Commonwealth Policy on Indigenous Affairs
This chapter provides an update on selected Commonwealth policy and
program developments since the committee last reported in June 2009.
Closing the Gap Policy
As the committee outlined in its second report, the Closing the Gap
policy arose out of a three year campaign that began in 2005 with a coalition
of non-government organisations calling for strategies to 'close the gap'
between the life expectancy rates for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
This was followed by the Commonwealth's announcement of six targets
intended to 'Close the Gap in Indigenous disadvantage'. These are:
To halve the mortality gap between Indigenous children and other
children under five within a decade;
To provide access to early childhood education for all Indigenous
four-year-olds in remote communities within five years;
To halve the gap in literacy and numeracy achievement between
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and other students within a
To halve the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students
in rates of year 12 attainment or an equivalent attainment by 2020;
To halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and
non-Indigenous Australians within a decade; and
To finally close the shameful gap in life expectancy between
Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a generation.
These targets were adopted by the Council of Australian Governments
(COAG) at their meeting of 2 October 2008.
The COAG Agenda
COAG is the intergovernmental forum in Australia, comprising the Prime
Minister, State Premiers, Territory Chief Ministers and the President of the
Australian Local Government Association (ALGA). COAG last met in Darwin on 2
July 2009. During this meeting COAG considered progress made towards addressing
Indigenous disadvantage. The meeting considered the Productivity Commission's
fourth report on Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage and adopted a National
Integrated Strategy for Closing the Gap, agreed to a National Indigenous Education
Statement, and signed a National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous
Public Internet Access. COAG also agreed to a National Urban and Regional
Service Delivery Strategy to address Indigenous disadvantage in urban and
regional locations. More information related to these agreements and strategies
is detailed below.
COAG is next scheduled to meet on 7 December 2009 in Queensland.
National Integrated Strategy for
Closing the Gap in Indigenous Disadvantage
The National Integrated Strategy for Closing the Gap in Indigenous
Disadvantage identifies how investment of funds under existing COAG agreements
will make an impact on Indigenous disadvantage. The strategy includes specific
outputs under each COAG agreement to meet the six Closing the Gap targets and
commits governments to develop clear trajectories for each target and each
jurisdiction, setting state and territory level benchmarks for monitoring
performance against the targets agreed by COAG.
COAG has identified areas for future work under this strategy. These
food security in remote communities;
overcoming data gaps;
continued welfare reform;
infrastructure in remote communities and Indigenous economic
case studies of best practice programs and initiatives by
the role of the private and community sectors in meeting Closing
the Gap targets.
The committee understands that as part of this strategy the Commonwealth
will provide an additional $46.4 million over four years to fund work undertaken
by national data agencies such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and
the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) to improve the evidence
base and address data gaps.
In its last report the committee recommended that COAG make a concerted
effort to improve the quality and scope of existing data collections that are
available for regional and remote Indigenous communities and urged all
departments and agencies to routinely utilise the expertise of dedicated
statistical agencies such as the ABS and AIHW when collecting and analysing
data to ensure that it is consistent and accurate across all jurisdictions.
On this basis the committee welcomes additional funding to national data
agencies however it is still concerned that agencies are developing policy and
programs in isolation and without sufficient regard to the available evidence.
The committee reiterates its previous recommendation that COAG ensure new
policy and programs are consistent with the evidence base.
Development of a Closing the Gap
Indigenous Education Action Plan
COAG has adopted an Indigenous Education Statement titled Towards the
Development of an Indigenous Education Action Plan. It commits states and territories
to specific strategies to meet Indigenous education targets.
At their meeting in July 2009, COAG agreed that local and regional
school strategies should be focused on improving the following:
enrolment, attendance and retention rates and student engagement;
literacy and numeracy;
development of the Indigenous education workforce and up-skilling
teachers to better support Indigenous students;
parental and community engagement;
'wrap-around' support, including through extended service school
transition from school to further education through education and
higher expectations for Indigenous young people.
