Recent rolling news coverage of Tennant Creek has become synonymous with alcohol, unemployment and violence, marring the town’s reputation.
The small community was thrust into the spotlight in February following the alleged rape of a two-year-old girl. Shortly after, alcohol restrictions were announced to ‘curb alcohol-fuelled violence and abuse'.
Almost immediately, to the horror of health experts, prominent media commentators began to incorrectly draw parallels between high rates of sexually transmitted disease in the Northern Territory and child sexual abuse.
In June, it was revealed the NT government had removed 15 children from their families around the town, when they were deemed ‘unsafe’.
A Northern Territory parliamentary estimates hearing was also told at least one child is sexually exploited or abused in the Territory each week.
For locals, it felt like a repeat of the media fallout during the early days of the NT Intervention.
Then on Sunday, Malcolm Turnbull became the first prime minister to visit Tennant Creek since 1982.
It was an action-packed itinerary: dinner at the Papulu Apparr-Kaki Language Centre, with food provided by the Future Stars Indigenous training program; a tour with the night patrol and a visit to a youth community centre dance party; as well as meetings with regional economic development groups and local authorities.
The visit was also peppered with announcements regarding more housing for Tennant Creek and the need for government to work ‘together’ with Aboriginal Australian, not ‘impose decisions’ on them.
One heckler aside, Mr Turnbull was received warmly as he arrived at the airport. He was given a welcome to country in language, to which he responded in language.
"I know Tennant Creek has had its challenges in recent times and I know you are facing these challenges head on with great courage, leadership and collaboration," Mr Turnbull said.
Mr Turnbull reiterated the line that governments needed to work with Indigenous people, rather than telling them what to do.
At the end of the speech, one man in the crowd yelled at the prime minister "to look after our country rather than yourself and your business mates".
Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said the man had caused offence to local people by disrupting the welcoming ceremony.
After that, the conversations shifted swiftly to what is considered to be one of the most contentious issues at hand: housing.
"There's a shortage of housing in Tennant," Mr Turnbull told reporters at the end of the first of two days in the NT.
"The lack of housing is the biggest single issue that has been described in every encounter.”
The prime minister’s observations are not a new revelation by any means, and have been called out in social media as ‘hypocritical’, given the ongoing tensions and derailments in negotiations between federal, state and territory governments over the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Housing.
Northern Territory Senator Malarndirri McCarthy told NITV News she welcomed any Federal Member of Parliament visiting the Northern Territory to hear from First Nations People about their issues and their proposed solutions.
“It is good to hear the Prime Minister talking about the importance of safe and adequate housing because it is his Government that has ceased funding on the National Housing agreement in this year’s budget,” she told NITV News.
But for Ms McCarthy, “the fact that the Prime Minister had to go all the way to Tennant Creek to find out that housing is a key issue facing Indigenous people in remote communities all over the country simply shows how out of touch he is”.
“Housing advocates and stakeholders from across Australia have been speaking about this issue for months just as the federal housing funding was being cut,” she said.
Where does Tennant Creek sit within the remote housing conundrum?
This year marks the end of the 10-year strategy with the Commonwealth providing a one-off $5.4 billion over a decade to the states and the Northern Territory.
The strategy, replaced in 2016, aims to address the critical housing needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in remote communities, particularly overcrowding, homelessness and poor housing conditions.
By 2018, the strategy hopes to deliver over 11,500 more livable homes in remote Australia and lead to a significant decrease in the proportion of overcrowded households.
An independent review estimates an additional 5,500 homes are required by 2028 to reduce levels of overcrowding — half of the additional need is in the Northern Territory alone.
In April, the federal government announced a $550 million to support the NT government's remote Indigenous housing plan. South Australia, Western Australia, and Queensland are yet to sign any agreements with the Commonwealth on funding for remote Indigenous communities.
So far in 2018, the NT government has built three houses in Tennant Creek and is committed to building nine more in the next 12 months.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said a regional plan for Tenant Creek, including steps to ending poverty, could be the way to turn the town around.
Mr Scullion, who accompanied the prime minister during the visit, also said housing is only one part of the solution. For him the community needs to disengage with alcohol, re-engage with employment and the best way forward is with co-operation between all levels of government.
