The 'muddled narrative' of indigenous affairs reform

By Stephen Easton

December 2, 2014

The uncertainty created by Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s takeover of indigenous affairs has Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner Mick Gooda “deeply worried”, but he sees some steps in the right direction.

Reviewing the past year in his annual Social Justice and Native Title Report, Gooda (pictured) says the transfer of responsibility for 26 programs from eight federal agencies to the Prime Minister’s Department has caused “immense anxiety” among indigenous Australians.

The drastic machinery-of-government changes have brought about 2000 new employees into the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, along with responsibility for over 150 separate initiatives and services, some 3000 funding contracts and relationships with about 1440 organisations. According to Gooda:

“It will take time to build the administrative systems, acclimatise staff in the new structure within PM&C, and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, already cynical and fatigued by change, to have confidence in the competence of those implementing these new arrangements.

“Information on the transfer arrangements has been scant with minimal involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. There was little or no consultation with those working at the coalface about which programs and activities were best kept together or which departments were best placed to administer them.”

The 12 months allocated to complete the massive restructuring process may not be long enough, suggests the commissioner, and he advises the Abbott government to take more time if it has run into “challenges that were not anticipated when the 12-month timeframe was set”.

Gooda also questions the logic behind some of the changes, such as efforts to combat the physically and socially corrosive effects of petrol sniffing being taken over by PM&C, while the Office of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health remains within the Department of Health.

“… approaches to the complex and often controversial policy area had been largely ‘circular and repetitive’ for two decades.”

The commissioner revisits a view he formed for the same report one year ago, that approaches to the complex and often controversial policy area had been largely “circular and repetitive” for two decades. He compared the recent shake-up to similar machinery-of-government changes enacted by the Coalition in 2004, and the comments of his predecessor Tom Calma, who said neither the communities affected by the new arrangements nor the bureaucrats who were to implement them had been given enough information about what was going on.

“Sadly,” writes Gooda, Calma’s criticisms “are as relevant to the 2014 machinery-of-government changes as they were nearly 10 years ago”.

Despite what he calls a “muddled narrative”, Gooda applauds the move to consolidate 150 small initiatives into five broad programs under PM&C’s Indigenous Advancement Strategy, which he says could allow more scope for tailored “on the ground responses” if it is done in the right way:

“In other words, it is the first step away from a ‘one size fits all’ mentality that has, for so long, confounded our people.

“If done right, this move to a smaller number of programs has the potential to achieve the Australian government’s stated aims of reducing red tape and cutting wasteful spending on bureaucracy. This, in turn, could also translate to a greater share of funds being provided on the ground.

“However, the challenges are wide and varied. Bringing about budget cuts in the order of $400 million over the next four years will be an immense undertaking. This figure alone tells us it is likely many organisations will be defunded through this process, with corresponding loss of services to the community. These losses will be even more severe if any new services or activities are funded during this time.”

Such major changes are complex, stressful and time-consuming, requiring public servants who are both highly skilled and culturally competent as well as “cognisant of the magnitude” of what they are doing, according to Gooda. He adds that along with respectful engagement with the people and organisations on the receiving end of federal indigenous affairs policy, PM&C needs to develop “an effective communication strategy and a transition process that is open, transparent and easily understood”.

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