COAG has stated that these strategies will be brought together in a
National Indigenous Education Action Plan, to be developed by the Ministerial
Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs (MCEECDYA)
in consultation with Indigenous education leaders.
The committee will report on progress made towards this plan and its
implementation when it next reports in 2010.
National Remote Indigenous Food
COAG has requested the development of a national strategy to address
food security in remote Indigenous communities by the end of 2009. The strategy
will create a national approach to food security in remote communities and a
consistent licensing scheme for remote community stores. The Communiqué of 2
July 2009 also states that the strategy is intended to make healthy food
accessible and affordable.
The committee welcomes COAG's involvement in this area as food security,
accessibility and affordability is an issue that is constantly raised when they
visit regional and remote communities.
The committee notes that the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander Affairs tabled a report on remote community stores
on Monday 16 November 2009. This committee made 33 recommendations, many of
which relate to food security.
National Urban and Regional Service
The National Urban and Regional Service Delivery Strategy commits
governments to coordinate and target funding under mainstream and Indigenous
specific programs. It also requires that existing and future investments in
housing, homelessness, education, employment, health and early childhood
services are targeted towards specific outcomes. The Communiqué of 2 July 2009
states that this is intended to be achieved through:
improved access by Indigenous people to better coordinated and
local need/place-based approaches enabling initiatives to be
delivered in a manner appropriate to needs in a particular location;
strengthened Indigenous capacity, engagement and participation to
promote a strong and positive view of Indigenous identity and culture and
strengthening individual, family and community wellbeing and capacity as a
necessary impetus to improved access to and take-up of services;
more effective program accountability and sustainability, with
governments required to enhance statistical collection services and other
information sources to improve the detail and accuracy of reporting on
COAG monitoring progress in utilising Indigenous-specific and
mainstream National Partnerships to improve outcomes in urban and regional
The committee welcomes the development of this strategy in light of the
confusion the committee has observed surrounding remote service delivery,
especially in relation to municipal and essential services.
National Partnership Agreement on
Remote Indigenous Public Internet Access
This agreement is intended to provide public internet access facilities
in remote Indigenous communities with limited or no public internet access,
create a program for maintenance and support of public internet access in those
communities commencing in 2011–12 and offer training in computer and internet
use in up to 60 remote communities a year. The funding allocation by the
Commonwealth is almost $7 million over four years from 2009–10.
Closing the Gap in the Northern Territory National
This partnership agreement is a bilateral agreement between the
Commonwealth and Northern Territory governments. More detail on the operation
of this agreement appears in chapter three below.
National Partnership on Remote
The committee has previously reported that all state governments and the
Northern Territory government agreed to a 10 year National Partnership on Remote
Indigenous Housing, in which the Commonwealth government committed to providing
$5.48 billion over 10 years to address overcrowding, homelessness, poor housing
conditions and the severe housing shortage in remote Indigenous communities.
Over this 10 year period the agreement is intended to deliver:
construction of up to 4 200 houses and major upgrades and repairs
to around 4 800 houses in the 26 communities identified as remote service delivery sites;
improved tenancy management services so that rental houses are
maintained and rent is collected;
economic development opportunities through increased local
training and employment in construction and housing management;
an ongoing maintenance and repairs program;
upgrades to housing related infrastructure in remote communities,
including town camps; and
access to affordable accommodation in regional centres to support
employment, education and training in regional areas.
The Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP) is a
partnership between the Commonwealth and Northern Territory governments and is
intended to deliver 750 new houses, the demolition of 230 uninhabitable houses,
500 housing upgrades, essential infrastructure to support new houses and
improvements to living conditions in town camps in the Northern Territory.
More information about SIHIP can be found in chapter 3 below.
Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage:
Key Indicators 2009
The fourth edition of the Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key
Indicators 2009 Report (Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage Report) was released
on 2 July 2009 to coincide with the COAG meeting in Darwin. Overcoming
Indigenous Disadvantage reports were initiated in 2002 and have been released every
two years since 2003. These reports inform governments about whether policy,
programs and interventions are actually achieving improved outcomes for
As the committee noted in its last report, the Overcoming Indigenous
Disadvantage reports focus on outcomes for Indigenous people and do not report
on individual government services. The reporting framework has two tiers: ‘headline’
indicators for the longer term outcomes sought; and a second tier of ‘strategic
change indicators’ which are responsive to government policies and programs
over the short term. It describes ‘state-of-the-nation’ outcomes for Indigenous
people, with a view to all government departments and agencies together being
responsible. Therefore no reporting on an individual government agency basis is
available. It does not necessarily feature state and territory comparisons, nor
does it focus on government service provision.
The latest report shows that while there has been some progress against
the Closing the Gap targets, overall the divide between Indigenous and
non-Indigenous Australians remains extreme.
While it is encouraging that the report shows that overall, Indigenous people
have shared in Australia’s economic prosperity over the past decade, with gains
being made in employment, income and measures of wealth such as home ownership,
it is important to recognise that:
...outcomes for non-Indigenous people have also improved,
meaning the gaps in outcomes persist. The challenge for governments and
Indigenous people will be to preserve these gains and close the gaps in a more
difficult economic climate.
Indigenous infant (from birth to 12 months) mortality rates have improved,
while child (from 0–4 years) mortality rates have remained relatively constant.
Mortality rates for Indigenous infants and young children remain two to three
times as high as those for all infants and young children. In early childhood
education there are limited data available on Indigenous preschool
participation, making it difficult to draw conclusions about participation rates.
There has been little change in the reading, writing and numeracy
performance of Indigenous students over the past ten years, and no closing of
the gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. The proportion of
Indigenous 19 year olds who had completed year 12 or the equivalent
increased from 31 to 36 per cent between 2001 and 2006. However, the non-Indigenous
rate increased from 68 to 74 per cent, leaving the gap unchanged. The employment-to-population
ratio for Indigenous people increased from 43 per cent to 48 per cent between
2001 and 2006. However, similar increases for non-Indigenous people left the
As there are no trend data available for life expectancy, except in the
Northern Territory, national life expectancy can not be reported on. However in
the Northern Territory the report concluded that there is evidence to show that
both Indigenous and non-Indigenous life expectancy increased between 1967 and
2004. Over this period, the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and
non-Indigenous males increased slightly and decreased for females.
Measuring and reporting under COAG
In its last report the committee noted the emphasis placed by the COAG
framework on reporting requirements and measurement towards closing the gap in
Indigenous disadvantage. At the meeting on 2 July 2009, COAG agreed to national
targets against which to measure this performance. The National Indigenous
Reform Agreement was amended at the 2 July meeting to set performance
indicators under each of the six targets.
The National Indigenous Reform Agreement states that progress
against the six COAG targets will be determined by plotting indicative straight
line trajectories (between the baseline and the target) for each target and by
jurisdiction. This will comprise six national trajectories, one for each
target, and trajectories for each jurisdiction where data are available.
Indicative national level trajectories are set out in schedule G to the
agreement.. The committee understands
that jurisdictional targets will be agreed to at a later COAG meeting.
The COAG Reform Council will conduct an annual assessment to determine
whether there has been a statistically significant improvement against each
The committee welcomes COAG's focus on measurement and reporting and has
found that there is considerable support for the new direction of COAG and the
focus on explicit partnership agreements, targets and reporting.
However, while there is support for COAG's aims, the committee found
that there is also considerable scepticism about the ability of governments to
be able to deliver on their ambitious targets. As the Hon Fred Chaney AO put
...I am strongly supportive of the government’s COAG
objectives. They seem to me to be evidence-based and sensible. I think the
capacity to deliver on those objectives is much more limited than this
committee, the parliament, the government or the opposition would wish...
...there is in fact a systemic problem that underpins the cycle
of external and / or failed interventions in remote Australia’s Indigenous
communities. New initiatives are constantly announced and implemented but do
not lead to the intended result because the structure of government is
deficient. To avoid any possibility of misunderstanding, this is not an attack
on government policies past and present; it is not an attack on public
servants. It is saying that within the present structure the best of intentions
will simply not be realised.
