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Effectiveness of state, territory and Commonwealth government policies on regional and remote Indigenous communities

CHAIR —I welcome representatives of the Laynhapuy Homelands Association Inc. to the table. Information on parliamentary privilege, the protection of witnesses and evidence has been previously provided to you. The committee has before it your submission and I now invite you to make some opening remarks. At the conclusion of your remarks I will invite members of the committee to put questions to you.

Ms Mununggurr —Since the intervention has started it seems to have made no difference with what language we use; the parliaments of government of this country seem deaf to the concerns and aspirations of the Yolngu people, the Indigenous people of our area.

One grand plan of government, the intervention, has given way to new grand plans—the National Partnership Agreement on remote service delivery, the national agreement on remote Indigenous housing, Working Futures, and remote service delivery. Both the Australian parliament and the Northern Territory parliament have determined that homelands should have no future as communities. They have determined to ‘smooth the dying pillow’, just as their forefathers did, providing just enough resources to maintain them while desperately hoping to make the major communities more attractive to the next generation.

Both governments have conveniently wiped their hands of responsibility for 30 years of neglect and failure to invest in basic infrastructure and services, which are the right of every other Australian citizen. We have not moved away from services and infrastructure and they have just simply ignored us while they build services and infrastructure elsewhere, all across this nation. Both parliaments are so confident and obsessed with the rightness of their ideas and their power to control our circumstances that they continue to discount our experience of what works and what is needed, or any perspective that differs from their own.

Two years into the intervention, conditions in Yirrkala have deteriorated. More people are going to Nhulunbuy. That is the nearest town, about 20 kilometres out of Yirrkala. The black market in kava is growing rapidly again. Basic local government services are worse. CDEP under the shires seems to have become dysfunctional. Petrol sniffing and related crime have never been worse. Gambling is still common. Apart from income management and statutory five-year leases, there seems nothing that could not have been achieved without this grand plan. Apart from two unoccupied government business managers residents, the intervention has produced no new housing. The intervention and shire reforms have disempowered the community, disempowered the Yolngu and destroyed social capital that had been developed over many years. The community no longer feels in control or knows who is responsible.

Our organisation and homeland members have benefited from some of the additional resources that have flowed into Indigenous Affairs generally. We now employ 70 Yolngu Indigenous and our range of programs has expanded dramatically. We have been able to establish a dental service and through collaborating with Yirrkala Homeland School we have secured funding to establish small jointly managed homeland training and teaching facilities with accommodation. Those four facilities are going to four homelands. We are grateful for these additional resources, but the expectations that have come with them have placed enormous strain on our organisation.

We cannot tell you more other than that our 12,000 members across the Laynhapuy region remain committed to building our own future within our communities on our traditional land—a future that includes passing of our culture, laws, ceremony and knowledge on to our children and grandchildren, but also includes education, training, employment and economic development. But the timeframe must be one that is negotiated with us and is realistic as to the current state of underdevelopment within our homeland communities.

We want to ask some questions and try to understand why, despite all the barriers, homelands are healthier, safer and more productive places to live with greater potential than the major communities governments seem determined that we should move to become dependent upon. We also want to ask questions about why both parliaments—the NT government and the federal government—have condemned homeland members to ongoing overcrowding and substandard housing. Why have our homeland members lived without access to affordable electricity for the past 30 years or so? Why has it taken 30 years to fund $200,000 to build a bridge at a creek crossing that keeps over 100 people isolated from shops and services for more than three months every year? Why has it taken 30 years to recognise that teachers need somewhere to sleep when they work in remote homelands, nor that providing clinical health services on a school veranda or under a tree is not appropriate, or that a visiting trainer needs somewhere to train and sleep? These are the questions we ask every now and then.

How can the neglect and ignorance of successive parliaments over the past 30 years be explained and why should we now be expected to bear the cost of this neglect and consequent lack of development? Since the announcement of the homelands policy or the Working Future we are not happy with what has come about. When Pat Dodson went to our communities and spoke to us he had a consultation process with all the Yolngu people, Indigenous people. We sat down, we worked with him, and we presented him with our views about what we would like to do for our homelands. Not one point from that piece of paper was put into the Working Future plan. It is all different. It is something that we are not happy with.

