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The Success Factors

Community Research Report - Cloncurry (Qld)


1.1 Background

The Minister for Transport and Regional Services, the Hon John Anderson MP, asked the Regional Women's Advisory Council (the Council) to identify and advise on the characteristics of communities that are dealing with change successfully. In response, the Council has been carrying out an action research project in regional, rural and remote communities across Australia.

The Regional and Rural Women's Unit within the Department of Transport and Regional Services (the Department) is providing the Council with advice and resources, including the supervision and management of consultants, to ensure the question posed by the Minister is researched and answered satisfactorily.

1.2 Purpose of the research

The purpose of the research is described as:

To identify the critical success factors, particularly those relating to community capacity (human capital) that facilitate positive economic/ employment, social and environmental outcomes for communities experiencing change.

It focuses on the fundamental attitudes and actions that promote success in each community. Further, the research explores impediments to achieving this success and the potential role of government in helping communities achieve their goals.

Importantly, the research explores and reveals these factors from the perspective of women. It gives women living in regional, rural and remote communities an opportunity to tell the Council, and through them the Government, about the factors that contribute to communities adapting effectively to change.

A community research report was prepared after the research process is completed in each research location. The overall findings of the research, incorporating all seven communities, were released in September 2001.

The final report will enable communities to identify actions and strategies adopted by others who may be facing similar situations and, more generally, to take greater control of their own destinies. Governments will also use the report to inform policy for communities in regional and rural Australia.

1.3 Selection of sites - principles

The research was conducted in a regional, rural or remote community in each State and the Northern Territory. The seven research sites were:

  • Denmark, Western Australia (August 2000)
  • Griffith, New South Wales (October 2000)
  • Ceduna, South Australia (November-December 2000)
  • Devonport, Tasmania (March 2001)
  • Hamilton, Victoria (March 2001)
  • Tennant Creek, Northern Territory (May 2001), and
  • Cloncurry, Queensland (May-June 2001).

The research sites were selected to ensure capture of:

  • regional, rural and remote communities
  • coastal and inland locations
  • diverse economic activity and industries
  • a variety of demographic profiles, and
  • evidence of some positive response to change.

Cloncurry was selected as the Queensland community because it is inland and, while its economy is reasonably diversified, it is predominantly based on mining and cattle. It has a high Indigenous population and is considered successful in its efforts to manage change because its people have worked together to overcome their historical legacies.

Cloncurry's specific successes have included:

  • an innovative training and employment program for Indigenous workers
  • training in creating and selling Indigenous crafts, and
  • increased access by women to available services.

1.4 Open systems theory and action research

An action research approach was selected because it allows the research process to adapt as learning occurs. This project is designed to explore the characteristics that underpin the way in which communities successfully respond to change. The main features of action research are:

  • the people who are the focus of the research are actively involved in the research process
  • there are practical outcomes of importance to the lives of the participants
  • the research is rigorous and reflective, and
  • there is mutual learning.

This action research project uses open systems theory as its theoretical foundation. This framework ensures the research is conducted with, and for, the community. It is rigorous and recognises the integrity of the community, its ways of operating, and its ability to resolve and report on issues without intervention from outside people.

Open systems theory (OST) is a comprehensive theoretical framework for exploring social issues and adding to our knowledge of them. It has been developed from practical work with real organisations, communities, issues and problems, over the last fifty years. It is built around the idea that communities and organisations are influenced by, and also influence, the world around them. In others words, communities, organisations and their social surrounds mutually affect each other, producing constant change in values and expectations. OST integrates ideas from many different fields of knowledge to explain human and social phenomena and to help develop new ways of improving the quality of life.

OST has developed flexible and reliable methods for action research, all of which are highly participative. OST practitioners take the view that research must serve the important practical affairs of people and that those who live and work in communities and organisations know more about their own place than the researchers ever will. Therefore, they also believe that action research works best when the researchers and those participating in the research form relationships of mutual learning and equality. It has also developed statistical methods that present pictures of the overall state of communities that they themselves can use to further plan a successful future.

