ABC Radio Alice Springs

Assistant Minister for Indigenous Australians

HOST, STEWART BRASH: Let’s talk politics. Now, we’ve had a swag of pollies in our town this week. Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney has been here, as well as other Federal reps, including Labor Senator for the NT, Malarndirri McCarthy. Now, yesterday, the official opening of Central Australian Congress’s Alukura Midwifery Group Practice, the first of its kind in a remote area of Australia. And you’ll hear more about that after 930am. But right now, Labor Senator for the NT, Malarndirri McCarthy, is in Tenant Creek. Good morning to you. Malarndirri McCarthy.

ASSISTANT MINISTER, MALARNDIRRI McCARTHY: Good morning, Stewart, and good morning to your listeners right across the Territory.

BRASH: Let’s just go back to yesterday because it was quite a big launch for the Alukura practice. What difference will that make to women having babies in central Australia?

MCCARTHY: It was a beautiful moment, Stewart, especially for the grandmothers and the grandmother’s law. Just to remind your listeners, this actually began in 1984 when hundreds and hundreds of women came into Central Australia in Alice Springs to establish a safe place for birthing on country and for culturally safe practices for Aboriginal mothers. And that place has been there at Alukura and where we’ve gone now is to establish the midwifery section of it in terms of the GP practice with Molly Wardaguga and with Congress and with My Midwives to encourage more midwifery of Aboriginal women in that space, but also just to ensure that our babies are born healthy and that there is learning, pre-birth and post birth as to how to raise your children.

BRASH: Yeah, look, it has, as you say, it’s been a long term, long time in the coming. So, 1984. That’s 40 years ago, Malarndirri.

MCCARTHY: Absolutely.

BRASH: We were all much younger people back then. Can we look at the problems and the issues, which I know we talk about so much on this program, but right across the centre and Barkly, we heard this week from the Northern Territory Government, the Chief Minister said the extension of the curfew through to next Tuesday. From your perspective as a Federal member, what was your response to the imposition of the curfew and do you believe it’s been a success for the town of Alice Springs?

MCCARTHY: Well, look, can I just share with you and your listeners, Stewart, when the grandmothers sang yesterday, they sang a song in Arrernte around the whirly wind and their babies and children, and they reflected on the fact that this curfew has occurred and what has happened to the generation now in Alice Springs and around the centre. And the song they sang was a reminder of when you get caught up in things that are not of real importance, then you get lost like in the whirly wind. And I thought that was a really significant spiritual reminder of the strength of Arrernte country and Arrernte people. And so when the Chief Minister called for that curfew last week, I know there was a great sense of relief for the people of Alice Springs, but in particular, those grandmothers, you know, a bit of rest, but also a chance to regather and reset as to where they’ll go post the end of the curfew.

BRASH: Were you opposed to curfews before the one was imposed on Alice over a fortnight ago?

MCCARTHY: I’ve never been asked about curfews, Stewart, until last week. So, I see that when this occurred, it was obviously the right thing to do, what we have to be careful of, and I am mindful that NAAJA and others in the legal fraternity have concerns about it. We have to ensure that this isn’t the long term solution, but clearly we needed something in the short term.

BRASH: I’m intrigued by NAAJA’s intervention because they talked about, oh, it’s going to criminalise more young people, but as far as I can tell, kids haven’t been arrested. Was NAAJA just talking out of turn? I mean, were they just sort of going to a trope that, you know, of course curfews are a bad thing. I mean, do you think they actually are a bit blinded by their own ideology when they make those statements?

MCCARTHY: Stu, you’d have to speak to NAAJA about that.

BRASH: I will. But don’t you think there’s a lot of uninformed comment about this? And the further you are away from Alice Springs, the less informed the comment is.

MCCARTHY: Well, I certainly didn’t agree with that comment because I felt what the Chief Minister was doing, what the Police Commissioner is doing, and certainly the agencies, both at a Federal and Territory level, recognise the absolute seriousness of this. People in Alice Springs are hurting, were hurting on every level, you know, and this was an important moment to say, enough. And now we have to make sure that as we go forward, it still is something that does not occur going forward.

