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

CHAIR —Welcome. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been previously provided to you. I invite you to make a short opening statement and at the conclusion of those remarks I will allow members of the committee to ask questions.

Mr Zissler —Thank you for inviting me here today. I will make a very brief opening statement but try to leave as much time as possible for the committee to ask questions.

I was engaged by the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, FaHCSIA, to undertake the role of commander of the Northern Territory Emergency Response Operation centre from late February this year until 30 June this year. That appointment follows on from the previous commander, Major General David Chalmers, who returned to the Australian Defence Force after 20 months in that role.

It is very important to clarify that the commander’s role is to oversee the implementation of the Northern Territory emergency response and to provide advice to the minister, of course, and the department on what is being delivered on the ground. The policy parameters in which we are working are, of course, set by the government and the department. My role is clearly delivering those policies.

I have been in the role for about three months. In that time I have visited about 25 communities throughout the Northern Territory, including town camps in Alice Springs and Darwin. I chair weekly commander’s briefings where a number of departments come together and report to me on where they are up to. I have met with a range of senior officials from both the Australian and Northern Territory governments at the highest levels and I have met and corresponded with a wide range of stakeholders and service providers in Darwin, Alice Springs and the communities.

When visiting communities, I ensure that I meet a very broad range of stakeholders and different community members. They include the traditional owners, who are, of course, critical to us, the various family groups, men’s and women’s groups—both separately and together—various community management committees, councils, shire services and many of the service providers to seek their views, inputs and advice on how we can do things better. These visits have been very productive and very positive and, in the main, they are very well received.

I must say that I have been very impressed on my community visits about just how much progress has been made, apparently for the most part with fairly minimal fuss and disruption. In the communities I have visited, I have noted an apparent general acceptance of the changes. People are certainly getting on with their personal and community business and lives. Of course, there is a diverse range of views on all matters pertaining to the emergency response and, indeed, competing views on just about all those matters. I am sure you have heard many of those competing views. This is not surprising. Indeed, in my view it is a healthy response to what has been significant change within these communities. Of course, much remains to be done to both improve the communities in general and to consolidate and build on the implementation of the NTER measures as the government moves into this sustainable phase. That is in line with the wider Closing the Gap policy and strategy.

I will use the most recent sit rep—the weekly report I get—to highlight some data, which is as current as yesterday, about what is happening out there and some of the discussions we are having with stakeholders. Again, this is a very detailed report and I will just pick out the highlights. However, I am very happy to drill down to some of the detail.

CHAIR —Can you supply the report in its entirety to the committee at the conclusion of the hearing?

Mr Zissler —Yes, I can do that.

CHAIR —Thank you.

Mr Zissler —These are highlights from the data fact sheet of 20 May. It is as current as my meeting of two days ago. Under the heading of ‘Employment and welfare reform’, as at 15 May, 15,188 customers were being income managed in the Northern Territory. On 18 May, a total of 517 Centrelink income management agreements and third party organisations were in place.

Senator SIEWERT —What was that?

Mr Zissler —517.

Senator SIEWERT —Management agreements?

Mr Zissler —Yes. They were in place with third party organisations. Income management has been continued in 51 communities. As of 15 May, 36,102 BasicsCards have been issued overall. There is a detailed breakdown of that in the report. I will not provide all the numbers, but I am happy to provide that if you wish. Again, as of 15 May, there were 988 merchant approvals, with 866 merchants activated to use the BasicsCard. Under the real jobs package, as of 20 May there were 1,696 Australian government funded jobs in the Northern Territory.

Senator SIEWERT —Was that figure 1,696?

Mr Zissler —Correct, 1,696. As of 20 May, 84 community stores have been fully licensed. There are 51 work for the dole activities in 40 communities. That is around employment and welfare reform. Under law and order, as of 20 May there were 63 additional police employed and deployed into communities. Four permanent station upgrades have now been completed. In addition, 18 Themis temporary stations have been installed and are currently operational, and a permanent police station has now been opened in Galiwinku, replacing the temporary station. There are also 70 active night patrols in communities.

I apologise for the slight difference in dates, but it is about how the timelines come through. Under ‘Enhancing education’, as 20 May there are 69 school nutrition programs in place within the communities. That involves the preparation of an estimated 3,477 breakfasts and 4,560 lunches on each school day. That is a total of 8,037 meals daily. A total of 185 positions have been created in the communities to provide these meals, and 149 of them are currently held by Indigenous people in the communities. The school enrolment attendance measure trial is now operating across a number of Northern Territory government schools. Under ‘Supporting families’, as of 20 May there were 17 safe houses open in 13 communities. We have four new crèches opened and operating and we have also upgraded some of the other crèches.

