadman leaves the stage. It is certain the next person selected to fill the co-ordinator’s post will be a less forthright, and more convenient, choice.”

But for many others, Beadman’s reports were little more than presentations of a neoconservative worldview seen through a colonial-era prism, steeped in the mindset of the “long-socks and walk-shorts” bureaucrats that ran the NT for so long. Beadman seemed to view his role as a Quixotic tilter-at-the-windmills of political correctness. Beadman’s reports spoke of Aboriginal people, but rarely to them.

His reports are full of highly personalised reflections upon his own apparently very hard days as a senior bureaucrat, typified by this from his first report:

“These thoughts do not purport to be an academic exercise, backed by many comfortable months of quiet research in the reading room of some temperature controlled archives office. Rather, they are informed by observations made over many years of travel in four wheel drive vehicles and light aircraft in the heat, rain, flies and dust.”

For many Beadman’s reports are little more than bombastic, overblown rewritings of a history unknown and unknowable to contemporary life in the NT, replete with inaccuracies, distortions and a manifest failure to identify and deal with the real issues or present workable solutions to the problems he identified. Beadman was ever willing to criticise anything or anyone espousing a “rights agenda” and deplored the role that welfare payments play in the lives of contemporary Aboriginal communities.

This much is evident from Beadman’s fourth and last report, Appendix A of which he dedicates to the three decades of his fight against the evils of welfare, first as director of the NT’s Office of Aboriginal Development in 1997:

“In summary the issues were: the stifling of personal endeavour, jobs, shared responsibility, land rights and enterprise development, educational attainment, preventative health measures, substance abuse, and personal responsibility.”

A year later:

“In summary: political correctness has curbed open debate; negative social indicators compound the problems of school absenteeism, parents as role models, and the poison of welfare.”

For many here Beadman was a one-trick pony and his reports little more than repetitive and turgid self-serving reworkings of the many speeches and papers given to anyone prepared to listen to him. Unsurprisingly Beadman was popular with right-wing think tanks such as the assimilationist Bennelong Society and the Liberal Party’s Menzies Research Centre.

Olga Havnen will have her work cut out for her, as much to clear the fog of Beadman’s tenure as to put her own stamp on her new job. Kim Hill, CEO of the Northern Land Council, reckons Havnen will bring some long-overdue fresh thinking to her position.

“In comparison to Bob Beadman and his miserable world-view of Aboriginal life in the NT, Olga won’t be tied down by her previous work,” he said.

“Beadman is someone who to me has been in denial that he was in a number of small ways responsible for many of the policy failures over the past 30 or more years. And then he has the gall to lay the blame at Aboriginal people and contemporary governments. He should never have been appointed to that position and we are well shot of him.”

*Bob Gosford works for the Northern Land Council as a legal adviser