Australia’s First Nations still looking over the 1788 chasm

Feb 27, 2024
The Australian Aboriginal flag on a flagpole at Bondi Beach, Sydney.

More than four months after a crushing defeat in the Voice referendum, and soon after the Closing the Gap report confirmed that there was almost no progress in improving Aboriginal lives last year, Aboriginal players in the yes case are moving towards an inquest into how their case went so terribly wrong.

Marcia Langton, for example, now agrees with Paul Keating about the Voice to Parliament being a mistake from the start, and that a statutory body to enable regional Indigenous representation and joint decision making should have been established before the referendum.

Former human rights commissioner Mick Gooda, in a speech on Friday says that both Anthony Albanese and the most prominent (aboriginal) Yes campaigners are responsible for the failure of the referendum, because of their failure to change tack and soften the proposal after it had failed to win bipartisan support and after polls had cast doubts on whether it could succeed.

The campaign’s crash or crash through approach came both from Noel Pearson, spiritual leader of the Voice proposal and from Labor and its failures to intervene to sharpen the focus of the campaign. When Gooda expressed such reservations during the campaign, Pearson accused him of political bed-wetting and panic, and suggested that he lacked the toughness to stick to agreed strategies.

In the immediate aftermath of the campaign, many on the Yes side said they would retreat from the front line for a time to ponder the significance of the decisive popular rejection, and to discuss where to from here.

There will be many others who can be expected to throw themselves into the fray. Some will focus on the strategy, on the composition of the organising committee, and on the campaign’s failure to nail a nimble No campaign of smoke and mirrors, full, as the Yes campaigners thought of misrepresentations, falsehoods and appeals to racial prejudice. The most damaging suggestion of the campaign was that referendum success would put Aboriginal Australians in a special privileged position compared with other citizens. The campaign was said to be for the benefit of “elites.”

The Government has no appetite for returning to further constitutional referendum of an entrenched Voice. But it is planning regional and local structures designed to engage Aborigines more closely in decision making affecting their futures. It is not yet clear whether government has any inclination to give more than passive support to reconciliation, truth telling and treaty programs, though it has encouraged moves in that direction coming from the states.

But there are problems with that. Defeat of the referendum has affected the momentum of any state initiatives, and caused some states – even, or especially Labor ones — to lose enthusiasm for them. In the forthcoming Queensland elections, for example, one can expect that Labor will be trying to encapsulate the hostility to Aboriginal aspirations made obvious in the backblocks. Labor is also proudly showing its complete indifference to human rights considerations in its management of juvenile detention.

It is quite true that voters at the referendum were not explicitly being asked about truth telling, treaty making, and the notion of decentralised regional structures. But it was so much part of the talking agenda that any interests, including agricultural and mining interests threatened by legislative developments in these areas will insist that they were part of the package of proposals decisively rejected by most Australians. The referendum result is not, in that sense, legally binding or justiciable but that resistance may well make hard the job of pushing the ideas further.

But there’s a more fundamental problem going beyond mere rueful reflection on a failed political campaign. Mick Gooda described it this way: “So here we are, four months after the referendum and at the federal level things seem to have come to a complete standstill. It is almost as though a form of paralysis has taken over.

“I have heard of vague rumours that some local and regional structure will be established. We have heard the prime minister’s Closing the Gap statement last week about more jobs in remote Australia and a revamped Community Development Program. But what we are not seeing is a narrative, a vision of where we are going from here.”

Aboriginal administration in paralysis, and no map, or even vague directions, on offer.

What Gooda, and many others would be dreading, is that we will soon see policies, and the beginning of some action, with only the appearance of consultation. And yet again without anything other than rhetoric about any narrative, vision, or overriding concept or principle. Vision – even timetables — ain’t what this government does in any field of its operations. Albanese can’t see the need.

It will not be the result of exhaustive consultations on the ground. Australia governments – Labor as much as Liberal – are simply unable to consult in any meaningful way with Aboriginal individuals, families, extended family groups, communities, or regional structures.

I have been watching governments in action for more than 50 years. I can confidently assert that there has been no improvement in actual consultation processes over that period, and that in many cases it has become worse. The failures of Aboriginal consultation – which gave rise to demands for a voice and Aboriginal involvement in the initiation, design, implementation and review of policy – are no more than good examples of systemic failures with general government service delivery.

It’s not even a particular bureaucratic incapacity to deal with people with different cultures, often markedly different family structures, language differences and spectacular differences in health, economic, educational and income status. Witness “community consultation” anywhere in Australia on urban planning issues, or on environmental management. Witness, at ACT territory level, Andrew Barr’s total impatience with any sort of public consultation about policies that he, and development interests, think best. Or the refusal of NSW Labor to do anything about problem gambling, or urban development.

Politicians and bureaucrats can deal with manageable quantities of groups with deeply vested interests – whom they call “stakeholders” although the true stakeholder of any government action is the ordinary citizen. Appeasing the stakeholders is rarely a positive outcome for citizens. Increasingly, however, ministers and officials find large numbers impossible to cope with and come to despise ordinary citizens as “advocates” (a title they do not give to business lobbyists), busybodies and obstacles to progress.

At some levels, federal state and local government officials can produce policies and programs which, to them, seem a statesmanlike compromise between the conflicting interests at stake. Such officials come from these very communities, speak the same language, and are themselves subject to much the same cost of living pressures.