In terms of the coordination—which is one of the critical roles of the operations centre—there are 60 government business managers in place servicing 73 communities. To support them there are 20 Indigenous engagement officers, again servicing those communities. That is a snapshot of the numbers. It is a very detailed report and I am more than happy to table the report or to take direct questions about those lines.

CHAIR —Thank you. I know there will be a number of questions. Throughout our submission there has obviously been a number of criticisms about aspects of the intervention. You use the word ‘intervention’ and people think income quarantine. That is reasonable connectivity, but there are other aspects. In regard to welfare quarantining, we heard evidence today about Mapuru that they have to travel a great distance to get to somewhere where they can use the balance of the BasicsCard. So, 50 per cent has been quarantined to somewhere they cannot get access to without chartering a plane.

I have lived in Mapuru myself. In the south easterlies you cannot get there by boat. As has been stated, it is extremely expensive if you can get an aircraft. While we have not been provided with a letter of refusal from the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, why would the local store, which provides food and which got the tick from the Australian Heart Foundation two years ago, not be approved? Can you think of any rationale for that? Given those specific circumstances, it appears to me that, in effect, we have isolated 50 per cent of their wage and they cannot purchase food. If you do not have cash in Mapuru you cannot buy food. What would you say to people in those circumstances? FaHCSIA knows about these circumstances. Why has it not done something about it?

Mr Zissler —I will take advice about that specific store and the licensing at the general level.

CHAIR —That is an example of a wider demographic.

Mr Zissler —One of the things we have seen as we go forward is that there is a significant change in the way people are purchasing food in the communities. That is a significant change in the last two years. For example, I recently visited the Wadeye community, which as you know is a very large community of about 2,000 people. If you go down to the details of the purchasing power and then add that to the school nutrition program, there is no doubt that more food is being taken up by the community.

Again, I am happy to provide those details to you. It is in the order of a 20 per cent increase in purchasing across the store. I will be very specific about the Wadeye community, but I will come to the more remote communities in a minute. I talk about income management and say, ‘How do you feel about it?’ As I alluded to, I talk to a range of groups and I am very careful about asking very open ended questions so that they can tell me what they generally think. The majority of women support income management. Indeed, they are using that to purchase food and other goods.

CHAIR —We have heard similar evidence and it varies. I go back to the question: the philosophy of the intervention is to say, ‘If you fall within a prescribed area, then you are on the BasicsCard.’ But you only get access to Outback Stores if you are in a prescribed community.

So if you can put a red line around all the prescribed communities, all those people outside of the community but within a prescribed area have the BasicsCard but do not necessarily have access to an Outback Store. I think that is a fundamental point.

Senator SIEWERT —Do you mean a licensed store?

CHAIR —No, a licensed store—

Senator SIEWERT —It is not necessarily an Outback Store.

CHAIR —A store with a licence—one of the 988 approved stores. That appears to be crux of this one demographic. Whether they like income quarantining or not is not an issue so much as whether or not they get access to the 50 per cent of funds that they should be able to use to buy their food. It is reasonable to say that we have heard evidence across the board on that. Are you aware of that as an issue? Do you have plans to ameliorate that?

Mr Zissler —It is an issue; I have no doubt about that. Again, in those more remote communities where there is a single store that is licensed, it certainly presents challenges.

Senator SIEWERT —It is not licensed, that is the point.

CHAIR —But they have applied for a licence and they are unable to get one. I am not sure about the details, but perhaps you can provide some advice on that.

Mr Zissler —I have my stores licensing manager here who can explain the background to the Mapuru store if you wish.

CHAIR —Certainly. That may be useful as an example.

Ms Toyne —I am the director of the community stores licensing team. Would you like some information on Mapuru?

CHAIR —Just on the process.

Ms Toyne —The process of licensing?

CHAIR —I know you have been listening carefully and you understand the difficulties that we are describing.

Ms Toyne —Yes.

CHAIR —Particularly with Mapuru. As an example perhaps you can explain why they are not going to be licensed. I am not sure whether you have been party to discussions about how the people of Mapuru are going to get access to the 50 per cent that is on their BasicsCard.

