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Anecdotal tales from the ‘Indigenous Industry’

At this year’s Garma Festival a friend told me of a conversation she had with someone who used to work for the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA). When she told this guy that she was from Alice Springs, he commented that some people in FaHCSIA are talking of moving to central Australia to take out a second mortgage.

The story was recounted again this weekend while sitting in a cafe in town. Over coffee a couple of friends described the constant strain and struggle of working in Indigenous communities: the repetitiveness of the stories, continually wrestling with the same issues, the failure of any major successful project. The constant pushing and pushing and pushing – and the way working in the field can just wear you out, make you apathetic or burnt out. They spoke about how this status quo of major health, education, short-term funding, etc creates a sort of false economy around Indigenous Affairs in Alice.

Back at home, I got thinking more about this false economy. I got thinking about the stories a friend told me of working out at Hermannsberg. She was amazed how many different organisations were working in the community and how many were working on similar projects. Not only that, they were also working with the same families. She was frustrated by how little information was shared across organisations simply because they were, more often than not, working from grant funding; to share information would be to give information to another organisation and jeopardise the likelihood of getting that grant the next year.

It got me thinking of all the little bureaucrats working away assessing those grants: of all the people paid to just apply for grants; of those paid to write and acquit them; of friends who spend more time writing grants and rewriting grants then actually doing anything.

It got me thinking of the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP) and the fact that a Tasmanian couple overseeing SIHIP as part of their role with NT Housing told the Australian in August 2009 that they had each been given new Toyotas and paid $71 000 per year ‘to do absolutely nothing’. Meanwhile, some SIHIP workers are being paid on basic cards to build houses for the program.

I thought of visiting Amplitawatja and hearing about the council telling community members that there were no jobs for them – and then watching that very same council hire an independent contractor to drive the four hours from Tennant creek to do whipper-snipping, a job that dozens of men in the community had the skills to do.

Or the story of two different plumbers driving 300km from Alice Springs out to Yuendumu on the same day: the first in the morning to fix the police station, the other in the afternoon to fix the school. Because they had contractors with different plumbers. This in a community that fifteen to twenty years ago had its own plumber who resided in the community.

It got me thinking of the endless need to qualify and re-qualify and train that seems to be happening in remote communities across the NT.

It got me thinking about how it’s often seen to be enough just to put money towards Indigenous Affairs, irrespective of results. The more money that is thrown, the more you are doing something in spite of all the bad press or mismanagement (SIHIP perfectly illustrating this). It’s the appearance rather than the results that are important. And it seems that’s not going to change for a while yet, which is sad, as there are successful programs and initiatives happening. As that same friend pointed out at that cafe, these successes, more often than not, come from community initiatives and not government programs.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Scott Foyster lives in Mpartnwe/Alice Springs where he writes and collects stories to share. He is one of the editors of Wai, an independent quarterly national newspaper on social jusice and environmental issues around the country/region, and is also one half of Black Kite Press, an independent press that is currently working on it's first publication.

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