Scathing government report saying much of the extra money is wasted on bureaucracy.

  • From:The Australian
  • September 24, 2012

REMOTE indigenous communities show little signs of the billions spent to improve living conditions, with a scathing government report saying much of the extra money is wasted on bureaucracy.

A report by the Northern Territory’s co-ordinator general for remote services, Olga Havnen, obtained by The Australian, says it is difficult to judge whether the myriad programs are working, and government agencies “appear indifferent” to their obligations to evaluate and report their performance.

The 230-page report says funding for programs and services for indigenous Australians is “fragmented, complex and administratively burdensome”, while there is “little if any evidence” that such small-scale initiatives will produce meaningful improvements to the lives of children.

Indigenous people have lost their say in the running of their lives, and there is now a “dearth of formal indigenous representation in any of the key governance roles that lead decision-making and priority setting in indigenous communities”.

A large proportion of the services delivered to remote communities is now outsourced to third-party, non-indigenous, not-for-profit organisations that “do not receive the level of scrutiny and accountability that might reasonably be expected of multi-million-dollar, multi-year contracts”.

And there appears to be “little consideration of the connection between the long-term workforce needs of communities and the ongoing high levels of unemployment in remote areas”.

Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin said she had not yet seen the report, but the commonwealth had made “unprecedented” investments towards closing the gap in disadvantaged Territory indigenous communities.

“We are delivering services and infrastructure that have never existed in communities before,” she said.

“We are working with indigenous people to improve services in areas such as health, education and housing in the Northern Territory, after decades of under-investment.

“Our 10-year funding commitment helps ensure Aboriginal people can have more certainty and greater control over long-term planning and delivery of services.”

The report warns that funds are “diverted to build the capital base and operational capacity of non-resident agencies rather than funding and building the skills and capabilities of local Aboriginal people and organisations . . . What long-term employment options, skills base, organisational capacity and governance capability will exist in these remote towns in 10 years if this approach is allowed to continue?”

The findings underscore reports in The Australian last week revealing service delivery problems in six remote central Australian communities and two outstations, visited as part of an NT government ministerial tour.

NT Chief Minister Terry Mills said last night, after having been briefed on the trip, that his government “will have failed” if it could not fix the widespread problems.

“If you can’t address these fundamental problems, then you shouldn’t be in the game,” he said.

“But I believe we can.”

The Country Liberal Party that Mr Mills leads swept to victory at last month’s election on the back of gains in the bush, ending Labor’s hopes of a fourth term in government.

The CLP hopes to capitalise on lingering dissatisfaction, to win the federal seat of Lingiari from Labor next year.

Lawson Broad, the director of regional affairs in the NT Chief Minister’s office, speaking after last week’s tour of central Australia, said there had been an “enormous” increase in spending in indigenous communities over the past few years, but it was “difficult to see where that money has hit the ground”.

Mr Broad is expected to nominate for preselection for Lingiari, and is favoured by key party insiders.

Maurie Ryan, founder of the First Nations Party, which plans to field candidates for Lingiari, said “all the whitefellas” controlled the money, while Aborigines were left “grovelling on the ground . . . the money that comes to the NT is skimmed first by the NT government, and then the local government shires skim it again. The fault is with the system – the money doesn’t get out to us. It’s used on consultants and bureaucrats”.

A spokeswoman for Labor minister Warren Snowdon, who holds Lingiari, had not responded to a request for comment by the time of publication.

Rolf Gerritsen, professor of public policy at Charles Darwin University’s Northern Institute in Alice Springs, said the model of top-down service delivery needed to be “turned on its head”.

“We’ve got to go to communities and say, ‘For the next 20 years, what do you want and how can we get you to do it?’ ” he said.

He said indigenous people were often being cut out of local service delivery because grant funding was short-term, meaning recipient organisations did not have the time to train them.

“We need longer timeframes, more local control, fewer grants and larger ones,” he said.

The co-ordinator-general’s report says the federal government’s Stronger Futures initiatives offer an opportunity to tackle many problems affecting remote areas, but that “solutions and proper planning cannot be achieved by departmental offices based in Darwin or Canberra”.

“Aboriginal Territorians need to be integrally involved in the formulation and strategic delivery of services and programs aimed at improving their lives if we are to succeed in closing the gap,” it says.

It recommends prioritising “evidence-based” approaches to closing the gap initiatives, conducting “credible research” on Aboriginal population mobility, and one-stop shop business centres for services.

The Territory’s Minister for Regional Development and Indigenous Advancement, Alison Anderson, who conducted the tour, said last week she would support a one-stop shop mode.

The report recommended steps to improve accountability, transparency and economic participation.

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