Ms Toyne —Sure. I will go through the process of how a store is assessed and licensed under the terms and the conditions of the NTER Act. It is all set out within the legislation. The community stores licensing policy and processes are based on part 7 of the legislation. The act itself sets out all of the assessable matters that we must look at and we must have regard to when we assess a store. Part of that is the store’s capacity to participate in the income management regime. That is not only for the BasicsCard; it is also when people directly allocate funds to a store, because there are some people doing that.

We look at the quantity, quality and range of groceries that that particular store provides and the healthy food and drink that might be available to customers through that store. We also look at as an assessable matter the financial structure, the governance and the retail practices of the store. We must have regard to all of those matters when we assess a store and make any decision in relation to a licence.

We do an on-site assessment of a store and we collect a whole range of information, not just from the on-site assessment but also from other documents in relation to the financial practices of the store. We brief a delegate and then a delegate will make a decision. I think you are after some specific information about Mapuru.


Ms Toyne —Mapuru applied to us about two weeks ago to see whether it can get a licence and we have planned a trip there, I think within the next month, to see whether it will meet the licence—

CHAIR —A submission we received today—I will provide you with a copy—states that they have already had an application refused. I have asked the people who have made the submission to provide me with that refusal. You are telling me that the first application you have received was two weeks ago.

Ms Toyne —Yes, the first application FaHCSIA received was by letter about two weeks ago.

CHAIR —So FaHCSIA has not in fact responded that letter at this stage?

Ms Toyne —We have not formally responded in writing to the letter, but we have been in contact through the government business manager with that community letting them know that we are more than happy to come out and assess their store. We have provided some information on the kinds of things we assess when we come out, including our range of food checklist, so that they know what might occur when we come out. We have planned a trip within the next two to four weeks.

CHAIR —I will quote from them. They say, ‘Because FaHCSIA refused to register the local co-op to receive IM funds—

Ms Toyne —FaHCSIA has made no such decision about refusing a licence. In fact, we have not even commenced the process to assess.

CHAIR —We will be in touch will the people who made that submission to ensure that we find out exactly who is providing that information.

Senator SIEWERT —There is another circumstance we might follow up later on. Has the store recently changed ownership, could the previous owners have applied or could the application be under another name?

Ms Toyne —My understanding—and I have not been to Mapuru, so this is from reports and photos I have seen from FaHCSIA people who have gone—is that the store was open a number of years ago. Apart from last month, the store—it is called the co-op—has actually been closed and not functioning. Therefore, they could not apply for a licence. If it was not open, it was not going to meet FaHCSIA’s conditions from the outset. I am not aware that there has been a new operator, but one would assume that if the store has opened in the last month that there have been some changes in that area.

Senator SIEWERT —Let’s take a hypothetical situation, because obviously this submission relates to this particular case. Just say it does not get its licence. I appreciate why you look at those issues. They are obviously commonsense. Even if they do not meet the standards, it is not commonsense that people have to spend $500 to go to a store that is licensed somewhere else. That undermines their ability to be able to buy fresh food et cetera, because obviously they will not have as much money. Is that taken into account? How does the government then deal with that issue?

Ms Toyne —There is a fourth part of the act with respect to stores licensing, because some of your issues do go to income management as well and how that is delivered through Centrelink. But with respect to stores licensing, there are the three assessable matters I set out that we must have regard to. There is a fourth part, which is any other matters that the secretary or delegate may wish to take into account. For that they may wish to take into account some of those factors.

Senator MOORE —Because of the particular nature of stores in the Northern Territory—and there is a long history with stores in the Northern Territory as you well know—is there a process whereby you keep a record of all existing stores? Is there a list somewhere of all stores that are functioning or not functioning in the Northern Territory? Are there also details of the particular circumstances around those stores? Every store has its own story and history. It seems to me having listened to the evidence given by the previous community about this particular issue for their store that the sheer remoteness of that area gives it a particular circumstance. That circumstance might have meant that when the BasicsCard processes and income management were imposed, as they were, that impact would be taken into account. As the system changed, access to stores which were able to be used would have been done at exactly the same time.

I would imagine that the community has been under Centrelink provisions for over 12 months. We did not ask that particular question. However, they still do not have a local store. I am trying to see whether somewhere in the whole process that key issue of access to a store that makes the other bits work—whether or not you think it works, it is a link to it—someone was proactively looking at it and saying, ‘In this region, these are the available outlets’, and outlining what is happening with them so that we could have an access map immediately. I cannot understand the concept of people having to travel 500 kilometres and spending money on a charter.

Ms Toyne —That is right. As Mr Zissler said, as part of the emergency response—the intervention—84 stores have been licensed throughout the Northern Territory.

