Remote Australia in danger of becoming a failed state
Politicians, mining executives and academics have backed a report launched in Canberra on Monday, September 10 that describes governance in remote Australia as being in a state of “crisis”.
Fixing the hole in Australia’s Heartland says that an alarming number of remote Australians feel politicians in Perth and Canberra are not listening to them and warns that the region could become a “failed state”.
While remote Australia contributes 65 per cent of Australia’s mineral wealth, many of its communities lack adequate services, are unable to have a meaningful say in the financial management of their regions and experience higher rates of violence.
Bruce Walker, project director of remoteFOCUS, the team behind the report, says Australia’s system of centralised government needs radical reworking in remote Australia.
“When people live in areas remote from the centres of economic or political power and change comes on them in the form of a mining boom or an intervention in the Northern Territory, they feel they have no say in what is happening,” Walker said.
Walker said that over the last 30 years Australian governments have increasingly centralised their operations and this means most decision makers live within 20 kilometres of the coast.
But Walker said decisions affecting remote communities need to increasingly be made by or in consultation with people actually living in the regions.
He also said there needs to be a clear vision for the future of remote Australia.
“We are not calling for more money. We are not calling for a radical change straight away,” Walker said.
“We are calling for people to regard remote Australia as a national asset.”
Shire of Roebourne Councillor Nicole Lockwood said the report did not condemn the work of “wonderful” individuals working in Perth or the Pilbara but was challenging the system.
“It really starts to challenge the fundamental principles of how our democracy is constructed,” Councillor Lockwood said.
“But it is not about taking power away from Perth.”
“It is about creating a better hub and spoke for decision making so that the politicians in the states are advised and briefed by people who know the local circumstances.”
Councillor Lockwood said special initiatives like the state government funding project Royalties for Regions and the Pilbara Development Commission, which she chaired, are great initiatives but came from a reactionary position.
She said if health and government services were originally being provided for adequately, then there would have been no need to dress funding up in bright branding like Royalties for Regions.
“Rather this kind of funding would be normal, core-business,” she said.
With three years of consultations leading up to the publication of the remoteFOCUS report, it includes a number of Pilbara case studies.
It cites the recently postponed Port Hedland Outer Harbour development as an example of the difficulty in balancing mining interests with community aspirations.
BHP Billiton will spend as much $19 billion to extend the harbour with any one-day the port stops working costing between $50 and $60 million.
The report noted that the level of investment by BHP Billiton, meant a coalition of local businesses and organisations were struggling to have meaningful input into the project.
The local coalition said this was an ongoing problem because mining companies were able to plan 40-50 years in advance, while town planning relied on government funding committed on a year-to-year or election-to-election basis.
They argued this short-term vision deterred private investment into alternative and sustainable industries, universities, innovation, recycling, tourism and food production.
Another example in the report, noted that while local business were encouraged to diversify into tourism, Tourism WA was simultaneously closing its regional offices due to a restructuring.
The state tourism body also did not recognise any Pilbara attraction as a “Top 15” developmental priority.
RemoteFOCUS project director Walker said his team heard many more complaints from Pilbara residents ranging from the lack of accommodation and healthcare facilities to the impact of fly-in, fly-out workers, who earn their money in the region but spend it elsewhere.
Trish Thomson-Harry from remote healthcare providers Frontier Services said these stories are common in the region.
Thomson-Harry recalls a lady who had been a resident in Port Hedland for 40-years, but was forced to move to Perth to be near her adult children.
The lady told Thomson-Harry that her children had left Port Hedland because they could no longer afford to live there.
Walker from remoteFOCUS warns that these kinds of problems are due to failures in governance and could have very serious consequences.
“I look overseas to Nigeria and other places where there is significant mining activity in areas where there is significant underdevelopment in the local population,” Walker said.
“Then I know the sorts of things that I will be reading about in Australian newspapers in five to 10 years time [unless governance here is improved].”