Empowered Communities a chance to close the gap

30 Mar 2015 12:30 PM - Publication: The Sydney Morning Herald - Professor Marcia Langton

What is glaringly obvious in the political administration of Indigenous affairs is the absence of a clear vision and set of policies for overcoming the extreme disadvantages suffered by a large proportion of the Aboriginal population.

What is also clear is that many of the "top-down" policies and programs have had insufficient impact in improving outcomes, especially in shifting people out of intergenerational social security dependence.

There have been a few outstanding exceptions, such as the growth of an Indigenous health workforce and better delivery of healthcare services. The success of the Indigenous Eye Health Unit in eliminating trachoma was achieved by networking service deliverers and providing clear protocols for interventions.

Other examples of success have resulted from outstanding local leaders taking responsibility to build functional communities. The radical improvement in school attendance at the Coen Primary School in Cape York is an example of Noel Pearson's success in leading the Cape York reform agenda. In the east Kimberley town of Kununurra, Ian Trust, of Wunan Corporation, has moved families from despair to joy with his Living Change program and a transitional housing program that assists people who started in the 'permanently' unemployed category to working, saving and buying a home.

There will be many more successes like these if the Empowered Communities approach is adopted by Australian governments. There are hopeful signs.

On Friday last week, Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion expressed his support for the new approach to Indigenous affairs administration set out in a ground-breaking report by Pearson and the Aboriginal leaders of eight regions of Australia. He recognised that innovative thinking is required to "close the gap" in Indigenous disadvantage.

Empowered Communities, Empowered Peoples proposes Indigenous people empowering themselves and governments sharing, and in some cases relinquishing, certain powers and responsibilities, and supporting Indigenous people. It is premised on a two-pronged development goal: to close the gap on the social and economic disadvantage, and to preserve Indigenous cultural and linguistic heritage for future generations.

The report provides a detailed design to enable a shift away from the traditional social policy framework to a comprehensive Indigenous empowerment agenda. This would involve formal agreement by Australian governments for at least 10 years to an Indigenous empowerment policy to meet the goals of Indigenous social, economic and cultural development.

Instead of a sinkhole of funding doled out to entities in the Indigenous sector, guided by blurry policy, the Empowered Communities approach demands greater productivity from available resources and opportunities. Inspired by the success of the National Competition Policy, the innovation here is the idea of new national and regional institutions established only to support an enabling framework for place-based Indigenous development agendas. These would function through a new partnership of Indigenous leaders, governments and corporate leaders and would negotiate greater productivity so that all available resources and opportunities would be used efficiently and effectively to ensure less duplication, red tape and involvement of "middle-men".  

Entrenched mindsets and powerful vested interests were key challenges for the Australia's National Competition Policy and there are similar challenges in Indigenous affairs. The paradigm shift required is equivalent.

The great innovation proposed is similar to the efficiency dividend. The principles have been applied globally, especially in achieving development goals in Africa and Asia, with outstanding results. The key innovation is that the new institutions would opt into an "opportunity system" in which individuals are provided with guaranteed opportunities in return for taking up obligations. The radical idea – the first sound economic idea to infiltrate Indigenous policy – is a demand-driven approach in which Indigenous people take on the role of "purchaser" and there is a "race to the top" so that funding increasingly flows to those achieving success.

Other innovations include efficiency principles such as transparency over all regional and local spending; pooling funds on a regional basis; finding better ways to fund Indigenous organisations committed to reform; and ensuring all spending is increasingly directed towards meeting the goals of place-based development agendas.

There has been some cynicism about the capacity of the Aboriginal leaders who worked with Pearson to deliver on the promise of this scheme. One need only look at their track record. Trust's work in the east Kimberley area has been mentioned. Pearson's work in Cape York is well known and understood. In the other six regions, there are outstanding leaders like these two men. Andrea Mason, chief executive of the NPY Women's Council, has led an anti-violence strategy that reduced the rate of murder of Aboriginal women to zero last year. There has been only one murder since.

The legitimacy of this Aboriginal leadership lies in their cultural authority and commitment to the Empowered Communities reform agenda. They each came to table with these commitments: getting children to school every day, getting all capable adults to work, and getting people to take responsibility for themselves.

This project began almost two years ago, when Pearson convened a meeting of Aboriginal leaders from eight regions across Australia. People such as Trust attended to build a vision for "closing the gap". Their Empowered Communities report delivers just such a vision. It is a robust model that provides for the great variation in regions around Australia in term of circumstances, needs and capacity. The commitment of these leaders to positive outcomes through negotiation, accountability, transparency and efficiency marks them out as a new breed who have accepted the challenge of taking responsibility for their actions.

This approach is far superior to the present one, which involves a revolving door of bureaucrats with little intellectual or historical understanding of Indigenous people and unprepared for the gelatinous complexity of Indigenous affairs administration.

As Scullion has pointed out, when little else has succeeded, it would be very worthwhile to adopt the Empowered Communities approach. Aboriginal Australians have asked for empowerment. They deserve to be given the chance to take responsibility for the challenges that lie ahead.

Marcia Langton is professor of Australian Indigenous studies at the University of Melbourne and was an adviser to the Empowered Communities leaders' group.

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