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Demand responsive services and culturally sustainable enterprise in remote Aboriginal settings

Paul Memmott, University of Queensland, 10 November 2009

PAUL MEMMOTT: Good afternoon, everybody. I’m going to present a case study on the Myuma group, who are based near Camooweal. It’s a 15,000-word manuscript, so I’ll mainly be just trying to sketch it out with some images.

MODERATOR: You can give us 1000.

PAUL MEMMOTT: Yes, I’ll give you 1000. There’s an introduction that covers the political context, which was pretty well covered by Jon Altman yesterday, with concepts of cyclic pendulum swings of government policies, neo-liberalism, COAG [Council of Australian Governments] trials, ‘the Aboriginal problem’, the recurring tensions in cyclic policy constructions between traditionalism and modernity, protection versus market liberalism, targeted service delivery versus mainstreaming, assimilation versus cultural pluralism.

The case study is possibly an example, maybe getting close to one of, a seamless integration into mainstream economy, which was a term that Jon used yesterday. It is a Desert Knowledge CRC [Cooperative Research Centre] project, and it was part of a thing called ‘Core project 5, Desert services that work: Demand responsible approaches to desert settlements’. As such, it’s sat between two aims, of researching economic development and researching demand responsive services in communities. There were a set of goals set up for this project, not by myself, but by Mark Moran, and these are all addressed in my manuscript. I won’t have time to go through them all, but I’ll mainly be talking about the first couple. So it’s the characteristics of the interplay between demand and supply of services.

[shows image] That’s where the case study is set; it’s on the Georgina River. I got involved in about 1999. The [Department of] Main Roads wanted to upgrade the highway; the first thing was to build a bridge across the river, because the existing bridge flooded every wet season. There were two overlapping Native title claims, and I was brought in as an independent expert to try to work out who are the bona fide traditional owners that the Main Roads should be engaging with. And it turned out to be the Indjilandji group. And the bridge still couldn’t be built, because the female elder wouldn’t let any piers be constructed because she said the rainbow serpent was in the bed of the river. The bedrock was the rainbow serpent’s bones; the piers would bring about environmental catastrophe. And we negotiated with her to put pad footings on top of the riverbed rather than drill through it, which she agreed with. And so eventually the bridge went ahead.

And the group then levered up off Native title, and it’s probably something that should have been addressed in a bit more detail than it has in this conference, bringing to mind groups such as the Larakia, who have really levered up their economic situation from Native title. And what the leader of the group did was to convince the Main Roads that they had to deal with his group, they had to employ them for cultural heritage surveys, they had to provide a road camp for the group to occupy.

[shows image] This shows you the language group setting. This is where the camp is, here; they’ve also got another quarry camp up here. It’s part of a cultural bloc, what I call the Barkly cultural bloc.

And this is the start [of] talking about the idea; it’s a case study of where the Dreamtime meets the market. There are important regional Dreamings; the cultural links go right across to the Warumungu, and the Flying Fox Dreaming comes right down through Lake Nash. Yesterday we heard about dingoes and red kangaroos at Ernabella; well, they’re really important here, too. Down here is Ali Curung, which is the font of the Dingo Dreamings that come right up through here to the gulf and are involved with young men’s business. And down the Sandover Highway, in the Alyawarr country, we have Aherrenge, which is the main Red Kangaroo Dreaming that goes down through Heavy Tree Gap to Uluru, and which is the main driver of the older men’s business. And these Arrente groups have moved in and occupied Alpurrurulum in the Lake Nash in the 1920s and have intermarried with the Indjilandji group; so that this group is driven by the law bloc in this area and forms the easterly extent of initiating groups left in Australia.

We’re also, I should say, on the trunk trade route that was mentioned yesterday, the north–south trunk trade route, [the] traditional trade route bringing the ochre up from Parachilna and the pitchury from the Simpson Desert and the greenstone axes and so forth out of the Kalkadoon country. But this area was famous for ribbon stone. I’ll come on to that in a minute. And this is part of the Indjilandji’s claims, and the camp is about 5 kilometres out of sleepy Camooweal, which has only got a population of about 190 people.

[shows image] So this is a bit out of date, this drawing of the actual camp as it was set up. The whole case study really reflects a lot of the ideas that Diane Austin-Broos was talking about this morning. It’s a harmonious site, where relatedness is constructed for many, where people feel at home in the world for a time. There’s a strong sense of personal and group morality and of camp morality, which mirrors some of the issues that Noel Pearson talked about in his book, Up From the Mission. It’s a combination of employees and trainees. It is a very basic camp, in the sense that they’re all prefab [prefabricated] donga buildings [portable structures], and the rooms are like three-and-a-half metres by three-and-a-half metres with a wall-rattling air conditioner in them. But for many of the Aboriginal people who come here, it’s the first time they’ve had a personal room. And there are associated, then, issues of personalisation of space that Diane alluded to this morning.

