Rethinking Aboriginal Governance II – the NT’s Regional Councils

This article is the second in a series which discusses how current our current institutional landscape hinders Aboriginal community development. The usual explanation for dysfunctional institutions is that unskilled or unsavoury directors are not carrying out their function properly, yet what if the problem is the current institutional set-up itself?

In 2008, the Labor government instituted reform of local government in the NT, amalgamating 57 remote Aboriginal community councils into 8 “super shires”. It was designed to mainstream remote community governance, with the new shires having all the trappings of a shire council down south, with a governing act, mayors, proper records keeping and so on, down to the same IT systems as other councils. The expectation was bigger organisations with better administration would have more capacity to deliver on community expectations.

However, it didn’t really turn out that way (the law of unintended consequences in Aboriginal affairs). The super shires were and are widely acknowledged to be unpopular. The CLP (Liberal) government came to power in 2013 on the back of the black vote, promising to reform local government. Yet when that reform was duly announced by then-minister Alison Anderson, it was widely criticised for being merely a name change – shire councils to regional councils. It appeared that the government simply didn’t know how to fix the issues the communities raised.

One of the things I like to blog about is using theories and frameworks from international development to better understand Aboriginal issues. The regional councils clearly have a problem of what’s termed “legitimacy” – residents disengage because the councils don’t deliver on their aspirations. My observation is that good people in the community generally don’t stand for (re)election as councillors because they are unable to affect change through council. Those that do stand do so often apparently for “personal” reasons  – hence the issues that have forced Litchfield council into administration and West Arnhem’s council with a quarter of its members coming from the same family as the mayor

So what’s going on? Regional Councils, which appear to be the same, as their cousins elsewhere in Australia are actually very different. Firstly, there’s the financial make-up. Let’s compare the income Macdonnell Regional Council near Alice Springs with that of Charters Towers in north Queensland, which have the same size budget – $33 million a year – and share other, similar characteristics.

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Whilst the majority of Charters Towers income come from rates levied on land, MacDonnell’s income overwhelmingly comes from grants. These grants come largely from the federal government for specific programs and projects. This is in part because of the particular relationship between councils and land in the NT, which I will talk about later, and also because of conditional rate setting – the minister approves rates levied on pastoral properties and mining tenements. This was apparently instituted for political reasons – largely that self-sufficient pastoralists were unwilling or unable to pay out large sums money to support Aboriginal communities. It’s no surprise that a 2013 review of councils’ financial viability raised serious issues. Because local government’s revenue predominantly comes from federal government in the form of grants to spend on specific activities, known as tied funding, there simply isn’t the untied income which can be allocated to the aspirations of the community at the council’s discretion.

So far so obvious, but there is something deeper. The second difference is that the regional maps of the councils don’t actually reflect reality of where the councils have responsibility for. Aboriginal land isn’t administered by regional councils, it’s actually administered by land councils, such as the Northern Land Council. (Unlike regional councils, land councils have been very successful at deriving an income from land, something which will become important in a proposed way forward in the next post.) Regional councils have responsibility only for what goes on in the larger communities.

Other land related functions that form the mainstay of local councils elsewhere are also missing – planning (NT Planning Authority), land use approvals (NP planning authority/land councils), and economic development – land councils again. Regional councils are in reality small islands in a sea of Aboriginal land that is outside of their jurisdiction.  For your average urbanite, it would be hard to imagine local government without control over land – it’s their core function elsewhere, but the NT is different. Regional councils, to a greater or lesser extent, are still mainly an agency to deliver government funded services, just like their community council forebears. But building successful communities is about having discretionary revenue to invest – which usually comes from land taxes for local councils everywhere else – and controlling the development of communities through control of land use.

Without being able to plan and determine development and without having the resources to invest in the communities, it’s unsurprising that regional councils have difficulty in being the vehicle for Aboriginal people to create a better future for themselves. More training for councillors and better IT – see Bob Gosford’s post on this issue – can’t fix the problems in the institutional landscape. But this is only part of the picture, and we need the rest to talk about a solution. I’m hoping to bring it all together in the next post.

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