Senator MOORE —They are happening all the time.

Ms Toyne —It is a dynamic process.

Senator MOORE —Six months ago that could have been 60 stores.

Ms Toyne —That is exactly right. It was probably far less six months ago. It is a very dynamic process. People apply to us to become licensed. But at the moment our legislation only covers those stores or areas that are on prescribed land. So it does not necessarily go to, say, a store on a highway if it is not on prescribed land.

Senator MOORE —Sure.

Ms Toyne —The minister can also choose to specify a particular store to fall under the act and make a decision that we must assess it to see whether it meets FaHCSIA standards. I guess the program itself is focused on licensing and assessing stores across the territory. But I think your issues are going to what happens to those communities out there that do not have a store and who have to travel.

Senator MOORE —My issue is: who knows? When all this process is being wound out, how do we know where the stores are, what the access is and when we actually make a change to people’s livelihood and whether they have access? We have had a range of submissions that make all kinds of statements about how hard it is to use and how you can only go to Coles, and all those things that we know are changing. I would love to see a map showing every store in a prescribed area, which are licensed and which are not and why not. Is such a document accessible?

Ms Toyne —We do not have a map with all of that information. But I can provide you with a list of the 84 stores that currently have a FaHCSIA licence. I can do that by community if you would like.

Senator MOORE —That would be great.

Ms Toyne —Stores in town areas—Darwin, Alice Springs and Katherine—do not fall under FaHCSIA’s licensing program, so I do not actually have a list of them.

Senator MOORE —What about those that do not have them?

Ms Toyne —The communities that don’t?

Senator MOORE —I want to know who claims the title ‘store’ and sells food. You can tell me the ones that are licensed, but I am really interested to know about the ones that are not.

Ms Toyne —As I said, I go to the 73 communities and not to the town areas. As I understand it, out of those 73 communities, about 13 do not actually have a community store of any sort.

Senator MOORE —Of any sort?

Ms Toyne —Yes. I understand that has also improved as a part of the intervention. One part is the licensing aspect, and there is another part that goes to food security.

Senator MOORE —Yes.

Ms Toyne —Some communities have actually got a new store as a result of the intervention. So there has been an improvement in that region.

Senator MOORE —Thank you for your information.

CHAIR —Will the details of the 84 stores and the 988 licenses, of which 960 something have been taken up, be in the report you are providing to us?

Mr Zissler —Yes.

CHAIR —Thank you very much.

Senator MOORE —Is that in the report?

Ms Toyne —I do not actually have a map of the stores.

Mr Zissler —We will draw you a map.

Senator MOORE —You will send us the list and we will do the map.

Ms Toyne —I will send you the list of licensed stores—

Mr Zissler —We will send you a copy of the map.

Ms Toyne —by community or, if it is close to the community, what the relationship is.

Senator MOORE —Thank you.

CHAIR —For your information, I have written a letter to the minister just recently—which is probably why we have not had a response—in regard to the services and facilities. It covers everything including childcare, education, adult education and police within the prescribed areas that you are responsible for. We are basically looking at what facilities, amenities and capacities exist in each community. I have a list that the committee will provide to you. We have put the minister on notice. We have also sent it to the Chief Minister here. So they are on notice about the sort of questions that the committee will be asking and they can be prepared to provide that evidence.

Mr Zissler —Thank you. On the matter of the last question, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs inquiry is looking at food security and is undergoing that process at the moment as well.

Senator ADAMS —Can you repeat that?

Mr Zissler —There is currently a House of Representatives inquiry into food security, which will answer lots of those questions as well.

Senator ADAMS —I have thought of a very practical question to ask. How do you deal with this situation? We were at Milingimbi earlier in the week. The phone line went down and it created chaos in the community. Everyone was lined up and could not use their BasicsCard. What backup do you have for a situation like that? Telstra technicians were there, but unfortunately they could not deal with the situation. It was getting near teatime and unless they had cash people could not access goods.

Mr Zissler —That part of the process is managed by Centrelink and they have backups in most communities. Telstra is in the process of setting up a system. When the line is down, most communities—and I say that carefully—would have a Centrelink office or an agent there who can assist at the time. However, the reality is that when the telephone line is down, it is down until it is restored. But Centrelink can help with emergency payments and emergency food supplies.

Senator ADAMS —The line was down, how do they get—

Mr Zissler —This is actually based in the community.

