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Northern Australia Agenda Select Committee
15/12/2020

EADES, Ms Melinda, Executive Officer, Torres Cape Indigenous Council Alliance

CHAIR: Welcome. Ms Eades, I understand that information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. Would you like to make a short statement? We'll then have some questions.

Ms Eades : Without reading our submission, I'll give you a little bit of context and a little bit of understanding about what the alliance, TCICA, is about. We're a regional organisation of councils. We represent nearly all of the local governments across Cape York and the Torres Strait, as well as Mornington Shire and the Gulf of Carpentaria. We have 13 members. We're a membership based organisation. Eleven of our 13 members are Indigenous local governments. The two that are non-Indigenous are Weipa Town Authority and Cook Shire Council. Both are governing bodies that obviously play a very integral role in the cape and Torres Strait region. Our focus is around local government cooperation and collaboration. That is a key focus of a regional organisation of councils. We also play a role, not as an economic development agency but in working with the state, and in particular through the Remote Area Boards program on economic development opportunities. We've received some funding from the state government to do some economic development planning activity. It's the first time it's really been led by Indigenous communities. Economic development and planning for the region has been either under statutory processes or by industry-led bodies. We developed an opportunities plan last year which identifies five overarching regional development objectives. They're very much focussed around social and cultural opportunities for Indigenous people and having people at the heart of any kind of economic activity in the cape and Torres Strait region.

In our submission to the inquiry we made a couple of key points around the northern Australia white paper and the fact that addressing Indigenous disadvantage in particular is almost completely absent from the white paper. In any refresh of the white paper, we would certainly want to see much more focus on addressing those issues of social disadvantage in Indigenous communities. One of the fundamental issues facing Indigenous communities is lack of housing and lack of attention by the Commonwealth on providing adequate funding to address the very significant housing shortfalls in Indigenous communities. We believe that we won't see significant economic opportunity for Indigenous communities until the housing issues are addressed. You can't send kids to school if you can't give them a good night's sleep because they're disrupted in a household with 20-odd people. Health outcomes are severely impacted in Indigenous communities because you can't keep people healthy when you've got that many people living in a house. So that's probably the No. 1 priority for the TCICA and, indeed, for most Indigenous local governments across Australia. We would want to see that addressed in any future work in northern Australia.

We also mentioned in our submission that there was a high degree of expectation generated due to the focus on northern Australia, which arguably is not yet delivering significant outcomes. There's been a lot of discussion around the role of the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility and some of the shortcomings around the NAIF. I don't think that's due to the NAIF people not working hard; it is because the mandate that the NAIF works under is not appropriate to address many of those infrastructure issues. The other concern is that the government must play a key role in funding public infrastructure—roads, ports, airports, housing, energy networks and communication networks. The private sector is not going to step in to address those infrastructure gaps where the economies of scale make it completely unviable for them to do so regardless of financing arrangements.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for that. I'm really pleased that you're giving evidence, because we haven't really had much evidence at all today about the particular needs of Indigenous people in this region. We wouldn't want to have a hearing without that being a major focus. Can you tell us a little bit more about the issue around housing. Is it simply a lack of investment? If we were making recommendations, would they simply be about the quantum or are there other issues as well?

Ms Eades : I think it fundamentally comes down to a lack of investment. After the 10-year NPARIH ended, there was no further agreement by the Commonwealth to work with the jurisdictions to continue to fund Indigenous housing. The Commonwealth did commit a further $105 million in Queensland, which certainly doesn't address the shortfall but it's absolutely welcome money. We're working hard, through Indigenous Australians minister Ken Wyatt, to try and get an ongoing focus on and ongoing commitments to addressing Indigenous housing issues. The government's own report identified that there was still significant attention needed to address the shortfalls.

CHAIR: One of our earlier witnesses today dobbed you in as the person we should ask about the issues regarding land tenure—

Ms Eades : Allan Dale?

CHAIR: No—Nick Trompf. He simply said that you would be more qualified to talk about these issues than he would be. Issues around land tenure are often put forward as issues that need to be dealt with in order to realise Indigenous economic development. Do you or your members have any perspectives on that that you'd like to share?

