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A group of eight communities from the Kimberley to Cape York has produced a blueprint to recast the philosophy, policy and governance for indigenous affairs in Australia based on the idea of empowerment that gives indigenous people responsibility for their own lives.

The prime intellectual architect of the blueprint, Noel Pearson, told Inquirer: “This is the culmination of my work over the past 15 years. If I have any contribution to make to public policy in Australia this is it. I believe this is our best shot to chart a future not just for our eight regions, we really have to be a beacon for the rest of indigenous Australia.”

The document, Empowered Communities: Empowered Peoples, seeks a formal legislative compact to create a new system of indigenous management on an “opt in” basis. It is radical in its conception, ambitious in its redesign of policy and administration, and confronting in its assault on existing power structures.

The start point is the failure of existing policies and structures despite the initiatives of the Abbott government. The report says: “We are left as mendicants within the majoritarian system of democracy. We cannot effectively influence decisions which most affect our lives.”

The report finds that an estimated $30.3 billion (or 6 per cent of total direct spending) was spent by the states and territories on services for indigenous people in 2012-13. This is $43,449 for each Aborigine and Torres Strait Islander compared with estim­ated government spending of $20,900 per person for other Australians.

“We have expenditure growth without achieving outcomes, a situation that cannot be tolerated any longer,” the blueprint asserts. This is a cycle of failure: poor results merely drive more spending. Both taxpayers and indigenous people “should rightly expect better outcomes for the amount of public funds expended”.

“The situation of indigenous Australians is one of passivity and disempowerment,” Pearson says in an interview.

“That’s a consequence of our history but particularly the history of the past 50 years. Our welfare policies have reaped a bitter harvest. My central organising principle is that we must focus on empowerment.

“After all, this is the language you would use about any other Australian family making choices for its advancement.

“My soul is close to this aspiration and it has been a great privilege working with indigenous leaders who have shown great leadership on these issues.”

The initiative reveals a substantial number of Aboriginal leaders and communities are seeking pivotal changes. The communities span remote, regional and urban Australia.

Twenty-five leaders met in June 2013 and agreed to embark on a strategy of transformation. Before the September 2013 election both Tony Abbott as Liberal leader and Jenny Macklin as ALP minister endorsed the initiative and pledged supporting resources.

The blueprint released yesterday is the culmination of these ­efforts.

Pearson says: “I would expect both government and opposition to be receptive to what we are proposing. Along the way I have kept Tony Abbott informed of our thinking. I think both sides of politics would recognise our proposal is capable of implementation.”

The central recommendation is that indigenous empowerment policy be adopted by all participating governments through a binding formal agreement after a parliamentary review to refine the model. All policies and spending programs would be governed by three tests: empowerment, development and productivity. This transforms the current mindset.

Such a radical change to the status quo will provoke critics, vested interests and elements of what is often branded “the Aboriginal industry.” Cutting to the essence of his proposal Pearson says: “Need is not a good principle for action. Indigenous need is endless. The justification for more funds becomes endless. The current model is sclerotic based on passive welfare and government overreach.
“As I wrote this report I realised that social policy in Australia has not produced a solution to our problems. We must move away from traditional Australian social policy thinking about disadvantage and poverty.

“You have to invest not in need but in different principles — we need a development agenda drawing upon the international lessons in tackling Third World poverty and we need a productivity agenda to get better outcomes with available resources.”

Pearson sees a direct parallel between the indigenous transformation he wants and the termination 30 years ago of the age of trade protectionism for the wider economy when government paternalism and the old Australian Settlement surrendered to new ideas based on markets and productivity.
“I believe there is a strong analogy here,” Pearson says. “I think this resonates with people. They get the point.

“We are seeking a similar type of transformation only this time in relation to indigenous peoples. The scale and breadth of our ambition — to move from passivity and dependence to indigenous empowerment — is analogous to when Australia moved from an inwardly focused, protected and highly regulated economy to an open and competitive economy in the 1980s and 1990s.”
Pearson says he chooses the analogy of National Competition Policy not to apply its specifics to indigenous affairs but to convey the scale and atmospherics of the challenge.

