In remote Australia, locals have a term for politicians who fly in, squawk a bit, and fly out – they’re called cockatoos. Malcolm Turnbull’s visit to Tennant Creek this week showed all the signs. By Alex McKinnon.

Malcolm Turnbull in Tennant Creek

Malcolm Turnbull with Ronald Plummer (far right), at Tennant Creek, in the Northern Territory, this week.
Malcolm Turnbull with Ronald Plummer (far right), at Tennant Creek, in the Northern Territory, this week.
Credit: AAP Image / Dan Himbrechts

When he talks about issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Malcolm Turnbull sometimes recaptures a little of the rhetorical flair that used to draw progressives to the cool, leather jacket-wearing Member for Wentworth of yore.

In his 2016 Closing the Gap address, Turnbull became the first prime minister to address parliament in an Aboriginal language. In an interview with NITV a month later, Turnbull brought himself to tears speaking of a Ngunnawal woman who told him of a song her mother used to sing to her as a child.

The prime minister’s two-day visit to the remote Northern Territory town of Tennant Creek this week provided ample opportunity for the sort of gestures he enjoys making. Touching down at Tennant Creek Airport on Sunday, he greeted Warumungu elder Ronald Plummer in Warumungu language, or what he later joked were words “from a language group ‘distantly connected’ to Warumungu”. He spent Sunday night riding along with the Julalikari Youth Night Patrol, a transport service that picks up kids on the street after dark and drops them either at home or in a safe place.

Asked if he was “shocked” by conditions in Tennant Creek on Monday, he responded: “No, I have not been shocked; I’ve been inspired. I’ve been inspired by the resilience of the community.”

He went on to speak of the “quiet determination” he felt from members of the town’s recently formed cultural authority group, and of conversations he had with local children.

“Those kids at the basketball court, they’re the future,” Turnbull said. “We owe it to them to get it right, and we will.”

On the first day of his visit, Turnbull spoke of the need for federal, state and territory governments to start “doing things with First Australians, rather than doing things to them”.

“Very fluffy, isn’t it?” says John Paterson, chief executive of Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory. “I’m a born and bred Territorian. I’ve worked in the Indigenous affairs arena for the last four decades. I’ve seen them come and go: prime ministers, ministers for Indigenous affairs, nationally, state, territory level. What they say and what they do are two different things, to be quite

“Why couldn’t somebody in government say they were going to provide the appropriate investment to build 20 new houses? Really, is that too hard?”

Paterson takes particular exception to Turnbull’s words given the prime minister’s opposition to the Indigenous Voice to Parliament proposed in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

“We had a gathering of 400-odd Aboriginal leaders from right across the country,” Paterson says. “That should have been embraced. The prime minister should have shown leadership.”

The substance of Turnbull’s visit was provided by the first meeting of the Tripartite Forum, an advisory body bringing together the federal and NT governments, Aboriginal organisations and other non-profits to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory.

Elsewhere, Tennant Creek’s new cultural authority group, which met with Turnbull on Monday, asked for the power to exercise traditional law and expel people from town for drunken, abusive or violent behaviour. And Turnbull flagged better service delivery in the town via a “regional deal” between the three levels of government. “A shocking innovation in the history of the Australian federation,” he quipped.

Turnbull was accompanied on his trip by Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion and Social Services Minister Dan Tehan. Questioned by reporters on Monday, Tehan proposed including Tennant Creek in the ongoing trial of the cashless welfare card in remote Aboriginal communities, depending “on the local community being a part of that process”.

Less than a week before the Tennant Creek visit, an Australian National Audit Office report found that “it is difficult to conclude whether there had been a reduction in social harm” in the cashless welfare card trial communities of Ceduna in South Australia and Western Australia’s East Kimberley region.

In its submission to a Senate inquiry into cashless welfare this week, the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation said it “is strongly opposed to the current cashless debit card trials as well as any proposal to expand”, and that the trial’s focus on predominantly Aboriginal communities “amounts to a discriminatory policy in its application”.