Ms Eades : Yes, certainly. Tenure is a huge issue right across northern Australia and made more complex in some respects, because each jurisdiction has different legislation around land as well. So you can't have a blanket approach to resolving those tenure issues. In Queensland, from a local government perspective, the challenge for them is needing to provide community infrastructure. If they need to do that and negotiate tenure arrangements, it can become incredibly difficult for them. There are provisions under the Native Title Act for essential infrastructure, but the preference is always to negotiate with the traditional owners. The challenge there is you've got two legitimate governance structures as well, both in some respects in competition. This is also probably a question that Mayor Vonda Malone will be able to address tomorrow with you. She'll have a much deeper knowledge of some of the issues that councils face around needing to build community infrastructure on land.

So, yes, absolutely, it's certainly an issue that comes up all of the time. It comes up all the time as an impediment to economic development. It's not necessarily an impediment, but it's a very complex environment for people and investors to negotiate and an incredibly expensive environment for investors to negotiate.

CHAIR: Senator McDonald, would you like to jump in?

Senator McDONALD: Thank you very much. Thank you for coming to give evidence today. In terms of creating new jobs, what are the big opportunities for development in your LGAs? What industries could become your big employers?

Ms Eades : Mining is a major industry, particularly in the northern cape region, with the presence of Rio Tinto. Rio Tinto has a significant focus on Indigenous employment outcomes as well. That is one of the larger employers. We've just completed a tourism development opportunities study, looking at luxury, high-end tourism. We see that as an opportunity to build skills in communities and to lead to genuine long-term employment opportunities for people.

One of the other significant opportunities—leveraging the money going into the cape and Torres Strait region, particularly the roads funding under the Cape York Region Package, and the housing money as well—is to continue developing jobs in the construction industry and construction associated trade. Some communities have done that exceptionally well. Lockhart River and Hope Vale in particular are two communities that have done a great job in leveraging investments in the region and building some good skill sets within their communities. The challenge when that money dries up is that you've got people who are fully qualified sitting around with limited opportunity. But for now Lockhart River has eight, nine or 10 private sector businesses, which the council has worked incredibly hard to help establish. They're legitimate businesses. They're competitive. They do a lot of council work and they also do a lot of road work through DTMR and so forth.

Senator McDONALD: Terrific.

CHAIR: They're council ones, are they?

Ms Eades : No, they're private sector owned businesses. Some councils operate those sorts of services themselves, but other councils have seen opportunities to establish private sector businesses by almost underwriting them for a period of time and providing administrative support to them until they're able to stand on their own and legitimately compete for council work and other work.

Senator McDONALD: In your submission, the area that your LGAs cover represents 13 per cent of Queensland's total land area but is only home to 0.6 per cent of the state's population. Is it a lack of jobs that's preventing population growth in the region, or is there anything else? What about state government services like hospitals and schools?

Ms Eades : Yes, a lack of meaningful jobs is an issue for communities. By the same token when jobs are available it can be incredibly difficult to fill them because of a lack of capacity and skills development within communities. A lot of services are delivered on a fly-in fly-out basis, particularly health services. Whilst there are clinics in communities, they don't have the level of service provision and access to specialists and so forth that you would obviously have in a bigger community. The very low population really challenges service delivery in communities. Particularly where governments are funding private sector enterprise to deliver those services, the enterprise will do it as economically as it can, which means fly in, fly out. By the same token, communities lack housing infrastructure so they can't house workers either.

Senator McDONALD: In your submission, you noted that the cost of electricity, insurance and freight are inhibiters to economic growth. Could you talk a little bit more about each of those?

Ms Eades : Certainly. Electricity is provided by Ergon, the state network, which operates under a community service obligation to standardise electricity prices for domestic users. That said, it does inhibit business growth, because they pay different rates. In a place like Weipa, which relies on Rio Tinto for energy generation, it becomes even more complex, particularly for the commercial sector. There's only one sea freight provider operating across the entire cape and Torres Strait region and into the gulf, and that's SeaSwift. In the past, there was competition on that route, but it's barely viable to operate one separate sea freight service. SeaSwift, in my view—some of the councils will differ in their view—do their best to provide a service as economically as they can, but they're commercially driven as well. When communities are entirely reliant on, say, freight during the wet season, when the roads are impassable, it very significantly drives up costs for the communities. It can turn a $1,000 washing machine into a $3,000 washing machine. What was the third one?

Senator McDONALD: The third one was insurance.

