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Services in outback are 'unfair and inadequate'

"Unless major changes are made ... there will be dire economic, social, cultural, environmental and security consequences for Australia as a whole" ... Fred Chaney.

"Unless major changes are made ... there will be dire economic, social, cultural, environmental and security consequences for Australia as a whole" ... Fred Chaney. Photo: Jacky Ghossein

REMOTE Australia is facing a crisis of disengagement, ineffective governance and national indifference that demands sweeping changes to the way outback communities are consulted, treated and serviced, says a report to be launched today.

Drawing on more than three years of research, it calls for the setting up of an outback commission with the mandate and authority to change the ''dynamic of under-development'' that afflicts remote Australia.

''Unless major changes are made to governance, policies and infrastructure and service delivery practices, there will be dire economic, social, cultural, environmental and security consequences for Australia as a whole,'' warned Fred Chaney, the chairman of the body that commissioned the report, Desert Knowledge Australia.

Mr Chaney, a cabinet minister in the Fraser government, said existing governance structures in remote Australia are not fair, just or adequate.

''One approach would be to establish a small number of trials or 'innovation' regions or zones, with the specific aim of developing an ongoing process of learning, consensus and regional capacity building,'' he said yesterday.

''Another option would be for the Productivity Commission to investigate the capacity for such a governance reform to act as a micro-economic stimulant for remote Australia.''

The recommendations have been backed by the former secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Peter Shergold, who said: ''A genuine commitment is needed from the highest levels of government to ensure the national interest in remote Australia is sustained.''

Written by Dr Bruce Walker, Dr Douglas Porter and Professor Ian Marsh, the report highlights a range of concerns of those who live in remote areas, including:

A sense of disempowerment at perceived institutional indifference that asserts itself in services that do not reflect local circumstances.

Frustration that a ''one size fits all'' approach to funding inhibits capacity to shape and deliver policy that meets the diverse needs of remote areas.

An inability to effectively engage with governments in identifying and dealing with problems.

A failure to offer public servants incentives to work in remote Australia that has resulted in high turnover of staff and little retention of accumulated knowledge.

A lack of transparency and accountability that inhibits the development of ''realistic and effective programs that address local needs''.

The absence of a strategy for regional Australia, despite many attempts.

''While there is some spasmodic attention on remote Australia (particularly on 'crises' such as Aboriginal disadvantage, or as the social and personal fall-out of fly-in-fly-out workplace practices), normal politics and public administration are unlikely to achieve the structural reforms needed to address these issues, and others,'' the report says.

''Special-purpose initiatives will be required and these will need cross-party political commitment and support from business, professional and community organisations.''

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