The committee has found that there is a perceived lack of coherence related
to the COAG agenda, and that this causes a great deal of frustration. As
Western Australia's Commissioner for Children and Young People, Ms Michelle
Scott put it:
What concerns me about the COAG agenda and other initiatives
is that we are reinventing the wheel in some cases. How do we develop our own
corporate knowledge about best practice programs? The mining industry and the
private sector have said to me that there is no one place you can go to—and I
am talking here about Western Australia—where, in the early years, you can get
that evidence based information. When I travel in regional and remote
communities, I hear things like, ‘I’m developing the first ever program,’ and I
say, ‘Do you know about so and so over in that community who is also developing
the first ever?’ People are not in touch and there is no repository—that the
Commonwealth does not have that; that the state does not. So there are wasted
resources reinventing—for example, the not-for-profit sector coming up with an
idea that somebody else has already had but they do not know about it. I think
that is a waste of resources.
The committee hopes that the Closing the Gap Clearinghouse, discussed
below, will go some way to addressing this problem.
Concerns about the lack of consultation and poor communication that has
occurred with communities that will be affected by COAG initiatives such as the
Remote Service Delivery sites were also put to the committee:
Mr Yungabun—Another thing is Closing the Gap and the issue of
getting good services for Aboriginal people...With Closing the Gap there are
services within 50 kilometres or so of Fitzroy Crossing, but not outside
Fitzroy Crossing, and that is going to really affect our community. Look at
Bandrarl Ngadu, which is the Fitzroy Valley in our language group. That gives
services to all of the Fitzroy Valley. The services coming are going on within
50 kilometres or so, but not outside that area. I do not know, but it looks as
if our community is going to miss out on a lot of services. We will wait for a
couple of years to get our services.
Mr Davies—Harry is talking about COAG. Apparently it is
coming here to the valley in two stages, and there is a bit of anxiety because
nobody is really clear on how that is going to work, and some communities that
are outside are worrying about their situation.
Mr Yungabun—We are really terrified.
This frustration was repeated when the committee took evidence in
The committee is concerned about the ability of all levels of
governments to be able to deliver on the COAG targets. It is particularly
concerned about the damage that will be caused to Indigenous people and
communities if there are yet more failures and dramatic policy changes related
Mr Patrick Walker, the Director General of Western Australia's
Department of Indigenous Affairs told the committee:
I honestly believe that there are two keys to making a
difference. One is generally empowering the community and listening to them.
The second is to have the flexibility to be able to respond. Invariably, good
solutions require more than one agency to deliver them.
The committee agrees with evidence presented to it which encourages all
levels of government to improve their own capacity to deliver on targets,
communicate continuously and effectively with communities and to pursue genuine
engagement from the ground up.
The committee has come to the view that this requires greater flexibility than
is currently being displayed by governments. The committee has repeatedly been
told about the inefficiencies and burdens that dealing with multiple agencies
for multiple funding agreements over quite short time frames causes.
This is again borne out by evidence presented to the committee during this
reporting period and in relation to the COAG agenda.
The committee is concerned by the lack of effective communication
between stakeholders in the COAG process.
The committee recommends that COAG consider at its first meeting in 2010
how communication and consultation with all relevant stakeholders in the
delivery of the COAG targets can be improved. Furthermore, progress in
improving communication and consultation should be publicly reported.
Closing the Gap Clearinghouse
As the committee noted in chapter two of its last report, the
Commonwealth committed $1.5 million over three years in the 2009–10 Budget for
a Clearinghouse to gather and disseminate evidence on effective policy
interventions to address Indigenous disadvantage. The state and territory
governments also committed to matching this funding.
Establishment of the Clearinghouse has progressed to the point of
creating a website. The Clearinghouse is a collaboration between the Australian
Institute of Health and Welfare and the Australian Institute of Family Studies.
The Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs
(FaHCSIA), on behalf of the Commonwealth, provides half the funding with the
other half shared by the states and territories. The Clearinghouse's website
states that it is intended to provide access to a cumulative evidence base to
monitor progress on closing the gap, identify gaps in the evidence base, help
better coordinate research and evaluation efforts across Australia and provide
access to a single online repository of material.
