Fred Chaney. The challenge of providing fairness, opportunity and security for Indigenous Australians.

Policy Series

It is unlikely that at any time since 1788 a sample of Indigenous Australians would agree they have enjoyed fairness opportunity and security.

It is similarly unlikely that any Minister responsible for Indigenous Affairs, past or present, would claim as much progress in achieving those objectives as hoped for. The now obligatory annual report card delivered in Parliament by the Prime Minister of the day confirms the slow and irregular progress in closing the gaps in economic and social circumstances.

Any snapshot of the circumstances of indigenous Australians at any time post settlement will reveal our failures. But a longer view, a 50 year perspective, suggests dramatic changes and progress. Post 1788 saw dispossession and dispersal, denial of property and other rights, attitudes and policies forged in an age of overt racial discrimination, effective exclusion from citizenship and participation in social and economic life.

The history is well known enough not to need repeating here. What is relevant to this series is the direction of travel over the last 50 years or so and the efficacy or potential efficacy of current policy settings.

The direction of travel is positive. Until 1960 Australia was a segregated country. What are some of the markers of our direction of travel as a country over that time?

  • Voting rights legislated for in 1962;
  • the unprecedented level of support for the 1967 referendum which afforded Indigenous Australians the dignity of being counted in the census;
  • the Gove land rights case 1971 which, while denying recognition of native title, set the intellectual framework for recognition of Land Rights;
  • the Woodward reports on the implementation of land rights in the Northern Territory in 1973 and 1974 supported across the Parliamentary divide;
  • all party support for the Racial Discrimination Act 1975;
  • all-party support for the establishment of Land Rights in the Northern Territory culminating in the Land Rights (NT) Act 1976,
  • the subsequent establishment of Land Rights regimes in the majority of Australian states during the 1970s and 80s;
  • the establishment of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in 1991;
  • the High Court’s Mabo judgement in 1992;
  • Keating’s Redfern speech in the same year;
  • the Native Title Act 1993;
  • the bridge walks for reconciliation in 2000
  • the establishment of Reconciliation Australia in 2001;
  • Prime Minister Rudd’s national apology in 2008; and
  • All party support for constitutional recognition.

To this list can be added endless expressions of good intentions over that period by governments of all stripes, Commonwealth and State.

Of these changes the High Court Mabo judgement is the most significant. What the High Court did in Mabo was to give Common Law recognition to the connection between Indigenous people and their land as established through their own law and custom. For the first time since 1788 Indigenous people come to the table with governments and industry as people with rights rather than as supplicants. This was the most significant shift in the balance of power between the settler society and indigenous society since settlement. The major agreements made and being made with native title groups, Indigenous collectives defined by Indigenous law and culture, by governments and corporations reflect a new legal reality, the continuing legal economic as well as cultural relevance of Australia’s first nations.

From a policy perspective we are more conscious of what is wrong than what is right. Rates of Indigenous imprisonment alone are a reminder of the intractability of disadvantage. But the past is a foreign country. Today Indigenous people enjoy full de jure citizenship. The civil and political rights that were denied are available to them. More Australians than ever before are lining up to support Aboriginal endeavours to achieve social and economic equality.

There is widespread community support and engagement with Aboriginal and Islander people and their issues. There are around 600 reconciliation action plans involving the majority of the great companies in Australia, with another 400 in the pipeline, with countless individual and community initiatives in education health employment sport and culture, Aboriginal people have never had more allies.

These significant events do not plot a straight-line graph of progress. Over the same period there are numerous markers of the old attitudes and of resistance to the recognition of Indigenous interests. None of the gains were easily won.   Land rights were bitterly contested in some States. The current all party support for constitutional recognition does not mask the strong negative influences which will contest any proposal which is not assimilationist and which envisages continuing Indigenous collectives as part of the national fabric. Each gain was the product of intense and, usually, contested effort.

Now, after years of political attention and concerns about the continuing social, economic, and legal status deficits, there is a degree of public bewilderment about inadequate progress. Why do the gaps persist in the face of significant public expenditure and apparent government goodwill?

This is not a new question. Over the period of positive effort there has been a considerable degree of experimentation with different policy approaches. Assimilation was replaced by self-determination which became self management and spawned Aboriginal controlled bodies like the Aboriginal Development Commission and then ATSIC and the funding of thousands of Indigenous organisations. Too often a start again approach was adopted when an iterative approach might have been more productive.

What have we learned over 50 years?

There is a lot of common ground about what works among academics, bureaucrats, and the Productivity Commission. But the past suggests that the failure of funding agencies, whether they are an ATSIC or a line department, to apply what has been learned is a consistent issue. How to do it is written down but governments have not acted in accordance with what is written down.

As Westbury and Dillon pointed out in 2007, “What has not been recognised (at least within government) has been the extent to which government funding arrangements have reinforced community and organisational dysfunction” (Beyond Humbug P 191)

The Productivity Commission sets out in its reports what are the preconditions for success:

  • Cooperative approaches between Indigenous people and government – often with the non-profit and private sectors as well.
  • Community involvement in program design and decision making – a ‘bottom up’ rather than ‘top down’ approach.
  • Good governance – at organisation, community and government levels.
  • Ongoing government support – including human, financial and physical resources.

