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The pitiful state of Recommendation 11.6 of the NT Fracking (Pepper) Inquiry

Today the NT Government announced that it's ok to start fracking the Beetaloo Basin, claiming that all 135 recommendations from the 2018 Pepper Inquiry report have been met and, therefore, fracking can proceed. 

Most of the recommendations - and you can go through them all here: Action items | Hydraulic Fracturing in the Northern Territory - are outside my field of expertise as a linguist. There's a lot of regulatory stuff, things about the mining industry, stuff about land and water management that others know much more about than me. 

However, as a linguist working in the Katherine Region for 20 years, there is one recommendation that sits in my wheelhouse so, after today's announcement, I wanted to take a look at it. It's Recommendation 11.6, which says:

That in collaboration with the Government, Land Councils and AAPA, an independent, third-party designs and implements an information program to ensure that reliable, accessible, trusted and accurate information about any onshore shale gas industry is effectively communicated to all Aboriginal people who will be affected by any onshore shale gas industry. That the program be funded by the gas industry.

I was already aware that progress towards this recommendation had come under fire back in October 2022 when The Guardian reported that the CSIRO had produced factsheets with misleading wording for this recommendation. In particular, one of the factsheets said that methane emissions "may" play a role in climate change, when they are actually a "major contributor". The CSIRO later fixed this "error". 

Since then, the NT Government has self-assessed their progress towards Recommendation 11.6 and says it is now complete. You can read their progress report here: 11.6 | Hydraulic Fracturing in the Northern Territory

As a remote-based linguist and one who also does translation work, I was interested to delve further into this "100% progress", especially considering that back in January 2022, the Environment Defenders Office (EDO) argued that the NTG's self-reporting was overblown. EDO claimed that 40% of the recommendations marked "complete" were not actually complete (and you can see that full report here and summary here). 

I've broken down Recommendation 11.6 into its components to have a dig. Here's my breakdown of what the Recommendation calls for:

  1. An independent third-party designs and implements an information program in collaboration with the Government, Land Councils and AAPA
  2. Information is communicated to all Aboriginal people affected by fracking that is:
    • reliable
    • accessible
    • trusted
    • accurate
    • effectively communicated
  3. The program is funded by the gas industry
How did they do - a quick assessment

Points 1 and 3 are a bit tricky to assess from afar as they deal with internal mechanisms of funding and partnerships. The website says CSIRO was engaged and Land Councils were consulted. (Can't confirm how well CSIRO meets the "independent 3rd party criteria" though and there's no mention of AAPA either. There's also no mention of whether the gas industry is funding the communication efforts or to what extent). 

Point 2 is the one that I can consider more confidently because it's about creating accessible, effective communications about fracking - meaning it should result in public materials for us to see. 

So what has been produced for Aboriginal audiences in the five years since the Government accepted Recommendation 11.6 along with the others of the Pepper Inquiry?

It's a single page on the NTG Fracking Inquiry website that has three factsheets (on Shale Gas, Groundwater and Methane) and two FAQ sheets (on Groundwater and Methane) and they've all been translated by NTG's Aboriginal Interpreter Service into 17 Indigenous languages and then recorded so that you can download the sound files. 

And that's about all they've done (as far as I can tell).

A closer look

Going back to my Point 2 above, it says that Recommendation 11.6 is supposed to ensure that:

2. Information is communicated to all Aboriginal people affected by fracking that is:
  • reliable
  • accessible
  • trusted
  • accurate
  • effectively communicated

Let's look closer:

"Information is communicated to all Aboriginal people affected by fracking"

All that CSIRO appears to have done - as far as I can tell - is create five factsheets and had them translated into various Indigenous languages. It seems that by doing so, they thought it means you can tick off "communicating to all Aboriginal people". 

Translating a document, however, is just stage one of communication, Having a translation there (and a recording to go with it) doesn't mean anyone has actually read or listened to it. Communication inherently involves the sending and receiving of information. Unless we have evidence that a large number of Aboriginal people have accessed the factsheets and understood them then, no, we cannot say that information has been actually communicated. (More on this below when we talk about accessibility and effective communication)

Reliable, accurate and trusted information

The reliability, accuracy and trustworthiness of the info is a little harder for me to judge as someone who knows little of the detail of how fracking works. But the track record of last year's devious "mistake" to say methane "may" play a role climate change is not a great precedent or engenders much trust. I can say though that there is evidence of careful wording on the part of the factsheet creators that reduces my faith in the authors. Take for example, the simple fact that they've carefully avoided using the word 'fracking' in any of the factsheets. 

Information is accessible

The idea that the factsheets and recordings are accessible is where it starts to get interesting. Again, it seems like there's a belief here that "in language" ticks the "accessible" box. While translated recordings certainly help, they are far from sufficient.

Accessibility also includes things like: making people aware of something's existence, being able to find it and being able to draw meaning and get use from it.

If I hadn't provided the link to the webpage above where all the in-language recordings are hosted, would you know it existed? If you knew it existed, would you know where to find it? If you found it, would you be able to get good info from it? If you're reading this now, you already now how to use to the internet to gain complex information so you're already a step ahead of a lot of the target audience: we cannot at all assume that Aboriginal people affected by fracking are competent in finding and processing what has been posted online for them.  

Those recordings might exist, but - in my assessment - they are far from accessible. They are buried in a government website. I didn't find any social media posts that provide more info, no videos on YouTube in language, no written materials or public education campaigns that I'm aware of. There are just, well, a few dozen sound files essentially dumped onto a pretty obscure government website. 

