Noel Pearson: bureaucracy 'not up to the task'

By David Donaldson

January 28, 2016

Noel Pearson at the National Press Club address

Government is not taking the idea of social innovation seriously and the bureaucracy is “not up to the task” of improving the lives of first Australians, argued Noel Pearson in an address on Wednesday.

Former Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Michael Thawley dismissed “out of hand” a proposal to create a Tony Blair-style delivery unit to oversee the implementation of indigenous policy months before the government announced a delivery unit to keep the Innovation Statement on track, the Aboriginal leader revealed.

“To say the least we are perplexed with this contrary response”, Pearson told the National Press Club.

In fact, the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership founder thinks the government has ignored the entire Empowered Communities report — which features a range of “innovative” policy ideas — and it has not even been considered by cabinet, despite the government having spent $5 million on its creation.

“A system that’s premised upon bureaucratic determination … is not one that is going to empower our people.”

Moreover, Pearson said it was clear some of the senior bureaucrats he had spoken to had not read the report, even though “you could read it on a one and a half hour plane flight if you were really interested.”

“The reforms we propose will in fact minimise the necessity of having a ministry of Aboriginal affairs or indeed eventually a minister,” he said, contending that the idea that ministers can pick winners in a crowded market would not be tolerated outside indigenous affairs.

“Ministers cannot determine what is right in any particular context and what project will also work. Rather, ministers should create the systemic solutions for communities to strive for development within the parameters of an enabling policy.”

The system continues to fail Australia’s first inhabitants, with 27% of the prison population coming from less than 3% of the general population, he pointed out.

“We have a minister and a department and they do good, but they do not do enough. A system that’s premised upon bureaucratic determination, ministerial imprimatur and so on is not one that is going to empower our people … the system by which they attempt to deal with our communities is not one that works. It can’t discern excrement from clay.”

Australia needs an organisation similar to the Productivity Commission — an “umpire” between government and communities — to test whether spending on indigenous programs was having an impact, he argued.

But there is “strong resistance” in government — PM&C in particular — to creating more institutions.

“It’s part of the ‘we don’t want any more quangos’ argument, but there are only three quangos in indigenous affairs”, he argued — the Indigenous Land Corporation, Indigenous Business Australia and Aboriginal Hostels. “There’s not a surfeit of statutory bodies in indigenous affairs.”

He offered competition policy reform as an analogy. “Competition policy would never have succeeded if there were no institutions obliging governments and supervising the policy.”

‘Yearning’ for the past structures

Emphasising how poorly indigenous Australians were served by the current system, Pearson suggested things had gone backwards in recent years, and that some even “yearned” for the days of the troubled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. The organisation was scrapped due to a feeling in the Howard government that it was not serving Aboriginal people well, amid rape allegations against chair Geoff Clark and investigations of corruption and embezzlement at the body.

“ATSIC was blamed for a lot of things, and a lot of aspects of ATSIC were parlous, but I can tell you the situation back in the ATSIC day was more empowering than it is today.” A lot of the work that continues today is a product of ATSIC, he added.

“It was a great pity that rather than reforming that old structure we threw it out with the bath water, because the current situation is one where the investment today in indigenous affairs is $34 billion per annum sunk through government departments, outsourced to NGOs and for profit organisations. That $34 billion a year is not yielding the kind of return I saw in ATSIC’s day.

“I think it’s a very sober fact that … 10 years after ATSIC some of us yearn for the past.”

Although he says he doesn’t advocate a return to ATSIC, “there is in prospect a much better model for government to interact with indigenous communities but we need for government to get into the mindframe of innovation and take seriously the propositions that are already before it.”

“The situation in Prime Minister and Cabinet — the bureaucracy is not up to the task,” he stated.

“It is time for the Turnbull government to really look at indigenous affairs because it is not serving our people in the way it should.”

More at The Mandarin: Michael Dillon on what’s next for Indigenous Affairs portfolio

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