All of the profits that have been made from enterprises have been recycled back into the infrastructure in the camp. There’s no alcohol or drugs allowed in the camp. There’s a dining room in here, which has a menu something like University House where we had breakfast this morning, which was quite sumptuous. And an externally oriented lifestyle with outdoor recreation areas, landscaped and hosed down every morning.

[shows image] This is the leader. This is the boss of the camp, Colin Saltmere, who’s the entrepreneur, the strong leader, the charismatic leader. He only went to lower secondary [school]; became a ringer [station hand], and from being a ringer he became a head stockman. So his leadership skills come from being a head stockman, and then he was elected on an ATSIC [the now disbanded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission] council; became the ATSIC chair, got disillusioned with having to go and meet with Mr Robinson in the casino – seeing the money going to Charleville and to Cape York [both in Queensland] – and said, ‘How can I do something better for my people?’, which is his motivation for setting up this camp.

[shows images] That’s the old bridge and the new bridge. There were 17,000 stone artefacts taken out from the bridge site, which tells you something about the stone production activity in the pre-contact and early contact era. And that’s the senior elder, Mrs Saltmere.

There are a number of lithic archaeologists interested in the area, including Mark Morbid. The person who was there when I was starting was Tom Loy, who has unfortunately passed away. Tom had a vision, a bi-educational vision, where he was going to have an international archaeology summer school there and bring people from all over the world. That sparked Colin off into thinking he needs to link with universities more. We’ll come back to that point. There’s a structure there to the way they’ve got business set up. I haven’t got time to go into that in detail, but there’s a distribution of profits into some charitable projects as well, including seeding footballers into the [North Queensland] Cowboys [rugby league] football team.

After the bridge, the contracts started building up, because all of the road – the highway back to Mount Isa – had to be done in segments. So he got involved in this alliance contracting. If people don’t know what that is, they can ask me a question, but it allowed them to make more and more profit in each contract.

[shows image] So this is sort of a brief analysis of the commercial contracts. $20 million between 2001 and 2009, which is about 2.5 million a year, mainly on roadworks, building roads, repair and maintenance contracts on roads, fencing, quarry, and camp construction.

There are formal structures operating in the organisation, even though Colin keeps everything in his head and works on verbal agreements. The latest alliance contract that’s being signed at the moment is with Joe Gutnick’s firm. ‘Diamond Joe’ Gutnick has phosphate leases up there, which are going to set the Myuma group up for the next 40 years with a lot of income. [shows image] That’s their cultural heritage, Dugalunji Aboriginal Corporation.

There are additional monies coming in besides those contracts. I’ll talk about the training scheme in a minute. [shows image] This is the amount of money that goes back into the regional economy. As a consumer, Myuma pays out about $300,000 a year in food; $150,000 in fuel; $60,000 in electricity. The workforce comes from this Barkly cultural bloc, largely. And you can see on the Aboriginal side, on this snapshot, there were 38 workers, compared to seven non-Aboriginal workers in the company. I wrote the marketing profile for the group in exchange for being able to use the information in presentations, as I am today. People learn how to cook kangaroos and emus and turkeys in the camp. [shows image] That’s outside the dining hall.

In trying to understand how this place works, I’ve coined the term ‘Aboriginal service setting’, which comes from an environmental psychology concept, the ‘behavioural setting’, which means, a close fit between behaviour and the physical and temporal environment. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s an institution, but you could make certain comparisons with boarding schools or missions. It is very structured; Colin says it’s based on a traditional multi-tribal camp, which is how he set it up.

There’s a very strong sense of order. There’s a bell that goes at 6:30 for breakfast. Colin says he relies on building up a critical mass of peer group pressure amongst the Aboriginal trainees to be able to help persuade people about their moral order issues. There are Aboriginal mentors in the camp. There are camp resident elders. There is an inter-generational structure operating. And the idea is that they get service providers to come to the camp. So they’ll try to organise service delivery on Aboriginal terms and in an Aboriginal way.

The training input involves 30 trainees at a time. These trainees often, the worst of them, come with VD, with unpaid fines, police fines, outstanding warrants, relationship problems, health problems, very low literacy or numeracy. These are the sort of people who aren’t just going to walk into Cairns or Mount Isa and present themselves to be sorted out. And that’s what happens in this camp, but it’s done on Aboriginal terms.

