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SELECT COMMITTEE ON REGIONAL AND REMOTE INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES
22/05/2009
Effectiveness of state, territory and Commonwealth government policies on regional and remote Indigenous communities

CHAIR —I now welcome officers from Anglicare Northern Territory. If other staff members wish to come to the table they should do so. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has previously been provided to you. I now invite you to make a short opening statement. At the conclusion of your remarks I will invite questions from the committee.

Ms Nichols —Thank you, Senator. The Anglican church has had a long, complex and enduring relationship with Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory, in particular in Groote Eylandt, Numbulwar, Ngukurr and Gunbalanya. These relationships have evolved and they remain very strong today. Anglicare NT is the professional community services agency of the Anglican Church in the Northern Territory. We operate as a significant non-government operation in urban, rural, regional and remote areas, and we provide critical services and capacity-building projects across population life spans to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous territorians.

Our programs range from youth leadership programs, counselling and mediation services, parenting skills training, suicide intervention work, age and disability and carer support services, playgroups, antenatal and early childhood development programs, youth health, mental health and family support, financial counselling, no-interest loan schemes, employment support, tenancy support, transitional housing programs, and op shops. Anglicare also supports the development of educative and training resources provided to local networks, youth participation committees, and committee forums. We also undertake key advocacy work and key issues. We are based in Darwin—our headquarters are in Darwin—and we have key offices located in operational hubs in Palmerston, Alice Springs, Katherine, and Nhulunbuy.

We have plans for a more consistent staff presence in Tennant Creek, Numbulwar, Milingimbi and Angurugu. Currently, we have around 150 staff and 250 volunteers, and 20 per cent of our work force our Indigenous. For the purposes of today we are focusing on the east Arnhem region—a rich and diverse cultural area with different languages and a vast and unique geography. Today we will share what we have learned over 30 years of service delivery, training and community development work undertaken in over 12 remote communities and homelands, namely, Nhulunbuy, Yirrkala, Skee Beach, Milingimbi, Ramingining, Galiwinku, Gapuwiyak, Milyakburra, Numbulwar, Alyangula, Angurugu, Umbakumba, the Marthakal homelands and the Laynhapuy homelands.

All communities in these areas, without exception, have experienced significant changes through the intervention, and shifts in both Australian and Northern Territory government legislation in the introduction of local government reforms. Clearly, more change is on the way, with the recent announcements concerning the consolidation of 20 key remote hubs of service delivery in the Northern Territory and the planned injections of infrastructure funds. Confusion over new policies, systems and decision-making processes is significant. Political agendas on the ground between the different layers of government are in some cases profound.

The lack of strategic co-ordination of the different layers of government and how this interfaces with the community and other service providers, whether commercial or non-government organisations, is significant. Remote Indigenous communities have the same right of access to community support and development services as non Indigenous territorians. People need adequate housing and health care and appropriate education and job opportunities. Community services cannot address the basic lack of infrastructure that exists in many remote communities, but we can add real founding to the injection of resources help to build social capital and enable improved linkages between providers.

In a way, Anglicare NT seeks to minimise the issues present in remote communities. We do intensive case management and support work with children, young people and adult family members in abuse, sexual health and substance abuse issues. Our staff members deal regularly with suicidal behaviour and a level of community grief resulting from completed suicides and death by violence. Our programs help to identify infants and young children with developmental delays and disabilities and help to ensure that early intervention assistance is secured. Staff members provide professional care services directly to clients dealing with the impact of degenerative, genetic and chronic disease and high levels of disability. In fact, we keep blood pressure machines in our offices because the majority of our Indigenous staff members have heart disease and diabetes.

But the communities’ stories are much more complex, resilient and forward thinking. It is not all doom and gloom, disempowerment, corruption and abuse. The work undertaken with communities inspires us, as an organisation. It regularly reveals innovative thinkers, natural and appointed leaders and community members who quite literally work night and day for the betterment of their families. People at any stage of life, regardless of race, income levels, family background and location, can face serious life and/or family challenges such as suicide, abuse, family violence, family breakdown and the emergence of mental health issues, the presence of disability or chronic disease.

Indigenous people in remote areas experience regular life challenges in a resource scarce environment, compounded by economic disadvantage, a lack of specialists and sometimes even basic services. In addition, waves of distress move through communities relating to spikes in substance abuse, criminal activity, antisocial behaviour, violence, episodes of abuse and suicide. Community grief levels can be extreme. The loss of family members and individual abilities through ill health, accident and early ageing impacts on leadership, availability of diverse skill sets, and a community capacity to cope with and contribute to change.