Nonetheless, cashless welfare seems increasingly likely to be in Tennant Creek’s future. Two months before Turnbull and co flew in, the town played host to Dr Tim McDonald. McDonald is the chief executive of GenerationOne, mining magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest’s self-funded attempt to “end the disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in our generation”.

Practically, that goal has been sought through cashless welfare and its predecessor, the BasicsCard, the federal income management program administered by the Department of Human Services, which Forrest has championed for almost a decade despite growing evidence that income management has little to no effect on alcohol abuse and violence in remote Aboriginal communities. Cashless welfare quarantines 80 per cent of a person’s income, even more than the BasicsCard.

The visit also provided few signs the government is rethinking its approach to Aboriginal employment and welfare in remote Australia. Tennant Creek has a large number of people registered with the Community Development Programme (CDP), a work-for-the-dole initiative in which participants are paid between $10.80 and $11.70 an hour for up to 25 hours of work placement a week. More than 80 per cent of the CDP’s 32,000 participants are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Last year representatives of the Maritime Union of Australia visited Tennant Creek to drum up support for the First Nations Workers’ Alliance, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led organisation pushing for the abolition of the CDP. They heard stories of CDP participants struggling to buy food and medicine, of manual labourers encountering safety issues, and people having their payments cut off for up to eight weeks for missing appointments with Centrelink or job agencies due to illness, injury or cultural reasons.

The NT branch of the First Nations Workers’ Alliance, known as One Mob, is run by the Territory branch of the United Voice union, of which Kenton Winsley is the first Aboriginal president. He describes the prime minister’s visit as little more than “smoke and mirrors”.

“You can’t really trust Scullion, you can’t trust Malcolm Turnbull,” he says. “What they’re saying now and what they’re doing in the background are two different things.”

Meanwhile, questions have been raised as to how the Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS), rolled out by Tony Abbott’s government in 2014, has impacted a town where Aboriginal health, education and justice services are greatly needed.

Barbara Shaw is the general manager of Tennant Creek’s Anyinginyi Aboriginal Health Corporation. As president of the sprawling Barkly Regional Council in 2015, she saw the effects of the IAS first-hand when the council forced the federal government to partially reverse IAS-mandated funding cuts to Tennant Creek’s youth programs. Shaw said then that “our youth development has been completely shattered” by the cuts, which cost 25 local jobs before funding was restored.

Shaw says that while stringent reporting requirements are necessary for the spending of public money, the IAS bureaucracy drains the resources of organisations doing vital work.

“The Commonwealth never makes it easy for Aboriginal organisations,” Shaw says. “The majority of our time is having teams of people pulling the reports together to provide back to the Commonwealth to show them we’re an honest organisation spending their money right. And at the same time, you’ve got to do the real stuff: providing services to people who are vulnerable, who live in poverty, the sickest, poorest group of people in the nation.”

It would be easy for Tennant Creek locals to meet Malcolm Turnbull’s visit with cynicism. The last time politicians in Canberra made so much noise about the welfare of Aboriginal children, the government delivered the “emergency intervention” and its successor, the cross-portfolio Stronger Futures policy. The previous time a prime minister visited the town was in 1982.

Shaw says Tennant Creek was not expecting the world of Turnbull but his visit could prove valuable if the prime minister left with the realisation that Canberra doesn’t have all the answers.

“We don’t expect that the prime minister lands in Tennant Creek, tippy-toes in a circle with a magic wand and the next day we’re going to have a perfect town. It doesn’t work like that,” Shaw says. “But he’s visited people face to face, he’s seen the town for himself. He’s been exposed, and being the leader of the country, he needs to be exposed to what’s happening out in the bush among First Nations people. He needs to do it more often, so he can relate to matters that Aboriginal people discuss at the table with him.”

Shaw says giving Aboriginal people in Tennant Creek the power to solve the town’s problems is the way forward.

“It is a good town. We tend to worry just about the negative spin, but it’s home to many, many people committed to turning things around. There’s hope. Give us the freedom. Work with us. We know the solutions. We can turn this around.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 28, 2018 as "Cockatoo politics".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Alex McKinnon is Schwartz Media's morning editor.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on July 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.