I’ve just been given a three-minute warning here, so I’ll have to speed up a bit. [shows image] This is the catchment area. I actually run three workshops in the camp; one on cultural identity, which deals with relatedness of people to country and one another, whereby I have to actually do a workshop on the entire contact history of this group, of all these people in this area, and bring an awareness of how people come to be together in this camp and why there are differences in cultural identity and differences in the strengths of cultural identity. And then, with some of the other elders there, we run a workshop on religion, embedding people’s identities firmly, so that when they are in the workplace and these racist issues happen they just don’t fold straight away. And another workshop on family violence, to try to help address the things that might undermine them in their own communities while they’re employed.

The trainees have contracts set up before they even come into the camp. Colin interviews them in their kitchens in their home communities, and through these structures that he’s set up, industry structures, various places like Rio Tinto [and] Xstrata Mine take a number of these trainees. And they’re learning skills, of course, in things like concreting and welding and plant licences, backhoes, graders, bulldozers, computers, writing CVs, literacy and doing community-based projects. Part of Colin’s vision, the bi-cultural education, we’ve got money now from the Vice-Chancellor [of the University of Queensland] to set up an arid zone field station, and I take up botanists, psychologists, engineers, archaeologists, who interact with the students, and we have projects going.

[shows image] This is our spinifex project. There are environmental sensors in these humpies [Aboriginal temporary bush dwellings] measuring the thermal performance of the spinifex cladding. This guy is an eastern Arrente elder in the camp.

The beginning of Desert Knowledge, the Core Project 5, was the conceptualisation that there seemed to be a one-way directed service delivery by government departments into communities; discrete communities didn’t have the power of market demand that happens in the free market, and so the idea was to try to study a demand-driven service delivery approach.

And in the Myuma situation I modelled this as saying it’s very hard to attract services unless you’re providing services in the market. If I’m to supply X in the market, I have to demand Y goods and Z services; however, the entities that supply Y and Z also want my supply of X. So once one can insert oneself in the market and be providing services to other players in the market, it’s only then that one can attract the types of services that the people want in that camp for their Aboriginal constituency. And this is why the camp works. It’s something that Karl Marx was on to.

So the formula is: attract a large-scale contract with government; host the Aboriginal labour onsite, in a social environment that’s culturally appropriate with employees reasonably comfortable; provide accessible training courses to the labour pool – added value for the employees so the labour force acquires ongoing diverse skill sets; identify consumer needs of the workforce; invite suppliers to visit the work camp; attract more enterprise and training contracts to achieve a stable continuity of employment. I’ll just skip over that, but somebody mentioned adaptive systems before lunch.

[shows images] This is the branding. Colin’s sister takes ochres from the Baby Dreaming site and paints with them. Colin’s a stone napper. This is his sister’s artwork, which is in national galleries, out of spinifex grass. Cultural inductions sessions: he’s just signing a contract with a national park to do burning, so he’s ultimately getting back into land management, which is one of his main aims. So there are a range of ways of relationships between Myuma’s activity and Aboriginal law, including initiation ceremonies, visiting elders, cultural induction programs.

Critical components of the success story: there’s the entrepreneurial skills, leadership skills, but there are a lot of other things as well – the lobbying process in the industry and with government. I write about trusted insiders and trusted outsiders; part of the local and regional economic market; pre-vocational training but closing the gap; not just job readiness but having jobs ready for the Aboriginal trainees. Okay, and a whole lot of other success factors there, so … That’s as much as I’ve got time for.

MODERATOR: Okay, thank you very much. [applause] All right, questions or comments. Yes, sir?

MAN IN AUDIENCE: Is the camp like a single men’s camp, and how long do they stay on average at a camp?

PAUL MEMMOTT: Well, there are different populations in the camp. Some of the workers – there’s probably about 60 workers and 30 trainees. It’s probably in a proportion of about one female to four males. Some of the workers have been there since the camp was set up, and they’re very stable. The course the trainees do is about 14 weeks, but Colin actually then re-employs a number of the trainees out of each training batch, so some of them get to stay there longer as well, and orbit back into the camp.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Thanks, Paul. This Colin Saltmere seems a fairly incredible man, so what’s – is there a plan if something might happen to him? I mean, what would happen if something happened to him?

PAUL MEMMOTT: That’s a good question. We’ve started talking to him about that. But, I mean, he does have a whole series of what I call lieutenants who are running different departments, and he’s got his brothers who can help and a number of his sons involved as well. So, I mean, it’s a hypothetical issue, but there are a lot of people there who could probably take over. Whether it would run as well without him is an issue.

Date published: 19 July 2010