Ken Smith: trust in First Peoples as the guardians of their own futures

By Ken Smith

February 15, 2018

The Western Australian town of Roebourne has an Indigenous population of 789 people. A WA Government report last year found a total of 206 services and projects were being delivered by 63 providers, with no measurable improvement in outcomes.

We do not lack good intentions, but ten years on from the commencement of the Closing the Gap initiative, the ‘big policy solution’ in Indigenous affairs eludes us.

The 2018 Closing the Gap report was our annual reminder that we are not living up to our responsibility to Australia’s First Peoples, particularly those in remote communities, where the gap in health and welfare outcomes with non-Indigenous Australia is the widest.

While there has been some improvement in three of the seven targets, there is still so much to do both in the target areas identified, as well as in significant areas which are not part of the Closing the Gap targets, like the massive overrepresentation in both the criminal justice and the alternative care systems.

These broad figures can oversimplify a complex picture. Success is not happening in a uniform way. There are different results across our vast geography, and our varied Indigenous communities.

Thinking differently about the policy process itself

The Prime Minister’s Closing the Gap speech has acknowledged the need to work more closely with Indigenous communities, and to do things ‘with’ them not ‘to’ them (a mantra that is attributed to the educationalist, Chris Sarra).

Our failure to meet many of the Closing the Gap targets represents the inadequacy of the policy process, as it stands, to respond to the widely differing needs and aspirations of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Making any refreshed process a success will require a change in the way our governments approach the design and delivery of Indigenous policy.

There is a consensus that we need better consultation with Indigenous communities, co-production of policy and localised implementation. But how do we fully realise these aims?

There is a danger that the intention of creating a genuine partnership with Indigenous communities, and doing things ‘with’ them not ‘to’ them will not make the transition from rhetoric to reality.

Politicians have an important leadership role to play, but much of the work needs to be done on a day-to-day basis by the various services on the ground, and that means cultural and structural change within our public services.

This must include involving Indigenous communities in every phase of policy design and development; respecting their knowledge and culture; and employing Indigenous people at all levels of our public services.

The principle of subsidiarity

It is difficult for government and those of us in the public sector to acknowledge that we do not have the policy answers. We do not know best, and it is only by recognising our failings that we can open ourselves to a new way.

We must broaden our thinking beyond the technical details of Indigenous affairs policy, or the machinery of government for administering that policy. We need to think about this public policy challenge as one of subsidiarity in decision-making within our federation, and of trust from our governments and public sector in First Peoples as the guardians of their own futures.

This would represent a dramatic but important change.

Since the 1967 referendum, which empowered the Commonwealth to make policy relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities, we have seen a huge amount of churn, as structures are repeatedly changed to try and balance the need for centralised oversight with the delivery of services by governments and communities.

No political agenda can be achieved without co-ordination between what Glyn Davis, Catherine Althaus and Peter Bridgman call the three domains of government: political aims, policy development and service delivery arrangements.

The loss of ATSIC deprived us of a representative Indigenous voice in policy and service delivery coordination, and that loss has not been fully replaced.

Calls for the creation of a “Voice to Parliament” in the Uluru Statement from the Heart were a structural response by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community to properly inform our political domain. Without constitutional recognition of our First Peoples and their prior sovereignty, and clarifying their collective links to our shared political systems, it will be impossible to also get alignment of policy and delivery domains. This remains a key issue in getting the three domains to align to achieve the changes we strive for.

This is not a new issue of course. Henry Reynolds in his book, The Whispering in our Hearts recalls a speech in the 1840’s by barrister and politician, Richard Windeyer who argued against Aboriginal rights and claims to land, but finished the speech thus:

“How is it that our minds are not satisfied?… What means this whispering in the bottom of our hearts?”

The lack of an Indigenous voice does not mean we cannot be innovative in transforming the way government engages Indigenous communities in the policy or delivery process.

The principle of subsidiarity should guide our approach to Indigenous affairs. This means more than consultation and involvement of our First Peoples in policies intended to improve their communities, to improve their educational, health or employment outcomes.

Subsidiarity dictates substantive and autonomous decision-making power at the local or regional level. We need to imagine arrangements in our federation that give First Peoples control over decision-making of Indigenous public policy, as well as the implementation of that policy.

The public sector needs to trust, empower and acknowledge First Peoples and their communities as leaders in the policy space.

We need to acknowledge the role that Indigenous communities can play, not just in policy and service delivery but in the important domain of political leadership. Only then might we begin to close the gap.

Professor Ken Smith is CEO and Dean of the Australian and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG), and Enterprise Professor at The University of Melbourne. Ken served for more than three decades in the Queensland government, including as Director General of the Department of the Premier and Cabinet between 2007 and 2011.

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