That is coming from us coming from Laynhapuy as a homeland service provider. It is something that we were not expecting. We thought that the government would work with us and would listen to us, would take our views and consider our views, but it is all bad. I think it has turned all bad. This working plan or grand plan of the Northern Territory government is going to affect our people very badly. Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. Are there any other statements?

Mr Mununggurr spoke in the Yolngu language—

Mr Mununggurr —I will pause there for a moment. I just said that as the chairman of Laynhapuy Homeland I am very worried, very concerned about the smaller communities that will be affected by the announcement that took place yesterday. Many of us have lived there. I come from a smaller community myself. I am not going to be leaving. My father is buried there. That is where I am. That is who I am. That is my home. That is how I like it. Many people believe in what that land holds for them. Just then we received a phone call from one surviving old man, Dr Gumana, who said, ‘I am the only one old man here and I live in one of the smallest communities. I am worried for my people. Okay, if government wants to do that they better shoot me first and take my land.’ That is the concern that we have—how to be noticed or notified, or seen, to be seen. We want people to understand us. We are the people. We breath, we sing, we dance, we enjoy the environment that surrounds us. We love it, but we can only work with the government if you give us the way that we can come hand-in-hand and work together, in a way that you must understand us first. Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you.

Senator CROSSIN —As to yesterday’s announcement with Garrthalala now being the main hub, or one of the 20 hubs, my understanding is that where there are currently schools situated on the outstations they will continue and be resourced. Is that your understanding?

Mr Norton —As far as we know, yes, the homeland school is not under threat in any way, but by the same token there has been no indication of any government support for our secondary school program, which is probably the most successful secondary school program in the territory. We have 30 students who regularly fly to Garrthalala homeland each week and board there. The boarding facilities and the additional classrooms were established by the parents using their isolated students assistance allowance and with the assistance of Geelong Rotary Club. The discussions with the territory government earlier this week and the agenda laid out in the National Partnership Agreement basically say there is no scope for further investment and growth of homelands, particularly in the area of housing. If you stop housing, you stop growth and you condemn people to continued overcrowding. If you cannot invest in the infrastructure and you cannot invest in the housing, those homelands have no future. It may not happen tomorrow. It may not happen next year. That is the effect that those decisions will have. The Northern Territory strategy has been very closely aligned with the National Partnership Agreement. There is no immediate threat, but it raises big questions about the future.

Senator CROSSIN —How many participants do you manage on CDEP?

Mr Norton —We currently have 310. We have been repeatedly asking for an expansion of those numbers. We have, to date, been unsuccessful in that. We hope that if we become the preferred provider from 1 July we may be able to negotiate some additional places. We recently started providing services to a number of the homelands formerly associated with Gapuwiyak community who felt they would be better serviced by us rather than the East Arnhem Shire. We have had a protracted process trying to negotiate additional places to cover people from those homelands on CDEP.

Senator CROSSIN —Does the Blue Mud Bay decision impact on the planned work that you have intended for Laynhapuy?

Mr Norton —Not directly at this stage. As an association, as opposed to being the traditional owners, we are only tangentially involved in the Blue Mud Bay process. Dealings over fishing licences or anything like that go through the Northern Land Council, not through us, and we are not party to any of those sorts of discussions. However, as an association we have been working for a couple of years now on trying to establish an eco-cultural tourism venture at Blue Mud Bay with Yilpara community. We are assuming that will progress. Whether the Blue Mud Bay decisions and the sea rights issue will have any long-term economic or employment benefit related to that project I cannot say. At this stage we are unaware of any major discussions that would result in economic or employment benefits for Yolngu in the Blue Mud Bay area.

Senator CROSSIN —What has been the response of the Yilpara community to the announcement yesterday?

Ms Mununggurr —I think we are all in the same situation here. Yilpara is one of the biggest communities, and the traditional owner there wants something done for his community.

Senator CROSSIN —But he is not within the 50 kilometre radius of Yilpara, is he?

Ms Mununggurr —No.

Senator CROSSIN —So, it will not become a hub. It will only have services maintained as they are now?

Ms Mununggurr —Yes.