Just as the old protectionism had to be dismantled, so the current forces and mindset buttressing existing indigenous policy has to be overthrown. There has to be “fundamental changes” in the outlook of both indigenous Australians and governments.

The eight communities involved are Cape York, Queensland; central coast, NSW; East Kimberley, Western Australia; Goulburn-Murray, Victoria; inner Sydney; NPY Lands, Central Australia; northeast Arnhem Land, Northern Territory; and West Kimberley, Western Australia.

The method is a focus on local partnerships involving indigenous leaders, governments and corporate leaders. The blueprint calls for a 10-year-long new framework.

The blueprint begins with an assertion of confidence. It says indigenous players make up 9 per cent of the AFL and 12 per cent of the NRL despite comprising only 3 per cent of the national population. The under-representation of mainstream Australians in these codes point to a “closing the gap” need to assist the mainstream!

Indigenous excellence in sport, art and culture is possible only because of a capacity for work, competition, responsibility and family and community support. The task is to deploy these qualities in the cause of development.

The 165-page blueprint argues that government is an enabler, not the answer. As long as government determines the directions and goals of communities, the gap cannot be closed.
While responsibility lies with governments, bureaucrats and non-government organisations, indigenous people “are sucked down into a vortex of dysfunction and hopelessness”.

There is an indigenous working class and middle class that does well. But as economist Helen Hughes said, it is the welfare-dependent group, regardless of location, that cannot escape the trap.

Leaders from the eight communities say their vision is straightforward: that their children have the same opportunities as other Australians yet retain their distinctive identity.

They reject any contradiction between maintaining culture and achieving development.

By enshrining empowerment the eight communities concede they have not found a new idea but upheld an old idea. In 1991 in the final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, commissioner Elliott Johnston QC said indigenous people “must take control of their own lives”. This view was also basic to the 2007 report Little Children are Sacred.

Yet neither Johnston nor others hit upon how to achieve empowerment. The blueprint believes it has filled this vacuum. “Delivery is the key to success,” the report says. The reality is that empowerment, short of a delivery mechanism, cannot be realised.

The first step is an agreed agenda owned by all governments. Policy must be aligned across state and federal governments. Governments must abandon the notion that intervention is needed in most aspects of indigenous lives. Local community leaders should decide reform priorities. But the principles that govern empowerment should include: attendance by children at school daily; capable adults either be at work or in training; and rules of social or public housing being upheld.

The contentious nature of the blueprint is apparent from Pearson’s comments on school breakfast provision. Free breakfast programs without parental involvement merely “absolved parents of responsibility to feed their children”. Proper responsibility meant parents have to make a financial contribution to such breakfasts.

The report argues empowerment is tied to the subsidiarity principle — decision-making should rest as close as possible to each indigenous community. Again, this is contentious since it strikes at the notion of central government “top-down” authority.

But it raises a more complex issue: is the indigenous community leadership up to the job? The entire report hinges on this unverified belief. Many people will be sceptical.

The aim of investment programs will be to strengthen community, family life and economic potential. Funding would be re-oriented towards a development agenda determined at local level. The blueprint is neutral on whether more funds overall are needed for indigenous affairs.

It insists, however, that funds must be distributed on a pooled, regional basis with possible outsourcing of accountancy services. All funds would be channelled via the same “reform funnel” to ensure application of the reform principles. While recognising the commitment of NGOs, the report is deeply sceptical about their ownership in the passive welfare system.

An indigenous policy productivity council would be established to scrutinise and evaluate policy. In addition, the Productivity Commission would be asked to review indigenous expenditure with a view to how to increase productivity dividends.

It is envisaged, using the “opt in” principle, that more indigenous communities will join the Pearson system. That depends on its success. There is one certainty — Pearson and the eight communities have given both Coalition and Labor a huge, radical and contentious agenda to evaluate.