On Tuesday night the Darwin City Council — in its last meeting before the local government elections later this month — considered a letter from Dave Chalmers, state manager of the federal Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs’ NT state office, with the seemingly innocuous subject of “highway and community signs”.

Like the NT Intervention’s “big, blue signs”, Chalmers has been with the Aboriginal rescue program pretty much from the start. Appointed by then federal indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough to spearhead the Intervention, Major General Chalmers returned to mainstream Defence Force duties in early 2009, but by October that year Labor’s Minister Jenny Macklin announced Chalmers would return to the NT as a civilian to head up her department in the NT.

In his letter dated February 21 this year, Chalmers told Tony Tapsell, CEO of the NT Local Government Association, that the signs — hundreds of which are scattered across the NT — are now largely redundant:

“In recent weeks … it has been identified that a large number of Highway Signs no longer serve a functional purpose and will be removed.”

Many people in the NT would wonder how it took Chalmers and FaHCSIA so long to realise the signs no longer served any worthwhile purpose. There is no shortage of evidence to support that view.

The signs were installed with usual bureaucratic (in)efficiency. In 2008 FaHCSIA’s NT Intervention Monitoring Report found that:

“The installation of signage across the Territory detailing the restrictions associated with prescribed areas (alcohol and p-rnography) and the penalties that applied is currently being finalised by FaHCSIA Northern Territory State Office (NTSO). This has required obtaining expert mapping services, engaging and liaising with the contractor and subcontractors, providing expert Global Positioning System (GPS) and training to ensure the installation requirements were met.”

Objections to the signs was widespread and manifest. For a look at the lighter side see this post at The Northern Myth for some local reactions to the Intervention and the signs.

There had been some softening of the wording on the signs over the past few years — references to “p-rnography” were replaced with “prohibited material”. But for those small cosmetic changes the signs still rankled, as was apparent from FaHCSIA’s NTER Emergency Response Evaluation Report 2011 released in November last year.

“The signage announcing the exclusion of alcohol and pornography from designated areas was erected with little consultation. Members of some communities felt that, in erecting the signs, the government had unjustly branded all residents. Many Indigenous people described the signs as a government ‘shame job’.”

Last month Central Land Council Director David Ross told the Australian Senate’s Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry into the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2011 and the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2011 that the CLC:

“… welcomes the provision that requires signs about alcohol restrictions to be respectful to Aboriginal people. As you know, these signs have caused considerable hurt and we look forward to finally seeing them gone and much more respectful and responsible signage in their place.””

That hurt is apparently accompanied by considerable confusion over just who is responsible for the signs. The CLC’s Jayne Weepers told the Committee:

“There seems to have been a high level of confusion around who is taking charge of replacing the signs and talking to communities about what they might want on the signs. We have for quite some time now been seeking greater clarity about whether that role sits with the GBMs via FaHCSIA or the NT Licensing Commission. It still appears to be unclear.”

NT Senator Trish Crossin couldn’t shed much light on the matter either:

“My understanding is that some of the signs along the highways actually belong to the Northern Territory government, particularly the ones on the Stuart Highway. That is another level of confusion as to who takes those down or replaces them.”

And regardless of who does what and where with the signs — and of their new content — Chalmers notes in his letter to local government in the NT that:

“It is important to note that the Australian Government takes very seriously the need for communities and visitors to understand that the removal and redesign of Highway and Community signs is not a weakening of legislation or that restrictions have been lifted.”

The more things change …