The committee understands that substantive evidence and research papers
are not yet available on the website and that an advisory board to oversee the
Clearinghouse's operation will be appointed later this year.
The committee welcomes the creation of this Clearinghouse and looks
forward to reporting in 2010 on the use of information provided by the
Clearinghouse. The committee encourages policy makers to ensure that their
policies and programs are based on solid evidence.
Coordinator-General for Remote Indigenous Services
Earlier this year the Commonwealth created a statutory office for the
Coordinator-General for Remote Indigenous Services, as agreed by COAG. The
Commonwealth government committed $9 million over four years to the creation of
this office in its 2009–10 Budget.
Mr Brian Gleeson was appointed to this position in June 2009.
The Coordinator-General's role is to implement reforms in housing,
infrastructure and employment in remote Indigenous communities, and to report
to the Commonwealth Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and
Indigenous Affairs. The Coordinator-General will formally report publicly twice
a year on the development and delivery of remote services and on the progress
that has been made towards the closing the gap targets.
In its last report the committee undertook to monitor the newly created
role of the Commonwealth Coordinator-General in the implementation of the Alice
Springs Transformation Plan. The committee asked FaHCSIA for information about
the Transformation Plan at its Canberra hearing on 9 June 2009.
FaHCSIA advised the committee that the Transformation Plan will support the Closing
the Gap targets in Alice Springs with $125 million in expenditure. $100 million
of this is already announced expenditure from the National Partnership on
Remote Indigenous Housing for housing and infrastructure upgrades and reforms
in the Alice Springs town camps. An additional $25 million was allocated to
service delivery and housing assistance to address homelessness.
Progress made on implementation of the Alice Springs Transformation Plan
is discussed further in chapter three. In response to the committee's request
for information about the Coordinator-General's role in the Alice Springs
Transformation Plan, the Minister advised that: 'The Coordinator-General
receives updates on the implementation of the Alice Springs Transformation
As the committee reported in June 2009, the Northern Territory
government also created a Northern Territory Coordinator-General position.
In its last report the committee noted that the 2009–10 Budget allocated
$26.6 million over four years for an Indigenous Healing Foundation. Consultations
on the establishment of a foundation were conducted and on 24 September 2009
the Commonwealth accepted the report of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander Healing Foundation Development Team. This report made ten
recommendations, one of which was the establishment of an independent national body
to address the transgenerational cycle of trauma and grief in Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander communities as a result of colonisation, forced removals
and other past government policies.
The issue of transgenerational trauma was raised at the committee's hearing in
Narrogin, Western Australia and is discussed further in chapter four.
In accepting the report the Minister for Families, Housing, Community
Services and Indigenous Affairs agreed to the establishment of an interim board
recommended by the Development Team to oversee the early establishment of the foundation
until a full board is appointed in December 2009. Members of the interim board are
Mr Gregory Phillips, Ms May O'Brien, Ms Deb Hocking and Professor Helen
National Indigenous Representative Body
As the committee has previously reported, the Commonwealth government
invited the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Mr Tom
Calma, to convene a steering committee tasked with developing a preferred model
for a national Indigenous representative body. The Commissioner presented his
final report to the government on 27 August 2009.
The report presented a proposed model for a new national Indigenous
representative body. It is recommended that the body be a company limited by
guarantee with the following roles and functions: 
Formulating policy and advice – to ensure that Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander peoples contribute to and lead policy development on
relevant issues and to ensure that an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
perspective is provided on issues across government;
advocacy and lobbying – to act as a conduit between Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the government, corporate and
non-government sectors and ensure the acts of those sectors are in the best
interests of Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander peoples; and
ensure the presence of, and contribute to, mechanisms to monitor
and evaluate government performance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
On 22 November 2009 Minister Macklin announced the Commonwealth
government's support for the body. The committee understands that the
Commonwealth will provide $6 million to establish the body. An additional $23.2
million will be provided for the operation of the body from January 2011 to
The body will be a company limited by guarantee and will consist of a
National Executive made up of eight board members, including two full time
co-chairs. It will have equal representation of men and women with the National
Executive elected by an annual congress of 120 representatives from key
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and bodies, as well as
individuals and community representatives.