Ms Eades : That's an ongoing issue for the entire northern region. I don't have specific examples, but, from a local government perspective, I know that their insurance costs have absolutely skyrocketed. They have been working with the Local Government Association of Queensland around the potential of a local government insurance mutual to try and drive some of those costs down. Some councils have been forced to make decisions around self-insuring because they can't afford insurance. Some councils saw a 200 or 300 per cent increase in insurance costs. It's a very significant issue for local governments in particular. There's not a lot of home ownership. That's a different matter altogether.

Senator McDONALD: There are projects such as the Kowanyama project, which we heard about this morning, and the CRC for Northern Australia. We heard the state government approvals and regulations act as significant inhibiters to development. Is that something that you've seen? Are there other barriers to investment and development that you'd like to raise?

Ms Eades : I can't really comment on the Kowanyama project. My assumption is that it's about the biofuel piece. I'm sorry—I can't really comment on that because we don't operate at a project level as such. We made points in our submission that lack of access to finance, lack of capital and lack of equity are major problems for most project proponents originating within the region. They're major inhibitors to any sort of project development. This has been identified also in the tourism development opportunities study that was recently completed. There are lots of great ideas out there, but the lack of access to finance is a real issue, as well as lack of support for feasibility studies and business cases, which any bank will require before they even touch a potential proponent. The mandate of the NAIF doesn't allow it to step in at that much lower level.

Senator McDONALD: Are you aware of the changes that have been made to the NAIF and announced this year?

Ms Eades : Not in detail. I know its investment mandate has widened quite significantly, and I did see that it can make equity investments now, but my assumption is it's still looking at those larger-scale projects rather than that $2 million or $3 million project.

Senator McDONALD: I'll send you some information, because it has been reduced down to that $1 million level. That will hopefully assist.

Ms Eades : Great, thank you.

Senator McDONALD: We've touched on housing, energy, ports, roads, the list of things that require funding that you raised before, but it is my understanding that these are state responsibilities. The federal government is now stepping in and providing money for roads and social housing. One of the things that we've heard evidence on today is a greater sense of coordination between the three levels of government, on projects, that will commence the process and spend a significant amount of money on consultants and project approvals. They might end up getting some departments providing approval but not others. Do you have a view on what could better happen, at state and federal levels, to coordinate the approvals processes?

Ms Eades : Yes, absolutely. We made this point in the submission as well, I believe, backing up what Mayor Manning had said around that collaboration between all three levels of government, local, state and Commonwealth. I think the regional deals, those tripartite agreements, are the best way to get alignment between all three levels of government, to address many of those issues around inconsistencies in legislation, to drive outcomes. It's easy enough for the states to blame the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth to blame the states. And local governments are sitting there going, 'We're on the ground. Our job is to provide services to our communities, to our constituents,' but they're impeded by either a lack of political alignment between the states and Commonwealth or just a lack of will between one level of government or the other. If you could get to a tripartite agreement arrangement, at least you could get everyone on the same page, working in the same direction, and committed to achieving the same outcome.

Senator McDONALD: Yes. There is quite clear direction on those things in the Constitution but we remain having this argy-bargy between levels of government and it's not useful to the north, I would suggest. Finally, I wanted to ask you, will the development of northern Australia help to not only increase economic outcomes but also provide social outcomes for people living in your LGAs?

Ms Eades : Yes, it will. I guess the question is: what comes first? Is it improving the social outcomes to drive economic development or is it addressing the economic infrastructure issues to then drive social outcomes? It needs to happen, perhaps, together. But, for Indigenous communities, addressing the very significant social disadvantage that they face absolutely has to come first before you can even get people into jobs, before you can get kids going to school and upskilling. It has to go hand in hand.

Senator ROBERTS: I'd like to have you discuss two topics that you raised in your submission. The first one is this comment:

The absence of any real focus in the Northern Australia White Paper on addressing the social disadvantage faced by remote and Indigenous communities means there are no discernible benefits arising from specific investments to date.

That's a pretty blunt statement and I compliment you for, or appreciate, your integrity. Other people have dared to say the same thing, with the same outcome—that they're disappointed with the lack of progress—so you've belled the cat.

Earlier on, in your paper, you said:

While investments in infrastructure are extremely important, these alone will not not create a foundation for addressing broader regional disadvantage, particularly for remote and Indigenous communities. Overcoming the social disadvantage faced by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in remote communities must be front and centre if Northern Australia is to come close to realising its true potential.

