NT Intervention: Exposed bureaucratic wastage

'The Australian" reports that the delivery of indigenous services in the Northern Territory has developed into a huge bureaucratic machine
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Natasha Robinson The Australian October 11, 2010

The number of new public servants since the launch of the federal intervention almost matches the number of extra frontline troops of doctors, nurses, teachers and police.

An investigation by 'The Australian' reveals that, since mid-2007, the number of federal public servants based in the NT - within the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs alone - has more than doubled.

And the department that manages indigenous affairs in the NT has increased its staff numbers by 60 per cent to more than 1100.

The scale of the growth in indigenous bureaucracy comes as remote communities complain of widespread bureaucratic wastage. Visiting government departments book out entire hotels to use only a few rooms, and officials from different departments arrive at the same meeting on separately chartered aircraft.

In the three years since the Howard government launched the intervention into 73 remote NT communities, the ranks of the NT-based federal bureaucracy have swelled by 180. There has been a combined increase since June 2007 of 609 staff of FAHCSIA based in the NT and public servants employed in the NT Department of Local Government, Housing and Regional Services.

According to federal government figures, 691 permanent frontline personnel have been employed since June 2007 to provide services to NT remote communities, including 62 police, 141 teachers, nine full-time doctors, 52 full-time nurses and 253 early childhood workers, 25 allied health professionals and 90 Aboriginal health, family, and community workers. In addition, 131 doctors and nurses have served in temporary placements in remote communities.

The federal government has invested $1.2 billion in the Northern Territory Emergency Response since November 2007, and $323.8 million is provided for the intervention in this year's federal budget.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin said that, as well as the increase in frontline workers such as police and teachers on the ground, the intervention was providing more than 7000 meals to schoolchildren each school day. It also provided thousands of health checks for children, and safe houses and support services for women and children.

Ms Macklin said the staffing levels within the commonwealth public service reflected the work involved in ensuring taxpayers' dollars provided under the intervention were spent effectively.

"As part of our work in the Northern Territory, a range of other commonwealth officers are employed to ensure services are delivered on the ground, including managing our extensive contracts with local service-delivery organisations to make sure public funds are used effectively and responsibly," a spokeswoman for Ms Macklin said.

Ms Macklin said FAHCSIA staff based in the NT were also responsible for delivering a national suite of programs including emergency relief, family support, Community Development Employment Projects and community mental health programs.

"There are also other staffing demands in the Northern Territory, such as our involvement in the joint delivery of the Alice Springs Transformation Plan, the Central Australian Petrol Sniffing Strategy and the licensing of outback stores," the spokeswoman said.

The chairwoman of the emergency taskforce assembled during the intervention's first 18 months, Sue Gordon, told The Australian she was concerned that the increase in public servants in the NT, who were predominantly based in Darwin, had not been matched by a corresponding increase in the employment of indigenous people in remote communities.

"I have noticed the number of servants and my query is whether that is actually balanced out by employing Aboriginal people in communities, as opposed to putting (public servants) in Darwin, Alice Springs and Katherine," Dr Gordon said. "It's creating a bloated bureaucracy."

And the Howard government minister who initiated the intervention, Mal Brough, said he had been "incredibly concerned" at the potential for bureaucratic overload created by the injection of more than $1bn into the NT economy as a result of the intervention.

"Wherever there are new programs, new money, as night follows day departments seek to build their empires . . . to put layer upon layer of bureaucracy," Mr Brough said. "It becomes self-defeating because the money is gone before it even starts."Many of the new recruits to FAHCSIA are being paid more than $100,000.

The executive level ranks of the department - where pay scales range from $74,953 to $205,325 - have swelled dramatically.

In June 2007, there were 50 staff members at executive and senior executive levels within FAHCSIA. By June this year, that number had grown to 139.

A proportion of the increase in the executive levels of the commonwealth service in the NT is attributable to the employment of 66 "government business managers", who have been stationed in remote communities for the first time, as an initiative of the federal intervention.

There are also 26 "indigenous engagement officers" - Aboriginal workers who act as a conduit between the community and the commonwealth.

But The Australian's tally of the increase in public servant numbers since the intervention does not include bureaucrats in several other government departments who are also engaged in the rollout of indigenous programs. These include Centrelink employees, training and employment staff, and those in the NT and commonwealth health departments.

Although the increase in frontline services in remote communities has been welcome, there are reports from communities of serious wastage associated with the intervention's rollout.

Several staff members working at motels across the Northern Territory described large increases in the number of rooms booked by government departments for visiting public servants since the intervention was launched.

At Knott's Crossing Resort in Katherine, manager Katrin Ladurner said that on an average weekday, between 25 and 30 rooms were booked by the NT government.

Another motel in Nhulunbuy, in northeast Arnhem Land, has been regularly fully booked for the past two years, with government workers taking up the majority of rooms.

A staff member from the motel, who did not want to be identified, told The Australian the NT government recently booked the entire motel but used only three rooms. The government paid the bill for every room. The staff member was so appalled she began keeping a diary monitoring the bureaucratic wastage.

"They don't care because it's not their money; it's taxpayers' money. The intervention hasn't worked. Aboriginal people aren't getting anything out of it. There's still no housing. There's no employment for them," she said.