Aboriginal leaders promote bold blueprint to close the gap

28 Mar 2015 1:15 AM - Publication: The Age - Michael Gordon

Indigenous leaders have presented the Abbott government with a bold blueprint to close the gap on disadvantage and advance reconciliation, warning that without fundamental change the gap will be as wide in 50 years as it is today.

They have designed a new policy to empower communities, end wasteful spending and drive change, comparing the scale and breadth of their ambition to that of policy-makers who opened the Australian economy up to competition.

Led by Noel Pearson, they have proposed a paradigm shift they compare with Australia's move from protection to competition, insisting the focus of Indigenous policy should move from crisis management to productivity and development.

Mr Pearson believes the blueprint, to be released on Saturday, could be a circuit-breaker in an Indigenous affairs debate that has become mired in controversy over budget cuts, the future of small outstations and Mr Abbott's remarks about Aborigines exercising a "lifestyle choice" in living in remote areas.

He believes acceptance of the policy can build momentum for Constitutional change and potentially pave the way for a "settlement" between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Called Empowered Communities: Empowered Peoples, the 165-page blueprint has been welcomed by Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion, who told Fairfax Media: "Let's face it, innovation in an area that hasn't ever gone particularly well is something that we should all be courageous enough to look sensibly and seriously at.

"This is clearly a bit out of the box. I knew it always would be. But we haven't done too well from inside the box. We, across government will be looking very seriously at this."

Although the report concentrates on local and regional Aboriginal bodies, it argues that a new national Indigenous body "is ultimately also needed".

"A national Indigenous body is needed to consult with and advise parliament so that Indigenous people get a proper say in matters that affect Indigenous lives," it asserts. Its establishment in the constitution "should be considered as part of the package of reforms to effect Indigenous recognition", the report says.

The report challenges the Abbott government's Indigenous Advancement Strategy, saying there is nothing in it "that purposefully supports and builds Indigenous reform leadership and Indigenous organisations".

It complains that "vast swathes" of Indigenous funding are "absorbed by the red tape of administration within the government bureaucracy, and on the 'middlemen' between the government and Indigenous people".

Under the policy:

  • An Indigenous Empowerment policy would be adopted by all government in an agreement that would be binding for 10 years, or as long as it takes to secure objectives.
  • Legislation would be enacted by all governments within three years of the agreement after its key elements were tested and reviewed.
  • Participating regions would prepare their own development agendas setting out social, economic and cultural goals that would be the basis of formal accords with government.
  • Accords would include objectives on school attendance, employment and tackling family violence.
  • A new body, the Indigenous Policy Productivity Council (IPPC), would support both governments and Indigenous leadership, facilitating agreements and holding both to their commitments "in a fearless and impartial way".
  • More communities beyond the eight putting forward the plan could "opt-in".
  • Each of the empowered community regions would pool their funding and make agreements with government on how it would be spent.

The reports cites the failure to respond to a call for empowerment in the 1991 report of the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody and warns: "Another 24 years must not go by before governments are prepared to work with Indigenous people to establish the method for empowerment."

Mr Pearson goes further, telling Fairfax Media: "If we have an aspiration to close the gap, understand that if we continue to do business as usual we are not only going to see a situation where numbers don't improve, but numbers can get worse."

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