What is the nature of that disadvantage? What's causing it to persist? Take as long as you want. It's very important. You've just highlighted this as the issue.

Ms Eades : Yes, certainly, and I guess those were some of the issues that I responded to Senator McDonald's questions about as well. I go back to my opening statement: housing is absolutely fundamental to addressing a lot of that social disadvantage. As I said, when you've got houses that have 20 people living in them, you're not going to have healthy families. You're not going to have healthy environments for young children growing up. You're not going to have kids going to school. It's going to contribute to issues of domestic and family violence. Also communities feel they lack any control over what happens in their communities with that community-level decision making.

Senator ROBERTS: Keep going.

Ms Eades : Yes, certainly. There's a lot of talk about community control, community-led decision-making—

Senator ROBERTS: The lack of it?

Ms Eades : Well, if you're listening to what the state and the Commonwealth are saying, they're very focused on community control and Indigenous-led and co-designed approaches and so forth, but it's still within the parameters of what a government agency believes is community control, so, whilst that's the rhetoric, the reality on the ground is still not community control when something still has to be done within the parameters of a program which doesn't recognise the unique sorts of governance structures that exist in Indigenous communities, which don't really accord with white man's governance.

Senator ROBERTS: Are you saying that the Aboriginal structures of governance are in conflict with the way Europeans behave, or are you saying that what we've imposed as governance structures on Aboriginal communities is not in accord with what works for European communities?

Ms Eades : Both. European governance structures are conflicting with traditional and cultural governance arrangements that operate within communities, which becomes challenging for communities as well. As I said, there's a lot of government rhetoric about community-led decision-making, but they're required to still do it within the parameters that a state or Commonwealth agency says they have to do it within, so that's not really co-design and community-led decision making.

Senator ROBERTS: I know Canberra's one of the least accountable places in the country, but they still need to account for the money that they spend. So you accept that. So they try to impose our accountability systems on a community that doesn't really understand that or where it's not in accordance with their cultural background?

Ms Eades : Yes, that's right, in part.

Senator ROBERTS: So we're not going to get real accountability that way?

Ms Eades : Yes, and that's a challenge for the government, isn't it—around how it ensures accountability to the broader population as well. I don't know what the solution is. You might hear some ideas tomorrow, when you're on Thursday Island, about how to potentially address some of those issues. I'm not saying that Indigenous communities don't accept the need for accountability, but they're challenged by this notion of co-design when agencies come to them with 98 per cent designed policies in the first place. That's not co-design.

Senator ROBERTS: I'm far from being an expert on Aboriginal affairs and communities, but I have been to most of the communities on the cape, except for Aurukun, because they had a sorry day when we were going there. It was a very rushed trip, but one of the messages we picked up everywhere was the impact of the people between the government agencies that provided money and the communities, the people on the ground. The Aboriginal industry in the middle also becomes a controlling factor and tries to seek control of land, control of resources and control of the money. The communities were telling us: 'We don't get the money. It gets sucked off in the middle by this Aboriginal industry.' I can see you nodding your head.

Ms Eades : Absolutely. That's an issue. Both the Commonwealth and the state have various programs that are seeking to better deliver services on the ground and potentially cut that middleman out, but there'll probably always be a role in part for that middleman. A lot of the money that is going to those organisations to deliver services into communities doesn't hit the ground. There are huge amounts of duplication because a lot of those programs are funded in isolation. There's not a lot of conversation and collaboration between those organisations because they're all in a competitive process as well for that funding. As a consequence, it's the communities that continue to miss out.

Those organisations have large corporate structures themselves in some cases. For our region, a lot of them head office in Cairns. They're flying in and out of communities, spending significant amounts of money presumably doing that, but not delivering the service on the ground that communities say is their priority. The state has its Local Thriving Communities agenda, which is around reform of service delivery. You've got the Empowered Communities model and Pama Futures, which is a model designed by Cape York partnerships and supported by the Commonwealth, which is essentially also around service delivery reform, but the communities are still struggling to get across the fact that they're the ones that know what services they need. They don't need service providers coming in and providing services that the provider thinks they need.

