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Fred Chaney: a road to real reconciliation with Aboriginal Australia

I acknowledge that we are on the land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. It is a pleasure to acknowledge that, knowing how important the recognition of native title has been to shifting the balance between settlers and first Nations peoples. Around Australia there are Aboriginal people at the table not as supplicants but as stakeholders. This is a profound shift and can’t be swept aside. The great agreements being made in Western Australia between Aboriginal peoples and mining companies are all based on the existence of native title rights. Imperfect as native title may be this is recognition of rights and interests which come not by way of political or governmental gift but from common law recognition of rights accruing from the law and culture of Aboriginal people. This is a recognition of rights flowing from continuing political entities and the great mining agreements are based on contracting with those entities, the continuing collectives of native peoples that are part of the legal as well as social fabric of Australia.

It is a privilege to be asked to deliver the John Button oration. We spent a long time in the Senate together and I admired him as a man, a minister and as leader of his party in the Senate. We were both elected to the Senate in 1974. In our first term we were both members of the Senate Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee which worked harmoniously on non-partisan lines on some difficult issues including family law reform and the Whitlam government’s national compensation scheme. The committee unanimously recommended that this scheme be withdrawn which produced a wonderful recorded moment of a very cross Gough Whitlam towering and leaning over the more modestly scaled Button. By 1975 I regarded him as a friend and I remember taking my family to visit the Button family on their rural property. The friendship was strained by the blocking of supply in that year but resumed over time.

I could make many observations about John Button. He was clever and amusing. He was, as Mark Latham observed in a previous lecture through the voice of John McCain, practical. He was always interested in the facts of the matter, respectful of the participants and stakeholders with whom he dealt. He earned respect and won converts to good policy from his respectful engagements. Clearly he loved the Labor Party but I never felt, as I have felt about too many politicians, that his Party came before his country. Perhaps most important he took a long view about reshaping Australian industry, getting the framework right for the long haul rather than the quick fix. He was a nightmare to shadow, as I had to do, because he was exceptionally good at his job and so respected by his industry constituencies. It says something about him that when I left the Senate in 1990 after seven years sitting across the table from him my respect and indeed affection for him was undiminished.

You have been told that in this presentation I will explore the future for indigenous reconciliation and the need for translating ideas into effective action. This is an area in which I have been involved for the long haul and where notwithstanding the many promises of a fresh start there are no quick fixes. I think John Button would approve devoting another oration to this subject as prior to his death he suggested mourners might donate to the Graham (Polly) Farmer Foundation, an educational foundation Ron Edwards, a retired Labor MP and I established at the request of Polly Farmer to help young Aboriginals to succeed. The involvement of a great Geelong footballer was of course the clincher in John’s decision.

To understand where we are and where we are going in reconciliation it is important to remember from where we have come. I was born in 1941 and did not meet an Aboriginal person until 1956. That single meeting when I was 14 years of age sparked my interest. I was puzzled by the fact that this young domestic servant seemed to occupy a different place and space from everyone else I had met before. By the time I arrived at University in 1958 I was aware of the denial of civil and political liberties that were the lot of native Australians and the depth and breadth of their exclusion from Australian life.

Aboriginals were excluded from the vote unless they had foresworn contact with their friends and relations. There were not counted in the census, were often confined to reserves, child removal for racial reasons were still happening, there was no recognition of their intrinsic rights as first Nations peoples. As a teenager I visited the reserves in the south-west of Western Australia and I found people living in tin sheds on the edge of town. I saw the use and abuse of Aboriginal women. These were Australians who did not enjoy normal civil and political rights.

How could this have been? How could Australia have been a country where de facto segregation existed?

In our report — Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Constitution — we quoted our first two prime ministers and their views on race as expressed in the context of the debate on the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. Our first prime minister, Edmund Barton, stated:

“I do not think either that the doctrine of the equality of men was really ever intended to include racial equality. There is no racial equality. There is basic inequality. These races are, in comparison with white races — I think no one wants convincing this fact — unequal and inferior.”

He was of course referring to the Chinese but all non-white people were so regarded. As Barton went on to observe:

“There is deep-set difference, and we see no prospect and the promise of its ever being effaced. Nothing in this world can put these two races upon an equality. Nothing we can do by cultivation, by refinement, or by anything else will make some races equal to others.”

