Thursday, October 29, 2009

The forgotten Straits?

The Torres Strait Islands, which lie off the northern tip of Queensland's Cape York Peninsula, are one of the most unique - and arguably least understood - regions of Australia.

A population of about 7000 live on the 17 of 274 islands which are inhabited.

Unlike mainland Indigenous communities, Torres Strait Islanders weren't dispossessed of their land by colonial policies and managed to integrate, rather than be overrun by, western culture.

Having said this, the region has serious policy challenges in the areas of economic development, climate change, border security and health - some of which I've outlined below.

From my limited involvement in the issue, our policy elites in both Brisbane and Canberra seem poorly equipped for the challenge, partly because of the Islands' isolation and developing country characteristics.

Border security and health

The northernmost island of the Torres Strait, Saibai, is just 5 km from Papua New Guinea (PNG). Under a
treaty with PNG, residents can travel across the border to engage in customary trade and ceremonies.

The disparity in living standards between the Torres Strait Islanders (disadvantaged by Australian standards) and PNG people is large, with a growing number of PNG people coming into the region to access health services. There are
concerns about the risk of HIV and TB infection as a result of this movement.

The dispersed nature of the islands also makes it an easy target for drug trafficking and illegal fishing. A
Senate Inquiry is about to look at the issue of border security in the region.

Employment and economic development

At least 1400 people in the Torres Strait (rough estimate) rely on
Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) subsidies to keep them in a job. CDEP is meant to prepare people for real work, but in reality its more like work-for-the-dole.

That's why its a good thing the Australian Government is planning to reform CDEP from July 2010, like they did recently on the mainland. This would involve converting positions that are involved in essential service delivery to fully-funded government jobs, while transitioning the remainder to fully-funded private sector jobs.

The risk with this approach is two-fold: firstly, a sudden removal of CDEP without alternative options in place would have a devestating economic and social impact; and secondly, businesses, already struggling in the region's small and isolated economy, may find it hard to employ the additional people and may also struggle to remain viable without CDEP subsidies.

One industry that does have potential is fisheries: the region's fishstocks are under-utilised. However, making the most of this resource will mean resolving issues around Indigenous aspirations for ownership.

All in all, bringing the Torres Strait Islands fully into the mainstream economy is going to be a huge challenge.

Climate change

If climate change isn't happening, someone forgot to tell the Torres Strait Islanders.

A recent House of Representatives Inquiry found climate change is already - or soon expected to - impact on marine ecosystems and fisheries, water supply and health including the spread of diseases. It also found erosion and inundation is already a major hazard threatening communities, cultural heritage sites and infrastructure in the region.

Looking ahead

It may sound like I'm trying to peddle doom and gloom here. But in reality the people of the Torres Strait are far better off as part of Australia, with our vastly greater resources and expertise, than PNG. Which is just as well, because resolving the issues I've outlined will require plenty of both.

The question is whether our leaders are prepared to take the time to learn about the region, its people and its challenges, even though there isn't much political mileage to be gained from doing so.


Kutz said...

I'm not really here to comment on the TSI, just to say that your profile pic looks very ... perky.

brad mccoy said...


Council considers ditching Qld
By Siobhan Barry

Posted 3 hours 35 minutes ago
Updated 2 hours 52 minutes ago

The Torres Shire Regional Council in far north Queensland will tonight begin public consultation on whether the region should secede from the state and pursue self-determination.

Torres Shire Mayor Pedro Stephen says the purpose of the forums is to gauge whether islanders want to break away from Queensland.

If they do, he says they need to determine what model of territory governance to pursue.

"As part of the background detail of the presentation that we are giving we are presenting some territory models," he said.

"We are also using an example from the Norfolk model - looking at existing Australian territories."

The meeting will be held on Thursday Island and will be followed by further meetings on Prince of Wales and Horn islands over the next week.