Senator ROBERTS: I get a sense that the communities, from what we were told by members in the community, have advanced over the last 20 years. So it's heading in the right direction but far too slowly, and they can still see a lot of injustice. It seems that we've got, for want of a better word, people who don't understand the communities sending them money and holding them accountable. We've got a bunch in the middle that have got everything to gain from siphoning off the funds and maintaining control. So it's always the people at the end of the line who miss out—that is, the people in the community on the ground. What sorts of attempts have been made by government, whether state or federal, to try and understand this mess?

Ms Eades : I just mentioned Local Thriving Communities, which is the state model for service delivery reform. The Queensland Productivity Commission did an inquiry a couple of years ago into service delivery in remote communities to try and understand what this mess looks like, how to unwind it and how to give back to communities the control for that decision-making. It's two to 2½ years on, and I think the state is still struggling to deliver in part that agenda. Then you've got the Commonwealth with its own sort of model for that going on as well.

Senator ROBERTS: Is there an attempt to understand each other?

Ms Eades : Between the state and the Commonwealth?

Senator ROBERTS: The Commonwealth and the state, the communities and the Aboriginal industry. Is there a genuine intent? I'm not saying it's dishonest or insincere, but are people really willing to let go and have a frank discussion? What happens in the broader community in Australia is: if these issues are not raised, it perpetuates the festering and the disadvantage; and if they are raised, sometimes people are labelled with various names like 'racist' if people happen to disagree. That just dumbs down and shuts down the discussion. Is there anywhere starting to have a frank discussion?

Ms Eades : I'm quite sure the attempts are genuine. Whether all parties are on board and ready to come to the table is perhaps the issue in some respects. I think there still needs to be that shared understanding developed. I don't know; I'm not close enough to it to know how the state and the Commonwealth are talking around their two service delivery reform agendas. Each community will have its own view around that as well. That's probably a question to ask tomorrow, when you're talking to the mayors of the two Torres councils about how they feel about that.

Senator ROBERTS: Perhaps another one—a philosophical discussion. I'm not a scholar of history either, but I have travelled through all 50 American states and I understand a bit of the history of America and a little bit of the history of Western civilisation. It seems to me that civilisations have thrived and jobs have been created when people move to jobs. What we're trying to do in northern Australia—and when I say 'we' I mean Canberra and the state capitals—is move jobs to people.

I'm not advocating that the Aboriginals in remote communities should leave and go to the city to get a job—I'm not saying that at all—but maybe we need to fine-tune or even radically change our approach, because the result that we produce is governed by our energy, which is governed by the intent. So is the very intent at the start doomed to failure?

Ms Eades : No, I don't think that's the right way to look at it—absolutely not. I think the jobs need to be created in communities. In an ideal world you wouldn't have first-year teachers from Brisbane being sent to communities to teach Indigenous people; you would have that capacity built within communities so that teachers in Indigenous communities would be Indigenous people. It's the same with health workers. You'd build that capacity within communities. It's the same with higher-level positions that often have to be flown into communities.

Even councils struggle to recruit people that have the necessary skills to do some of the jobs that are required. Either you have offices in Cairns and base those people in Cairns, because you cannot draw that talent to a community, or you build that capacity within a community so that you stop this fly-in fly-out service delivery. Once you start to do that you can start to develop businesses within communities as well—the service providers, the businesses that support communities—and they make communities more liveable places.

Senator ROBERTS: I'm not going to discuss whether the decision of Campbell Newman's government to cut some of the public service was right or wrong. Forget that for a minute. What I'm putting forward is not an argument in favour or against that. But I do know, having been in communities like Charleville and Longreach, is that when they did cut public servants the communities lost some of their people. Obviously they took their families with them, which meant there were fewer kids at school and fewer people to do the shopping in town. That meant that even more businesses shut down and even more people left. There's the same impact regardless of whether it is an Indigenous community or a European community. It doesn't matter. The same basic fundamentals apply, right?

Ms Eades : I disagree in part with that, in that Indigenous people are inherently connected to land, so they have a different draw keeping them in community. If that connection to land wasn't there, they would potentially not remain in community because, from our perspective, why would you want to live so remotely? But they are inherently connected to land.

Senator ROBERTS: I accept that, and again I didn't mean moving people out of those communities. What I'm saying is: what's stopping the jobs going to those communities? When I said a minute ago that what we're doing in northern Australia is moving jobs to people, it seems to me that we're trying to move jobs to people, which is laudable, but that the other restrictions in terms of especially land tenure mean that those jobs can't arise there and can't stay there. The whole thing needs to be done in an integrated way—a holistic approach. There's no horse and cart. They're all part of the damn herd.

