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Marcia Langton: Government accelerating Indigenous people into ‘permanent poverty’

Marcia Langton speaking at ANZSOG Indigenous conference, Feb 2019

Government is making life worse for Indigenous people, argues Marcia Langton — but progress is possible.

Indigenous communities want greater freedom to decide their own priorities and choose how to spend government money.

That was one of the clear messages of last week’s ‘Reimagining public administration: First Peoples, governance and new paradigms’ conference in Melbourne, hosted by the Australia and New Zealand School of Government.

“Give the money to the Indigenous sector. Give the power to the Indigenous sector,” argued Professor Marcia Langton in a speech criticising many aspects of the governance of Indigenous affairs.

“Indigenous people have to set their own priorities. You can’t have administration of very complex matters from the Canberra bubble. It’s not working and lives are being lost.

“… We must push for policies that give formal powers to the Indigenous sector and remove incompetent, bureaucratic bungling.”

“Indigenous people have to set their own priorities.”

Langton and many others spoke of the government’s failure to listen to Indigenous communities about their needs, and the damage that caused.

“Most people who are informed about the status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people agree that many of the present policy settings are contributing to a tragic and avoidable decline in their wellbeing.

“Please do not feel personally offended by what I have to say to you today,” she told the audience, many of whom work in the Indigenous affairs bureaucracy.

“But it must be said that we must all take responsibility and be courageous enough to take action, to put an end to the policies and programs that disempower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, not just causing a decline in their living standards, but accelerating them into permanent poverty.

“Especially the vulnerable. The children and youth are victims of a failed view of the Indigenous world and Indigenous people. This is a dystopian nightmare. We must imagine a future in which Indigenous people thrive and we must do whatever it takes to reach that future. This is urgent.”

Langton and others lamented that despite the huge amount of work that went into it and broad Indigenous stakeholder support, the Uluru Statement From the Heart has been largely dismissed or ignored by the government.

“The Uluru Statement From the Heart encapsulates all of these policy aspirations of the Indigenous world, and I fail to see how it is not being fully supported across the political and administrative spectrum,” she said.

“We need to be empowered to lift ourselves out of the state-imposed tangle of policies, programs and bureaucracy that excludes us and removes our agency. Only we can overcome, but you can help.”

Economic inclusion

While many Indigenous Australians in cities and regional areas were doing well, remote communities were the “forgotten people”, in many cases making little progress in recent years, Langton argues.

Economic inclusion is one of the key ways of improving Indigenous lives, and there are some glimmers of hope in policy.

“Throughout the world there’s a broad consensus that the only sustainable exit from poverty is economic progress with development that is inclusive of the most disadvantaged,” Langton argues.

“Fortunately, government and private sector procurement policies have developed, and these are including Indigenous businesses and building them into supply chains. This is the most important development in policy in years.

“The only sustainable exit from poverty is economic progress with development that is inclusive of the most disadvantaged.”

“But employment and training strategies are equally important. There will be little progress in achieving Indigenous parity if we do not address weaknesses in the approaches adopted on employment and training by successive governments.”

Government should enable Indigenous people to build better lives, rather than telling them how to, she says.

“Indigenous people must therefore carry the responsibility for driving this. It is they who must build human capital, assets and wealth, and do what’s needed to transition out of poverty, built on a strong educational foundation.

“This means being prepared to take risks, and learning the lessons of the past, including an over-dependence on government to solve problems, and less than fully productive investments of Indigenous time and money.

“But it also means new attitudes and ways of operating by governments, the business sector and the community more generally. The transformation will take time — to collect the data, to inform and involve those affected, and to embed new thinking and practice, including learning from those both here and overseas.”

She was especially critical of the Community Development Program, a work for the dole initiative in remote Indigenous communities, which is designed with a disconnect between pay and hours worked.

“We must have push-policies based on effective measures for economic inclusion. This means dismantling CDP, the punitive development project, so-called, and paying real wages for real work.”

Frustration with co-design

Co-design came up throughout the conference, frequently as a subject of frustration.

One of the key gripes is that government often doesn’t meet communities on a level playing field, using the cover of ‘co-design’ to try to get the rubber stamp for decisions already taken — a common complaint.

Lil Anderson, acting chief executive at New Zealand’s Te Arawhiti (Office for Maori-Crown Relations), noted many in government view ‘partnership’ with community as extending little beyond contracts for services.

But for many at the conference, even true co-design was still an unacceptable level of government intrusion in community affairs.

“Co-design by very definition means that there’s two people at the table.”

Karen Diver, previously special assistant for Native American affairs to President Obama and chair of a tribal government in Minnesota, argued co-design means communities are not fully in control of their own affairs.

“Co-design by very definition means that there’s two people at the table. And if I have to look at majority government, really none of their ideas have worked for 300 years. That was a part of our oppression,” she argues.

National and state governments often have a poor understanding of the needs and desires of Indigenous communities, so retaining control only makes things worse.

Diver used the example of creating a policy to reduce school delinquency.

“Give us the resources we need so we can singularly design what we need to do within our community. It might not be a school resource officer, it might not be law enforcement — it might be a bunch of grandmas, it might be peer support, it might be extra tutoring … but that also means we have the flexibility to meet each child where they’re at.

“The thing is that in small communities … we know who the dads are, the mums, the grandmas, we know what that family looks like and what sort of supports are there. It might not even be anything the child is doing, they might just be tired, because something’s going on at home. But this [community-run] department over here knows that too, because we also run our social services.”

Progress is possible

The experience of Aotearoa New Zealand shows improvement is possible, Langton believes.

In recent years, many Maori groups have been given reparations by the national government. Maori and the NZ government are only a few years away from completing all settlements for historical breaches of the 1841 Treaty of Waitangi. The settlements are a tiny fraction of what was lost, and many problems persist, but there is a feeling NZ is far ahead of Australia.

“Look across the ditch at the Maori progress, the Treaty of Waitangi, the Treaty of Waitangi Tribunal, the justice reinvestment, the economic development,” she says.

“It’s all possible, and I don’t see why we can’t have that here.”

Langton noted Victoria and the Northern Territory are pursuing treaties.

“But the Commonwealth government cannot even contemplate treaties.”

READ MORE: Marcia Langton: the world is run by those who show up

MORE FROM ANZSOG’s ‘Reimagining public administration: First Peoples, governance and new paradigms’
+ Be a clever leader, not just an intelligent one, says Maori Development boss Michelle Hippolite
+ We need to talk about ministerial control: Glyn Davis

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.