Mr Norton —I can clarify that we are currently looking after 25 permanently occupied homelands, although there may be a couple that fall within 50 kilometres of a major centre. I think Ramingining, Nhulunbuy and Bulman would fall within 50 kilometres of Gapuwiyak, but they are completely inaccessible during the wet season. Amongst the older Laynhapuy homelands, Bawaka would be within that 50 kilometres, but again it is pretty inaccessible during the wet season and you would spend about an hour and a half driving across sand to get there. All the rest of ours fall outside that radius, so the idea of Yirrkala being a hub and upgrading the road network is really not very practical.

Senator CROSSIN —Dhalinbuy is outside the 50 kilometres, is it not?

Mr Norton —Yes, it would be.

Senator CROSSIN —I would like to go to the increase in crime that you mentioned, Ms Mununggurr, particularly the increase in petrol sniffing and alcohol abuse. Even though people have their income managed, do you believe that the level of alcohol consumption has not decreased? What do you put that down to?

Ms Mununggurr —I am sorry?

Senator CROSSIN —Why is that?

Ms Mununggurr —We have a permit system in place for Yirrkala community, but people are misusing the permit system and abusing the system. For example, if a person is a non-permit holder, a permit holder might get alcohol for that other person, and it is just going. A permit holder can also purchase grog for kids under 15 years old. That is happening at Yirrkala. Kids from 15 up to 18 years old are drinking alcohol even though they do not have permit licences or are permit holders. They still get grog from the permit holders. Petrol sniffing is still our main issue at Yirrkala. Kids are still sniffing petrol. Laynhapuy organisation has been broken into many times now and we are copping a lot of damage worth over 40 or 50 grand being done by kids.

Mr Norton —I would like to comment on the alcohol issue. One of the things is changing dynamics. I am prefacing my comments by saying that I am not advocating the reintroduction of kava on a large scale, but certainly there was a change in behaviours when kava was banned and people who previously would have bought kava and drunk kava at Yirrkala are now going in and spending time at the Arnhem Club or the Walkabout Hotel and so on. One of the implications of that is that those adults are actually out of the community rather than in the community. There is a resurgent black market in kava, but it is extremely expensive, so alcohol would be a cheaper alternative if you were happy to drink alcohol.

Mr Mununggurr —As with the petrol sniffing, a number of sniffers are still there. They come in a group. Now, when they are locked up at night they go around and look for glues and other substances. It is still there.

Mr Norton —At the moment petrol sniffing in Yirrkala is still pretty much a small gang activity where a couple of young people if they are in town take off again, once they are out in remand or whatever, and then it drops down. It is the same with the associated crime. We had a bad run over a couple of months with vehicles regularly being stolen and things like that. The overall level of activity seems to be related to the presence of a number of individuals.

Senator CROSSIN —I would like to ask you about income management. What are your views about income management and do you think any changes need to be made? How could it be different?

Ms Mununggurr —For me, personally, income management is not working for my people. Why do we have to have income management? Where is the right there for Yolngu people? It is like that right was taken away from Yolngu people on how we can use our rupiah, our money, by having it income managed by Centrelink. There are a lot of issues going on at the moment with income management. I have had complaints from Yolngu people. They are finding it hard, especially ladies. They come to me and they tell me that they end up with hardly any rupiah, or money, left over to get food for their kids, for their grandchildren. Income management is sometimes used by taxi companies, bush taxi companies that go out bush, to the homeland. It is run by non-Indigenous taxi drivers and is transport for Yolngu people that goes to the bush and it costs about $500, for example, from Gangan to Yirrkala to go shopping. Once income management is used, all their money is taken away and sometimes with the taxi company they do not end up with food.

I have heard rumours that taxi companies are also charging extra to get a packet of cigarettes for people in the homelands. Transport to Gangan might cost $500 when they pay from income management. It might cost that Yolngu person $520 extra. That is for getting a packet of cigarettes for that person. With income management we cannot buy alcohol or cigarettes, but this is what is happening with homeland Yolngu people.

Mr Mununggurr —When you fly out in our aviation you cannot pay with income management vouchers.

Senator CROSSIN —Senator Moore was saying: what happened before that? But I think what you are saying is that it might have cost you $500 in a taxi before income management but now you are using up all of your disposable money and so all you have got left when you get to town is the BasicsCard?