It’s when there is a complete chasm of understanding between the servers and the serviced that “consultation” has become a complete joke. In most cases, for example, the only party with any power to suggest an activity or a program is an outside official. Whether he, or she, is well meaning, or motivated, or disinterested makes very little difference. The consultation is a haggle about his agenda item, argued on his terms, and continued with even after it is clear that the measure of activity in question is not regarded as a particular priority by the people affected. Most concessions, particularly as to governance, extracted during discussions, end up being pushed aside as the proposal makes its way up the bureaucratic pipeline. The tendency of the bureaucrat, after all, is to have relative uniformity in proposals, without special arrangements in one place – specially designed for their needs – becoming a precedent for some such concession elsewhere.

I can confidently assert that the changes to the community development programs announced by Albanese last week will be the complete failure that government now (rightly) admits its predecessor to be. Indeed, the predecessor is in fact about the 15th iteration and adjustment of similar previous schemes, going back to 1974. None of the new flourishes, or terms of art, are really new. Nor will they change the basic relationships (or the suspicious scrutiny and cancelling behaviour of Human Services.) It won’t be more competently managed from afar. In some communities the scheme will do what it is supposed to do – more or less – but that will not be because its local administrators strictly follow the rules laid down from above, but because they adapt it to its actual purpose without strict regard for the rules.

Most decision makers (black or white) at prime ministerial, ministerial, political staff, or bureaucratic level have no actual experience of practical administration, or tailoring of policies at remote traditional, rural, regional or urban aboriginal community level. Likewise with close appreciation of the circumstances of the particular community, or any knowledge of the priorities of the people themselves.

Despite the lip service paid to consultation, especially at national level, the moral certainty is that Father knows best. Under Albanese, as with his predecessors, Labor or Liberal, policy flows from the top, not the bottom. Divisions and branches of government agencies know better than workers on the ground or the actual “recipients” of programs.

The farce of ‘consultation’ is getting worse, thanks to public service incapacity to learn from mistakes.

Some might think that the Labor Party, with its traditional sympathy for the poor, the excluded and the underclass, might do better with Indigenous policies and programs. Alas, that is rarely so. For many in Canberra, the model for getting Aborigines to conform is part of a grand design successfully theorised during the collectivisation of farms in Ukraine in the 1930s. Some ministers, such as Julia Gillard come from the British poor law tradition, terrified that some piece of public largesse might make recipients indolent, feckless, or resistant to the commands of social workers. Or unlikely to get up early in the morning, like her. Most senior managers bring to the job the attitude to recipients deplored in the Robodebt inquiry.

Others like Jenny Macklin worked scientifically – if from the vantage point of complacently believing she knew better what was good for them. If the evidence did not prove her belief, it was displaced by anecdote.

It is too early, only two years into the reign of Albanese and his ministers, to determine the consequences of his policies, other than by Closing the Gap reports. Linda Burney has a different personality and background than Jenny Macklin (and is herself Indigenous). But authoritarian thinking still dominates her agency.

Jenny Macklin was also responsible for a significant but cosmetic change of nomenclature. It involved some recognition that consultation was still a farce, even when millions had been spent on “consultants” certifying that it occurred, often in traditional languages. Macklin dropped the word consultation from her vocabulary. She preferred “engagement” – as have coalition and other conservative governments since. Engagement does not pretend that you asked the victims what they thought, or, if they insisted on telling you, took it into account. It meant only that you told them what was going to happen.

When Anthony Albanese’s latest initiatives are announced in a typical remote community – probably with less detail offered than in his press statement – one can expect that people will say they agree, if they are asked. They depend on the money for their survival. But they have not been involved in its design, or in any evaluation of its fitness for purpose. And announcements, in a vacuum, that about 157 new homes will be built in the Northern Territory. Given the gap in uncrowded housing for need in that area, that suggests the backlog will disappear by the time Australia has eight nuclear submarines, provided the Aboriginal population remains static. One nuclear sub, at their average cost, would close the housing gap now. Otherwise, we will not have Aboriginal families living in healthy houses fit for purpose – of a quality as good as where Anthony Albanese grew up – before the turn of the century.

I expect the government will consult with Aboriginal organisations and leaders about the shape of regional or local assemblies. But I can only hope and pray that the pattern of consultation does not resemble the wheeling and dealing with Aboriginal organisations and powerbrokers that were involved in establishing ATSIC, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission by Gerry Hand in the late 1980s. He deliberately imported time-honoured, and corrupt collegiate systems by which small numbers could control large unions and bought off suspicious groups with favours akin to bribery. It was not a pretty business and was called “getting the job done.” But the very structures created caused more systemic damage to the organisation than the personalities and negotiating styles of some of the big players.

There will be significant differences between the ATSIC and the new model, but even with spending controls kept by government there would have to be a major transfer of staff to regional and local levels if close Aboriginal involvement at every layer of decision making is to occur. This will have to be on a much greater scale than the current move in this direction.

What improving Aboriginal outcomes requires is a plan for each community of substance, devised and argued out at local level itself, consulted with above, not below, and adopted by government. The community would have to own it and be its champion, not the passive recipient of constant changes from national and regional centres, and out of the higher decision-making loop. In 57 years, the various bureaucracies concerned with service delivery in Aboriginal communities – whether at federal state or local government level, have not even been able to achieve that. That’s a gap worth crossing.

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