BRASH: But if it’s needed, should it be reintroduced? That’s the thing, because it was a crisis in this town. So, I wonder if crises have come. We’ve done it once. Should it be done in the future? If it’s required?

MCCARTHY: This shows that it can be done sensibly. It shows that. And I do think the people of Alice Springs and anywhere, actually residents across the Territory should have confidence that Eva Lawler, as Chief Minister, knows what to do, is doing it. And certainly from our perspective at the Commonwealth level, we’re very pleased with the direction that she’s taken.

BRASH: It’s interesting, I was speaking to the Police Commissioner before and I was talking about resourcing. Now, we’ve had a review of police resourcing. No new extra police officers for Alice Springs. But it’s interesting, I did put to the Police Commissioner that at the start of last year, when Anthony Albanese, the PM and the Chief Minister Natasha Fyles were here, there was an initial announcement of $14.2 million, now that was for 30 additional police officers, 21 extra police liquor inspectors. Now, I spoke to the Commissioner and he said, well, that money is going to be spent by the end of this year. And he said he’d be coming back to the feds for more money. Do the Federal Government, will the Federal Government pay for more police? They already do that in other parts of the Northern Territory I know. Will that money, will you re spend, will you re budget that money for those police in central Australia?

MCCARTHY: Well, probably two points here, Stewart. One is that as Assistant Minister, I don’t have any access to the financial arrangements that we make.

BRASH: Do you support that money being spent, again, for those policing?

MCCARTHY: What I will say, and the second point to this, is that the Commonwealth does support wholeheartedly the Northern Territory. We had the recent Cabinet Meeting with the Prime Minister here and all the Ministers, and there is no doubt that there will be ongoing support to ensure that safety continues in Central Australia, but more broadly across the Northern Territory. And I think those conversations, and I did speak with Linda Burney this morning, and I know she’s out at Haasts Bluff for the LDM signing today, but I did speak with her about many issues and one of the things that I know is that she will be having a conversation with the Northern Territory Government and I’m sure this will come up.

BRASH: I do wonder, and you’re a Federal representative, but you also know about the Territory Government as well. We get $4.80 in the dollar for GST, the highest of any jurisdiction in the country. That is on the basis of the Indigenous disadvantage of Indigenous Territorians here in our part of the world. Is it right for the Northern Territory Government to keep coming to the feds saying, we need more, we need more, when you already provide that, is the Federal Government, through the fiscal equalisation, provide all this GST money. Do you think the Government is using their money wisely when it comes to spending, especially with all that GST money?

MCCARTHY: Oh, that’s a very big question. It’s like asking, what do you want on all this menu, Stewart? But I hear what you’re saying and asking. I think that in terms of the areas that I’m dealing with and if I can stick to that, which is I’m Assistant Minister in Indigenous Health and with what we’ve proposed through the Northern Territory in that area, we are doing some considerable work and I’m very pleased to see that. Obviously in other areas which are not in my purview. There may be questions about that and that’s why we have Senate Estimates to be able to ask those questions. But in the areas that I have responsibility for, I am very confident the money that we are providing is being spent where it should.

BRASH: Okay, talking about health. Now, this is a health issue, alcohol in the town of Alice Springs. The Government has now said, oh, we got it wrong over this hybrid system of trying to staff the point of sale interventions and the bottle shops. We are now told that into the future we will have police, as they will be into the future on all bottle shops. You obviously welcome that.

MCCARTHY: I know that the Action for Alice group?

BRASH: People’s Alcohol Action Coalition. Yes.

MCCARTHY: Thank you. Thank you. I know that they’ve been, certainly John Boffa has been very vocal on the fact that it’s required with their liquor licences and the need to have PALIS on the stores. We do have to look at the longer term. I did hear my colleague Marion Scrymgour talk about the buying back of licences from some of the IGAs, and these are serious conversations that do need to be had because we recognise that alcohol is still one of our major issues right across the Northern Territory.