It observes that the lack of these factors can often contribute to program failures.

There are few if any authorities which would challenge that analysis. With wicked problems, multi factoral problems affecting the disadvantaged such as health education and employment, solutions require the involvement and participation of those for whom the program is established. But few if any Indigenous communities or individuals would claim that their experience of dealing with government has been in line with those preconditions.

The Commonwealth has acknowledged in the past the interconnectedness of the problems it seeks to address and concluded whole of government approaches are required. Two Management Advisory Committees (made up of heads of departments) have described the changes in organisation and processes that were essential if whole-of-government was to work. This included five basic imperatives:

  • Substantial initial cross-agency/stakeholder agreement about the broad purposes to be pursued;
  • Use of the outcomes budget framework to pool resources and to create appropriate accountability frameworks;
  • Lead-agency staff empowered with sufficient authority to manage whole-of-government settings and to lead the engagement of local stakeholders;
  • Empowering these same managers to engage with relevant individuals and interests;
  • And finally ensure the individuals engaged in these latter roles have the appropriate networking, collaboration and entrepreneurial skills. 

This is an internal high level Commonwealth assessment not some external critic, these are the people with administrative skin in the game. It seems that these imperatives have never been met in the past and are still not being met.

In the 2014 budget the Government announced a new Indigenous investment strategy to begin on 1 July 2014 as follows:

“Under the strategy, more than 150 individual programmes and activities currently being managed by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet are being replaced with five simple, streamlined programs worth $4.8 billion over four years. They will focus on achieving results in the government’s key priority areas in indigenous affairs of getting children to school and adults to work and making communities safer.

  • Jobs, Land and Economy: this will support adults into work, foster Indigenous business and assist Indigenous people to generate economic and social benefits from effective use of their land, particularly in remote areas;
  • Children and Schooling: this will focus on getting children into school, improving education outcomes and supporting families to give children a good start in life.
  • Safety and Wellbeing: this programme is about ensuring the ordinary law of the land applies in Indigenous communities, and that Indigenous people enjoy similar levels of physical, emotional and social well-being enjoyed by other Australians;
  • Culture and Capability: this will support Indigenous Australians to maintain their culture, participate equally in the economic and social life of the nation and it sure that organisations are capable of delivering quality services to their clients; and
  • Remote Australia Strategies: this program will support flexible solutions based on community and government priorities and support remote housing strategies.

This came with a promise to end unnecessary red tape and remove duplication so that reductions in expenditure can be made without reducing impact on the ground. This last point is contested by many of the organisations affected by reductions in expenditure and is very optimistic.

At the same time the strategy is to be supported by the establishment of a new remote community advancement network which will move to a regional model of administration rather than the current State and Territory based management arrangements “so decisions can be made closer to the people and communities they affect.” Additionally the Government announced that “staff in the remote community advancement network will spend more time engaging with communities to negotiate and implement tailored local solutions designed to achieve results against government priorities”.

The ideas behind this restructuring reflect the lessons drawn from past efforts. Whole of Government approaches, local solution brokering, the possibility of pooled funding are positive. But the administrative complexity of what the Government has undertaken and the management of it is a challenge not met so far. It was supremely optimistic to take 150 existing programs which involve some 1400 organisations and redirect expenditure into five broad streams while at the same time changing the geographic and hence jurisdictional basis of the administrative framework in the space of a year. An additional challenge was to develop the skills required to carry out the admirable intentions, to engage with communities to negotiate and implement tailored local solutions, providing opportunities for communities to contribute to the design and delivery of local solutions to local issues. The skills required for this difficult work are largely absent from the APS and there is no training program to learn those skills.

An additional challenge is that State and Territory Governments are essential players in all of the priority areas, so it is incumbent on those implementing the new arrangements to work not only with the local communities but with those other governments which are so central to service delivery.

There is a considerable risk of unintended consequences as tectonic shifts in administration are in train. The risk of value destruction in the course of implementing new approaches is real. The current challenge for Government is whether it can construct the capacity to deliver on its large and complex agenda and avoid the further disillusion flowing from yet more top down changes.

The proposal to recognise indigenous Australians in the Constitution remains a work in progress. Parliament has yet to decide on what particular proposition should be put to the electorate. Whether the all party support for recognition will persist in the face of any particular proposal is yet to be seen. There are at least three critical factors at play. Broad indigenous support for the proposition will be essential to success. What the proposition should be is still a matter of debate and discussion among significant Indigenous participants in the process. The absence of a determined and respectable opposition to the proposal is also vital, and the content of the proposal will determine whether significant opposition will emerge. The third factor will be the standing of the Government. At the time of the referendum an unpopular government may be seen as fiddling while Rome burns if it is pursuing a constitutional change which is not relevant to the core concerns of the broad community.

What is generally agreed is that a failed referendum would be a very large setback. A guarantee of success is difficult to achieve.

On all fronts Indigenous Affairs is a work in progress.

Fred Chaney AO was former Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, Member of the Federal Parliament for the seat of Pearce, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs 1978-80. Until April 2007 he held the position of Deputy Chair of the Australian Native Title Tribunal. He is on the Board of Directors of Reconciliation Australia.

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