Mr Norton —The other side of that is that, while you can use some of your income management for transport and so on, what the taxi drivers are doing is packaging it up so you get transport plus and they just add onto the fare but do not disclose what the plus is. It could be cigarettes; it could be alcohol.

Senator CROSSIN —You could still use your BasicsCard to pay for the taxi fare you mean?

Mr Norton —Basically people are finding ways to get around the system and the checks, yes.

Senator CROSSIN —Do people feel that they are being ripped off now with income management, where they were not before?

Ms Mununggurr —Yes.

Senator SIEWERT —We have had some people say that they have had the intervention. Mostly they do not like the intervention but the one thing that they thought they were going to get was housing and housing support, and now they feel ripped off because they are not getting housing through the intervention because it is now focused on communities. Do you feel like that? Do your people feel like that?

Ms Mununggurr —Of course we do. We feel that way. The intervention has done nothing whatsoever for the homelands alone—no housing. The only area that we have got funding for is health alone, and that is it.

Senator SIEWERT —Have the health checks and the follow-ups delivered outcomes? Have there been follow-ups?

Ms Mununggurr —Yes, there have been a lot of follow-ups, yes. We have also got a dental program happening with the intervention, but that is the only area that we have had any assistance for the homelands, just the health side of the story.

Senator SIEWERT —Did you get extra police? A lot of communities got extra police.

Ms Mununggurr —No.

Mr Norton —There is no permanent police presence in Yirrkala. There is an Aboriginal police liaison officer in Yirrkala but, because of its proximity to Nhulunbuy, they cannot justify having a permanent presence there. As to the health funding, in our particular case it really has been funding. There has been no additional presence on the ground. They did not mobilise doctors or volunteers and so on for that. There was simply the provision of additional funding and our health services have expanded to take on those extra functions.

Senator SIEWERT —That is your community health service. Did you ask for it to be delivered that way?

Ms Mununggurr —We were expecting that we were going to get volunteers and extra doctors but nothing happened.

Mr Norton —We were not unhappy about that. We actually felt it was better for our health service to control the delivery directly—

Senator SIEWERT —That is where I was going with that. There are a lot of communities who say, ‘We want to be able to control delivery of our health services.’ That is why I was asking that. It seemed like a good thing.

Mr Norton —I would have to say the other area where we have done very well out of the intervention is the expansion of our ranger program. We have been quite successful in picking up the converted CDEP jobs under the Working for Country program. We already had some in train prior to the intervention and then we have picked up some of the expanded positions since the intervention, so we now have quite a substantial ranger program. We see that as a very strong asset of our organisation.

Senator SIEWERT —How many people would be on the ranger program now.

Mr Norton —I think we currently have around 50.

Senator SIEWERT —As to health and what is being delivered through the additional health funding, that is being delivered to your community health service?

Mr Norton —That is right. Basically most of it is flowing through as variations to the core OATSIH funding agreement. We have had additional funding to do the dental project, for instance. I think they have recently received some additional funding for a mental health worker, but I guess it is all very blurred now. It is very hard to know what is the intervention and what is just core business of the agencies.

Senator SIEWERT —You do not know if you are going to get that ongoing funding or whether it is—

Mr Norton —In relation to the dental service, I believe the Northern Territory health department has picked up a fair chunk of the cost for the ongoing activity.

Senator SIEWERT —You did not get the extra doctors coming in, but did you do the health checks?

Mr Norton —They did the health checks but it was very much in a sense bringing forward the program they were already doing, so it just helped them get through it quicker.

Senator SIEWERT —You already had a program to do that and this enabled you to complete it quicker?

Mr Norton —That is correct.

Senator SIEWERT —Then follow up on follow-up checks and other care that was identified during the health checks?

Mr Norton —I have not spoken with our health manager for a while about this one, but I know at the time we made our submission they did have quite serious concerns about the ability to follow up, not in terms of the clinical service we provide but when referring patients to the mainstream health services. There were issues around that.

Senator ADAMS —Just as to the patient assisted travel scheme, I note that you are saying that there were deficiencies in the budget and it is going to cost the health service a lot more money. Could you actually just explain why your budget is not sufficient?

