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Indigenous dilemma: words are not enough

Fred Chaney and Bill Gray believe the government’s promises to work with Aboriginal people will remain undeliverable rhetoric without changes to delegation and accountability frameworks.

In a recent article, Professor Ken Smith, Dean of the Australian and New Zealand School of Government canvassed the challenges that governments face in their attempts to “refresh” the COAG Closing the Gap targets and to provide policies and programs that reflect the real and varied needs of indigenous communities, particularly in remote Australia.

In his article, Professor Smith quoted Peter Johnson, who has worked with the Martu people of the Eastern Pilbara for many years. The specific quote is taken from a paper Johnson wrote for a conference of Australasian Evaluation Society members held in 2016. He said:

“Martu live in a different culture … it means their interests, their inspirations, their fears, their motivations, their perceptions and their priorities are all different … we can’t apply mainstream policy prescriptions or expect mainstream policy answers to work.”

Professor Smith, in support of the views expressed by Johnson, went on in his article to state:

“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. The public policy challenge in Indigenous Affairs is immense, and a substantive rethink of our assumptions and approaches is necessary. It is vital that we acknowledge this. Only by recognising our failings can we open ourselves to a new way.”

For the past four years, since the Abbott budget of 2014, the Coalition government has made much of its desire to engage with indigenous communities to ensure that they are participating partners in the design and implementation of policies and services delivered in support of indigenous people.

In his most recent speech, delivered on February 12, 2018, outlining the progress, or otherwise, of the COAG Closing the Gap targets, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull asserted that:

“We are doing more to use local expertise to design solutions to local problems and our best example of that is Empowered Communities. We are hopeful that through the Closing the Gap refresh process, this model can be expanded beyond the existing eight sites to more communities seeking to work in a place-based regional governance approach and one that meets criteria set by the Empowered Communities leaders.”

Yawning chasm between stated intentions and implementation

Far from devolving decision making to the regional and local levels of government, in practice we have witnessed an ever-increasing centralisation of the administration of Indigenous affairs to the point where there is a yawning chasm between the stated intentions of government and the reality of its implementation on the ground. The gap between rhetoric and practice is in need of immediate attention.

In his last two Closing the Gap speeches, the prime minister has indicated that his government supports the principles outlined in the Empowered Communities report. Those principles included the notion of subsidiarity, devolution of decision making and direct engagement with local communities. In committing to those principles, the prime minister, knowingly or otherwise, also committed to an administration that would need to move from a top-down, command-and-control model to one which would necessitate devolution of authority to the regional and local community levels, provide transparency and accountability to communities and provide transparent and authoritative mechanisms which enable communities to negotiate binding agreements with governments, service providers and other stakeholders designed to provide local solutions to local needs.

This has not happened and instead PM&C is now widely considered to operate the most centralised administration of Indigenous affairs within the past 30 years.

Far from enabling local decision making or facilitating and promoting regional governance, it is still the case that nearly all financial authority remains directly with the minister for Indigenous affairs. The 12 regional directors who are supposed to implement the place-based regional governance approach have wholly inadequate financial delegations or authorisations to confidently engage with regional bodies or local communities.

The regional network within PM&C must be strengthened by way of more appropriate delegations, authorisations and a legal framework to enable it to fulfil its responsibilities and to engage directly with communities and regional stakeholders, consistent with the stated policy intentions of the government.

Empowering remote communities

In a recent report, the Queensland Productivity Commission recommended a new approach to government service delivery in remote areas. That approach would necessitate making some substantive changes to the legal and administrative structures underpinning the delivery of services to indigenous communities in Queensland.

The overarching recommendation made by the QPC was that the state government should “transfer accountability and decision making to regions and communities, reform funding and resourcing arrangements and monitor progress through independent oversight.”

It is no less so for the Commonwealth and it will require strong political leadership to achieve the desired outcome.

The Empowered Communities principles that the government says it has endorsed will require more than words if they are to translate into action. It will require a major change in the way the government moves to implement its policy agenda and to provide new and better mechanisms of implementation.

Dr Martin Parkinson, secretary of PM&C, has said that implementation should never be regarded as the poor cousin to policy development but admits that it is too often the case.

“For some reason, many of us involved in the design of new policies think that the work we are doing is somehow harder or more intellectually challenging than the work of those operating at the coal face; the people ensuring that policies actually deliver outcomes that they were intended to achieve on the ground. As a result, there is a tendency to either not seek the input of those with implementation expertise or, perhaps even worse, to ignore this input when it is provided.”

Unfortunately, the malady outlined by Dr Parkinson remains the current culture within the department and is likely to remain so unless and until the prime minister and his minister for Indigenous affairs demand otherwise and lead the tectonic structural and institutional changes that will be necessary to deliver on the rhetoric of empowering indigenous communities.

Public servants delivering government policy will do so within their legal and accountability frameworks, as they must. The government has not addressed the core issues related to working with Aboriginal people rather than doing things to them. The legal delegation and accountability frameworks within which public servants must operate, both indigenous and non-indigenous, must be changed if the government’s words are to be anything more than undeliverable rhetoric.

The government’s performance must be judged not on what it says but on what it does.

Fred Chaney AO, former Fraser government minister for Aboriginal affairs.

Bill Gray AM, former Commonwealth secretary Department of Aboriginal Affairs and founding CEO of ATSIC.

Author Bio

Fred Cheney & Bill Gray

Fred Chaney AO is a former Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the Fraser government. Bill Gray AM is a former Commonwealth Secretary Department of Aboriginal Affairs and founding CEO of ATSIC.