Referring to our remote service delivery, overheads are substantial for remote service delivery. Floods and transport, freight, accommodation in communities, additional staffing and operational costs are very real for us. Government at all levels recognised this in the salary and conditions provided for intervention, health, education and local government shire staff. Non-government agencies such as our own do not realise the same salary and conditions for their staff. The differentiation has never been so great between these sectors. It is counterproductive in developing a sustainable and healthy local service system in communities.

One of the key obstacles to providing services in remote communities is the lack of infrastructure for both locally based and visiting staff in the areas of accommodation, transport and operational bases. Anglicare NT has a long-term commitment to working in this region. The services provided and activities undertaken vary from site to site. We see so many non-government organisations coming in and out with various small buckets of funding to do specific work or to deliver a training course. It is disturbing and it can be confusing for community members and other service providers alike.

Government needs to explore options to create an environment that focuses on fewer providers. On improving funding levels you have a long-term interest and commitment with the aim of creating more sustainable and appropriate operations in remote sites. There is real need to provide flexible employment with adequate hours to sustain the interests of locally-based staff along with strategic management and infrastructure support to ensure that staff members are equipped to do their job, have supervision and support systems in place, and opportunities for training and development.

As a large non-government organisation, which is mainly government funded, we must ensure that we deliver on funded contract requirements, meeting deadlines, achieving milestones and targets along the way. This must occur in a manner that strengthens the relationship with each community, builds capacity and works with the skills transfer model, and that develops staff confidence, resilience and cross-cultural effectiveness. We do not always get it right, but we are resilient enough as an organisation to hear this, to regroup, to take guidance from our cultural advisers and to try again.

Mrs Haynes —For the past four years I have been program manager of the Communities for Children Project. I have lived and worked in the territory for 20 years and 10 of those was on Groote Eylandt. I became aware of a lot of the issues firsthand that faced the Indigenous people we worked with. The Communities for Children Program has been an excellent model that FaHCSIA has rolled out. The only complaint that I would have is that the east Arnhem site was dramatically underfunded for the work that we were required to do. But it has been a great model that has involved us in community capacity building and skill development programs. We have tried very hard to build on the strengths of the Indigenous families that we worked with.

We have a committee of 20 women who come together on a regular basis to discuss what the issues are that are facing them and how they would like the funding spent. That was quite a new experience for these women but one that they embraced and with which they ran. They enjoyed having an opportunity to make decisions for the needs of their community. The old saying ‘one size does not fit all’ is very accurate for remote communities in east Arnhem. I think the two earlier speakers referred to that admirably. There are great differences in history, great differences in infrastructure and what is available in communities.

Non-government organisations have a real role to play in remote communities, but there must be infrastructure for us to be able to do that sort of work. The project itself has supported the roll out of the Families and Schools Together Parenting Program—an excellent parenting program run in a number of communities. It was run at Angurugu this past week—it has been running for the past three weeks—and in the second week 61 people turned up for that program. We have been trying to get that program into that community for quite a while. The local people wanted it, but there was resistance from other agencies in the community such as schools and clinics, because they felt it would be more work for them.

There is a real issue trying to get groups working together and the silo mentality is still quite strong in these communities. Play and learn support groups required specialist training in identifying early developmental delay. That kit is just about ready to be launched and we hope to have it ready for the early childhood festival that we are having on Thursday and Friday this coming week. It will work with families to train up local women to identify where children have early developmental delay. However, it does that in a culturally sensitive and appropriate way, using the seasons and hunting tracks to describe the tracks in the brain that explain brain development.

Aboriginal women know very well the developmental stages that children go through, but they have this beautiful belief that children will do things in their own time. When it comes to developmental delay that means that children are coming to school with lots of issues that could have been dealt with when they were one and two years old. A few months ago a nurse at Gapuwiyak said to me, ‘Remember that little boy that you and your team were working with in the PALS group? He could not walk and he could not stand up; he could only hold on and not be on his tiptoes. She said, ‘He is now running around at school and you would not have known that he had a problem.’ Those sorts of stories that we hear keep us going with this program.

The other really wonderful program that we have been able to support through the Communities for Children funding is the Aboriginal Resource Development Service DVDs. We have some examples of them here if you wanted to see them. They have been developing resources in Yolngu on anaemia because in some communities 50 per cent of the children under the age of five are still anaemic. The ARDS philosophy of discovery education is to give people a deep understanding. When a doctor tells a mother, ‘You need to give iron to your child’ she has no idea what the doctor means and it is very confusing.