CHAIR —We were speaking yesterday to the people at the store. It has a fundamental problem. They have a great rapport with the community and it is a great store. It is just like walking into Woolworths in Darwin; it is fantastic. But on that day people who could not feed their kids were understandably not particularly friendly. They went into the store, the store said it was not working and people asked, ‘Why not? It’s your card.’ Yes, it may be Centrelink’s responsibility or somebody else’s responsibility, but fundamentally it is the Australian government’s responsibility. We are responsible for the intervention. What steps are we taking to ensure that there is some sort of backup in places like Milingimbi? In those places it can go for three or four hours. Who knows how long? They have told me that they have made you aware of that situation.

Mr Zissler —Yes. It is fair to say that when the telephone lines are down ATMs are also down. It is not just the BasicsCard. They use the same network, so when the telephone line is down—

Senator ADAMS —We are fully aware of that.

CHAIR —You can live without a telephone—

Mr Zissler —However, we have a backup system. We use Centrelink. I will let Ms Toyne explain that.

Ms Toyne —This is just a little bit out of my realm. As I said, I focus on community stores licensing. Because we interact with income management and Centrelink quite regularly, when that situation happens—and it does happen often—the government business management, the Centrelink account manager or the store will contact Centrelink here in Darwin. They have a direct line to Telstra to see how quickly they can get someone out to fix the situation. So, there is communication between Centrelink and Telstra to deal with those issues and to elevate them quickly if needed.

CHAIR —Perhaps we will put some specific questions to Centrelink on that matter. Thank you.

Senator SIEWERT —I would like to clarify something. You said 51 communities now have income management. Is that correct or are my notes wrong?

Ms Toyne —73 communities have income management in place.

Senator SIEWERT —That is what I thought. I thought it was in all communities now. I am a bit confused.

Mr Zissler —There are 51 with work for the dole activities.

Ms Toyne —I think the 51 communities are where income management has continued for the second year. It had already been in place for a year and in 51 of those communities it is continuing.

Senator SIEWERT —It has been rolled out in the second year?

Ms Toyne —Yes.

Senator SIEWERT —So the first year we had 23.

Ms Toyne —No, in the first year we had 73. They have all had a 12-month period. Some of those are in their second 12-month period.

Senator SIEWERT —Okay.

Ms Toyne —51 one of the communities are in the second 12-month period of income management.

Senator SIEWERT —Do you still have some that have only just come onto it?

Ms Toyne —Yes.

Senator SIEWERT —That is what I wanted to clarify. I thought I must have been mistaken with the 73 in the first place.

Mr Zissler —When you get the full report, it spells that out much more clearly. I was just trying to give the highlights. It would be a very long boring time listening to me read statistics from a couple of pages.

Senator MOORE —Where does that report go to? It comes to you, but where does it go to from you?

Mr Zissler —We provide it weekly to the minister’s office.

Senator MOORE —Directly to the minister?

Mr Zissler —Correct.

Senator MOORE —Only to the minister?

Mr Zissler —To the department and then to the minister.

Senator MOORE —Does it go to the state as well, or just from your position to the federal government?

Mr Zissler —I apologise, I misunderstood.

Senator MOORE —Does it go to the Northern Territory government as well?

Mr Zissler —No. Although the Northern Territory government is a part of the forum. The officers in the room when the report is presented have access to it. I am not clear about how they report back to the Northern Territory government. Certainly, senior officers at the commander’s briefing—which is a weekly event and this document is tabled—include officers from the major Australian government agencies such as the Department of Health and Ageing, the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, Centrelink, the police, the Crime Commission, the Northern Territory government and others. They all get access to this weekly report. How they deal with it in their ministries and agencies—

Senator MOORE —But it goes to Jenny Macklin’s office?

Mr Zissler —Indeed, it does. As you can appreciate it is rolling. The data goes out weekly, so numbers accrue and change over time. It is a very precise report.

Senator ADAMS —We have heard evidence, especially in this area, that there has been a lot of negativity about the emergency response. How do you get the media to introduce some positivity? You have given us a list of what has been achieved. I am fully aware of the achievements that have been made, but unfortunately in the communities—and, of course, the remote communities—it is really bad and nothing good has come out of it.

Mr Zissler —Sure.

Senator ADAMS —If this is being reported back to the government, surely someone can get out to the media and the people that it really affects that there are some good news stories. I am fed up as a senator going around and hearing all this negativity and knowing full well from casual conversations, especially with the women in the communities, that they are seeing some positivity and that they are really happy. But that does not get to the media. Is there any way we can turn it around and say, ‘Look, things are difficult in certain areas and people feel it has been imposed, but there are some really good things coming out of it.’ Can you help me there?

