The Australian: Positives in the remote desert

Published: 23 Mar 2015

From The Australian, Fred Chaney, 23 March 2015.

It is unfortunate that the current debate about the closure of remote Aboriginal communities has focused more on the cost of the communities than on their potential. There are some good news stories and there is a risk that, at a time of major administrative re­organisation and policy change, we will lose the good along with the bad.

Take the Martu communities of the east Pilbara. Like all remote communities, they face challenges: the threat of closure of many communities, the desire of the commonwealth to reduce expenditure and the sense of confusion and chaos that currently dominates indigenous policy.

But they are building a distinctively Martu future, fashioned by their culture and aspirations, while simultaneously engaging with the modern economy.

One recent study highlighted how a clear strategy to align Aboriginal interests with those of the mainstream can succeed. Social Ventures Australia investigated the impact of five years of programs in remote Western Desert communities.

It found that, for an investment of $18 million over five years, the programs delivered $55m of social value, a 3-1 return on investment.

Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa works in the desert communities of Jigalong, Parnngurr, Punmu and Kunawarritji. Known among local Martu as KJ, it runs a suite of cultural, educational and environmental programs in these communities.

It has achieved substantial success in engaging Martu in employment and cultural activities, reducing incarcera­tion rates and destruct­ive behaviour and laying a platform for economic viability in the communities.

Martu people have only been in contact with Western society relatively recently. The older people living in the desert communities walked in from the desert in the 1960s. They retain strong language, law and culture and an intense knowledge of their country. They returned to the desert in the homelands movement of the early 80s, less than a generation after leaving a fully traditional life.

KJ’s activities with Martu are built on the commonwealth’s ranger program, under which it employs 35 permanent staff and another 200 casually each year. The ranger program has been successful throughout much of remote Australia, engaging communities in activities that deliver environmental value to the Australian population, while allowing Aboriginal people to fulfil cultural obligations and teach their young about their country.

By looking after a large, fragile landscape of high ecological value, Martu are working for the mainstream Australian popula­tion. The study accurately identifies this as a key to KJ’s success: Martu are doing what they value, while the mainstream values it enough to pay.

Importantly, broader social programs have been built on the back of the ranger work. The leadership program teaches 30 young Martu adults corporations law, native title, governance and fin­ance.

They visit corporations and not-for-profit organisations, learning and becoming confident and comfortable with mainstream people and concepts. They combine this Western learning with cultural advancement. These young people are keen to learn, where that will empower them to help their communities.

By demonstrating the effectiveness of its approach, KJ has grown to the point where non-government sources now provide half of its funding.

The study shows how intract­able and often too-visible social problems have been effectively addressed: high levels of drinking, crime and incarceration.

The researchers concluded that, over five years, the West Australian government had been saved $3.7m through a reduction in incarceration of 41 person years and a further $4.2m in costs of alcoho­l-related crime.

A sense of pride, confidence and purpose has been instilled in young Martu, addressing a deficit that cripples many remote communities. Government should foster this progress, not put it at risk by careless decisions.

Fred Chaney is a former Coalition minister for Aboriginal affairs