Speech to the Sydney Institute March 2013
Indigenous affairs are, quite rightly, a larger part of our nation’s business than ever before.
The apology, for instance, was a milestone in our parliamentary history. “Closing the gap” statements may not quite command the attention of a budget but have become an important part of the parliamentary year.
Indigenous affairs have become the focus of almost everyone occasionally and of a small minority constantly but, as yet, have rarely been a consistent priority for government.
This will change should the Coalition win the election. Along with scrapping the carbon tax and the mining tax, stopping the boats and getting the budget back into the black; along with boosting our competitiveness by cutting red tape and slimming the bureaucracy; along with building the infrastructure that a first world economy in the 21st century needs, fostering community controlled public schools and hospitals and turning a passive welfare system into a more active one; and along with giving our foreign policy a Jakarta rather than a Geneva focus, I want a new engagement with Aboriginal people to be one of the hallmarks of an incoming Coalition government – and this will start from day one.
After all, the dispossession and marginalisation of Aboriginal people is by far the most troubling feature of our national story so far.
From the very beginnings of British settlement, the health, education, employment and housing standards of Aboriginal people have fallen lamentably short of those of their fellow Australians.
This has been a constant through the eras of paternalism and exceptionalism, regardless of whether official policy was neglect, assimilation, integration or self-management.
It would be presumptuous, even arrogant, to think that an incoming government could swiftly overcome two centuries of comparative failure. Yet it would be complacent, even neglectful, for a new government not to commit, from day one, to redressing the most intractable difficulty our country has ever faced.
As long as the first Australians are unemployed and poor at rates that would be a scandal amongst any other group, we are all diminished. We will never be able fully to enjoy our nation’s wealth until it is more widely earned by Aboriginal people too.
We will never be able to feel unalloyed pride in our national achievements until Aboriginal people more regularly feature in them. The circumstances of far too many are a standing reproach to what is otherwise one of the most free, fair and prosperous countries on earth.
Of course, significant and growing numbers of well-educated, highly articulate and successful individuals show that Aboriginal people can flourish in their own land. We need to become more familiar with these success stories even as we lament that they are still too rare.
There may come a time, perhaps some decades hence, when we can be relaxed and comfortable about the circumstances of indigenous Australians – but it’s not now. Our failure to come to grips with this remains, in Paul Keating’s resonant phrase, a stain on our nation’s soul.
It was Neville Bonner, the first Aboriginal member of the national parliament, who first taught me via Australians for Constitutional Monarchy how committed indigenous people could be to the Australia that I believed in.
It began to dawn on me that Australians should be just as committed to Aboriginal people as they are to us. This was the origin of my determination to work with Aboriginal people as well as simply for them; and of my practice, since becoming a Member of Parliament, to spend as much time as I could in the places where Aboriginal people live as well as just reading about them.
So, a flurry of activity from a new government lapsing into business-more-or-less-as-usual won’t be good enough. A new cycle of enthusiasm-turning-into-cynicism will not do.
At least until Aboriginal people are properly honoured for their contribution to our country; at least until they have more-or-less comparable to the community-at-large educational, employment, housing and health outcomes, a new level of engagement is required at every level of society.
It will start at the top of government.
Therefore, I announce that, under an incoming Coalition government, indigenous affairs will be handled within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
This means that along with Nigel Scullion as minister, there will be, in effect, a Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.
Let me, then, outline the goals that an incoming Coalition government will strive for and briefly describe how we intend to go about realising them.
A nation can only demand the loyalty of its people if that loyalty is returned. A country can only require the commitment of its citizens if it is also committed to them. This commitment that a government owes to its citizens is more than a simple concern for their welfare and a determination to act in the overall national interest. It should extend to a respect for their various identities over and above that of being citizens.
An Australian, typically, is part of a family, a worker, and a local resident as well as a citizen. About six million of us weren’t born here. Only a nation that respects people’s identities and attachments can hope to claim their loyalty.
Only Aboriginal people can determine what Aboriginal culture is and how it might evolve but it’s a responsibility of an Australian government to give them every reasonable opportunity to do so. Australia would be a lesser country without indigenous cultures.
That’s why it makes sense to support Noel Pearson’s efforts to ensure that, in addition to an excellent education in English, Aurukun children also receive after-normal-school-hours education in the high cultures of the Wik peoples.
Indigenous culture helps to make our country what it is and, therefore, our people who we are. It’s as much part of the common heritage of all Australians as those features of our culture that originated in the British Isles, such as our language, our parliament, our system of law and even our crown, all of which have changed and evolved and developed their own unique features in this country.
An acknowledgement of Aboriginal people as the first Australians would complete our Constitution rather than change it. Aboriginal people need to know that they will never be regarded as just a historical footnote to modern Australia. Done well, such an amendment could be a unifying and liberating moment, even surpassing the 1967 change or the apology, so it’s worth making the effort.
Within 12 months of taking office, an incoming Coalition government would put forward a draft amendment and establish a bipartisan process to assess its chances of success. The difficulty of crafting an amendment that satisfies Aboriginal people while reassuring the wider community that we are not creating two classes of citizen should not be under-estimated.
We should be prepared to work on it until we get it right because such an amendment is too important to go forward, yet fail. Australians’ hearts are in this now, in a way we’ve never been before, hence my confidence that it can finally be done.
In 2000, along with colleagues, I did the reconciliation walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge because sometimes a gesture of goodwill can melt hearts and change nations. By the end of his prime ministership, John Howard had well and truly come to the same conclusion, as his 2007 proposal for constitutional recognition showed.
Trying to get the symbols right is scarcely less important than trying to get the practice right. A government that neglects symbolic change is unlikely to succeed at practical change because it will be seen to lack the respect that’s essential for success.
