Background: The Army Aboriginal Community Assistance Program (AACAP) began in 1997 and is an ongoing initiative between the Australian Army and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C). Its aim is to improve environmental health and living conditions in remote Indigenous communities whilst providing valuable training to Army. AACAP includes the design, planning, co-ordination and control of engineering works in selected communities in addition to coordinating health and vocational training. The project, managed by 19 Chief Engineer Works (19 CE Works) and delivered by 6 Engineer Support Regiment (6ESR), has over the last 22 years broadly delivered significant gains against a number of the Government’s Closing the Gap targets including employment, housing, infrastructure, essential services, health, education and mentoring. This article provides an overview of last year's AACAP and aims to give the reader an insight into this important Army mission.

AACAP locations 1997-2019

On the 21 May 18, some 563 km and four days after leaving RAAF Base Amberley, the AACAP contingent based on 17 Construction Squadron rolled into the small Indigenous community of Yalata, located 1000 km by road from Adelaide and 200 km west of Ceduna, South Australia on the Great Australian Bight. This deployment marked the twenty-second consecutive year AACAP has supported Australian Indigenous communities. Yalata is the home to approximately 300 Anangu people and was established in the 1950s after the removal of the Anangu people from their homeland in the Maralinga Atomic testing area. The landscape around Yalata is unique with its coast line along the Bight characterised by rugged cliff faces, surfing beaches and rock platforms. The sunrise and sunsets are known for their spectacular beauty and the sea area is a popular whale watching area for Southern Right Whales who congregate for breeding season.

Sunrise over Camp Birt

Part of the coastline Great Australian Bight

By the time the main body arrived, Camp Birt, named after CPL Ashley Birt who was tragically killed in Afghanistan on 29 Oct 2011, had been set up by the Advanced Party who departed approximately three weeks earlier. Camp Birt was to be our home for the next four months. Facilities included washing and shower demountables, living accommodation, messing facilities, vehicle workshop and a small gymnasium. Overall, pretty good living conditions. 

 Aerial view Camp Birt

Camp Birt at night

As the Training Development Officer on the AACAP, my primary role was to organise and deliver training, both accredited and non-accredited, to Indigenous community members. The aim was to provide employment skills and lifestyle improvements to the residents. In a community such as Yalata, where the closest town was 215km away, providing training that is linked to employability is difficult. I had visited the community in late 2017 in order to meet Yalata community board members, the community CEO and community elders for discussions on what they, the community, wanted along with negotiations as to what AACAP could actually deliver in the allotted timeframe. Managing community expectations has been a recurring theme on previous AACAP experiences and can be one of the more difficult tasks when developing training plans. Community expectation management is critical for a positive community engagement outcome. I quickly learnt it was important in the initial scoping phase, and in subsequent meetings, to not promise anything but to simply note down community wants and to pursue feasibility outside of the meetings.

During these initial discussions, it was indicated that the community already had many opportunities for training, delivered by various Government organisations, and there were many community members with qualifications. It was identified that the community was at ‘training saturation’ and that another ‘qualification’ was not necessarily going to achieve any change. However, the AACAP ‘training lines of effort’ are intrinsically linked to employment opportunities and whole-of-government (WoG) targets focussing on expanding the range of Indigenous employment opportunities and investing in developing the capability of Indigenous employees[1] It was imperative to deliver training that the community would deem suitable and relevant, as well meet Army intent of improving living conditions in remote Indigenous communities through infrastructure, training and health effects.

One of the main contributing factors for the two qualifications that were eventually chosen, being a Certificate II in Construction Pathways and a Certificate I in Hospitality, was one of the AACAP construction Lines of Effort to upgrade the Yalata Caravan Park. These works included construction of seven serviced sites with underground connection to a new main switchboard giving power to those sites. In addition, a new pre-fabricated ablutions block was installed and the entire park was fenced, gates built and a new sign for the park was designed and ordered. This was to be installed on the Eyre Highway at the park site.

SPR Todd Standage on Caravan Park site

The Caravan Park would be a potential source of employment to Yalata community members. The Certificate II in Construction Pathways included Units of Competency that could potentially be used in maintenance and general repairs of Caravan Park facilities including OHS requirements, simple concreting and carpentry.  In addition, the Yalata community had already built an Art Gallery at the site of the Caravan Park. The intent was to open the gallery to public, showcasing local art and selling refreshments and light snacks. The Certificate I in Hospitality was chosen for that reason. The training was also broken up into men and women’s business as per community wishes with men undertaking construction and women hospitality.