BRASH: Is there a place? And you mentioned the buyback, Lhere Artepe Enterprises, which is the commercial arm of Lhere Artepe, the native title holder group for Alice Springs, they want to sell their three licences. The Government says they’re asking too much. Is it time, and is there an opportunity here for the Federal Government to help top up whatever the offer is to make sure those licences are taken out of circulation? It’s a win all round. The police don’t have to staff them anymore. There’s less grog outlets in town. Would you support Federal monies going in to helping ensure that deal is done?

MCCARTHY: Well, we’ve got Federal monies that have come in as a result of the alcohol issues, in particular in Central Australia. So, clearly, if this was a proposition put to the commonwealth by the Northern Territory Government, then obviously we would consider that proposition.

BRASH: Has any offer come that way?

MCCARTHY: Not that I’m aware of, only what I’ve heard through the local member Marion Scrymgour. And as I’ve said, Linda Burney is in town and will be meeting with the Northern Territory Chief Minister at some point. So, I will wait to see what happens.

BRASH. So, there is an argument for actual Federal intervention to actually maybe make sure those licences are bought?

MCCARTHY: Well, there is one from your local member Marion Scrymgour has mentioned that already, Stu. And I think that, you know, she’s been a fierce advocate, certainly for Alice Springs in recent times and we will certainly be listening to her.

BRASH: Late last year, of course, early last year. Sorry, of course, the Albanese Government stumped up. It was more than $300 million in the end because it was $48 million, which was announced initially, plus the $250 million. I suppose a lot of people in Central Australia are asking, what difference has that money made? We’ve seen $40 million for education, we’ve seen money extended money for DV. There’s also been money for communications as well. But what real difference has that money made to the people of Central Australia, to the communities that were supposed to help? Have you seen anything that’s actually made a difference in the short term?

MCCARTHY: I’ve certainly seen with, if I can take some of those examples. I mean, we know that, well, let’s talk about Tangentyere, for example, in terms of the Women’s Safety Group. Considerable money was given to that group to be able to make sure there was support around family and domestic violence in the camps around Alice Springs. And also the fact that we’ve been even just as recently, I think, as last month, you have the youth component of the Tangentyere Council paint the mural in the mall as a way, again, of the youth having a voice. So, there are some visuals that we’ve seen. There are certainly some things that I’ve heard through what the family domestic violence sector has been working on. I met with some other of the family and domestic violence area and the women’s legal services this week as well. They still do need support. They say that alcohol isn’t the only problem they’re facing. Family and domestic violence comes from other issues of poverty, of homelessness and obviously overcrowding. So, with our announcement around the 4 billion for housing across remote and regional Australia, Stewart, that’s one we know we have to tackle going forward.

BRASH: It’s interesting you mentioned Tangentyere Council. The leadership of Tangentyere Council have not said anything during this last three weeks of Alice Springs. We’ve had a curfew. We had a riot outside the Todd Tavern. We had issues at the Hidden Valley town camp. But Tangentyere, the leadership of Tangentyere, said nothing. Is that good enough?

MCCARTHY: Well, I can’t speak for Tangentyere Stewart and I’m sure in good time they’ll give reasons as to how they feel and what they think on things. I do know they are meeting with Minister Linda Burney and I’m sure they’ll make their views known.

BRASH: Have you met with Tangentyere in recent times? Have you met with any of the leadership?

MCCARTHY: I certainly didn’t meet with them this week. Not this week, no. When I was in Alice, I met with pretty much the residents of Alice Springs. I did want to give the time to just ordinary people and just see how they’re going. I did spend some time with the tourism sector and find out with business. I’m hoping to catch up with Nicole Walsh next week and also Dan from Tourism Central Australia after his meeting tonight.

