Indigenous leaders take 'empowered communities' overhaul to the people

1 Apr 2015 6:45 PM - Publication: The Guardian Australia - Calla Wahlquist

The proposed strategy, which would return control of funding and services to Indigenous communities, now needs to gain popular support.

Supporters of a landmark report that recommends a radical overhaul of Indigenous policy have begun trying to sell the reforms to their local communities while waiting on the federal government to commit to the program

Eight regions in Australia have opted in to the “empowered communities” reforms, which aim to close the gap by returning control of funding and services to Indigenous communities and focusing on investing in measures that lead to economic self-sufficiency.

The reform is the brainchild of Noel Pearson, based on the model he implemented in Cape York, and it was put to the government in an extensive report last week.

But getting widespread support among Indigenous people is the job of leaders in each of the eight regions that have agreed to take part in the reform.

Ted Hall is the chairman of the Gelganyem Trust, one of the drivers of the empowered communities project in the east Kimberley region of Western Australia, along with the Kununurra Waringarri Aboriginal Corporation and the Wunan Foundation. The group is preparing to meet businesses and local and state governments to generate the support needed to encourage the federal government to adopt the framework.

Hall said the WA government’s threat to close more than half of the state’s 274 remote Aboriginal communities could be the tipping point that gets intervention-weary communities on board.

“It can’t belong to the government like every other program,” he said. “It has to start from the community. The community has got to take ownership.”

“If we can convince the north-east Kimberley that this is an option, then we have got half the war won.”

“There are going to be people say that it’s in too hard a basket. But hell, it’s already in a hard basket. It can’t get any harder.”

Members of a regional partnership on the New South Wales central coast met on Tuesday to discuss building up community support for the reforms.

Suzanne Naden is the chief executive of Bungree Aboriginal Association, one of seven organisations that signed the Barang central coast regional partnership agreement in September. The partnership already has state and federal government support and will focus on delivering the empowered communities priorities of ensuring all children attend school and all capable adults are in training and work.

Naden said the framework allowed the central coast to set its own priorities, rather than be made to adopt the priorities of whatever state or federal government was in power.

“At the moment if an area is no longer a priority to the government, regardless of whether it’s still a priority for the community, you lose funding,” she said.

“There has to be a recognition that Aboriginal people know what’s best for Aboriginal people.”

The empowered communities report promotes a subsidiarity funding model, to ensure targeted program delivery and avoid the bleeding of funds through administration costs.

It said a complicated system of overlapping state and federal funding schemes and an increasingly privatised delivery model meant much of the $30.3bn spent on providing services to Indigenous people was snarled up in back-of-house costs, while a lack of transparency made it difficult to hold the government to account for its spending.

The report said: “It it has been suggested that government administration costs associated with Indigenous funding may be in the order of 70% as a general rule.”

“Despite this, there is no routine publication of information by departments to account for what is spent within departments, and it is not possible to tell how many public servants in Canberra, Melbourne and so on devote their time to providing services to address Indigenous disadvantage to little effect.”

The report said the Kafkaesque funding system was a drain on time and resources and meant that large non-Indigenous service providers, which are adept at the tender process, increasingly won out over Indigenous-led programs.

It gave an example from the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands in central Australia where the NPY Women’s Council had to enter into 41 funding agreements with the federal, WA, South Australian and Northern Territory governments in 2013 to secure $10m in funding.

Doing so reportedly required the Women’s Council to submit 120 financial reports and 100 non-financial reports. In 2010, it calculated it spent 7,399 hours filling in paperwork associated with funding.

In another example, a program that was intended to provide subsidised home loans to Indigenous people allocated 15 loans, worth a total of $2.7m, while accruing administration costs of $9.9m. The administration cost for delivering the average $178,000 home loan was $660,000.
Speaking on Lateline on Monday, Pearson said existing funding models were “very clearly getting us nowhere”.

“As long as we see the Aboriginal predicament as a kind of service delivery problem, there’s kind of no end to the budgets that we require from parliament to solve those kind of service delivery needs,” he said.

The empowered communities model proposed in the report would see the eight trial regions – Cape York, East Kimberley, West Kimberley, north-east Arnhem Land, NSW central coast, inner Sydney, Goulburn-Murray, and the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands – sign an agreement with the federal government to commit to delivering on a set of priorities. That would be supported by an Indigenous policy productivity council.

Pearson and supporters are seeking a 10-year binding commitment from the government.

A spokeswoman for the Indigenous affairs minister, Nigel Scullion, said he was still reviewing the report and would respond in due course, but he has already said it aligned with the Abbott government’s priorities.

Scullion said: “This is all part of being closer to the ground, focusing on action which gets results and getting rid of red tape and administration.”

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