The next stage involved finding a Registered Training Organisation (RTO), with the above qualifications to support the training, sign off on and award the qualification. TAFE SA agreed to support this training with an agreement that Army would deliver the lessons with TAFE assessors overseeing training and assessment.

Initially, training for these programmes, especially the construction training, was popular and participants were able to attend training as part of their work for the dole requirements being managed by the Community Development Provider (CDP) based in the community. Unfortunately, participation eventually waned for the construction training and it became a struggle to get community members to attend. In retrospect, literacy and numeracy levels of community members and the training programme tempo were definitely a contributing factor in this decrease. Community motivation was not high, despite members of the training team delivering hands on, practical activities, and efforts from CDP employees who required attendance of members in order to meet the work for the dole requirements.

SPR Joel Stevanovic conducting training on tools and equipment

CPL Mathew Lucak and LCPL Gallagher (10 FSB) during Hospitality training with students Shenika Smith and Julia Coleman

I believe that success in this style of community cannot be solely measured by the number of people gaining qualifications. Despite only one community member completing the training, he was subsequently employed by contractors who were working on the Yalata Child Care centre. In a community where job opportunities are scare, this was a great outcome for a 17 year old who had finished school and had no other employment prospects.

Two women completed the Certificate I in Hospitality. Whether this actually leads to employment or not, there was definitely a noticeable sense of pride by all involved, including CPL Lukac and LCPL Gallagher (10 FSB) who worked hard to deliver the training. The programme also involved nutrition, healthy eating, hygiene and safe food handling; skills that can be transferred outside the training environment.

Although the training aspect of AACAP is necessarily important and is one of the main focus areas of the program, I believe that other community engagement activities may be just as important to a long lasting effect on the community. My personnel highlight of AACAP was the production of the Yalata music video “Be your best”, produced by the Indigenous Hip Hop Project (IHHP). The IHHP is a team of artists in elements of hip hop, media, entertainment and performing arts who work in Indigenous communities throughout Australia. As stated on their website 'The outcomes achieved from IHHP workshops are significant emotional, physical and mental health benefits for participants and communities. The workshops use the energy and enthusiasm of hip hop music, dance and safe talk, to enable young people to make their own healthy life choices and maximise educational and economic opportunities. The projects are designed to provide a forum where participants can experience new activities, challenge negative (self) perceptions, build positive relationships and learn new skills.'[2]

Over the course of a week, members of the IHHP came to Yalata and worked within the community, working with children and elders to create a music video uniquely about Yalata. The music video was launched on You Tube and was premiered in the community during AACAP.

 IHHP personnel working with Yalata school children for ‘Yalata: Be your best’ music video

IHHP personnel working with Yalata school children for ‘Yalata: Be your best’ music video

IHHP personnel filming the music video at Camp Birt with help of AACAP contingent

The theme for the music video was designed around the concept that with willingness to put in effort, more opportunities become available.  It was not a recruitment ploy, nor was the focus solely on the Army. However, with Army personnel being a visible presence within the community for over sixteen weeks, it was a good opportunity to educate community members about the opportunities and programmes that the Defence Force has to offer. Defence Force Recruiting visited the community during AACAP and discussed some of the Indigenous initiatives and programmes that Defence runs which was well received by community. As well as long lasting infrastructure that was built during AACAP, the Yalata music video, and memories, will be something remaining long after the Army departs the community.

Personally, AACAP has been by far the most rewarding and exciting opportunity in my career to date. I know for the community, despite it not always being obvious, it was also an exciting time for a lot of community members, especially the school children. There were many activities organised where the AACAP contingent were involved in the community including NAIDOC Week celebrations, sports events and perhaps the highlight for many, the Yalata Warriors vs Army Bears AFL Game (which the Yalata Warriors won much to their delight). So while the training, the qualifications, and the infrastructure are important and part of the ‘close the gap’ initiative, is not the only important part to AACAP. The presence and involvement of Army members in these communities is invaluable – not only for Army, but for the community members who otherwise may not have these opportunities.

PTI CPL Daniel Webb, CFN Alex Slager and LCPL Matthew Gallagher during one of the weekly contingent and community football games

CAPT Holly Godwin enjoying NAIDOC Week celebrations in community.

The Yalata Warriors vs Army Bears football game.