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Out Of Touch: covid stories from WA

Kate Alderton

Kate Alderton is the director of the Aboriginal Engagement Directorate within the Department of the Premier and Cabinet. Kate shares insight on the impact COVID-19 had on policy making for rural and remote Aboriginal communities across Western Australia.

Out of Touch documents the unique experiences of Western Australians during the COVID-19 pandemic that hit Australia in early 2020.

Kate Alderton is the director of the Aboriginal Engagement Directorate within the Department of the Premier and Cabinet. In this interview, Kate shares insight on the impact COVID-19 had on policy making for rural and remote Aboriginal communities across Western Australia.

Copyright © 2020 Kate Alderton

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories and the State Library of Western Australia by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories. 

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Hello my name is Kate Alderton.  I’m the director of the Aboriginal Engagement Directorate within the Department of the Premier and Cabinet.  The exceptional circumstances and the exceptional moment of Covid-19 response hit me on the 18th of March following the 16th of March declaration of a State of Emergency.  Very quickly we were speaking with Aboriginal leaders throughout the State who were calling for further restrictions for remote communities.  They were calling for a speedy response. 


When we understood Covid-19 was a reality for Western Australia the wheels of government moved extremely quickly actually.  It was like a light bulb coming on and everybody in the room running to their positions. I was very grateful that there was a level of immediate control and command, despite an initial reaction that this was something that should have been more discussed and collaborative.  The gravity of the position, though, required a very swift level of leadership and that came through the Premier and the Police Commissioner working together and effectively declaring a State of Emergency.  With that State of Emergency came exceptional powers which enabled this swift response to kick in.[Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]From an Aboriginal policy coordination perspective, which is the role I have across the Government, it was a matter of understanding what that meant – particularly for remote Aboriginal communities. We had to consider what that meant for vulnerable Aboriginal people all over the State. Strategies were being put in place through the office of our Minister, Ben White.  The Minister’s Office was also receiving the same advice from Aboriginal people that they were looking to have further restrictions in place. 


I’d never experienced prior to that, that level of policy-making being so swift. It was an amazing experience, to realise that I was living through an extraordinary moment and that I had an incredible responsibility, not just for ensuring that we took the right steps as a Government in emergency mode, but obviously also to ensure the outcomes reflected what Aboriginal leadership was telling us they wanted. 


Regional organisation and leadership came into being very quickly.  You had the Kimberley organise themselves in an extremely coherent manner quickly as a group and they actually formed what they called a Task Force. Similarly in the Pilbara they had the same model and in the Ngaanyatjarra lands there were health services and community services working together and so we established Weekly teleconferences with up to 40 stakeholders in each region where we would relay all of the things that Government was doing in that week and hear from everybody around how things were working for them.  That really facilitated that lock step approach.  Structures of Government also responded by April to formalize what I would call that ‘Whole of Government’ response so we were meeting daily with Health,  Department of Communities, Police and Department of the Premier and Cabinet and State Solicitor’s Office. We were having daily meetings in the morning to check in on everything and understand what was going on and then that was formalised into a team within the State Pandemic Coordination Centre by April and that team is still going, still in existence. I think the response of the Aboriginal medical sector was a good response. It reflected how well this sector was working. 


I suppose the interesting thing around this Covid-19 response has been where things have worked really well. We’ve got to grab those things and hold onto them. We can’t just let the solutions fade into the distance as we return to business as usual.  So part of the work we’re looking at now is what has worked and how do we ensure that we take those pieces of cooperation and policy and put them into practice across the board so that we’re better at doing our jobs and we’re better at working with community, and taking that community lead. I think for Aboriginal people it’s about the solutions coming from them and the services being delivered by them and Aboriginal community controlled sectors really taking the lead on that.   


I felt very privileged to be doing that role and grateful for all of those factors, and grateful for the unique nature of where Western Australia is positioned geographically.  Even in the height of the lockdown we were able to go to the beach and that’s a very different dynamic to living in a highly populated city such as London or New York, or an overcrowded community in remote Western Australia.  While we knew the policy of encouraging people to return to remote Aboriginal communities was good, it was only good as long as you could keep the pandemic out because there were more people there than there ever had been before and the level of overcrowding was already an issue prior to Covid-19.[Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]There was a confluence of pandemic, Black Lives Matter and a third thing for Western Australia, the destruction of the Juukan Gorge Cave by Rio Tinto.  So you had heritage protection, you had disempowerment and entrenched poverty of Aboriginal people come to the surface, and you had the pandemic.  These three things just suddenly were there.  I felt like I was in this extraordinary position where I was seeing this social momentum building around these issues that have been so entrenched for so long in our country.  These issues that had not seen the light of day are now suddenly on the front page of the paper and on the news and people wanting to demonstrate to show their support.  It was a very urban response, but people that probably haven’t been engaged with those issues were suddenly engaging with them.  That kind of revolt, that this is no longer acceptable, even though all of the actions that were taken were within the law. It was the ethical decisions that were lacking in that circumstance and so we had this ethical response to heritage protection issues and racism.  We are no longer standing for this.  How this is sustained and translated into longer-term policy reform and legislative reform we’re yet to see. 


I think the pandemic highlighted the inequity, highlighted the vulnerability, highlighted the lack of investment.  All of these things that, for remote Aboriginal communities, have been unacceptable for so long. At the same time it has highlighted Aboriginal leadership and Aboriginal cooperation with Government in an unprecedented way and I suppose the best possible way forward from all of those things coming together at that point in time in June is to grab hold of the things that have worked and to take them forward so that we never have the situation again where Aboriginal people are considered as vulnerable as they are now. That was probably what stayed with me from that point, something great thing that came from Covid-19 and hopefully changing those communities for the better. 

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