In the course of that debate our second prime minister, the father of Australian liberalism, Alfred Deakin, spoke about the “Aboriginal race”. He declared:

“Little more than 100 years ago Australia was a Dark Continent in every sense of the term. There was not a white man within its borders. In another century the probability is that Australia will be a white continent with not a black or even dark skin among its inhabitants. The Aboriginal race has died out in the south and is dying fast in the north and west even where most gently treated. Other races are to be excluded by legislation if they are tinted to any degree.”

The Australia I grew into could only be understood in that intellectual framework of racial superiority. The egalitarianism mateship and fair go we prided on extending to each other, what we saw as our national characteristics, did not extend to the first Australians. They were inferior beings and treated as such.

My first direct involvements in what we now call reconciliation were in 1959 when the University Liberal Club worked with Swan Valley fringe dwellers on the erection of playground furniture at the Allawah Grove camp. We followed that up by drafting a submission on Aboriginal voting rights in the Parliamentary committee was enquiring into that subject in 1961. It was obvious to us youthful members of the Western Australian Liberal Party that things had to change. I have been around ever since observing and participating in the direction of Australia’s travel in these matters. It is a trajectory in the direction of reconciliation.

Let me list what are to me some of the markers of our direction of travel as a country over the last 50 years:

  • Voting rights legislated for in 1962;
  • The unprecedented level of support for the 1967 referendum;
  • 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;
  • Al 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 course these events do not plot a straight-line graph of progress. Over the same period there are markers of the old attitudes and of resistance to the recognition of Aboriginal interests. The brutal overcoming of Aboriginal resistance at Noonkanbah by the Charles Court government during my own term as minister in 1979 was a low point, including for me personally. The vicious racist campaign against land rights in Western Australia later in the 1980s led by the mining industry which saw television ads which had a black hand building a brick wall across Western Australia to represent the threat to our enjoyment of our mineral riches was brutally effective. The governments of both PM Hawke and Premier Burke withdrew their support for land rights nationally and in Western Australia in the face of that campaign, which incidentally had the support of the state Liberal Party which I was then a member. The messy demise of ATSIC because of a dysfunctional national board and notwithstanding its often effective regional structures was another negative.

In 2014, as always, we are more conscious of what is wrong than what is right. But for me in 2014 the past is a foreign country. Today Aboriginal 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.

At the beginning of this year I said in the presence of the Prime Minister this was the most hopeful period of my life. I felt able to say that because there is such widespread community support and engagement with Aboriginal and Islander people and their issues.

  • There are 540 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.
  • At the same time there is a concentration of political authority aimed at what is shorthanded as closing the gap with a Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs, a minister in cabinet and a Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister.
  • Hundreds of public servants from across the Commonwealth bureaucracy have been bundled into the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet with a view to ensuring whole of government authority is applied to the task of ending Aboriginal disadvantage.

My early decades of involvement exposed me to the reality that Aboriginal people faced namely widespread exclusion and often racist contempt. Racism is still alive in Australia as the Australian of the Year, Adam Goodes, has reminded us. But given the widespread community and business support for developing respectful relationships, to work with rather than on Aboriginal people, plus the evident Government determination to close the education and employment gaps, we are better placed than ever before to make a difference. In that sense also the past is a foreign country even though the horrifying rates at which we take Aboriginal children into care and we imprison Aboriginal people today as well as the gaps in life expectancy education and employment are a constant reminder of how far we still have to go.

Despite the significance of the non government input to reconciliation and closing the gap governments remain the big players with their role in providing educational health and employment services. The Commonwealth’s desire to play a leadership role is evident.

This is a time of both opportunity and risk. Among the positives are:

  • The desire of the Commonwealth to show political leadership;
  • Apparent preparedness to learn from past successes and failures; and
  • The Whitlam-like scale of ambition of the government-commissioned Forrest report, which instead of dealing with the limited subject matter of indigenous employment calls for a whole new overall approach to indigenous policy aimed at speedy change. Rather than contextualising this within the current thicket of arguments about budget repair issues the report argues for an overall solution. In the words of Andrew Forrest: “Seismic, not incremental, change is required and the time for action is now.” He says: “These solutions are not expensive and parity is completely achievable with the strength of will from each of us.”

Another two quotes from Andrew at the front of the report capture the demands for action:

“Given the fact that there is no employment gap, or disparity, for first Australians who educated at the same level as other Australians, the full force of our community leaders and governments must pack behind the achievement of parity in educational outcomes as a national priority.”

I could not agree more. And further:

“We must doggedly remove all impediments, raise our expectations dramatically and pursue accountability for Indigenous education until we reach parity in outcomes between all Australian kids.”