Ms Eades : That's it. It's a very broad ecosystem that has to be addressed. You can't just address one thing and expect that—there will be some downstream impacts, but there are a whole range of issues that absolutely have to be addressed, without a doubt.

I don't think you would see the sort of rural decline that you've seen in rural communities when jobs have moved away. I don't think that you would see that necessarily in Indigenous communities, because of their connection. That said, parents of children want to see that their kids have got a future. But often for those kids, if they've been brought up in an Indigenous community, a place like Cairns is absolutely overwhelming for them. They want to go back and be on country. That's not all Indigenous children, but there are plenty of Indigenous young people who go back to community as soon as they've done their boarding school. They come out of their boarding school, often very well educated, and they'll go back into the community. The problem then is that there are no jobs for them, so they fall into a pattern of, potentially, crime. They get themselves in trouble, and it becomes a cycle of disadvantage again.

Senator ROBERTS: I noticed when Senator McDonald asked you a question about jobs your answer was 'meaningful jobs'. You put the emphasis on 'meaningful', which was wonderful for me to hear. So it is a matter of coming back to basics. Is anyone or any group looking at the whole process? If the process is wrong, you're going to get the wrong outcome. It seems like we've learned over the 50 years that we've actually contributed to the problem with some of our solutions; we've worsened the problem. People in Canberra, in Brisbane and in the Aboriginal communities have admitted that. Everyone's made mistakes. So has anyone looked at that process for getting these communities going, and has anyone looked at the intent? If it's a paternalistic intent, we're always going to have some puppeteers over the top.

Ms Eades : I can only really refer to my experience working with my member councils. They would love to see local people take up those council jobs and build those skills. Some councils have quite firm policies around only employing local people and working to upskill those people. I think the Commonwealth through various iterations of employment programs—now, I think, the Community Development Program—have a genuine policy intent around creating meaningful jobs for people. But I've heard stories—and these are just stories—of people being employed to do things like paint rocks. They're just stories, but they're some of the stories that you do hear around people being engaged and occupied in some of those so-called CDP jobs. Noel Pearson recently presented to the TCICA a policy proposal he has for a jobs guarantee program, which I understand he's talking to the Commonwealth and various jurisdictions about, which is around making sure that people are doing meaningful jobs but on a minimum wage rather than a welfare-type payment so people would actually be earning a proper minimum wage. It's still a policy proposal at this point. We're talking further with Cape York Partnership early next year to explore that a little bit more. Certainly there's work underway around how you might improve those employment outcomes for people in communities.

Senator ROBERTS: It is a matter of small steps early. I used to manage coal mines. In the early days, the safety was very poor. We improved the safety. One of the things that we did to keep people in touch with the work was introduce selected duties. So, if a person had a back injury, we put him to work maybe on the surface or maybe on selected duties so that it involved no lifting, straining or something like that. I once took over the management of a mine where they had eight or so people on selected duties, and they were basically painting guardrails—painting leaves. I'm being silly now, but none of them felt any pride. All of them felt shame in doing that. They were looked upon as malingerers. So we tightened it right up, got rid of most of that and put them on meaningful jobs. And then we had much better improvement through that, because people have to get meaning from what they're doing, whether it's paid or unpaid—we've got lots of volunteers working around the country. If we can't get the core a meaningful job, we're not going to get the rest one.

Ms Eades : Yes, that's absolutely right. People need to feel that they're contributing to society and community. You're probably keen to move on to your next session, but I just want to make one point around some of the impacts of COVID—in particular, on the amount of money that has flown into communities over the last six months under the various increases to social welfare, the ability to draw down on superannuation and also, most recently, settlement distribution of stolen wages from the state government, which has seen very significant amounts of money flow into communities and caused many, many social problems but has also stopped people from going to work. Why are they going to go to work when all of this money is coming in?

So councils, in particular, have faced real issues around getting people to come to work—because people are getting all this money by not having to go to work. And that's a problem when you don't necessarily have a minimum wage when people are on a community-development type program: why are they going to do anything when they don't have to?

Senator ROBERTS: And if there's a lack of a meaningful job to contribute to their community, plus they're getting more money, then there's more mischief, regardless of their race, colour, background, gender or whatever. That's just human.