These 35-minute DVDs describe where iron comes from, how it is used in the body, how it gets from the ground and into your food, and so on. People are now starting to understand why some of these children need iron in their diet. Other resources include baby weight charts—understanding why children get weighed—because underweight babies are a big issue. A DVD that has been produced entitled ‘Living with dogs’ has won a media award. That DVD is about keeping dogs healthy in the community.

The next DVD that they are about to produce is on understanding the use of antibiotics. One of the big issues that Indigenous people face is that we have all this western knowledge, science and information, but we do not know how to get it into a context that can be understood by remote Indigenous people. It is not that they do not have the intelligence to do it—they are highly intelligent people—but we are doing it in away that does not cross or address the wide gap in world view.

The last thing I wish to mention is the ‘We grow them up festival’ to be held on Thursday and Friday this week. That brings in Indigenous women from Arnhem Land—about 50 women are coming in. We will have conference speakers, lots of Indigenous speakers, and the festival will focus on celebrating some of the good things that have been happening, for example, some of the programs that they can utilise in their communities.

Mr Coehn —I am one of the program managers on the youth side out in the east Arnhem office. I will quickly run through the suicide intervention training and the mitigation program that is up and running at the moment. Over the past 10 years Anglicare has been delivering suicide intervention training in east Arnhem. Over 6,000 people have been trained. We know that suicide is a serious issue in that area. The training that we provide is the living work stuff through the Assist program Save Talk and such like. That has developed to such an extent that people want to come together and talk about it.

We ran a program in Yirrkala with the Laynhapuy workers. At first 40 men attended and it has grown to a group of 50 workers who come together and talk about suicide within the community and how they want to see the communities work together. We talk mainly about the Nhulunbuy area, Yirrkala, Skee Beach, Wallaby Beach, and so on and how they can start to address suicide. That program is starting to grow. They have taken that program to the high schools and so on to have a look at the whole thing. At the moment they are putting together a strategy that will be presented pretty soon.

We have also started to touch on the homelands. We are starting to get out to Wandawuy, next week we will go to Yilpara and then we will go further. We are starting to undertake training and we are looking further at the whole issue of suicide. Community forums are happening and people are trying to establish how they can attend them and what the women can do. Two weeks ago some stuff was done at Skee Beach, so it is all happening.

Ms Buxton —One of the really concerning issues we have seen over many years is that children repeat in pretend play what they see around them. Young children’s exposure to suicide and suicidal behaviour in some but not all communities is disproportionately high. Our youth and support workers deal with children pretend playing actions that can lead to death and they turn that around. They say, ‘It is not normal or acceptable that people are ending their lives through suicide and behaviour is really important.’ We have been working closely with a number of those communities to try to identify ways of getting the discussion going and to establish what can be done.

We are trying to give you a few examples of key programs that we have been involved with over a long period. Over the past fore years Anglicare, in conjunction with the Yothu Yindi Foundation, started the Garma Miwatj Youth Forum, which runs parallel to the annual Garma Festival. We bring together about 250 young people from communities in the regions and it has become a key event. Every year we scramble around to see how we will get funds and sponsorship and pull it all together. We will not know until next week whether or not we will have enough money, but we try to do it each year.

This bi-cultural learning event is attended by Indigenous and non Indigenous young people, primarily from the region. Indigenous young people from other communities around the Dhalwangu area attend the festival. We promote youth leadership, do a lot of skills development work, and look at issues that young people are experiencing. About 30 or 40 adult volunteers and staff are involved in those processes, the majority of whom are located in the communities from which those young people come. Garma has become an important event. It is a little event compared with the overall festival but it helps to give young people in that region a role.

For some time many elders have been interested in supporting young people, getting them engaged in processes, and putting some positive energy into some of the issues that they are dealing with. This forum, which has become important, also brings together about 40 organisations from around that region to help get it off the ground. It is a great event. We have a bit of information that we will leave with you. I want to summarise by making some critical observations.

We think that funding formulas based on population are not equitable for a region such as east Arnhem and the majority of remote communities. They would have to be weighted to enable sustainability of program infrastructure. It is hard work, places are hard to get to, and we have to have enough funds to employ staff. People in our communities have to have decent wages—and I am talking about local and visiting staff. Non-government sector community services lose staff regularly to new shire structured intervention positions et cetera because of the salary differentiation referred to earlier as an example. Language, culture and world view considerations must remain central and underpin planning and service development.