Dr Merrelyn Emery - January 2001


1.5 Context: the Cloncurry story

Many people have contributed to this picture. The following documents have also been used:

  • Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reports, Census of Population and Housing, Community Profiles (1996) and Population by Age and Sex, Australian States and Territories (December 2000)
  • Brown & Root 2001, Cloncurry Shire Plan
  • Cloncurry Shire Council Information, Historic Cloncurry, 2001-2006 Corporate Plan (Draft); Annual Reports, 1997-8, 1998-9 and 1999-2000, Inland Queensland Tourist Guide, and
  • Kinhill Environment and Planning for Cloncurry Shire Council 2000, Cloncurry Strategic Industry Plan.

In 1996, the population in Cloncurry was 3,898 - today it is about 2,900.

Cloncurry is known as the 'Friendly Heart of the Great North West'. Geographically it:

  • covers 49,969 square kilometres of the Upper Carpentaria region
  • sits at the junction of Flinders/Barkly and Matilda Highways to Townsville 763km to the East, Mount Isa and Alice Springs to the West, Normanton to the North and Winton and Longreach to the South
  • has the North West Administrative Centres for Main Roads and Railways, as 'all roads lead to Cloncurry'
  • is ideally located as a tourist centre with many business opportunities
  • is within the monsoon belt, and
  • sits on the banks of the Cloncurry River which floods in the wet.

Together with its remote, outback history and location, Cloncurry people have a reputation for friendliness and community spirit. These characteristics are still very much in evidence today.

Cloncurry takes its name from a cousin of Burke (of Burke and Wills fame) who, in 1861, made a disastrous attempt to reach the Gulf of Carpentaria. It became an electric telegraph station in 1871 and, when Cobb & Co Coach arrived in 1884, the little town separated from the Normanton region and became a Local Authority. It is full of history such as having an original QANTAS (Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services) sign hanging over the hangar door at the airport, and several museums displaying its mineral and historical wealth.

Cloncurry was the first Flying Doctor Base (established in 1928), the first School of the Air Base (established in 1960) and, during World War II, it served as a base for planes flying to battles in the Coral Sea and over what is now Papua New Guinea.

At various times, Cloncurry had up to 26 hotels and was surrounded by a host of small mining towns that came and went with the lodes. Accordingly, Cloncurry's population and economic prosperity have varied considerably over the period.

One of the best known of the outlying towns was Mary Kathleen, the uranium mine which was closed in the 1980s. It is now the site of the Cloncurry/Mary Kathleen Memorial Park where tourists may explore its history and take fossicking trips. Other sites include the Chinese and Afghan Cemeteries and the John Flynn Place Museum and Art Gallery.

Visitors may gaze on the 360 degree view of the spectacular landscape from the Rotary lookout. The country has volcanic geological features such as dramatic caves, ridges and weathered outcrops and contains such unique flora as the Gidgee Bush. Tourism has been encouraged and is increasing.

Cloncurry lies within the homelands of the Mitakoodi and Kalkadoon peoples. The Kalkadoon are particularly noted for fighting a pitched battle with new settlers who arrived after Ernest Henry discovered copper in 1867, while looking for grazing land.

In 1996, over 21% of the Cloncurry population were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people. This was significantly higher than that recorded for the State as a whole. Similarly, the percentage of people born in Australia is higher than in Queensland as a whole (see table 1).

The Indigenous people have not lost their fighting spirit and have put a lot of work into providing opportunities and services for their people. They have also worked hard to break down barriers and the results of this work were evident throughout the study. There are many sites of Indigenous significance in the area, including Frank Creek. In the workshop, the women discussed their belief that some sacred sites were being destroyed or hidden to discourage Native Title claims.

