Tuesday, 27 February 2007
National Indigenous Council
Today the National Indigenous Council provided its annual report to government. It identified the importance of expanding and making the most of economic opportunities as a key pathway to addressing the disadvantage faced by many Indigenous Australians. The council specifically identified Australia’s tourism industry and the mining and gas industries—the energy sector—as some of the key industries in which there could be opportunities for economic development and employment for Indigenous people.
The AAP report that detailed the release of the National Indigenous Council’s annual report noted that the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Mr Brough, said the formation of the National Indigenous Council after the abolition of ATSIC had brought a fresh eye to government Indigenous policy. Members of the National Indigenous Council have an opportunity to provide their views to government, but there is no formal requirement for the government to take those views on board or to act on them. I am not being critical of any of the members—I am quite happy for them to be part of that council and to at least provide some of their views to the government—but, after the abolition of ATSIC, I think it is bit rich to describe their role as ‘a fresh eye’. There were plenty of problems with ATSIC but the complete abolition of it, holus-bolus, against the findings of the government’s $1 million review—an extensive review of the operations of ATSIC—does not bring a fresh eye. The people on the Indigenous Council certainly bring their own perspectives, which I am sure have value, but a dramatically reduced range of perspectives with a dramatically reduced degree of legitimacy and strength is now being made available to government.
In backing up that concern, I would like to refer to an article by Wesley Aird which was published in the Age today. Mr Aird is a government appointed member of the National Indigenous Council from my state of Queensland—indeed, he is from south-east Queensland—and he is a member of the Gold Coast Native Title Group. It is an irony—of which politics throws up billions—that he is on the government’s National Indigenous Council whilst trying to progress a native title claim around the Gold Coast. Government members have made a number of statements expressing concern about the prospect of native title being claimed over a metropolitan area like the Gold Coast, Brisbane or, for that matter, anywhere in south-east Queensland.
But of more interest are the statements made by Mr Aird in his article today. He pointed to another report that was released that did not receive a great deal of attention—the evaluation reports into the Council of Australian Governments trials to look at a new way of delivering services to Indigenous communities. This was meant to be a grand revolution that adopted a whole-of-government approach—a fresh new way for government to engage with Indigenous communities. I think it is fair to say that Mr Aird damned it with faint praise. He said that the execution of the trials was ‘pretty ordinary’ but he also said there was enough in them for it to be worth pursuing a similar approach. Indeed, it is worth noting his comment that, even though the execution of the trials was pretty ordinary and needs to be refined, the approach is worth supporting. He said:
When good ideas aren’t implemented very well, you have to be careful to not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
That is, of course, what the government did when it abolished ATSIC. Mr Aird notes and reinforces a point I have made and the Democrats have made many times over the years:
Efforts to overcome any community’s problems will have greater chances of success if the community is genuinely engaged in developing solutions. There is more than enough international evidence to support this position. However, here in Australia, things aren’t that easy. Regional representation has not been a priority in the Federal Government’s arrangements for indigenous affairs. The last we saw of indigenous regional representation was during the days of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.
To quote him again:
This is a fundamental failing of the current system and fixing it is essential to overcoming indigenous disadvantage.
I will repeat that:
... fixing it is essential to overcoming indigenous disadvantage.
If you do not involve the communities themselves at the regional level your chances of succeeding and trying to remove this disadvantage are drastically reduced. This is coming from a member of the government’s own National Indigenous Council—someone who is quite prepared to provide advice and views on the national level. Clearly there is some value in that being done. But the big tragedy in the abolition of ATSIC from my point of view was not the removal of the national board of commissioners; it was the loss of the expertise, contacts and input at the regional and community level.
We all know across the entire Australian community—Indigenous and non-Indigenous—that there is immense diversity in our country. There is immense diversity from one capital city to another, let alone from a capital city to a large regional city, to a small country town, to a remote farming area. There is enormous diversity. With Indigenous communities and Indigenous Australians there is just as much, if not more, diversity. To try to suggest that you can have a one size fits all approach—with your sole amount of input from Indigenous people in Australia via one national, handpicked non-representative Indigenous council—is simply ludicrous. That is not to criticise the people on it; it is to criticise the inadequacy of the framework the government has set up to provide what the minister apparently believes is a fresh eye. It might be one fresh eye but there needs to be a lot more eyes out there. The government needs to be using a lot more ears and listening to what those people are saying.
The key reason why the Council of Australian Governments trials failed so badly is that no listening is being done. There is not enough ability in government departments, particularly across a range of departments working together, to be able to work in a way that is effective in the different ways and the different communities around Australia. As Wesley Aird says, 70 per cent of Indigenous Australians live in regional and capital cities; they do not live in remote communities and they do not live on Cape York. They do not live in Aboriginal communities such as those dotted around Queensland. Those are very important areas, of course—they have unique and difficult issues to overcome—but there are different but equally difficult issues to overcome in the city areas. Without that engagement with people at regional level and that willingness to just do more listening rather than talking and imposing and making grand announcements then we will continue to get these ‘ordinary’ results, to use the description of Mr Aird.
I think I would go along with Mr Aird’s assessment: the trials have not delivered anything particularly spectacular, but there is enough of a kernel of an idea in them to be worth trying to advance them further. But it has got to get a lot more priority and a lot more intense support from government to expand them—and to enact them in a way that actually enables engagement with the communities we are trying to develop solutions with.
Australians across the board can give you enough examples of the difficulties of working with different government departments and trying to find their way through bureaucracies. Trying to do that with the unique difficulties and issues faced by Indigenous Australians is 100 times worse. Until we actually admit to ourselves at governance level—at parliamentary level, at government department level—that we do not have all the answers and that we actually need to get some from the people on the ground, we are going to continue to deliver far less than we need to. That is a tragedy for Indigenous Australians as well as a gross waste of taxpayers’ money. With the gross level of inequality we face, that is something that we can no longer accept and tolerate as a nation.