Mr Zissler —Absolutely. Like your experience, I go to a number of communities. As I explained earlier, I spend significant time working with various groups of people. Firstly, I am very targeted to make sure I meet the traditional owners, to make sure the discussions that I am having on their land are appropriate. I meet with women’s groups and men’s groups and spend quite a time, if you like, allowing them to warm to a range of discussions I want to have with them. It takes time. The discussions are around how the thing is going, how do they find income management, how do they find prescribed communities and issues around alcohol, and we discuss difficult questions related to domestic violence, such as whether domestic violence is improving and whether they feel safer. You are right: I am getting lots of positive feedback about specific things in different ways. I get lots of negatives as well, but as I have said, there is lots of debate out there.

Although this may be a personal experience, one of the positive things is that those discussions are occurring and people are weighing the merits and benefits against the downsides as well. In terms of how we give them information through the media, clearly the operations centre is operational. We are on the ground monitoring and working the communities. The minister’s office is responsible for the engagement with the media. Indeed I know we provide her with lots of these examples, and then it is the responsibility of the media to deal with them. Of course many media releases go out. Sadly, many of those are not taken up. When I go to communities, I get some really interesting positives—and negatives. I am not trying to sugar-coat this.

CHAIR —But the media tell us that that is an advertorial, and you have to pay for that, Mr Zissler. There is just one other theme. You may wish to take some of this on notice. I think most of the committee agree that one of the fundamentals about the prescribed communities is their liking of and support and praise for the GBM—or, significantly, otherwise.

Mr Zissler —Yes.

CHAIR —Clearly, the selection of that individual is paramount to having a successful engagement. I think that has been the feedback. Engagement has primarily failed in the first instance.

Mr Zissler —Correct.

CHAIR —The sooner we can catch up, the better. Clearly we are putting a lot of weight on this individual in the communities. How are we going in terms of the feedback from the communities? I assume you have had the same feedback as we have had of the importance of this role?

Mr Zissler —Yes.

CHAIR —Obviously we have some fantastic individuals, and ones that perhaps have not been performing in ways that the community would have wished them to. In terms of the future selection criteria, if you like, for some of these individuals, what sort of policy changes do you envisage to gauge their suitability for operating in remote communities particularly?

Mr Zissler —The Northern Territory state office is the employer and in effect recruits the GBMs. I will take on notice what the criteria are and undertake to seek to have them provide you with the criteria.

CHAIR —Particularly changes in criteria, which would be more important.

Mr Zissler —Indeed. I would like to reassure you about the common feedback. Prior to my going onto community, I seek permission from the traditional owners via the GBMs, and the GBMs are that critical link between multiple government agencies and the community. In many ways they perform the role of gatekeeper to make sure that people arrive in a proper way at a proper time, and not at the wrong time—not on Sorry days, or when other business is occurring.

There are some excellent outstanding GBMs in communities. There also are people who are working very hard but who are finding it more challenging. I am not going to criticise GBMs. They often spend seven days a week, 24 hours a day, for months at a time in community, in very trying, difficult conditions. Some find that easier than do others. I think that is true of all of us. You would know that some of those communities where it would be particularly hard. They are a critical role, and they are a critical role going forward.

Engagement is a challenge and will continue to be a challenge in relation to all these issues because, quite rightly, there is so much debate around all these initiatives and strategies. It will be difficult to get an absolutely perfect outcome, but the GBMs have the responsibility to be the gatekeeper for that consultation. Indeed they will lead the way in the future about how some of that engagement and consultation occurs.

CHAIR —I think I can speak on behalf of the committee when I say that the relationship between the shire and the GBM in Milingimbi was quite good, but they tell us that, however good it was, it was because of a formalised arrangement.

Mr Zissler —Yes.

CHAIR —Because, I understand, they were one of the COAG sites.

Mr Zissler —Yes.

CHAIR —Have you considered making that a fundamental as part of the policy approach? I ask because the rollout of the new shires has just a fundamental role in the synergy between the rollout of one set of policies at a Commonwealth level and on the other side at a local government level. I can see it working there, but in other areas where we do not have a formalised agreement—and clearly we have evidence that there has been a great deal of tension.

Mr Zissler —Sure.

CHAIR —That includes a vote of no confidence and all those sorts of things. Do you think that a formalised arrangements, so that there is some directive from GBM and some directive from local government, that they will be working together on all these matters and having fixed meetings would be an improvement? What are we doing about that?

