Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles — Australia’s first indigenous head of government — has taken personal responsibility for delivering a major overhaul of indigenous policy three years after Aboriginal voters installed the Country Liberals.
In a tacit admission that strategies to date have not worked, an indigenous-specific agency will be re-created, undoing one of Mr Giles’s first acts in office when he scrapped the Department of Indigenous Advancement and sparked an Aboriginal backbencher revolt.
Public service heads will be put directly in charge of driving economic reform in 13 remote communities from July 1, and the government has adopted new targets for departments and contractors to hire more indigenous staff.
Changes to procurement, agreed to by cabinet, would see more locals employed delivering roads and housing projects funded in next year’s budget, Mr Giles said, including through rebuilding work in Arnhem Land following Cyclone Lam in February.
While Mr Giles denied that the government — which has been wracked by instability since he took control in a partyroom coup seven months after the August 2012 poll — had failed the Aboriginal voters who elected it, he acknowledged not everything had gone smoothly. The Country Liberal Party won power exclusively with gains in the bush.
“I think there has been a lack of implementation of a range of different policy areas,” he said. “While some agencies have been working pretty hard, others haven’t. And there’s been a bit of a lack of leadership.”
That can be read as a rebuke of his ministers, who were tasked with using their portfolios to drive change in individual communities before departmental chief executives were told to take over under a reformed Community Champions program. Mr Giles said things would be different now he had taken charge.
“I’m driving this. I’m personally driving this,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’m staking my political reputation on it, not at all. … I’m passionate about economics, not just social agendas. I’m a big supporter of investing in health and education and all that, but you have to balance it with investing in culture, environment and landscape, and economics.”
The changes began after the Chief Minister reinstated the indigenous affairs portfolio in the CLP’s 14th reshuffle, following a botched attempt to oust him as leader earlier this year.
While success in areas such as health, housing and education were interrelated, Mr Giles said, it was jobs that needed most attention. He said the federally funded Remote Jobs and Communities Program was failing and a version of the work-for-the-dole program should be returned.
“In the main, I’ve had a gutful of RJCP,’’ Mr Giles said. “I don’t think it’s working. I think it’s time that Community Development Employment Projects or a model the same as CDEP needs to be brought back.
“I don’t believe in training for a job … it’s not training first, it’s job first — particularly because we’ve got highly unskilled people.”
The Territory’s government intends to double indigenous employment in the public service to 16 per cent by 2020 — the public service workforce is now about 25,000 — and has set a target to create an extra 2000 private-sector jobs by 2017.
Public contractors, who get a bonus for hiring indigenous workers, are now being assessed both at the procurement stage and once the work has been completed.
“Contracts like Tiger Brennan Drive extension here (in Darwin) now, it’s got 23 per cent or 26 per cent indigenous employment, which would’ve been unheard of before,” Mr Giles said. “When I got the Department of Tourism, (there were) 100 staff exactly (but) not one was Aboriginal. In 2015, it doesn’t matter which government is in, I don’t think that’s very good … when you consider that we do a lot of promoting Aboriginal images.” A small grants program to support tourism infrastructure, a new Indigenous Tourism Advisory Council and business-development staff based in urban centres are all designed to get Aboriginal people ready for the tourism boom Mr Giles expects in 18 months.
He recruited about 30 “new and emerging leaders” via advertisements to join a First Circles advisory group to inform cabinet and public service Community Champions about community priorities. The group met for the first time last week.
The approach could prove challenging if established leaders do not accept First Circle members as appropriate points of contact.
Thirteen communities — Milingimbi and Ramingining, Galiwin’ku, Maningrida, Groote Eylandt, Gunbalanya, Borroloola, Ngukurr and Numbulwar, Wadeye, Tiwi Islands, Hermannsburg, Utopia and the Yulara region — will get the most attention.
“You can’t do all 1000 discrete communities at once,” Mr Giles said. “It’s still too hard to drive that change in very small communities collectively.”
Under long-term decentralisation plans, Mr Giles hopes to give regional and community authorities more control over schools and health clinics. He also indicated that the Territory would accept the federal government’s offer of a $155 million payout to take full responsibility for servicing outstations and homelands.
“Yeah, it wasn’t enough. But if we have to take the responsibility on, we will,” the Chief Minister said.
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