BRASH: I’ll just ask you about that in just a tick. Can I ask you, though, Tangentyere is in receipt of, what, $38 million a year. That’s their budget. Much of that is Federal money. Are you happy with how that money is spent? Because we don’t as I said, we never hear from Tangentyere. We don’t know. Are you happy with how their monies are spent?

MCCARTHY: Well, clearly, as I said, Tangentyere can explain for themselves why they don’t speak to you Stewart.

BRASH: It’s federal money though Malarndirri McCarthy, can you tell me if you’re happy with how they spend it?

MCCARTHY: There’s two points here. You’re asking about why they’re not speaking. I’ve just answered that. The second point is in terms of the way they spend their money. Tangentyere, like any other organisation that receives Federal funding, must adhere to the criteria of that money. The other ways that they can be accountable is obviously through Senate Estimates. We also have the national audit. There are many ways that organisations, and not just Tangentyere, but all of those who receive Federal funds, must be accountable in what they spend and how they spend it.

BRASH. So, you were happy with how their accountability?

MCCARTHY: Well, we certainly have not received any notification otherwise, but they will, like others, have to be accountable through those processes.

BRASH: Let’s talk about tourism now we know, and I’ve spoken to tourism operators over the last few weeks. From Nova Pomare at Standley to the Reptile Centre to caravan parks, they are staring down the barrel of another terrible tourism season. As bad as 2023. And that was bad. So that light, I know as you said, there’s a crisis meeting of Tourism central Australia this evening. I understand there will be a call. I understand there will be a call for an economic recovery plan. We know the Territory Government’s skint. They’ve got nearly $10 billion worth of debt. Are you prepared as the Federal Government, as the NT Labor Senator, for the Northern Territory, to promise to give some support to the local tourism industry, which I think is, if it’s not on its knees, it soon will be.

MCCARTHY: Look, it’s interesting, Alice Springs was booked out this week. You know, none of us could get accommodation and I just wondered.

BRASH: You can at the caravan park because they’ve got no one.

MCCARTHY: Well, that’s actually where I stayed. So, I stayed at the caravan park and I do enjoy staying at them, whether it’s discovery or the one on Larapinta. But the thing here is, and I want to reiterate this to the tourism sector if they’re listening, we do not want to see you go down. So, whatever happens tonight, it’s really important that that feedback does come back to us. I know it will go to the Northern Territory Government, but I’m firmly committed and very passionate about the Northern Territory standing strong, central Australia in particular. And I will look forward to hearing from them after tonight’s meeting.

BRASH: Do you reckon there’ll be Federal money for help, knowing the NTG have got limited capacity at the moment?

MCCARTHY: Well, we just can’t let people fall down Stewart is my view, you know, but that’s my view. As I said earlier, I don’t. I’m not the one that holds the budget strings, but I certainly am a strong voice, you know, in the Northern Territory.

BRASH: Dumb final question. And I know it’s a, it’s a Territory election, but within four or five months, we’ve got a Territory election in August. You’re in the Barkly right now. But Labor hasn’t even preselected. Well, hasn’t announced a preselected candidate for the Barkly. Am I missing something? Have you heard anything?

MCCARTHY: I think there’s still quite a few seats that don’t have candidates.

BRASH: Araluen, Braitling, Namatjira and the Barkly

MCCARTHY: in both parties.

BRASH: Oh, absolutely. No, no, no, don’t worry.

MCCARTHY: It’s not a surprise. But I think those questions are perhaps left to the admin of the Northern Territory Labor branch, Stewart.

BRASH: Getting close. Time is a ticking away and you’ve got to be able to campaign on the ground if you want to win an election.

MCCARTHY: We will be in the Federal parliament at the time Marion, I and Luke. So. And, and Senator Price.

BRASH: I know given your links to the Barkly in the Gulf country, I’m sure you’ll be out campaigning when it does come to the Territory election.

MCCATHY: Look, we will certainly want to see the Northern Territory Labor candidates do well Stewart, there is no doubt about that.

BRASH: Malarndirri McCarthy, we will speak soon.

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