"When you have very large numbers of people without jobs here, disconnected from employment and independence ... if you can't get rid of poverty many of these other issues are going to continue to affect us," Mr Scullion told the ABC.
"This is an area where [if] all levels of government do more work together, we are going to see real changes on the ground."
‘New deals’ to solve the housing deficit
During the visit, Mr Turnbull has also signalled Tennant Creek could receive a regional deal, similar to federal government agreements in Launceston, Townsville and Western Sydney, where federal, territory and local government would consult with Indigenous and cultural groups on housing, economic growth, health and education.
"There's real potential for us to take an approach similar to what we've done with city deals."
The deals involve money to grow and improve cities for the future.
Tennant Creek's regional deal would get three tiers of government together, along with Indigenous local groups, to agree on the town's priorities.
Senator Malarndirri McCarthy responded to the announcement with a grain of salt. She welcomed the regional deal, labelling it a ‘new concept’ but said it would be prudent to wait until the details were revealed.
“I just hope that the Prime Minister and Minister Scullion aren’t building the hopes and expectations of people in Tennant Creek only to leave them waiting, which is what we have seen in Darwin with the City Deal that was promised in May 2017 that still hasn’t progressed.”
Ms McCarthy also raised questions about how this regional deal would be funded.
“In May there were reports that the much talked about City’s Deal could be funded through the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF). This means that the NT will be a concessional loan arrangement, unlike any other City Deal, resulting in further debt for NT. Is this going to be the case for Tennant too? Why does the NT miss out on a fair financial arrangement such as Townsville and Launceston City Deals?”
Meanwhile, Barkly Regional Council Mayor Steve Edgington, who has lobbied for a regional deal for Tennant Creek, told AAP Mr Turnbull's comments had been very positive, but said he believes the deal wouldn’t go far with four-to-six year waiting lists for a three-bedroom house.
"We can't guarantee a child's safety when there's a number of visitors and people coming in from outside Tennant Creek staying at those houses," Mr Edgington told AAP.
Social Services Minister Dan Tehan agreed more houses were needed, but stressed that there also needs to be clarity regarding tenancy agreements and how the properties need to be cared for.
"If we just throw money at new housing, and then that housing isn't in a state in five years’ time that it can be used, we haven't solved anything," he told ABC radio on Monday.
"These are all things that we are in discussion with the NT government on, because the PM is right that housing is a key."
Cashless card roll-out
Mr Tehan also has raised the prospect of introducing the cashless welfare card to Tennant Creek during the prime minister’s visit.
He said the community is "very interested" in the cards, which quarantine a large chunk of welfare payments from being spent on alcohol and gambling.
"They've seen and heard what's happening in Ceduna and the real impacts on the ground there," Mr Tehan told AAP.
"From what I have seen whether it be in Kalgoorlie or Ceduna, it's driven by the community," the minister said.
In 2016, welfare recipients in Ceduna in South Australia and West Australian mining town Kalgoorlie were placed on the cashless welfare card trial.
The government stands by the scheme despite an audit last week which found data about its effectiveness was unreliable. The opposition has called on the Turnbull government to abandon further roll-outs in response to questions over the program's trial phase.
On Sunday - a dry day in Tennant Creek - the evening streets were relatively quiet as the prime minister toured with the Youth Night Patrol, a council-supported service to safely transport children on the streets back home safely.
Weeks earlier Mr Tehan had driven around the town on a different night.
"Alcohol is one of the issues that needs to be dealt with," Mr Tehan said.
"You see the difference between what's occurring on the streets on a Sunday compared to what we saw when we were here three weeks ago."
Outside Sundays, alcohol limits bottle shop customers to a three-hour window to buy a slab of heavy beer or 750ml of spirits. Other options include two 750ml bottles of wine or a cask of up to 2L a day.
"It's something that all levels of government need to discuss with the community to see whether there needs to be heavier restrictions," Mr Tehan said.
Mr Turnbull is meeting with police on Monday to discuss Operation Haven, a program aimed at reducing family violence and alcohol abuse.