Waste in Wadeye: COAG.. crisis, what crisis?

Originally published in the National Indigenous Times, November 2006.

NATIONAL: The government report which exposes the gap between rhetoric and reality, writes CHRIS GRAHAM and BRIAN JOHNSTONE.

An endemic social and health crisis in the remote Northern Territory community of Wadeye is worse today than it was almost four years ago, when the federal government launched a “bold experiment” to improve the delivery of government services to Aboriginal communities, a leaked independent report has found.

Originally published in the National Indigenous Times, November 2006.

JohN Howard.

JohN Howard.


NATIONAL: The government report which exposes the gap between rhetoric and reality, writes CHRIS GRAHAM AND BRIAN JOHNSTONE.

An endemic social and health crisis in the remote Northern Territory community of Wadeye is worse today than it was almost four years ago, when the federal government launched a “bold experiment” to improve the delivery of government services to Aboriginal communities, a leaked independent report has found.

During 2002 and 2003, eight COAG trials were launched at different sites around the nation – one for each state and territory.

The trials were aimed at streamlining the delivery of services to Aboriginal communities, reducing red tape and promoting a ‘whole-of-government’ approach – each level of government, from federal and state to local government, were supposed to find ways of better coordinating their efforts at each trial site.

As the federal government prepared to abolish ATSIC in 2005, former Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Amanda Vanstone described the change in government service delivery as a “quiet revolution”.

But an evaluation completed earlier this year into one of those trials – at Wadeye, 420 kilometres south west of Darwin – reveals the ‘quiet revolution’ has become a living hell for the people subjected to it.

NIT has obtained a leaked copy of the evaluation, which was conducted by one of the country’s most respected former Aboriginal affairs bureaucrats, Bill Gray, AM.

It is a devastating read and in the process, a massive blow to some of the nation’s most senior bureaucrats and politicians.

Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet, Dr Peter Shergold (the nation’s most senior bureaucrat) said in 2004 that his reputation and many of his colleagues “would hang on” the success or failure of the COAG trials.

When the report was released in May this year – amid rioting in the troubled Aboriginal community which saw the evacuation of more than 400 residents – the federal government refused to disclose its contents.

Now we know why.

Wadeye was already labouring under immense social problems when it agreed to participate in the COAG trial in 2002, with unemployment approaching 90 percent, barely any school attendance and an average of 17 people living in a single home.

Wadeye leaders identified three key priority areas for the local government (Thamarrurr Regional Council) and the Northern Territory and federal governments to focus on – housing; women and families; and youth.

In three years, the COAG trial saw the construction of just four homes.

At the same time, 15 homes became uninhabitable and 200 babies were born into the community.

Under women and families, the Wadeye COAG trial saw the continuation of funding to an existing sewing circle program, plus the creation of a screen printing project.
That’s about it.

But it’s the priority area of ‘youth’ that perhaps best sums up the COAG trial – the COAG ‘whole-of-government’ committee set-up to create an “Action Plan” for improving the lives of Wadeye children has not met since 2003, and never actually submitted its plan.

Mr Gray found the project, which was widely touted by government as the jewel in the crown of the eight COAG trials, had:
• Lost focus and direction
• Was leaderless
• Had failed to cut through departmental and programme silo’s
• Resulted in almost no change to the delivery of government services
• Had markedly increased, rather than decreased, the red tape burden on Wadeye’s Thamarrurr Regional Council.
• Had created anger, frustration and disappointment among residents at Wadeye about the lack of tangible outcomes and a loss of confidence in the COAG process.

Mr Gray’s confidential evaluation was provided to all parties to the COAG trial – Thamarrurr, the Northern Territory and federal governments – on May 25 this year but has never been publicly released.

This is despite calls for its release, particularly during the last round of Senates Estimates hearings in Canberra, which were held only days after the report was provided to the COAG trial partners and amid a media frenzy over ongoing riots in the troubled NT community.

And its on the issue of public safety that the report is particularly scathing.

Mr Gray reports there “is little doubt that Thamarrurr had anticipated that the need for community safety and the reduction of violence, particularly with gangs, would be addressed and resolved at an early stage of the trial.

“That the issue of safety and youth violence continues to be a matter of immediate need and is seen to have worsened over the life of the trial, is the source of both disappointment and anger within the community and to many of the people involved in the trial.

“The provision of police in adequate numbers is seen by those living at Wadeye to be their most immediate need.

“This was confirmed by a women’s delegation from Wadeye appearing before the [COAG committee) in October 2005.”