Mr Zissler —Sure. One of the significant stakeholders in the communities is the shires directly, through the shire service managers in communities. I always make a point of meeting with them. They are one of the services providers I meet. I have also been engaging with LGANT, the Local Government Association of the Northern Territory; indeed, I met with the CEO yesterday. A couple of months ago now I also met with all the presidents and the shire CEOs in a single room and highlighted the importance of how government—and by that I mean the Australian government, the Northern Territory government and the local government function—have to work together to make sure we have a coordinated response on the ground.

Where the shire service managers work well with the GBMs—and indeed, as you are aware, we have Indigenous engagement officers in some 20 communities as well—and where those three people come together, we are getting particularly good outcomes. Sometimes it does not work because it is personality driven and the shires are new, as are the GBMs. There is both personality and some historical things happening as well. As you are also aware, we are looking at a change. Many things are happening at the moment. The minister released a discussion paper yesterday on the NTR going forward. As that occurs, we will be looking at what are the right processes and structures in those communities as well. There will be changes. We are looking at how the GBMs work.

I must say the GBMs that in view are the excellent ones doing a particularly good job of course have the greatest communication skills. While you can have a formal arrangement that clearly works in some places, the ones with great communication skills do not need a formal arrangement to make things work. You could put a piece of paper in place that does not help the relationship, but I do understand what you are saying.

Senator ADAMS —There seems to be quite a lot of confusion about the role of the GBM too. This has come up time and time again that the communities really are not sure about that person and just what their actual role is. That might be something that can be pushed along.

Mr Zissler —I think that is a very valid question and we are working on trying to clarify that. Different communities are different; many are unique. The role of the GBM has a slightly different role in some of those. As you know, some communities are particularly more remote than are others. Some can have access to better services than do others, so there is no very firm fixed place. However, they have a job description, which is quite explicit. I am more than comfortable to ask the Northern Territory state office to provide that to you.

Senator ADAMS —Thank you.

Mr Zissler —But the real challenge on the ground is that communication and how they engage with the traditional owners and the key families in the community, which sometimes are not the traditional owners, the other service providers, the various committees, organisations and boards, which are complex. Most communities will have a stores committee, some will have an arts committee, and they will have other committees as well, and the shires are there as well. Trying to bring all those people in the room sometimes is a challenge. But I think that GBMs in the main are doing a very good job.

Senator SIEWERT —One of our roles is looking at various government policies. One of the issues that has come up repeatedly in community is the issue around education, particularly for young men, after they leave school, or they do men’s business, for example. I am using that as an example, but there are also older people in the community who really want to do some adult education but still need some basic numeracy and literacy skills. That has come up not just in the NT but in my home state as well, WA. You do not get any TAFE money or training money for basic literacy and training skills.

Being able to get teachers or anybody into community to work with those kids is coming up as a fundamental block. Some communities overcome them by running night schools, but that then drains the school resources. I am asking a specific question around this, but it goes generally. Where you see policies that obviously are not right or need fixing, do you feed back to the state, or in this case the territory? This issue applies across Australia but it affects the territory as well. Do you feed back on this one in particular, but in general? Are you going back to the government and saying, ‘Look, this just doesn’t work’?

Mr Zissler —Clearly I am not in a position to comment on the policies of the government of the day.

Senator SIEWERT —I am not asking you to do that.

Mr Zissler —Indeed, I know. However, when I visit a community a very detailed report about the issues raised by those communities is produced, and that is shared via the commander’s briefing. I sit there and say, ‘This week I visited this community.’ I go through a very detailed report on the issues I have found that are urgent. Some of them are practical considerations, such as that we need to get something fixed, for example, a fence or whatever, and I ask the right agency to try to look at how they might fix something quickly. But also where something such as education is raised with me I ensure the Department of Education and Training is aware of those concerns.

I discuss that at the meeting, which is a fully minuted meeting and they will have access to the minutes, plus a detailed report post my visit. As well there are expected actions, so they come back and say, ‘Yes, we’ve looked at that’, and then they explain how that works. There are considerable resources around adult education but different communities are doing things in different ways.

Senator SIEWERT —There is not village senior numeracy training; we have heard that repeatedly.

Mr Zissler —Certainly I get that feedback, and they are aware of that, yes. I must say that are a number of programs that I have encountered, but whether it is consistent across the board, again I could not comment. As you would appreciate I have been to only about 25 communities. I say ‘about’ because it depends on how you count those. Some of them do have school Edukits, but town camps clearly do not. I just do not want to deceive you there.