The committee looks forward to following the progress of the National
Indigenous Representative Body.
National Indigenous Law and Justice Framework
While the committee acknowledges that law and justice issues are
predominantly the responsibility of the states and territories, the committee
is profoundly concerned about the very high rates of incarceration of
Indigenous people, as well as the very high level of contact that Indigenous
people have with the criminal justice system across Australia. The committee
has formed the view that the Commonwealth should take a more active role in
driving reform and improvements in this area. The committee encourages the
Commonwealth and the states and territories to work together to provide a
national framework on these issues to try to address the high level of contact
and incarceration, particularly in relation to young people.
While the committee appreciates that all jurisdictions are aware of the
need to reduce incarceration rates, and the need to have effective diversionary
programs to reduce the interaction Indigenous people are having with the
system, they are concerned that responses are inadequately resourced, ad hoc
and not based on the available evidence. This is discussed by the committee in
more detail in chapters four and five.
The latest report on juvenile justice in Australia was released by the
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare in November 2009. This report makes
three main findings:
The number of young people in detention is growing. The number of
young people in detention on an average day in Australia rose from 540 in 2004–05 to 630 in 2007–08 which is a 17 per cent increase.
The number of unsentenced young people in detention is increasing.
2004–05, just over one third of the average daily detention population was
unsentenced but, by 2007–08, unsentenced young people in detention outnumbered
those who were sentenced. The increase in the unsentenced population occurred
for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous young people.
Although only about five per cent of young Australians are
Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders, 40 per cent of those under supervision
on an average day were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders. Their overrepresentation
was particularly prominent in detention, where over half of those in detention
on an average day and 60 per cent of those who were unsentenced in detention
were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders.
The committee is very concerned about the rise in incarceration and
supervision rates of young people in general, but particularly in relation to
Indigenous young people, and encourages the Commonwealth, states and
territories to set clear targets and strategies to reduce the numbers.
The committee is pleased to note that the Standing Committee of
Attorneys-General, the body that consists of all Attorneys-General from the
states and territories and the Commonwealth, has developed a National
Indigenous Law and Justice Framework. This is intended to provide a national
approach to justice issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
people and to guide the states and territories in their policy and program work
related to Indigenous justice issues.
The main goal of the Framework is to reduce the overrepresentation of
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the criminal justice system,
reduce alcohol and substance abuse, and increase community safety. On 6
November 2009 the Attorney-General and the Minister for Home Affairs announced
that all governments had endorsed the Framework, and that it would '...form the
basis of a long term strategic approach to Indigenous law and justice issues
and support work being done to "close the gap" on Indigenous
The committee also notes that the Commonwealth hosted a roundtable on Indigenous
community safety for state and territory Attorneys-General, Indigenous Affairs
Ministers, Police Ministers and Commissioners and Indigenous professionals
working in the field on 6 November 2009 in Sydney. At this roundtable Ministers
agreed to develop shared strategies designed to provide better support for law
enforcement in remote and very remote communities, reduce alcohol induced
violence, abuse and crimes in Indigenous communities and provide more support
for integrated service delivery.
The committee is very interested in the proposal announced after this
meeting which commits the states and territories and the Commonwealth to
investigating the possibility of a 'first door must be the right door' service
delivery model. This model is expressed as being a method of giving people
appropriate care and support through the entire process of recovery. 
The committee will follow closely the development of this approach and examine
the issue further in its next report.
While the committee appreciates recent work on creating a more
coordinated approach to Indigenous law and justice issues, the committee
remains concerned that without strong leadership from the Commonwealth,
responses across jurisdictions will continue to be inadequate and ineffective.
The committee recommends that the Commonwealth government take a
more active role in driving reform of the criminal justice system with the aim
of reducing the alarmingly high level of contact of Indigenous Australians,
particularly Indigenous young people.
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