Former federal treasurer Peter Costello. Photo: Jesse Marlow
One score years ago and 10, I was in a remote country town waiting patiently for a meeting to finish, then for another meeting to start and finish, so that I could hold a meeting with the people I had come to see. They were, of course, Aborigines of the more conscientious type, which is to say that if they had wanted they could have spent all day, every day, 365 days a year at meetings, mostly with bureaucrats.
The first meeting went on with, alas, not many of the people seeming to be very engaged. It concerned a new project which had started in the community, which had provided a job for a local, one which went with a vehicle which the local was allowed to use privately as well. In theory, this person's activity for the greater good was supervised by a committee more or less comprised of the people at the meeting, who were also, de jure or de facto, more or less the committee for every other damn thing going on in the town. Meetings about doing things was one of the main reasons nothing much ever got done.
Unfortunately, the new employee, related to everyone in the room, had taken the vehicle kangaroo shooting on the previous weekend and had wrecked it beyond hope of repair. Without it, the project was going to stutter to a halt - or at least would, without anything much happening in between, in about 10 months when the funding ran out.
No one seemed to care much. It wasn't their project, it had more or less been foisted upon the community by an outsider who thought it would be good for local community development. This person had made one local reasonably enthusiastic about the project - since it would, if funded, provide him with a job and a vehicle - but the project had no real champion. No one was much going to miss something about which many had been politely sceptical and others had rubber-stamped only so as not to stand in the way of X getting a job and a vehicle.
Eventually the meeting finished, and the next began. It was run by a few older women and only they participated, although no one actually went away.
The older women had, for years, run a local kitty for emergencies into which most families kicked in a few dollars every week. It was to buy a tank of petrol if one had, in the middle of the night, to drive several hundred kilometres to the regional hospital and had no cash. At a pinch it could pay upfront for the wherewithal of a funeral or buy some food for a starving family.
It operated on an honour system but everyone knew each other and everyone had a critical eye out for those who owed the kitty, particularly if they were thought to be high on the hog. Or the grog.
This meeting went on forever, with loud voices, criticism, some shaming, and even some tears.
One woman had dipped into the tin so as to buy petrol to go to a town about 150 kilometres away and back. She had carried six passengers, but the real reason for the trip had been to support the town team at the football, not for any emergency. Many of the old women were angry. The kitty was not a petty cash tin for anyone to dip into if they were short, it was said. It was there for emergencies.
The sum at issue was about $60, perhaps one thousandth of the value of the vehicle which had been destroyed. No one had cared much about that. But this was their money. They owned it - indeed they had sacrificed for it. Accordingly it was capable of stirring the passions. Sets of $60 raised like that had the power to change things in that community, $60,000 vehicles probably did not.
■ In a town only several hundred kilometres away Peter Costello became a bit of a hero when, in 2004, he introduced a baby bonus, urging people to have one for mum, one for dad and one for the country. As in hundreds of country towns around Australia the money - then about $4200, now $5000 - was a great boon for teenage girls who had become pregnant and soon seemed to be positively encouraging them to become so. A score or more of young teenagers could be seen wheeling prams.
Someone suggested it would be worthwhile bringing some professionals in to educate the young mothers about childcare, activities, and personal health and contraception. In organising activities that might engage the girls, the mothers and the mothers to be. Even to help keep them in contact, however tenuous, with the formal education system.
They did. The scheme seemed to work, at least (if this is a proof) in helping drive down the teenage pregnancy rate. After a few years, it was down to just a couple. The program was pronounced a success and, obviously being no longer necessary, had its funds withdrawn. Some relatives of mine report cynically that the town is now back to 2007 pregnancy rates.
■ In yet another town in the same general region, some local worthies - including some relatives of mine - were worrying about 15 years ago about the increasing local unemployment, particularly among Aborigines in the area.
There was at that stage an Aboriginal as well as a non-indigenous work-for-the-dole scheme. A series of hard words in the right ears had the hospital board agreeing there was a need for a contract to improve the hospital landscape and the shire council to agree there was a need for a program to attend to the kerbs and gutters, as well as the roadside trees and grass. Soon someone dreamed up an idea that an orchard on the edge of town could be revived and then need regular husbandry, and the town's Aboriginal housing co-operative decided (quite rightly) there should be a regular maintenance program for the houses and the nearby surrounds. A qualified builder was available to supervise and provide training. In due course, a women's centre was also established, not only providing some childcare and social help but also developing a little cottage industry of knits, simple dresses and toys. The whole scheme was administered by an Aboriginal corporation, albeit with some volunteer assistance.
An exceptionally able young Aboriginal woman was the primary organiser and boss of the show and wrestled it into operation. She would be up before dawn, driving around the town waking participants out of their beds and whipping them off to work, supervising them all day long. Many of the workers were terrified of her but no one was critical of how successful the program became.
The program was a famous success and was soon being visited by bureaucrats and politicians everywhere, seen as a model of just the sort of program that was needed. Canberra people studied it closely with a view to replicating it around Australia. In due course, copycat programs were running right around the region. Of course, doing this created some economies of scale. There was no reason, for example, to have local committees, whether of the town's Aboriginal population or of well-disposed white fellows. The exceptionally able girl was headhunted to be grand manager of the overall operation from a town several hundred kilometres away. Within a short time the local sponsors, and the local committees, came to understand their services were no longer required. Alas, somewhere along the way, the whole scheme ran out of gas and foundered despite its promising beginnings. In a year or two some big consultancy will be commissioned from Canberra to find out why. They will get hundreds of thousands of dollars - more than the net cost of the employment provided - and their report will go into a filing cabinet of money wasted in Aboriginal affairs.
■ And, no doubt, at the beginning of the year, the prime minister of the day will be expressing renewed disappointment about how nothing much seems to work in Aboriginal affairs, in spite of the best intentions and funding. They will admit the gap is widening, but recommit themselves to further efforts, guided by the best advice from the best bureaucrats - some earning more than $700,000 a year. No one can work out why nothing works but, we must assume, it is probably the fault of the victims, given the scientific manner and kind hearts with which they have applied themselves to the problems.