Transcript by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Alice Springs town camps – ABC 774 Melbourne morning show

Program: ABC Melbourne 774 - Morning show

*** E & OE – Proof only ***

JON FAINE: Over the weekend, the Federal Government announced that they were going to take over, through compulsory acquisition, the notorious town camps run by the Tangentyere Council in Alice Springs. This is part of the ongoing attempt by the Federal Government started by the Howard Government to deal with entrenched violence, entrenched alcoholism and poverty in Indigenous communities right through the north of Australia. Jenny Macklin is the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs in the Rudd Government. Jenny Macklin good morning.

JENNY MACKLIN: Good morning Jon

JON FAINE: Why a compulsory acquisition? Why a takeover?

JENNY MACKLIN: We’ve been working for more than a year now with Tangentyere Council and with the housing associations responsible for the town camps in Alice Springs. We had an agreed work plan last July that saw us agree to a 40-year lease and to tenancy management over these town camps going to the Northern Territory Housing Authority. Unfortunately, Tangentyere Council went back on this agreement and, particularly, would not agree to the improvements to housing or tenancy management going to the Northern Territory Housing Authority.

JON FAINE: Why not?

JENNY MACKLIN: They want to keep it under their control and I think …..

JON FAINE: But they’ve failed. Their track record shows they shouldn’t have control.

JENNY MACKLIN: Well that’s my view and certainly the view I think of many, many other Australians who can see just how appalling the housing conditions are in these town camps. So it’s really left me with no other place to go. I have tried very hard to get an agreement. I would have preferred an agreement. We’ve put a considerable amount of money on the table. This money will of course be spent to upgrade homes, to build new houses and to improve infrastructure, but it will also now include compulsory acquisition of the leases.

JON FAINE: They’ve accused you of implementing a racist policy Minister?

JENNY MACKLIN: I think it’s racially discriminatory to leave people in these appalling and squalid conditions. I think we have an absolute responsibility to act and to act in the benefit of people who live in these town camps. It’s a decision I’ve taken very seriously and one that is entirely based on my view that this compulsory acquisition is for the benefit of the people who live in these town camps.

JON FAINE: Politically it’s a two-edged sword for you isn’t it? Now there’s no excuse, you can’t pass the buck and say I don’t control what goes on in these camps, now whatever goes other than according to plan is in your responsibility.

JENNY MACKLIN: Well there’s no question it’s going to be difficult because the conditions in these town camps are so bad. We will need to get in there with the Northern Territory Government and do an immediate clean up once this notice period for the compulsory acquisition is over. And, of course, then we have what will be a very long process of upgrading homes, rebuilding, building new houses, building infrastructure, some of the basic infrastructure that other Australians expect just like street lighting, paved roads, decent sewerage and water. All of these things need to be improved and you’re right it will take some time and it’s now on our head.

JON FAINE: Minister, if you don’t deal with alcohol consumption, you don’t achieve anything in these camps. How are you going to stop people in town camps so close to the centre of Alice Springs getting access to alcohol?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well that’s one of the reasons that we’ve done two things. One is to, of course, to announce this very significant amount of money to improve the housing and infrastructure in the town camps, but we’re also putting additional funding into the town itself, into Alice Springs. We’re going to work with the Alice Springs Town Council and other service providers to build additional transitional and emergency housing. There’re a lot of people coming into the town, often for very good reasons, health reasons, for example.

JON FAINE: The hospital.

JENNY MACKLIN: That’s right, but there are also many people coming into town who are getting access to alcohol that they can’t get elsewhere. We’re going to build additional sobering up shelters, provide additional support to help people get off alcohol. It is going to be a very, very tough task.

JON FAINE: Will you restrict access to alcohol. Dealing with the consequences of drunkenness is one thing, but if you don’t stop it at the pass, cut it off at the pass what’s the point?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well in fact it’s already illegal to drink in these town camps and the job of the police to….

JON FAINE: And it’s unenforced you know that as well as I do.

JENNY MACKLIN: Well that’s the tough job that the police have – to enforce it. Of course we’ll be working very closely with the Northern Territory Government and the police force up there to make sure that it is enforced but you can’t ….

JON FAINE: If you enforce the drinking ban in the camps,Minister, they’ll drink in the river bed again or they’ll go out of town and set up new places.

JENNY MACKLIN: And that’s why we have to work with the police, with the Town Council, with the people who are trying to help those who want to get off the grog, to get off it. This is not an easy task Jon and we’re going to have to work on every single front.

JON FAINE: You’ve had various cases, or sorry not you, the Northern Territory Government has had various cases running through the Liquor Commission there, surely if you don’t restrict the places and the hours where they sell liquor, the availability of takeaway and limits on takeaway, you can’t ever come to grips with the rest of it.

JENNY MACKLIN: Well some of those controls of course are being put in place by the Northern Territory Government and as we work to address these problems I have no doubt that we’ll be looking at each and every one of those options. I agree with you we have to have all of those options on the table.

JON FAINE: Samson and Delilah has just won an award in Cannes at the film festival there and there’s one perspective this is how the world now is being introduced to these issues, do you regret that?

JENNY MACKLIN: It’s the truth and that’s why we had to act because the conditions in these town camps are as bad as they are portrayed in this film. I haven’t seen the film yet but from all excerpts I’ve seen in the media it’s exactly as I’ve seen it in these town camps. The conditions are unacceptable. This isn’t a war zone. This is on the outskirts of one of our towns in Australia and that’s why we have a responsibility to get on with the job of cleaning it up.

JON FAINE: Are you replacing ATSIC with some other representative body and if so how do you escape the same problems of family bonds, family ties, family and tribal obligations getting in the way of good policy?

JENNY MACKLIN: We have announced that we will create a new national representative body for Indigenous people. We have also made it clear that we won’t be creating a new ATSIC. There won’t be any service delivery function that this new body has. It will be advisory both in terms of policy and accountability. The Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma, is currently conducting consultations around the country on this issue and I expect a report from him very shortly.

JON FAINE: But how do you deal with the problem of any representative body in Indigenous affairs is bedevilled it seems with the same problems of familial ties, obligations, sometimes tribal affiliations, taking precedence over sound policy?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well this is one of the issues that Aboriginal people themselves have recognised and understand that if they are to have a new representative body then it’s going to have to be accountable itself to their own people and of course to the wider Australian public. They understand how critical it will be that people are responsible and take their responsibilities very seriously. This issue has been raised by many people and probably the most significant person who’s been most vocal about it has been Lowitja O’Donoghue.

JON FAINE: Well, it’s certainly as we saw from for instance the historic Apology and various other milestones Jenny Macklin, an issue on which the vast bulk of the Australian population are more than impatient for progress. If this is achieving something that everyone else has failed, then that’ll be a good thing. On the other hand if it also fails people will scratch their heads about what to try next?

JENNY MACKLIN: It’s true that this is a very serious step that we’re taking, one that in my view we have no choice but to take. It is a fact that the living conditions in these camps are appalling, we do need to get in there, get the work done to clean it up so that kids growing up in these camps have the chance for a better life.

JON FAINE: Well the test now is well and truly being sat. Thank you Jenny Macklin for your time this morning.

JENNY MACKLIN: Thank you Jon.