Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The failed State that is the Northern Territory

There are circumstances in which democracy doesn't even vaguely work, and the huge disparity in education, wealth and organisation represented by white and Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory is one of them.

There is a strong case for Federal intervention to step in and take control of the Territory.  Let's review the situation.

A failed State

A year ago The Australian published an article called the Failed State, which chronicled the ongoing misdirection of resources in the NT.  The Territory Government pumps money into providing first world services for a middle class army of bureaucrats in Darwin; meanwhile, as a new report has confirmed, children roam the streets of Indigenous communities looking for food; and social services of any kind are almost totally absent. 

The Australian a year ago pointed to a bloated and ineffectual bureaucracy:

"At the core of the Territory system is a mind-set reminiscent of Pacific Island cargo-cults. An institution is named, set up, housed and lightly staffed: problem solved.  Thus Darwin is full of facades rather than real structures: an Environmental Protection Authority without powers, an indigenous advisory panel without input, a climate change portfolio without policies, a museum with insufficient funds. Such facade institutions, and the philosophy behind them, infect the air. They create a fantasy approach to administration, where Canberra always lurks, saviour-like, in the wings, and the declaration of a policy is sufficient to change the world..."

The classic example of this was the Indigenous housing scheme that managed to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars - on consultancies - without building a single house.

The logic of democracy

The Australian pointed out that these outcomes were almost inevitable given the political dynamic of the Territory:

"The Territory's population is about 220,000, young, with an average age of 30, and highly transient...More than 17,000 Territorians are public servants: the administering class and their families thus form the key interest group and voting bloc, almost one-third of the 110,000-strong electorate. Another 13,000 Territorians serve in the armed forces.

Most of the long-term stayers in the Territory, of course, are Aborigines. Indigenous numbers are estimated to be above 70,000, or 32 per cent of the total population, but this is very likely a serious under-count. Aboriginal Territorians have their own distinctive statistical profile: their age average is 21, they are sharply under-represented in Darwin, where elections are decided, and hardly any indigenous remote community residents are in the wages economy."

Democracy in these circumstances cannot work:
Yet the regime in Darwin is merely doing what governments in democratic states do: paying attention to its constituents, according to political logic. Hence the enormous middle schools that have gone up across the capital while decent secondary education in the remote communities and outstations remains a dream. Hence the new commuter highway extension being built from Palmerston while the bush roads are still unsealed. The state is set up in such a way as to guarantee the delivery of such results.

The story at the heart of the Northern Territory is really a story of relative positions. Social scientists regard the place of a group in society as an important determinant of the degree to which its members thrive. It is an insight increasingly being applied to Aboriginal Australia and clearly indigenous Territorians are in a very strange position. They are the only Aboriginal population who form a sizeable minority in their jurisdiction, which is still very much regarded as "their country", they have strong traditional practices, they own, if collectively, half the land mass, they are the obsessive focus of a vast helper class of bureaucrats, and an intervention has been staged for them. They generate the shimmer of cultural prestige in which the Territory basks and on which its tourism depends.
But they are much poorer than most Territory residents, and have few jobs and little Western education.

A prominent school of social thought associated with public health researcher Richard Wilkinson, author of The Spirit Level, holds that inequalities in the social fabric of Western states lower the wellbeing of the entire society and that differences in wealth levels accurately predict social dysfunction.

It is tempting to view the Territory, probably the most unequal Western society in the world, and a highly troubled one, through this optic, and to consider whether a standard majority-interest democratic government can deliver any significant improvements here.

The Federal Government response has been to provide additional funding, step in to fill some gaps through the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER), or intervention, and try and strong arm the NT Government into doing more.

It has been a slow process, not least because the Federal Government have had to find and employ people to actually live in the Indigenous communities, something the NT Government failed to do. 

Not to mention having to face down the opposition from vested interests within communities, as well as misguided do-gooders from outside more worried about 'self-determination' than starving, abused children.  In many of these communities, the effects of alcohol, drugs, and pornograhy have led to a cultural destruction that makes self-determination positively irresponsible in the short to medium term.

And of course the NTER has suffered from the usual lack of coordination between agencies and problems in translating policy into delivery.

But it is slowly having some effect.

Closing the Gap

The latest 'Closing the Gap' Report highlights strong and steady improvements in Indigenous employment, policing of communities, service provision, and school attendance.

But the NT's Children Service report's author can still say "Parenting, homemaking, nutrition, alcohol addiction . . . these are the sort of services that are largely missing in the NT".

In the end the problem won't be solved by interventions on Indigenous Affairs alone.  What is needed is a major rethink of Territorian Government priorities.  And that can only happen outside of the logic of Territory democracy.


chris p said...

I strongly doubt the Federal Government would do a better job of administering the NT than the current shambolic territory government.

There is a constant tendency in Australian politics to demand that when a policy/service delivery area is poorly administered by a state/territory government that the federal government take over responsibility for that area.

The assumption is that the federal government is inherently better at policy and service delivery than state governments. However I would suggest that recent problems with various economic stimilus programs show this is not the case.

Perharps the better solutions is to simply change the current NT government through the electoral process.

Terra said...

The problem is that because of the logic of political realities in the Territory this problem can never be fixed until the Aboriginal people get organised and use their votes to demand their fair share of resources - which will never happen until the underlying service delivery problems get fixed. It is a Catch 22 situation.

That's why the Territory has had a series of hung parliaments.

And while the Federal Government has had some notable failures in recent years largely due to political pressure to rollout programs too quickly or with inadequate resources devoted to program management, on the whole I think it does do a fairly good job at service delivery.

Anonymous said...

The political considerations you have described played a large part in the attempts by the Northern Territory (under a Country Liberal party government, by the way) to legalise euthenasia. My sources tell me the local Aboriginal leaders detected a distinct note of the dog-whistle in it - easier and cheaper to bump them off than provide decent services - but they didn't get much of a run in the media.