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Operation Flinders Speech

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 20 Sep 2012

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (18:47):

The ancient Flinders Ranges in South Australia are the stunning backdrop to a program that has been transforming troubled kids' lives since 1991. In May this year I had the fortune to visit Operation Flinders for myself and to witness its magic. Like most of the participants in the program, I came home changed.

Operation Flinders is a program for kids at risk of offending or disengaging from school or home. It takes young men and women aged 14 to 18 out of their usual and often difficult environments and gives them the opportunity to experience success and achievement in ways they may never have experienced before. Some of these young people have never had a trusted adult relationship, some of them are barely literate, and others have never before had the chance to stretch themselves or to take risks in a safe environment.

So it was that I was invited to go, and one Saturday in May I boarded a light plane with some other lucky visitors for an hour, and then took a bumpy bus ride until I arrived in a place that was a world away from Adelaide-Yankaninna Station, located in Adnyamathanha country, the headquarters of Operation Flinders. There we found a veritable hub of activity. The team that coordinates the safe operation of exercises that take place monthly for most parts of the year-except the extremely hot months in South Australia-for nine teams of up to 10 young people at a time.

In the supplies shed we found racks of backpacks, piles of supplies, maps and charts and radio equipment, and we saw that these were all overseen by a small 'army' comprising a few paid staff and many committed volunteers who work as team leaders, exercise commanders, SA Ambulance paramedics, communications and operations officers, cooks and drivers. This is the logistical marvel that we came to know as base camp.

On the other hand, the young people-the participants-remain blissfully unaware of the degree of work that goes on behind the scenes to make their experience so amazing. All they know is that after a long drive by bus they arrive in the bush with their teammates and a counsellor, usually a teacher or school counsellor. They have been selected by their school or community organisation as being likely to benefit from the program. They are handed a backpack with some basic sleeping, camping and wet weather gear-and I mean very basic-and they set off with experienced team leaders on a physical and psychological challenge that takes eight days and more than 100 kilometres.

By the end of the track these young people have done many unfamiliar things, like making camp, cooking their own food, climbing mountains and abseiling down a rugged cliff. They have done teambuilding tasks and have met with people from the local Adnyamathanha community, who share Dreaming stories and traditional food with them around a campfire.

This is a process that challenges them greatly and encourages them to achieve things way beyond their expectations. Over the eight days they come to rely on trustworthy adults, sometimes for the first time in their lives, and they experience the reward and power of supporting and depending on each other. The program is designed to fire their imaginations too, through some playful and creative aspects that stimulate them to think about new possibilities for what life could hold for them. I witnessed one particularly interesting and fun aspect of the program but I am not at liberty to disclose it because that would be giving the game away, and I was sworn to secrecy. It was delightful and effective to see.

Throughout the course of their adventures these young people begin to believe: 'If I can do that I can do anything.' The results are very impressive. An evaluation in 2001 showed Operation Flinders performed highly against best practice benchmarks around the world for this kind of transformative wilderness program.

There were significant improvements in areas of self esteem, school behaviour, social attentiveness and self confidence. Criminogenic factors such as anger, attitude towards police and identification with criminal activity were also reduced.

Academic studies aside, we visitors saw convincing evidence of the 'magic' at work when we met some individual teams and young people who were highly enthusiastic-even euphoric in some cases-about their experiences and what they had been achieving in their team. It is important to emphasise that this is not 'brat camp' or 'boot camp'. I was struck by the overwhelming principles of respect and compassion that were reflected in everyone I met and all aspects of the operation.

Around the campfire, we at base camp on Saturday night met many of the long-serving volunteers-people had been serving over decades in some cases-who regaled us with moving tales of young people who had been transformed by the experience over the years. The one phrase that sticks in my mind that I heard most often was, 'We do this for the kids.'

The program has a 'resident' psychologist, Doug, who explained to me that the participants typically pass through four stages over the course of the eight days in the program. Initially there is what they call a 'storming' phase. They are excited and they have volunteered to do the program, but when they get there it is extremely hard and it is like nothing they have ever experienced before. So they complain about the physical aspects and they rebel. They are not used to taking instructions; they are not used to accepting authority. They rebel and, in some cases, they try running away.

The next phase is what is called the 'norming' phase. They have been through the 'storming' and then there is the 'norming', which is really just a period a few days where they adjust and they start to understand that these are the limits and this is what they need to undergo. Then comes the 'performing' stage, which is really the height of the program. They are working together as a team, they are contributing and cooperating, they are experiencing achievement and they are starting to feel, for some of them, the first time they have really experienced success in their lives.

The fourth stage is the 'mourning' phase, as they contemplate leaving leaders, who they have come to trust and admire, and their teammates and are coming to terms with the fact that they will have to return to what are often challenging life circumstances. What these young people do take home with them is their powerful new knowledge of what they are personally capable of and the possibilities that the world can offer them. Everywhere in Operation Flinders it is clear that the welfare of the kids is paramount, and the emphasis is on encouraging them to understand that they have accomplished something that entitles them to belong to the Operation Flinders family.

Before leaving, all participants receive a T-shirt and a dog tag stamped with an 1800 number that they take with them to keep forever. They can ring the number if they are in trouble or want to contact the foundation staff. They have had previous participants who have rung over the years to contact the staff and get some support. For some participants who have never had or who have lost contact with a trusted adult, this reminds them that they are now a member of the Operation Flinders family and they are not alone.

Over 300 young people benefit from this program each year. The South Australian government and many generous benefactors support Operation Flinders in funds and in kind in the form of goods and services. Of course, with more support from government, corporations and individuals, they could assist so many more kids and extend their follow-up support for participants too.

My own particular Operation Flinders challenge was to abseil down a 30-metre cliff for the first time. I experienced how reassuring it was to have instructors who were reliable and protective and how supportive it was to have a team at the bottom of the cliff encouraging me down. It was not easy-I am afraid of heights-but I was surprised and then exhilarated that I managed to do it. It gave me a taste of what Operation Flinders offers to those kids who really need it.

I would like to thank the indefatigable CEO of Operation Flinders, John Shepherd, and the many people at Yankaninna-from cooks, drivers, instructors, officers and all the others, including Brenton, the pilot-who looked after us so well on our visit. For those who would like to know a bit more, Operation Flinders has its own website and I have also written a blog about my visit with some photos attached.

There is one more thing I will add. While I was visiting Yankaninna Station, there was another, much more special, visitor than me. It was Poh of Poh's Kitchen fame. Poh was there to experience the trek with a group of the young participants. She did not cut any corners; she experienced the highs and lows. In the process, one of her programs was made, which will be airing on ABC TV on Tuesday, 9 October at 8 pm. I understand from what I heard that it was a challenging experience for Poh but one that in the end was extremely rewarding, and I encourage people to have a look at that program to get a better understanding of how Operation Flinders operates and the transformative experience that it can offer to the young participants-not to mention the celebrity chefs-who take part in it.

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