Ms Eades : Yes, that's right. That's not just Indigenous communities; I'm sure there have been plenty of communities across the country that have seen those sorts of social problems arise.

CHAIR: Can I just pick up on that, Ms Eades. I was going to ask you about this anyway. We have had evidence from other witnesses today, always described as anecdotal, that the higher rate of JobSeeker being paid has discouraged a range of people from seeking work. That's been put forward as one of the reasons why local employers have been finding it difficult to find workers. I was going to ask you about this, given that the council areas that your organisation represents have some of the highest unemployment rates in the country, and I've seen research from ACOSS which suggests that it's communities on the cape, in particular, that will suffer the most from the reduction in the rates of JobSeeker, as it's being tapered down. What views are you hearing about the potential for further reductions in the JobSeeker rate in coming months?

Ms Eades : To be honest, from my member councils, nothing. Councils are not eligible for JobKeeper, so it has not impacted councils per se—so it's not an issue that's been raised through TCICA.

CHAIR: I'm sorry; we've had this confusion through the course of the day between JobKeeper and JobSeeker. I suppose I'm focusing on JobSeeker. You're right: I know councils aren't eligible for JobKeeper. It may still be the same answer, that councils haven't been raising it, but I'm asking about, effectively, the unemployment payments, as opposed to the wage subsidies.

Ms Eades : I actually can't answer that question for you, sorry. Again, that might be a question maybe to raise tomorrow with Mayors Malone and Mosby, perhaps. I'm sorry, I can't answer that question.

CHAIR: I have one other question, which I realise might also be out of your scope. I really appreciate the evidence that you've given and, I suppose, that what you've tried to do is bring together some unifying themes across a very diverse range of councils and regions across the cape and the Torres Strait. I suppose I'm also conscious that there are also pretty significant regional differences. Is it possible to think of issues that are bigger for some parts of the cape or the Torres Strait than others, when we're thinking about how we advance people's interests and get this Northern Australia agenda working? I can understand that something like housing would be something that is universal across the cape, but there might be things that are bigger issues in the eastern cape or western cape.

Ms Eades : Yes. I guess the Torres Strait sharing a border with PNG, in particular, gives it a fairly unique set of challenges and issues to deal with as well, and opportunities. Being on an international shipping lane does offer some significant opportunities for economic development, if they can capitalise on that proximity to the international shipping lane. For the eastern cape, apart from the lower communities, you've really only got Lockhart River, which is incredibly isolated, in the eastern cape region. That in itself has its own challenges around connectivity, particularly telecommunications connectivity. Weipa and its role, I guess, as an economic powerhouse separates it somewhat from many of the other communities. But, as I said earlier, it plays an absolutely integral role in the cape region. It will be challenged over the next few years or, really, until it actually becomes a normalised local government—because currently Weipa is still a function of Rio Tinto. It's something that Weipa Town Authority is working very hard on to try and progress with the state government around transitioning to normalised local government. They're still working out what that would look like and how that will transition.

CHAIR: That's connected to changes afoot in the mining industry?

Ms Eades : It's more about Rio Tinto's focus south of Weipa towards its Amrun run mine down south. It will stop mining around Weipa in the next five or so years. It doesn't want to run a town anymore, but the state needs to step in and work with Rio Tinto around normalising Weipa. It is a commercial hub that obviously supports the mining industry, but it has a tourism industry, it has a fishing industry, and it has a whole heap of other associated industries that allow it to potentially stand on its own as an independent local government. That will have implications for the northern Australia agenda going forward as well.

Senator ROBERTS: It's also potentially a port for export from the cape to connect with those shipping lanes.

Ms Eades : Yes; absolutely. It has a deepwater port that Rio Tinto won't be using for much longer. The port authority are looking for a future opportunity for that port. It has previously shipped live cattle. Instead of coming around the top and heading down the east coast of Queensland, they're looking at opportunities of going west to Darwin and up north into Asia. They're looking at the opportunities for that port, particularly as the Peninsula Developmental Road is progressively sealed, which continues to open up the cape. That will again have implications for the northern Australia agenda as you increase that road connectivity—what that means potentially for freight services, for additional people and for liveability as well in the cape region. I'm not sure that answered your question.

CHAIR: I'm keen to make sure that we pick up some of those regional differences as well, given we haven't been able to get into the cape itself to do hearings.