And even if you find the files, they're not even very accessible. On my browser, they are listenable by download only and they are large, cumbersome files. To listen to all five recordings, that's 100-150 MB of data! If I was in a remote community with limited data and slow download speeds, would I be racing to listen to these files. Definitely not. 

Information is communicated effectively

Oh dear. This was a doozy. 

Let's look at the original five factsheets. They are dry, text-only documents with content that is too technical for people to make sense of without a half-decent foundation in Western science. And that's the majority of remote Aboriginal residents (aka the target audience). I'm not saying the English in the documents is too hard (that's part of it though), I'm talking about the concepts and background knowledge assumptions present in them. I help senior students at Ngukurr School with science sometimes and I know about the background level of knowledge we're dealing with. Many students struggle to tell you what a gas is. How would they go negotiating a paragraph like this (which I chose at random) even if it's translated into their mother tongue:

Methane gas is a greenhouse gas and it can cause a warming of the air and atmosphere. It does this by absorbing heat from the earth and then sending the heat back into the atmosphere. Methane gas is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, however, it is in smaller amounts in the atmosphere (about 400 times less abundant).

What is atmosphere? What is a greenhouse gas? What is carbon dioxide? What does "400 times less abundant" mean? What does "absorbing heat" mean"? This document is not plain English. It is too dense, the sentences are too complex and the content assumes way too much background knowledge for it to be meaningful to readers with an average Western science education. 

What about the 'in-language' versions though? Surely that fixes the issue? 

Plain English versions of the factsheets were used to then create translated audio versions in Indigenous languages. As a Kriol interpreter, I was interested to listen to the Eastside Kriol versions (that took ages to download, mind you) to assess how effectively they stand up as communicative resources. 

Here's what the Eastside Kriol translation of the English paragraph I copied above says:

Methein gas, im grinhaus gas. Thei garrim naja gases weya im grinhaus gas tu. Det eya weya im raitaran la werl im gin bi meigim mowa womwan garram tumatj methein gas en najalot grinhaus gas. Det najawan neim bla disan im 'climate change'. 

Listening to this as a Kriol speaker, it's quite difficult to parse and really difficult to figure out the point of the paragraph and what relevance it has to fracking. To demonstrate, here's the back-translation (which is when you take a translation and use it to put it back to the original language to assess if the translation is accurate):

Methane gas is a greenhouse gas. They have other gases that are greenhouse gases too. The air that's all around the world it can be make (sic) more warm with too much methane gas and other greenhouse gases too. The other name for this is 'climate change'. 

It's not a great Kriol paragraph. It struggles to be clear and grammatical and, well, it just doesn't say much. If we multiply this paragraph by the 30 or so other paragraphs that got translated into Eastside Kriol and then by the 16 other Indigenous languages that are represented in these "resources" then that's a lot of hollow and confusing paragraphs that noone knows exist anyway. 

Have all Aboriginal people affected by fracking been effectively communicated to, as the government thinks by the checking off of Recommendation 11.6 as "complete". 

100% no. 

So what does an effective public communication campaign for remote Aboriginal people look like? 

Creating more effective and accessible resources requires work, but it's doable. There are some really easy strategies that haven't been used here:
  • Use video and/or visuals - if you want to talk about complex stuff, pictures help! Make a video, use animation, have an actual person talk to you. It's communication 101 really
  • Unpack the content - put some thought into what assumptions about background knowledge you've made into your materials and address those gaps. For an issue as important as this one, go out, do some on-the-ground testing, refine your materials, discuss, reconceptualise, share. This sort of stuff as at the core of effective communication for remote Aboriginal people
  • Put it somewhere where people can see it - YouTube, social media, print media. Get it out there in ways that make it easy to consume. Not a 20 MB sound file that takes an hour to download!
Check these out for some positive examples:
  • Machado Joseph Disease (MJD) is a neuro-degenerative disease affecting remote populations especially Kriol speakers in Ngukurr and Numbulwar and Anindilyakwa speakers on Groote Eylandt. Understanding what a motor-neuron disorder does to your body is complicated! So they've gone to great length to educate affected families. Check out their raft of resources in English, Kriol and Anindilyakwa here and for just one good example, this video uses effective animation and narration by a Kriol speaker, who is living with MJD herself, to get into the nuts and bolts of what MJD does to the body. 
  • Or check out this clear, visually appealing animation in Kriol about protecting Sawfish populations:
  • And while the above two examples are web-based video communications, Menzies School of Health went one step further with a public health campaign about Hepatitis B and created an app (see image). It's also available as a web-version here and, like the in-language Fracking worksheets, they've put the same content into a number of NT languages:

All these examples show that it is possible to communicate in ways that are significantly more effective and accessible than the miserable efforts we see with those Fracking sound files. 

The resources produced that allegedly meet Recommendation 11.6 do not go close to representing effective, accessible communications. They are complex and indecipherable to their target audiences. They are buried on a website no-one knows about. They are only in the form of large and dull sound files that are barely downloadable.

If there are other supposedly-complete recommendations of the Pepper Inquiry that are in a similarly pitiful state as Recommendation 11.6 then there is no justification for today's announcement that Fracking is good to go. 

Sadly, the NT Government is shooting itself in the foot with this recommendation in particular, because if they had managed to ensure the production of effective and educational communications then people may be less worried and outraged because they'd know what fracking was all about. Which was the whole point of Recommendation 11.6!


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