When I first saw the Forrest report I was impressed by the sense of urgency and some of the policy prescriptions, particularly the approach to early childhood development and education. My initial response was to be reminded of the Whitlam government — so many ideas some admirable some not, but could so many ideas be a workable package? That question remains – not least about the breadth and reach of the Healthy Welfare Card which deals on a whole of community basis with the problem diagnosed by Ian Viner as long ago as 1976 – the socially corrosive impact of welfare on remote communities.

What progressives can welcome in the report is its full-blooded call for action now and its support for massive engagements on prenatal early childhood and education issues. What is needed to ensure that Aboriginal children can start school with equal opportunity for success? The acknowledged fingerprints of Professor Fiona Stanley and of the Institute of Child Health Research she once ran are on these recommendations. The evidence base for what is proposed in this part of the report is long established. Implementation would be costly but without it each year we lose a substantial part of another cohort.

Whitlam, whatever the failures of his government, changed the national agenda and the national conversation. Perhaps the Forrest report will do that too. It identifies things we should do and advocates doing them. Let the debate commence.

Admittedly how all that might be funded would not meet the Department of Finance standards since promised savings from preventative programs are not counted in advance. But progressives wanting to see change could applaud the heading and comment on page 140 of the report:

Taxation incentives (or saving the taxpayer $1 million per incarceration)

“Treasury, please don’t have a heart attack. These individuals pay next to no tax anyway and they are costing the nation a fortune.”

Andrew addresses in his own way the opportunity costs of doing nothing or doing things which are ineffectual. If his report enables us to refocus the national conversation first on what we should try to achieve as a nation and how to do it, and then deal with the question of how we pay for it that will be a great step forward. If the starting point is always a discussion about money we fall into the trap of knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Let the debates be about the sort of country we want to be, how we can get there, what that will cost, and then how we raise the necessary dollars to pay for what is needed.

Do we know how to do this work and how we should do business? Do we have the required skill base in PM&C? What have we learned over 50 years?

In my view we have learned a lot, with academics, bureaucrats, and the Productivity Commission finding a lot of common ground about what works. What I believe we should learn from the past is 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 in the past 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 p191)

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

  • Co-operative 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; and
  • Ongoing government support — including human, financial and physical resources.

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

I think 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 I do not know any indigenous communities or individuals who would claim that their experience of dealing with government has been in line with those preconditions.

(In this regard the Empowered Communities proposals are an important Indigenous led initiative to work in a framework which meets those requirements.)

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 (MAC) 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
  • And finally ensure the individuals engaged in these latter roles have the appropriate networking, collaboration and entrepreneurial skills.

Note that this is an internal high level Commonwealth assessment not some external critic, these are the people with administrative skin in the game. In my view these imperatives have never been met in the past.

The big question for government is whether they can be met in implementing the complex new arrangements announced with the budget?

In the 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.

All this comes 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 in my view 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.”

There is much to like about some of the ideas behind this restructuring. Whole of government approaches, local solution brokering, the possibility of pooled funding are to be welcomed. But I ask you to hold in your minds the administrative complexity of what the government is undertaking and the management challenge it faces. In the space of one year it is to take 150 existing programs which involve I understand 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. I ask you also to consider what sort of skills are required to carry out some of the admirable intentions, to engage with communities to negotiate and implement tailored local solutions, providing as the government says elsewhere 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.

Bear in mind also that state and territory governments are essential players in all of the priority areas, so it will be 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.

So my hopefulness about reconciliation it is tempered by the 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. In my frequent moments of pessimism I fall back on the satisfaction of the small hard-won victories I find across the country. In my own immediate orbit the 1000 children in Polly Farmer projects, spread over years 8 to 12 in 30 state schools, 137 of whom finished year 12 last year give me hope. So do the people of the Western Desert restoring themselves and their country in caring for country programmes. The challenge is, can we advance the rate of across the board change? Can we systematise the success factors to achieve results on a broad front and maintain the strength of will Andrew Forrest demands to get beyond incremental change?

I accept the sincerity of purpose on the part of our Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. The challenge for him and his government is whether he can structure his government to deliver on this large and complex agenda? On that more rapid progress depends.

This is an edited transcript of Fred Chaney’s John Button Oration speech on August 23 in Melbourne

Author Bio

Fred Chaney

Fred Chaney is chairman of Desert Knowledge Australia and is on the board of Reconciliation Australia. He previously served as deputy chair of the Australian Native Title Tribunal. He was a minister in the Fraser government between 1978 and 1983.