CHAIR —Some people giving evidence have reflected on your travels, Mr Zissler.

Mr Zissler —Positively, I hope.

CHAIR —Well, they said you were there.

Senator ADAMS —That is the main thing.

Mr Zissler —I think that is a very good thing.

Senator MOORE —I wish to follow up on Senator Siewert’s question. Mr Zissler, we will get you back at Senate estimates. I know you are looking forward to that!

Mr Zissler —That is true.

Senator SIEWERT —We do not mean that as a threat.

Senator MOORE —We still have a list and we will get together and have a chat.

Mr Zissler —Looking forward to it.

Senator MOORE —I just want to clarify the issue of the report. Consistently there has been a range of comment about consultation.

Mr Zissler —Yes.

Senator MOORE —I always worry about the word because I always think people have different definitions of what it is.

Mr Zissler —Yes.

Senator MOORE —But you said that you write a detailed report after every visit that you made to a community. Does the community see your report? I just was not sure having heard from your statement?

Mr Zissler —No, I do not provide the report back to the community.

Senator MOORE —Right.

Mr Zissler —When I give undertakings to people, I write back. It depends who it is.

Senator MOORE —Sure.

Mr Zissler —I either write back to them or I provide advice back through the government business manager. Normally that verbal manner is the best way of doing it—

Senator MOORE —Sure.

Mr Zissler —Because the requests that I get made to me could be as simple as, ‘We’re having problems.’ We can’t assess that. I will give you an example. Most recently I was in a community that has wheelie bins there. They have an old trailer. They physically pick up the wheelie bins, tip it in the trailer, go to the tip and shovel it out the back. They said that this is causing a range of problems: ‘What we really need is a trailer that picks up the bins, tips it in and then elevates it. Can we look at that?’ The answer is, ‘Yes, we can.’ I go away and find out how much it costs. I try to find out where the funds might be. I then go back via the GBM and say, ‘Look, yes, it is in the queue to get some funding.’

Senator MOORE —I would have thought that was a shire thing.

Mr Zissler —It is a very grey area.

Senator MOORE —Sorry. We talk about this all the time. But I would have thought that rubbish is a shire thing.

Mr Zissler —A number of the councils also take on the role of the community councils.

Senator MOORE —Sure. That is off the point.

Mr Zissler —It is a grey area.

Senator MOORE —But how do they know for sure that you are raising with someone else the issues that they have raised with you? That seems to be a big gap.

Mr Zissler —Sure.

Senator MOORE —Whether you can succeed in getting what they want is a different matter. The key bit is about whether the people at the community are kept informed. I think all members of the committee share that.

Mr Zissler —Sure.

Senator MOORE —I will now shut up because the chair is getting shaky.

CHAIR —I recognise the body language.

Mr Zissler —I am very comfortable answering the question. I write back to the chairs of the various communities. Again it is the case that where questions are asked, the most tangible feedback is for the government business managers because they are on the ground.

Senator MOORE —Right.

Mr Zissler —I undertake to provide the information. Often we can do it within a 24-hour period. Many of the questions I get are fairly simple: ‘Are you going to do that—yes, or no?’ I come back and say.

Senator MOORE —No?

Mr Zissler —‘Yes’, or ‘No.’

Senator MOORE —It is easy to explain ‘Yes’. It is not easy to explain ‘No.’

Mr Zissler —No, but often some people just want the clarity about whether it can or cannot be done, so it really depends, and sometimes it is, if indeed I have said I will write to the chairman or the president, or whoever, whether I will write a letter with some very detailed information for them. That is part of my feedback. The report we produce requires a feedback. Often that is that I have undertaken to write to them, and we will write to them. I have had a number of discussions when the letters have gone backwards and forwards, of course, particularly when I have said no.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for your presentation of evidence today. I have some questions on notice specifically regarding Hermannsburg. We already sent them on 12 May through the minister’s office, but you may not have received them yet.

Mr Zissler —No, not as yet.

CHAIR —It will just give you a bit of a heads-up because when I am quizzing you at estimates I will expect that you will have perhaps even written and comprehensive answers to those questions. Thank you very much for giving evidence today, Mr Zissler and Ms Toyne.

Mr Zissler —I look forward to seeing you in June.

CHAIR —Very shortly.

Mr Zissler —It is shortly.

Senator ADAMS —Two weeks.

[12.10 pm]