We must work with strength-based culturally relevant early childhood and parenting skills approaches. We support a strong focus on school readiness and engagement. Early learning and the creation of parent friendly school cultures are critical. We cannot see how punitive measures aimed at addressing truancy in school attendance will work. In urban areas prosecutors are rarely able to take parents to court when their children have been chronically truanting. Legislation is in place but I think there is a bit of political rhetoric around that.

We have concerns about the move to link Centrelink income to school attendance. We think it will create serious implementation issues, risk placing children into further poverty, and fail to address causative factors. We think positive engagement has to be the focus of school involvement for children and families rather than linking money to attendance. The potential for prosecution has not worked with non-Indigenous parents in Darwin, and it has not got their children to school. We think that is an issue that should be looked at.

There are various tiers of government. We have to independently monitor whether or not they work effectively with community and non-government organisations. We have been involved with and attended community meetings in remote communities where it is a free for all. One layer of government attacks the other and shifts the blame and no-one takes responsibility for infrastructure issues, et cetera. We have constant discussions about the silos between departments. Complicated change processes are going on at local government, Northern Territory and Australian level and that has to be monitored to see how it is hitting the road on the ground.

There is a serious level of confusion about this in these communities. As a non-government organisation we now have to work with new shire structures and new legislation at the Northern Territory and Commonwealth levels. It is hard for us to get our heads around this and to grapple with it. In summary, we think that targeted consultation, respectful language and culture, local ownership of programmatic responses, strategic allocation of resources, the availability of necessary expertise, and long-term service delivery partnerships will maximise the outcomes in this region for children, families and communities.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. We will now go to questions. Gavin, I know of your work in east Arnhem Land and I think the stuff that you do is important. A lot of the work that you have done has impacted greatly, in particular, on younger people. You have engaged, in particular, in suicide prevention, and you have people involved in a number of other programs. However, I will not go into that in detail.

In February I met one person when I was visiting a community. Two people attempted to come and see me in my office, which is quite rare. Of the two people who came to see me one was a woman and the other one was a bloke from separate communities. None of these people were from your area but you might want to comment on this issue. After a suicide prevention strategy team had visited and talked to people they were really concerned that their kids were now saying, ‘If I do not go to town I will kill myself.’ They have never talked about this before, they were a very happy community, but they are now saying, ‘If I do not get that now I will kill myself.’

They know that everybody will focus on them and take them into town. When we got into the plane he was pulling out his hair and saying, ‘I do not know what to do. I never thought that any of this would happen.’ It was extraordinary. As I move around these communities I find that this is a reality. Suddenly there is an unintended consequence of this focus—quite a massive and serious focus—to ensure that people understand the need to look after their mates. As you know, I launched a number of those programs. How do we advise people to deal with this issue because of the subtleties and nuances involved when it is gamin? How do you know when it is so difficult? In those circumstances we give them all the benefit of the doubt. Could you comment on how we could help them to deal with that issue?

Mr Coehn —This problem has gone right down, even as far as Alice Springs. The life program started that little red threat book Threats for suicide. That is something that has travelled right throughout the territory. It is not something that is new; it has been around for a while. When we get out there, talk about it and open this up for conversation it is making it better. Before a lot of taboos and restrictions were in place to prevent people talking. Young people are also influenced by western society. There are songs about it, there are action movies and there are designer labels with the word ‘suicide’ written all over them. They know about it and they are bringing this forward.

We are now getting a response from the community. People are becoming involved in it and quite a few community DVDs have tried to address the alcohol issues. They have said that that has led people to thinking about suicide, which is one of those big things. We have to go into communities constantly and open up the debate. We must give people the strength, the knowledge and the confidence to approach this situation and to talk about it.

CHAIR —At the end the analogy should be akin to the analogy in the story of the boy who cried wolf. It is not good to use that as gamin because the story is too important. People are asking me what they should do and I tell them that I do not know because it is difficult. The work that you have done has made an incredible difference statistically; there is no doubt about that. I acknowledge that the work that you have been doing has been going on for a while. However, recently this other stuff has risen to such a level that people do not know how to address it.

Mr Coehn —When we were in Skee Beach we were talking to the ladies and the Raypirrirom team was also there. I know that this is focused around the Gove-Nhulunbuy area. They were saying that that constant threat is something that came up. They were looking at other stuff, for example, a night patrol response in the community. A few other things will come out in the suicide mitigation report. People were saying that the women elders and mothers were still too scared to say the word ‘suicide’ but that the young people kept threatening suicide. That is where the problem lies.