Senator ROBERTS: Ultimately, when the Peninsula Developmental Road is finished, is it going to be an all-weather, all-year road?

Ms Eades : It will still be cut off during heavy rain in some parts—

Senator ROBERTS: [Inaudible]

Ms Eades : Only briefly. The next focus for Main Roads is a bridge at Archer River, which is one of the main problems on the PDR currently. When that floods, it can flood for weeks at a time. It causes big problems.

Senator ROBERTS: Is that the only one that's left?

Ms Eades : No. There are quite a few. North Laura is another area that becomes problematic but for shorter periods of time. The community access roads are still problematic. Some communities have a fully sealed road, or they're very close to being fully sealed, but, again, Lockhart River, because it also quite hilly terrain, is very expensive. It will still be some years before you can get in and out of Lockhart on a sealed road. It's getting there, and the Commonwealth and the state seem to be pretty committed to the ongoing sealing program for those roads.

Senator ROBERTS: Thank you.

CHAIR: I have a couple of questions to wrap up. In your submission, you've raised a point that a number of others have raised as well, which is that he lack of funding available for feasibility studies and business cases is an impediment to economic development. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you think is needed?

Ms Eades : I think this point has been made in quite a few other submissions as well: the small grants programs that provide funding for feasibility studies. There's been a lot of talk about the NAIF potentially being a source of funding for those sorts of business cases and feasibility studies, because there aren't many places for those proponents to go for that funding, particularly Indigenous-led proponents. They have very limited access to capital. There are some really great ideas, but they have incredibly limited access to capital, which really inhibits their ability to progress those ideas. One example, and it's not necessarily on feasibility, is where a tourism operator has an absolutely fantastic product but an informal tenure arrangement with the landowner. The potential cost of negotiating an LUR is $100,000 and there's no way he can get that sort of money to negotiate security of tenure, which leaves him incredibly vulnerable. There's no way he can get access to that sort of money.

CHAIR: Yes, for sure. This is the thing. Until I kept hearing this, in the context of this inquiry, I suppose I assumed that across state or federal government there would be grants, programs and other things available for small enterprises to help with feasibility studies and business cases. But, I take it, they don't exist.

Ms Eades : It's really difficult. You've got Indigenous Business Australia. You've got the ILSC, which does work with proponents. You've got organisations like My Pathway and Community Owned Enterprises that do work with small business. One of the other challenges is that those people with great ideas don't even know a lot of those avenues exist, because they're not about to pick up the phone and call a state agency. They struggle to navigate the system.

Another point, I'll make briefly, is where those business support services don't exist in communities, people don't know where to go. Often, they don't have access to digital technologies to do that research, so their idea remains just an idea. Lockhart River Aboriginal Shire Council has just taken on a business development or support officer to provide exactly that sort of service, in community, to support that ongoing opportunity for private sector business development. It's a really fantastic initiative, and we would love to see either the state or the Commonwealth fund a program that helps local government provide those sorts of services within their community, so people don't have to try and navigate a system that is really difficult to navigate.

Senator McDONALD: Chair, I think that's an interesting point. Somebody rose that with me the other day, that there used to be programs within departments. People's hands were held and they were facilitated around that sort of support. I think it's a good point.

Ms Eades : And it's a matter of holding those hands for some time as well. It could be two years, while that business gets off the ground and while that business owner understands their reporting obligations, their statutory obligations and how to run a set of accounts. It's not just getting them established and then going but really hand-holding them, for a period of time, until they are ready to completely run their business independently.

CHAIR: In your submission, you also talk about the lack of opportunities around accessing education and training in some of these communities. Do you have any suggestions for how that gap can be addressed?

Ms Eades : I think one of the opportunities, there, is around digital education or providing education services online. I don't know how well the Department of Education did that during COVID, but I think it is an opportunity that the Department of Education or, at least, the state really needs to look at, how it can be much more innovative in the way it provides education. Very few communities have high schools. So those kids get to year 6 or year 7 and they've got to go out of community for their education. While some of them receive great educations, in great schools, once that education is done they're completely unsupported and they go back to community where they remain quite unsupported.

CHAIR: Terrific. Thank you very much, Ms Eades. It was really comprehensive evidence.

Ms Eades : Thank you so much for the opportunity. I look forward to seeing the committee's report when it's finalised.