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Indigenous evaluation? We’ve got that right here: land council

The Central Land Council is glad the Commonwealth’s top public servant acknowledges his department has a weak evidence base for indigenous affairs policy and pledges to work towards empowering indigenous communities.

For the recent Dungala Kaiela Oration given by Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Martin Parkinson provided CLC director David Ross with an opportunity to add his perspective on the situation.

Aboriginal communities in his region do monitoring and evaluation quite well themselves, says Ross, responding to Parkinson’s speech in a comment to The Mandarin:

“The department has been left far behind by the efforts and leadership of Central Australian Aboriginal people who have gathered a solid evidence base for their community driven programs for years.”

Parkinson also urged the indigenous affairs section of his department to assist indigenous communities with “meaningful information that empowers them to make good decisions about where and how to invest” as well as ramping up their evaluation efforts.

Ross refers to the CLC’s community development program, which has been independently monitored and evaluated since 2009. Evidence of the program’s success came to the attention of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which put Ross on a plane to present it to an international conference in Vietnam about communities helping themselves.

That evidence, he writes, shows “Aboriginal control, engagement and decision making … delivers social outcomes that are highly valued by Aboriginal people and builds skills, confidence and self-reliance”.

The CLC is now taking steps to monitor and evaluate its ranger program and in time, all land management work, and Ross is disappointed that PM&C refuses to chip in:

“We asked the department to contribute to this but were knocked back even before we mentioned any costs.

“We are seeking a meeting with Mr Parkinson and hope to share our approach so as to help him to overcome such attitudes and allocate resources for meaningful participatory monitoring and evaluation.”

Indigenous ranger success story ignored

The CLC was also concerned earlier in the year by leaked documents suggesting the the ranger program’s federal funding arrangement was under review.

Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion denied there were any plans to make it an extension of work for the dole, or limit how long rangers can be employed and dismissed the relevance of the documents, which were cited in a report by our sister site Crikey.

While Scullion strongly objected to the article, saying he had never seen the presentation slides it refers to and arguing they had “no formal status”, the CLC was worried. An article in the CLC’s monthly newsletter Land Rights News states:

“The presentation appeared to fly in the face of a federal government review which shows Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) and Aboriginal ranger programs smashing disadvantage and creating meaningful employment in remote communities while also protecting the environment.

“The review found that every dollar the federal government spent on these programs creates almost three dollars in social, economic, cultural and environmental benefits.”

The opinion article asks why the Turnbull government hasn’t claimed “bragging rights” and trumpeted the program’s success based on the review, conducted by Social Ventures Australia, during the recent election campaign:

“Instead, it quietly buried the good news after sitting on it for months, vacating the field to the opposition and leaving ranger groups worried about their future.”

The SVA review looked at five Indigenous Protected Areas between 2009 and 2015 and found $35.2 million in combined federal government and third-party investment generated positive outcomes worth $96.5m — with 28 of 35 program outcomes directly aligned to stated government priorities.

It’s “one of Australia’s biggest Aboriginal success stories” according to Ross, and the article claims there is a preference for the opposition’s policy commitments among central Australian Aborigines.

Aboriginal program resonates overseas

Another report in the paper gives an account of Ross’s trip to the community-driven development conference in Vietnam.

A spokesperson for DFAT, which also helps fund the conference, is quoted, saying the CLC’s community development model “resonated strongly” and was “highly relevant” to indigenous communities around the world, and adding:

“DFAT reached out to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to seek the participation of policy makers and practitioners from community driven development initiatives in Aboriginal communities. …

“The CLC is now connected to a regional and global community of practice on community driven development. Its participation at the conference was highly valued and delegates from other countries were eager to continue to exchange lessons.”

The CLC program’s former manager Danielle Campbell told its newsletter there was discussion of how indigenous governance fits into the institutions of state:

“We talked a lot about Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people together finding ways to navigate the different accountabilities that Aboriginal people have — their own cultural and governance arrangements and what the Australian government expects.

“There is an opportunity now for the Australian government to think about how it could start to better support the kind of community driven development approaches at home that DFAT supports overseas.”

The CLC also linked up with the World Bank to get more information and advice in future, and invited it to send people to central Australia and give feedback on its development projects.

Can politicians and public servants rebuild bridges?

Evaluation adds to program costs but in the long run it can save money from being wasted on programs that are at best ineffective and at worst, “damaging” to the people they are supposed to assist, Ross writes, in his letter to The Mandarin:

“Including Aboriginal people in setting monitoring and evaluation targets, as Mr Parkinson appears to advocate, is a great first step.

“The CLC hopes he will ensure their voices become a key source in determining and measuring the outcomes, policies and practices that affect them.”

Meanwhile, Minister Scullion has pledged to host a meeting with the many leaders of indigenous organisations who jointly launched the Redfern Statement earlier in the year.

Scullion vaguely claims to “share the aspirations outlined in the Redfern Statement” and pledges to “explore strategies to progress issues” it raises. He says there are “significant areas in which it aligns with the Government’s Indigenous reform agenda” but doesn’t specify.

The Indigenous Advancement Strategy that is Scullion’s key program is an “absolute disaster” according to one of the Redfern Statement’s main proponents, National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation chief Pat Turner.

And the machinery of government change that has brought the big line area of indigenous affairs into the central agency has also been a “complete disaster”, according to comments made on radio by the former head of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, who was a once a PM&C deputy secretary as well.

Nonetheless, Scullion is keen to build new bridges with the group and listen to their concerns:

“We must connect through genuine dialogue, and I am looking forward to a continuing and constructive conversation.

“I want this workshop to identify ways we can enhance government and community engagement to bring about a real difference on the ground. We are committed to getting this right, learning from the past and building strong relationships for the future.”

Top image: Children from Nyirrpi visit Rosebud Secondary College and participate in a science class as part of the WETT program

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.