The women proposed a law and order strategy for Wadeye, to head off rising tension in the troubled community.

It was submitted to the federal government in November 2005.

By May 2005, the government had not responded to the proposal.

The community erupted into violence.

Mr Gray reports: “To put the matter in perspective, the police establishment at Tenant Creek, a town with a similar number of citizens as Wadeye, is in the order of 30 officers.

“At the time of the consultant’s stay at Wadeye in March, 2006, there were 3 officers, all of whom were operating under extreme pressure.

“This is not a sustainable situation and the community is seeking an urgent and immediate response from the Government partners.

“All personnel involved with the trial recognise that the stationing of more police at Wadeye will not, of itself, resolve the endemic social dislocation and community violence which Wadeye has had to endure for many years.

“However there is a strong view held that without adequate policing and the restoration of law and order at Wadeye none of the initiatives currently underway or planned to improve the well being of the community are capable of succeeding.”

Mr Gray also notes that overcrowding was “the most frequently identified cause of ill health within Wadeye” but little progress had been made to deal with the housing crisis during the trial.

He notes that many of the problems with the first three years of the trial resulted from a “mismatch” of expectations.

“In hindsight,” he reports, “it is apparent there were differing expectations held by Thamarrurr and the Commonwealth and NT Government partners.”

The consultant’s report contains a long list of lessons to be learned from the first three years of the trial and cautions against destructive criticism.

“There has been a great deal of time and effort expended by a number of dedicated people who have sought to make a positive difference to Wadeye,” the report states.

“That they have experienced difficulties of the kind outlined in this report trying to give effect to a new way of doing business should not detract from their endeavours.

“The COAG trial is exactly that – a trial in which experimentation and innovation is being applied in a very complex and demanding environment.

“That said, however, it remains the case that the processes are in need of review and there is a need to modify the current structures if the trial is to improve in the way in which services are delivered and improvements in the social and economic well being of the community are to be achieved.”

Following a stay of four days at Wadeye between March 27-30 and interviews with representatives of the partners at Wadeye, Darwin and Canberra Mr Gray convened a roundtable conference in Darwin on April 19 this year.

A wide range of stakeholders were represented including the Secretary of FACSIA, Dr Jeff Harmer, the Executive

Director of the Office of Indigenous Policy (Chief Minister’s Department) Neil Westbury and senior representatives from Wadeye.

The conference was held to present the preliminary findings of the consultant and to consider a “way forward,” in light of his findings, which ran to fourteen key dot points (see feature in this edition of XXXXX NIT)

Mr Gray’s report notes that “although participants has their own views as to how the trial had come to this point none argued against the validity of the findings as presented.

He continued: “Participants accepted that despite the good will and commitment that all stakeholders had demonstrated over the past three years, there had been a ‘loss of traction.’

“There was a need to review the situation, build on lessons learned and move forward.”

“In considering the way forward Thamarrurr outlined to the conference what it now saw as its immediate priorities.

These were:
• A rationalisation of the management structure for the trial.
• Action on resolving the land tenure issues at Wadeye; and
• Safety.

They suggested the COAG partnership should focus and give priority to these matters over the next 12 months.

The Secretary of FACSIA agreed there “needed to be a sharpening of the focus on the priorities and that the management of the trial needed restructuring”.

He endorsed the proposal put forward by Thamarrurr and “committed his department to working in a whole-of-government way with the other partners to achieve appropriate outcomes within the twelve-month time-frame”.

The NT Government’s senior representative for the trial “endorsed the view that there needed to be a rationalization of priorities and management of the trial”.

Mr Gray was contacted by NIT but refused to make any public comment on the report other than to ask that it be noted he was not aware until receiving our call that his analysis had been leaked.

Given the report has been with the COAG partners for more than six months NIT had hoped to ask if Mr Gray was aware of what steps had been taken in that time to act on his recommendations.

NIT expects this will be a matter pursued in Senates Estimates hearings which are due to begin in Canberra today.

A world away back in Wadeye, life goes on, albeit amid enormous human tragedy.

“Recent growth Assessment and Action figures demonstrate a high percentage of children in the 0-5 age range who are stunted, wasted, anaemic and/or underweight,” Mr Gray’s report reveals.

“The World Health Organisation states that provided there is no severe food shortage, the prevalence of wasting is usually below five percent.

“Prevalence between 10 to 14 percent are regarded as serious.”

In Wadeye, the prevalence of wasting children is 12 percent.

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