Malcolm Turnbull has become the first prime minister in decades to visit the troubled Top End town of Tennant Creek, saying he is committed to a Barkly regional deal to help improve the situation.
His visit comes five months after the rape of a two-year-old girl put the town’s social issues in the national spotlight.
It also comes after mounting criticism in the Northern Territory of the Coalition Government for its apparent lack of interest in Indigenous issues in northern Australia, and for not stepping in to help with the Tennant Creek child protection crisis.
Mr Turnbull told a press conference on Monday that he had not been shocked by what he had seen in the town, but that he had been “inspired by the resilience of the community”.
“You’ve got parents and families who have not been doing the right thing by their kids, who have abused their children, who neglected their children. But the reasons for that … is very complex,” Mr Turnbull said.
He said the regional deal would mirror cities deals in place in other parts of the country – such as Geelong in Victoria, Launceston in Tasmania and Townsville in Queensland – which promoted increased collaboration and communication between local, territory and federal organisations and authorities, as well as a cultural authority group and Aboriginal organisations to plan development and ensure child safety.
“It’s doing what people say they should do, which is working together rather than criticising each other,” he said.
Everyone has got good intentions, but without coordination you can be like ships passing in the night.”
Mr Turnbull said he thought the “single biggest issue” was the shortage of housing in Tennant Creek.
Recently, NT Housing Minister Gerry McCarthy told the ABC the Government had built three houses in the town so far this year and would complete another nine by the end of the year.
Social Services Minister Dan Tehan also flagged that he would be looking into establishing the cashless welfare card in Tennant Creek in coming weeks.
Children have right to grow up ‘safe’
NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner said every Territory kid had a right to grow up happy, healthy and safe.
“It’s important we do everything we can to ensure those kids growing up here get a good education and have jobs available for them at the end of that, so that plan will be a social and economic one,” he said of the deal.
He said a tripartite committee would be looking at “the heart of this issue of where the money is being spent, where it needs to be better focused”.
Both leaders pledged to “crash through silos”.
“I’ll never accept again that information sharing is a reason why a child wasn’t in a safe place. That has to stop,” Mr Gunner said.
On Sunday, Mr Turnbull spent the afternoon meeting with community members and local businesses, attending an economic committee meeting and touring local community services.
He also met with the town’s cultural authority group, which is a new coalition of Indigenous leaders and community members to negotiate with all levels of government.