Mr Norton —I am no expert on the PAT scheme, but basically there is a restriction on PATS that you can only get travel assistance if you live I think it is more than 200 kilometres from the service. So there is only a small number of our homelands where the residents are actually eligible for PATS assistance, which means our health service out of its core funding is having to pick up a lot of the costs for patient travel in and out of Gove, possibly to Darwin. It has to do with the limitations within PATS. If we refer somebody and then a specialist lines them up for further clinical treatment and so on, basically the bills come back to us rather than someone in the mainstream health system picking up all those subsequent costs associated with the referral.

Senator ADAMS —It is for a specialist service, so how far are your homelands from Darwin?

Mr Norton —Gove is about 700 kilometres by air from Darwin, 1000 kilometres by road, but the distance is measured from Gove District Hospital, not from Darwin.

Senator ADAMS —It is the local hospital, but are the specialists there? Patient assisted travel is something that I have done on a lot of work on, so I am wondering whether or not you are getting what you really should be entitled to.

Mr Norton —I would have to take your question on notice on that one and put it to our health manager. I am not across all the details of PATS.

Senator ADAMS —I would be very happy if you could do that and if you can just explain exactly why you are being denied that and why the health service is having to fund these referrals.

Senator SIEWERT —While you are taking questions on notice, if you have any additional information on the follow-up health services and whether or not you consider it has been a successful follow-up, that would be much appreciated as well. You make a comment in your submission that you do not have government business managers?

Ms Mununggurr —We do not have government business managers. The only government business manager we have is based at Yirrkala, but she does not have anything to do with the homelands.

Senator SIEWERT —When you said that the only houses that have been built in the homelands were the two government business houses, one of those was for that government business manager?

Ms Mununggurr —Yes, for Yirrkala.

Mr Norton —Under the emergency legislation, the role of government business manager is actually circumscribed to the prescribed community. Although the homelands are on prescribed Aboriginal land under the legislation we are not a prescribed community. The two government business manager residences are actually in Yirrkala. One was one of the original round of container dwellings that had formaldehyde problems. The next one is a proper demountable dwelling, but apparently there is some issue with air-conditioners, or something. But the net effect is that there is probably around $600,000-odd of expenditure on residences for the government’s business managers which are not being lived in. We assume she is either in government housing in Nhulunbuy or staying in a hotel. That is not a criticism of the government business manager.

Senator SIEWERT —That is simply the circumstance. When we were in Alice Springs we found out that in Papunya they discovered that a room full of computers had been delivered there through the intervention and were not being used. They are now being used because it has been discovered that they are there and they are setting up a training program. Are there other resources that you have been given through the intervention such as education support, computers or any other form of infrastructure?

Mr Norton —The one piece of infrastructure we got through the intervention was a transportable building which was to enable visiting dentists to stay. We actually contributed additional funds to that, just about doubling what was contributed so we could actually get a proper configuration and basically have what will result in a three-bedroom dwelling that we can use for ongoing visitor accommodation. That is the only capital funding we have as far as I know.

We have had other capital funding but, like I said, it is very hard to know now what is the intervention and what is not. We have not been gifted a room full of computers. To be frank, we do not need any more computers. What we need is a full-time IT support person who can support and train. As an organisation we now have to look after probably 60 computers, including computers and internet connections and telephones, on our remote homelands and that has become a major burden to us.

Senator SIEWERT —That is in fact what they are doing at Papunya now. They have got an IT person going in who is actually providing training. It has been very successful.

Senator ADAMS —I will ask about adult education. I note here in your submission you are saying that adult English literacy and numeracy levels on the homelands are at approximately grade three level. Where have you got to with your request to try to sort this problem out?

Mr Norton —That assessment of the literacy levels was made by the literacy and numeracy teacher from Batchelor Institute for Indigenous Tertiary Education who has worked in the area for many years. Following that we put in an application to try to get a WELL program, a Workplace English Literacy and Language program. I believe that program has been substantially revamped with the new Indigenous employment program and we will look at it again.

