Indigenous change propels inertia

21 Feb 2015 10:00 AM - Publication: The Australian - Professor Marcia Langton

In the landslide shift to the ALP in Queensland in the recent state election, two Aboriginal candidates were elected, and one has been appointed to the cabinet: Leeanne Enoch, Minister for Housing and Public Works as well as Science and Innovation, and Billy Gordon.

They join Linda Burney, Ken Wyatt, Ben Wyatt, Bess Price, Larisa Lee, Nova Peris and others in a welcome step towards indigenous parliamentary representation. Aboriginal political and electoral power has changed radically in the past half century and is now a key issue in several electorates.

Almost 30 years ago, the research of political scientist Peter Loveday showed that Aboriginal people were well-informed voters who were prepared to reward or punish politicians on the basis of their performance. This point was clearly demonstrated in Queensland last month, but also in the 2012 Northern Territory election, when Aboriginal voters delivered government to the Country Liberal Party, punishing the ALP for dismantling local community councils in favour of “supershires”; misdirection of funding from frontline services to non-­indigenous bureaucrats and consultants; the effective dismantling of bilingual education in schools; and lack of support for policies designed to address child abuse, family violence and substance abuse.

Strangely, the new political power of indigenous voters is ignored by policymakers and their ministerial masters as they continue to fiddle with policy levers, programs and bureaucracies with the risk of destabilising the indigenous sector, and services to more than 600,000 people. The present state of indigenous affairs administration at the federal level, in particular, should warrant ringing of the village bells for politicians across the political spectrum.

Yet another reform to commonwealth program arrangements for indigenous people — the indigenous Advancement Strategy — has been foisted on us as a new “policy”. The reform is not without purpose or justification as it does significantly reduce the number of programs and, hopefully, red tape that has built up since it was decided to mainstream program delivery in 2004.

However, good intentions aside, many indigenous leaders and organisations are concerned that what is intended to be a better approach to funding for the indigenous sector may turn out to be the emperor’s new clothes.

Essential services connected with children and schooling, jobs and community safety are at risk of collapsing everywhere unless indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion and the Prime Minister’s Department can deal immediately with the funding applications from last year, which were meant to be sorted by December.

The leaders, managers and workforce of the entire indigenous sector across Australia have been given no information about their funding submissions. No one can plan service delivery and operability without clarity on what the minister’s decision is on the entire funding budget for the indigenous services sector. The destabilisation of the indigenous sector in this way will not help close the gap.

Alarm bells should also be ringing over the government’s decision to move the administration of indigenous affairs into the Prime Minister’s Department.

In fact, there have been constant and confusing changes to the bureaucratic arrangements for indigenous affairs in the commonwealth since the Department of Aboriginal Affairs was established in 1973. This was much later than similar departments were established in other Western countries with indigenous people. But, even so, what has followed has just been a merry­-go­round for indigenous affairs.

A major change occurred in 1991 when the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was established to replace the department and the former Aboriginal Development Commission. Then the Office of Indigenous Policy and Co­ordination was set up to replace ATSIC in 2004 and it formed part of a Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs.

Then in 2006, indigenous affairs was joined up with the former Department of Families and Community Services to form the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and indigenous Affairs. It survived a change of government in 2007. However, the 2013 election brought another massive change when Tony Abbott decided to move indigenous affairs into his department, and not only to take a policy and coordination role, which may have made some sense, but also to move many of the indigenous­-specific programs into his department. The Prime Minister’s intentions were no doubt well­-meaning and a reflection of his genuine commitment to securing faster change. But the change has been disruptive for us.

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet does not normally have a service­-delivery role. We now have three senior federal politicians in charge of indigenous affairs — Abbott, Scullion and Alan Tudge, parliamentary secretary to the Prime Minister — without their roles being clear.

Some indigenous­-specific and big ­spending programs did not get moved into PM&C, such as indigenous health, and many of the public servants, including senior ones who have considerable experience in indigenous affairs, have moved on.

Nor is it clear who is responsible or accountable for what. I doubt the Prime Minister has the time to focus on indigenous affairs to the extent that is needed and Tudge needs to be focused on keeping Australia afloat.

This merry­-go-­round is not our fault. We do not get asked before these bureaucratic changes are made and I doubt if any other sector in Australia has been treated like this by the Australian government, or would tolerate it.

Nor is this instability in the government machinery to manage indigenous affairs evident in other Western countries that have indigenous peoples.

The US Bureau of Indian Affairs, which continues to be a witness to and a principal player in the relationship between the federal government and Native American tribes and Alaska Native villages, was established in 1824, 190 years ago! Canada’s Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development has a history dating back to 1880. The predecessor of New Zealand’s Ministry of Maori Development, the former native affairs department, was established in 1858, about 18 years after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed.

Name changes aside, and recognising that the policies of these agencies have all now changed to the stated aim of self-determination for their indigenous populations, the governments of Australia’s closest allies have not constantly been shifting the deckchairs in their bureaucracies.

Australia has acted otherwise, and this has not been of any benefit. Instead, it has caused confusion for indigenous leaders across the country and resentment at having to form new relationships with senior public servants, often people who have never worked with indigenous people or policy before. And it has consumed resources and time meant to benefit indigenous people.

It is time the administration of indigenous affairs was stabilised in a small and professional agency that leads policy and strategy across government.

The political class ignores Aboriginal political power at its peril. Further, this failure of the federal government to stabilise the bureaucracy and budget in indigenous affairs exacerbates the parlous situation in the states and territories, where similar large-scale experimentation has occurred in administration of indigenous affairs and incomprehensible policy shifts. State and territory policies on alcohol supply and demand have targeted indigenous populations as markets for the alcohol industry, and weakened public health approaches such as licensing and other restrictions on availability of alcohol. The cynicism of politicians appealing to the purveyors of alcohol and indigenous supporters of unregulated access is a threat to indigenous health.

There is a real risk that the latest overhaul by the federal government of its bureaucratic, policy and funding arrangements is going to hit the rocks, which sadly has been situation normal in indigenous affairs for decades.

Certainly the government has a long way to go to convince the indigenous sector that these changes are an improvement.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

At the 2013 election, the Prime Minister, to his credit, committed to an indigenous­-led initiative to restore balance to the relationship between government and indigenous Australians. It is called Empowered Communities and it is about indigenous people taking greater responsibility and developing and leading their own plans for change.

Abbott has funded the development of a framework to implement this initiative, and this gives some hope.

It is critical that the political commitment to improving performance in the indigenous sector and outcomes from government spending remains bipartisan.

It is also critical that this bipartisanship is based on a genuine engagement with indigenous leaders who have a successful track record in delivering outcomes.

This engagement must be built on trust and collaboration. The outcomes will improve if politicians put an end to the experimentation and destabilisation. They need to deal directly with proven indigenous leaders and collaborate in place-­based planning with local people rather than apply centralist policies developed by bureaucrats who come through the revolving door to turn our worlds upside down periodically.

Marcia Langton is professor of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne, co-chair of Cape York Partnership and has acted as special adviser to the co-chairs of Empowered Communities.