The rich cultural traditions of the local Aboriginal peoples have been a formative influence on the town throughout its history. Their artifacts, crafts and paintings are on view, and for sale, in the main street and at 'The Shed' which was set up about three years ago. In the workshop at the back of 'The Shed', the different crafts are taught and produced for sale there and elsewhere.

A trucking business, Koutha, has been set up, in conjunction with Ernest Henry mine. It provides training and employment for young Indigenous workers. Cultural awareness and planning programs have also been successful. So too have education projects on domestic violence and rape prevention/counselling. These have borne fruit with increased access to, and attendance at, the programs and relevant available services (see the case studies in this report).

Mining and grazing are the backbone of Cloncurry's economy. Grazing of sheep was tried in the early days but they were replaced with cattle. The major supportive industries for mining and cattle include transport and construction, and the public sector also plays a significant economic role.

In 1996, the mining sector was the largest employer, followed by the agricultural sector. Cloncurry provided almost all of the State's copper, lead and zinc. At the end of 2000, there were five world-scale projects in the area and a further nine medium scale mines in production or at an advanced stage of development. A new set of licences were issued in early 2001.

Mining operations generally employ a 'fly in-fly out' policy, which Cloncurry people would like to see changed. A change would see the town enjoy more of the economic benefits flowing from a more stable working population. In early 2001, only about 25% of employees were resident in the town.

Change would benefit the town by keeping more money in the area and encouraging growth in the numbers of skilled professionals and related services. One woman wrote, "Ernest Henry mine has been a positive step…which is giving a new stability to the community and offers training and employment opportunities".

Cloncurry is also the heart of the North West cattle industry and boasts the largest saleyards in North West Queensland. It has about 93 cattle stations (that are characteristically very large) and supplies animals for the live export, slaughter and southern fattening markets. Value adding is low at around 0.3% of total value. Employment in the agricultural sector has decreased from 20% in 1986 to 14% in 1996.

Cloncurry has also suffered the economic downturns of the 1990s with significant drops in commodity prices and the downturn in the domestic economy. The local economy also suffered a significant setback when the Cloncurry Mining Company closed in 1997.

Cloncurry has also seen some reduction in facilities, for example, the hospital reduced in size from 35 beds in 1997-98 to 25 in 1999-2000. Unemployment has fluctuated with the economic cycles but, at 10% in 1996, was higher in the town than in the Shire, the North West region and the State.

Cloncurry's population is less stable and home ownership lower than the State as a whole - in 1996 the percentage of residents living at the same address for five years and in private dwellings was lower than the State generally (see table 1). One woman wrote, "How do we get people to want to stay in the community? A lot of people are only here because of transfer for extra money…As soon as their two or three years are up, most transfer out…To be able to grow successfully, we need stability. Even essential services are hard to keep, eg doctors and dentists". However, another said, "I am struck by the number of people who come for an initial period of about two weeks to two years and are still here many years later".

Like the rest of Australia, and particularly regional Australia, the population is aging. But Cloncurry has more children aged 0-14 (23% in 1996), relative to Queensland and regional Australia. This accounts for its higher household size. The lower proportion of young adults in the 20-29 age bracket (19.2% in 1996) may reflect a lack of employment and/or educational opportunities. However, Cloncurry has a significantly higher level of skilled labour than surrounding areas, and this represents a major opportunity.

There are new businesses in town that are being supported by locals (see table 9). Work has continued on the construction and refurbishment of recreation facilities, road construction and the development of the town's infrastructure. Further planned improvement to the transport system will bring further opportunities. The Council is also considering a plan for major strategic business and industry development to the north of the town. Cloncurry is a place full of potential.

Table 1: Cloncurry compared with Queensland (1996)

Cloncurry %
Queensland %
Aged 15+ years
Median age
In labour force
Unemployed as percent of those in the labour force
Median individual income
Median household income
In private dwelling
Had same address five years ago
Average household size
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Australian born

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