Push to revive national plan for Indigenous language interpreters

By Stephen Easton

January 17, 2017

All governments need to re-commit to improving access to Indigenous language interpreters, according to the Commonwealth Ombudsman, although he finds some progress has been made in the past five years.

Just before Christmas, ombudsman Colin Neave published the results of an own-motion investigation that reached into 47 different agencies of the federal government to revisit an issue his office last looked at in 2011, but only in six large agencies. This time, he found Indigenous people who require interpreters to communicate with public servants still face significant barriers:

“These barriers include inadequate training and awareness within agencies of the need to use interpreters, major service gaps in areas with no dedicated Indigenous language interpreter service, problems with the supply of and demand for interpreters, [as well as] inadequate monitoring, enforcement and evaluation of the use of interpreters by contracted service providers.”

“In our investigation, it became apparent that challenges to accessibility are beyond the ability of any one agency to address and a co-ordinated whole-of-government response is required,” said Neave, who will soon leave the public sector to take up a job with ANZ bank.

“All agencies need to consider how their policy settings and administrative arrangements might be developed or better oriented to address the issues raised in the report for the use of Indigenous language interpreters.”

As such, the ombudsman’s latest report has recommended the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet get together with state and territory governments and re-start the process to develop a National Framework for Indigenous Interpreters as a matter of priority, and further invest in programs and trials to get results.

The national framework was being developed when Neave looked at the issue five years ago but never moved beyond the draft stage, so the new investigation looked at whether the public service had done anything else to improve access to the interpreters in the meantime. The draft went to the Council of Australian Governments but was never adopted and the initiative it was a part of “expired” in 2014, according to the report.

The draft strategy proposed measures to stimulate training of more accredited Indigenous language interpreters and raise awareness of the need for them. Neave reports PM&C set up a new inter-departmental committee to work on improving the situation after he commenced the recent investigation.

And, as the lead agency for Indigenous Affairs since 2013, the PM’s department has provided around $970 million in funding for some targeted initiatives, including TAFE courses in South Australia and Indigenous language interpreters for the ABC.

Neave also recommended PM&C come up with a new service-wide policy and expand the membership of the inter-departmental committee to all relevant agencies.

Interpreters for various Indigenous languages are not easy to come by. Some agencies told the Ombudsman’s Office they saw “significant” opportunity to use them more often, if more were available.

The report says the key issues are “lack of awareness of the need to use interpreters, the absence of ‘on demand’ telephone interpreting services, insufficient numbers of accredited interpreters to meet demand and reduced interpreter training options”. It contrasts the rarity of proper translating and interpreting services for Indigenous Australians to the much more comprehensive national service available to migrants, and points out that only Western Australia and the Northern Territory have anything similar for Indigenous languages.

“While there has been some progress, ongoing barriers to accessing interpreters continue to undermine communication between government and Indigenous language speakers, even for those agencies who have gone to considerable lengths to try to improve accessibility.”

Neave’s office still receives a small number of formal complaints about the problem, and finds the issue is “raised repeatedly by stakeholders” during its outreach activities. Lack of access to an interpreter is also often a contributing factor in other complaints.

The report points out that access to Indigenous language interpreters has been highlighted by a range of reports from other government bodies over the years. Due to the very limited number of new Indigenous interpreters that are trained, and the many government programs that deploy resources to remote areas where Aboriginal languages are most commonly spoken, Neave recommends PM&C should also develop a specific set of best-practice guidelines apart from those that apply to translators in general.

Of the 47 agencies covered by the investigation, only 14 had specific policies or training in place around Indigenous language interpreters, but:

“There was also broad consensus in the consultation forum about the need for a whole-of-government policy framework and a lead agency to champion, coordinate and monitor measures to improve Indigenous language interpreter accessibility and use.

“Suggestions for improvement offered by agencies in response to the survey included the implementation of a National Framework and whole of government resources access to interpreters.”

Examples of good practice in terms of setting protocols and providing guidance to staff were identified in PM&C, the Department of Human Services and, surprisingly, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission.

The report also contains recommendations for all agencies in the Australian Public Service: they “should consider how their policy settings and administrative arrangements might be developed or better oriented to address the issues raised” and also take note of Neave’s suggestions for developing best practice principles.

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