Indigenous affairs: shared goals, elusive outcomes

Dr John Gardiner-Garden, Social Policy Section

There has been widespread agreement on a range of goals in Indigenous affairs, but desired outcomes have been elusive. Do we need different policies or just better policy delivery?

Issues and questions for the new Parliament

There has long been broad agreement on the need to close the gap in health, housing, education and employment. This goal has been pursued under different headings—the tripartite agreements and strategies of the Hawke and Keating governments, the Howard Government’s ‘practical reconciliation’, and the Rudd Government’s Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Indigenous Reform Agenda and National Partnerships. However, the socio-economic indicators show very little improvement. The latest hope for remote housing, the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program, appears to be significantly behind schedule.

There has been broad agreement on the need to protect children in Northern Territory Indigenous communities and for most of the measures introduced as part of the 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER or ‘the intervention’). However these measures can have draw-backs. For example, does income management re-empower those caring for children by slowing the flow of cash to alcohol or does it, in part, stigmatise people and fail to address problems underlining community dysfunction? Would liberalising permit access to communities increase scrutiny and bring economic opportunities, or increase the ease with which alcohol can be brought in and disempower the community?

There has been broad agreement on the desirability of acting in accord with the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (RDA) and the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). However, is it enough to reverse the suspension of the RDA effected by the original NTER legislation and to modify intervention measures to provide for more consultation so that they will apply also to non-Aboriginals? The reversal and modifications by the Labor Government did not prevent the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in its 27 August 2010 report, expressing concern that the NTER continues to involve discrimination; that RDA ‘special measure’ provisions are being misused; and that there is no entrenched Constitutional protection against racial discrimination.

There has been broad agreement on the desirability of recognising Indigenous Australians in the Constitution and acting in the spirit of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but such constitutional recognition has not yet been achieved. Nor has Parliament’s endorsement of the UN declaration been yet translated into any increased valuing of language (such an important part of Indigenous culture), if funding for language maintenance and the offering of bilingual education in Australian schools featuring an Aboriginal language is any measure.

There has been broad agreement on the desirability of greater Indigenous participation in decision-making. Successive governments have supported a National Aboriginal Consultative Committee, a National Aboriginal Conference, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and a National Indigenous Council, but all of these models have fallen short of engendering a widespread sense of Indigenous participation in decision-making. How might the newly envisaged National Congress of Australia’s First Nations be different? To what degree will there be a sense that the Congress members represent Indigenous Australians, and how broad and deep is the participation in decision-making that the body might facilitate likely to be?

There has been broad agreement on the need to recognise past injustices, but does Parliament’s National Apology of February 2008 go far enough, or should there be some formula for monetary compensation as suggested by most submissions to the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs Inquiry into the Stolen Generation Compensation Bill 2008?

There has been broad agreement on the need to reduce welfare dependency and increasing economic self-sufficiency, but decades of policies under the various banners and programs delivered by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, Aboriginal Development Commission, ATSIC and Aboriginal Development Corporation have produced only limited progress toward this goal. Nor it would seem, has the more recent mainstreaming of programs, the refocusing of funding on regional and remote communities and the recasting of employment support away from Community Development Employment Projects. Should the Commonwealth Parliament see the Queensland ‘wild rivers’ legislation as constraining opportunities for Indigenous economic advancement or appropriately balancing environmental and development considerations? Would a push towards carbon-trading and renewable energy offer opportunities to Indigenous communities?

There has been broad agreement on the desirability of empowering Indigenous people culturally and economically by recognising their attachment to land, but the introduction of a National Native Title Tribunal process and Indigenous Land Fund has not radically changed either the land-tenure map or the welfare-dependency landscape. Concerns persist that the standards of proof of attachment have been set too high to expedite claims, and there has not been a discernable follow up to the Government’s 2008 discussion paper, Optimising Benefits from Native Title Agreements.

There has been broad agreement on the need to reduce disproportionate Indigenous incarceration rates, but despite many initiatives following the 1991 Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and the more recent 2009 agreement of a National Indigenous Law and Justice Framework, high incarceration rates persist.

There has been broad agreement on the need to better define responsibilities. The Howard Government sought to clarify these at several levels—at an agency level by establishing COAG sponsored whole-of-government trials and an Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination; at the community level by introducing Shared Responsibility Agreements and Regional Partnership Agreements; and at the individual level by measures such as making communally owned homes available for individual purchase and converting some CDEP positions into paid jobs. However, limited success of these strategies might suggest a gap between defining responsibilities and fulfilling them; and between offering opportunities and seizing them.

In pursuing these goals, would outcomes be stronger if greater weight was put on moving some levers, anticipating they will then move others. If so, which should come first, health or housing, education or employment, better defining rights or better defining responsibilities? Is it, as the Coordinator General for Remote and Indigenous Services (whose second report is due to be released soon) wrote in his first report of December 2009 that strong community governance and leadership (as well as strong government engagement) are preconditions for effective community-government relations, improved service provision and closing the gap in remote Indigenous communities? Or is it that incremental improvement across all fronts is not only the best that can be expected, but that which is necessary and will in the end bear fruit?

Library publications and key documents

J Gardiner-Garden and J Simon-Davies, Commonwealth Indigenous-specific expenditure 1968–2010, Background note, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2010, http://parlinfo/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query%3DId%3A%22library%2Fprspub%2F216438%22