But our first round of applications for that basically went nowhere. The project we had constructed was going to require a couple of hundred thousand dollars. At that stage the WELL program was capped at $120,000, I think, and there was basically no point in proceeding with it. Based on the advice of the literacy and numeracy teacher we constructed a program outline. It was estimated that it would probably take three years of full-time training to get people to a post-secondary literacy standard. He could only deal with a class of about 30. I cannot remember the number exactly, but we were looking at two groups of 30. The reality is, even if you could get that level of resources, you are looking at about 24 or 25 years before you could provide literacy and numeracy training to all the adults in the homelands. I think the WELL program is DEEWR’s responsibility. Sure, it looked like a big bucket of money, but to actually get literacy outcomes on the ground it is a pittance. The problem is huge. It is a massive issue and it will take decades to solve and it will not be solved with $100,000 here and $100,000 there for 12-month projects.

We do literacy and numeracy stuff in any of the other training they do. They try to incorporate little components of it. We have a training section where they do not actually provide the training. They coordinate the training activities; identify the training needs; and identify trainers, primarily Batchelor and CDU, but also individual registered training organisations to come in and run courses. Wherever it is needed or appropriate they have to do some literacy and numeracy just to help people try to get through the certificates, certificate 1 and certificate 2. But the literacy and numeracy is a critical barrier. We have a number of construction trainees and apprentices. In the past we have had them in our mechanical workshop. Very few of them can do certificate 3. They do not have the literacy and numeracy. They might have the technical skills but they do not get through the certificates.

We are doing what we can in any individual training, but ideally we would have one or two literacy/numeracy trainers in house full time. That would be our preferred way of doing it. Instead you have to try to negotiate a bit here and a little bit there.

Senator ADAMS —This would be one of your biggest issues in people getting real jobs. It is a fact that they are being held back because they are not getting the basic training or have the resources available to actually learn?

Mr Norton —There was a decision made early on in the life of the current government where they did put substantial funds into literacy and numeracy programs, but the decision was that some major RTOs like Charles Darwin University would get, in a sense, the bulk of the funding to deliver training in the major communities. Literacy and numeracy training outside the major communities was tied to participation in Job Network and being a client of a Job Network member. Job Network basically does not exist outside the major communities so there were really few clients and even fewer trainers to be seen. Although some money may have been committed to it, it was not going to deliver any outcomes.

Senator ADAMS —Are you going to try to continue to get funding and to make people aware of the problem?

Mr Norton —The issue of funding is a daily event.

CHAIR —In regard to your opening remark on the funding for the continuation of your secondary school, do you know who currently provides the recurrent funding for the running of that school?

Mr Norton —It is run essentially as an extension of the Yirrkala homeland school, which was only primary level. About four years ago they set up a pilot project and I think they ran out of their own resources for the first six to 12 months and then they got a small grant from the Commonwealth.

I think earlier this year they were successful in having that pilot project extended. Again, it is one of these instances where you have a pilot project that is actually working and successful and it just gets extended as a pilot project. I do not know which exact bucket of money it is but it is not secure, ongoing funding and it is not funding to build the school. It is literally just to keep it running. There are some staff within the homeland school allocated to working with the secondary students. All the boarding costs I believe are covered by the parents out of their isolated students allowance. The funding is really picking up the travel costs and the additional costs for the staffing of the school.

CHAIR —What would you think would be the consequences for that whole region if the school is not sustainable?

Mr Norton —Based on history I think you would have to say that they are not going to go to Yirrkala school. Yirrkala School is still struggling getting its secondary program up, anyway. We have had kids sent to boarding schools in the southern states or the eastern states. It is still tried periodically. It generally has not been successful. Admittedly things have changed and now there are some more dedicated programs to try to make it work for Indigenous students, but it has not been a big success to date. I suspect if the school were not sustained the kids would just fall out of the loop completely.

We have attendance of I think 30 or 40 students a week—this is run by the education department, not by us—and I believe they could expand it if they had the physical capacity at the school to do it. We would just ask government to really make some decisions based on evidence. Look at those numbers and look at the subsidy that goes to the major private schools when they have disadvantaged students brought in; look at the subsidy that has gone to Tiwi College and really make some judgement about where you are getting value for money and then hopefully give us a bit more money.

CHAIR —On behalf of the committee I thank the representatives of the Laynhapuy Homelands Association. There may be some more questions on notice. As is the case for most of the people who give evidence, we do not appear to ever have enough time so the committee may provide questions on notice. I thank you for your appearance today.

Proceedings suspended from 12.16 pm to 1.16 pm