Young people are constantly sniffing petrol and parents do not know how to deal with that. What are they supposed to do with that? At the moment in Nhulunbuy they are trying to put together a case management tool to deal with sniffing. They know that, as a strong part of it, young people will go to the next step where they are isolated from the community because they are sniffing petrol and their lives will be influenced by other things such as the media or whatever else. There is also a threat that life is not that important and that suicide is an option. This will address all those issues. I am not saying that there is an easy way.

CHAIR —I thought that you might have an insight into this problem. I appreciate your assistance and commend you for your work.

Senator SIEWERT —We have visited communities all over the Northern Territory and we have received a variety of responses to different elements of the intervention. For example, income quarantining is a classic example. Many women say, ‘We really like it. We did not like it to begin with but we really like it.’ Many people do not like it. Much of the evidence that we heard yesterday indicated that people did not like its compulsory nature. Ms Nichols, you said in your opening statement that you had seen some of the impacts of the intervention. How are communities reacting to the intervention and what is their overall feeling about it?

Ms Nichols —I think that Anglicare NT is in a unique position in that it works across the territory. We get to have an opportunity to see how this is playing out all the way down to Alice Springs. The best way to encapsulate my response is to say that it depends on which community you are working in, what were the issues prior to the intervention, what state that community was in prior to the intervention and, therefore, how the intervention is playing itself out in the lives of those people. Like you I hear people, in particular, older women, talking about the intervention in a much more positive way than perhaps some of the younger people might talk about it in other communities. People on this panel are better equipped to discuss this issue.

Ms Buxton —The experience in east Arnhem is that in general we would all collectively have heard much more negative commentary about the intervention. That is not to say that some individuals are not supportive of some of its components. People are dealing with the impact of a reduction in the integrity of the Racial Discrimination Act. People are dealing with the fact that they are being segregated and that certain fundamental rights might be removed. That has been a real struggle for them. In some communities we work, in particular, with older women who have always worked hard, who do not have drinking issues and who make sure that their kids go to school.

All of a sudden they feel like they have ended up with less control over their lives. That has impacted on our staff. Many of our Indigenous staff who are either casual staff or who work part-time have family members whose lives have been affected by it. In general, the experience would be that there has been a real concern about the majority of aspects in that intervention. Many of the Aboriginal medical and health services with whom we deal were heavily involved in child health checks. They had significant plans to roll out additional work in some of these communities. They are saying ‘We already knew what some of those issues were and we were moving on them.’

In their minds it is almost as though some things have been set back a bit and their progress might have been impacted by this change. This notion has been around for a while. People have moved on and they are now grappling with its practical implications. That combines heavily with the changes to the shire council arrangements, which I cannot separate out. The impact has been on decision-making processes and representational arrangements on communities. In a general sense there has been a loss of positions, power, control and influence in these areas. That impacts on people’s sense of wellbeing when they are trying to find their way through a complex set of changes.

Ms Nichols —I think intelligence needs to be reintroduced into this debate. A bit like the word ‘sustainable’, the word ‘intervention’ is now a buzz word. There are some difficulties that come with that. When I go down south I hear people saying in relation to the intervention ‘Something had to be done.’ When I ask them ‘About what—what is the something that should have been done’, there is not a lot of depth to the discussion about the words ‘Something had to be done.’

I agree with Ann’s comments. There is a sense that this intervention is now behind us a bit and we are dealing with it—‘it’ being something that has already occurred. We are losing intelligent debate on this issue because of its general acceptance and because of the general misunderstanding about what it means. I go a bit further to state that there is a willingness to disengage in the detail now that the deed has been done.

CHAIR —Thank you for appearing before the committee today. As I said earlier, we are a bit pressed for time. You have a very comprehensive submission on the record which we will be able to examine. I know that we have a lot of detail but if there are any points of clarification or any points we have missed out on we will provide some questions on notice through the secretariat. I understand that they have your details. I say to Anglicare NT: thank you very much for your appearance. I understand that earlier Ms Haynes and Ms Nichols were quoting from a document. If that is not a document that you have already submitted would you be able to provide it to the committee as it would be very useful?

Ms Nichols —I understand that we have until 30 May to make that submission?

CHAIR —Yes but I would not die in the ditch over the date of 30 May. Just ensure that it gets to us.

Ms Nichols —Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you very much.

Proceedings suspended from 10.22 am to 10.32 am