Practical and symbolic reconciliation are opposite sides of the same coin so the next Coalition government will pursue both.
We will work with indigenous people wherever they are. In the midst of prosperous Australian cities and towns, for instance, Aboriginal communities can be pockets of deep disadvantage. Still, they don’t usually have the same governance or service provision issues that afflict remote communities as a matter of course.
The remote communities are the windows through which Aboriginal Australia is chiefly observed and this is where the inadequacies of government policy will be hardest to rectify.
In Aurukun, for instance, where I helped as part of a truancy team for 10 days in 2009 and again last year renovating the school library, more than 100 separate governmental and semi-governmental agencies are helping to serve a settlement of about 1200 people.
At any one time there will be a couple of hundred outsiders staying in the town, mostly on flying visits or on short-term stays, trying to deal with the issues of a welfare village. The deeper problem is not so much under-investment as under-engagement.
Trips to remote indigenous communities will continue to be part of my annual routine should I become prime minister. A prime minister spending a week a year absorbed in the real life of Aboriginal people – and bringing along senior decision-makers – seems only fitting, given the historical legacy to be remedied.
So often, what’s most needed in remote places is not more liaising, facilitating and co-ordinating; not more consultation and higher expectations of self-management by members of small communities with few skills; not more and more do-something programmes but simply good schools and good clinics backed by stable and competent professional administration.
Since the end of the mission era, making things happen in remote communities has been bedevilled by analysis paralysis and the fact that no one has really been in charge. Over time, traditional authority largely gave way to mission authority, that’s subsequently given way to no authority, or at least to no over-arching one.
Local mayors and general managers, school principals and clinic heads have limited capacity to make decisions in narrow areas of responsibility, often dependent upon the support of unstable alliances of local families, but there is typically no individual or body with the standing to make big-picture decisions about local institutions let alone for the overall good of the community.
Instead, there are the local arms of different state and federal departments, the local council and the local land council plus non-government agencies all operating independently of each other and often enough tripping over each other. As my friend, former colleague and one-time Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Fred Chaney, has lamented, parts of remote Australia increasingly resemble a failed state.
I am reluctant to decree further upheaval in an area that’s been subject to one and a half generations of largely ineffectual “reform”. As my friend and Liberal Party colleague, the House of Representatives’ first indigenous Member, Ken Wyatt, has cautioned, there are no “one size fits all” solutions here.
In this area, more than most, policy-makers’ over-riding instinct should be: “first, do no harm”. Nevertheless, with the cooperation of states and territories, I am inclined to offer communities ready to try it a different, less prescriptive type of governance structure.
For five years now, as part of the welfare reform process in Cape York, the Family Responsibilities Commission has been working with local and national agencies to help deal with family dysfunction. A highly respected and experienced magistrate, advised by local elders, has adjudicated welfare entitlement to try to ensure the best outcomes for the families concerned.
This is an example of crafting governance arrangements to fit local circumstances. There may be other regions that would benefit from their own fit-for-purpose arrangements.
Other communities, for instance, might wish to consider vesting authority over them and over the different government agencies operating amongst them in a single entity with local legitimacy in preference to the current plethora of largely unaccountable and often ineffective bodies.
An incentive for adopting such an arrangement could be giving such communities the capacity to use more-or-less-as-they-see-fit money from discontinued programmes. For instance, they might decide that savings from (say) standardised youth development programmes could be injected into a new pool or buying the local footy team a new bus.
Over time, the need to make choices about priorities rather than simply lobbying for additional government money could help to foster a stronger civic culture. Over time, a different administrative order, at least for settlements, could make it easier to establish a viable system of homeownership based on individual, alienable title that would help to make land an economic asset as well as a cultural and spiritual one.
In any event, “Canberra knows best” will not be an incoming Coalition government’s approach. Change will much more often be offered than demanded. People need alternatives to sticking with a profoundly unsatisfactory status quo but, most of all, they need to be taken seriously.
Regardless of race, culture or geographic circumstance, people with nothing much to do will have high rates of substance abuse, domestic violence and avoidable illness. “Closing the gap” will be mission impossible until Aboriginal people’s educational attainments and, above all, employment histories start to resemble those of the wider Australian community.
As the isolated towns with strong economies show, prosperity and remoteness need not be mutually exclusive. What’s needed is a real economy locally or local residents who are participants in a real economy elsewhere.
Noel Pearson uses the concept of “orbits” to describe an Aboriginal person’s continuing attachment to traditional lands in a life of economic opportunity. He says that the orbit of a person from Coen on Cape York, for instance, might embrace working in Cairns in the tourism industry, Weipa in the mining industry or even New York in the arts, coupled with periodic returns. I have met Coen people who are doing just that. Although Coen remains home, they are living wherever their best chance in life takes them.
As well as spiritual nourishment, what should be available on country is the start that’s needed to make the most of a life in modern Australia: normally a decent education to primary level coupled with the expectation of working for a living.
Over the past two decades, the mining industry has taken over the role once held by the pastoral industry as the main commercial employer of Aboriginal people in remote areas.
With greater awareness of employment prospects and stronger expectations that work opportunities should be taken, there’s no reason why more Aboriginal people shouldn’t work in the mining industry including on a fly-in, fly-out basis, with remote communities rather than Perth or Brisbane as their base.
Andrew Forrest and Warren Mundine have recently refined the indigenous employment strategies long operated by companies such as BHP and Rio Tinto by offering a guaranteed job placement to Aboriginal people ready to undergo six months training.
An incoming Coalition government will fund four trial sites to further test their model with the prospect, should it prove successful, of a more general roll-out of job guarantees for long term unemployed people.
This focus on preparing for an actual job rather than just training and searching for work has the potential to transform all employment services, not just indigenous ones.
When it comes to dealing with entrenched social problems like inter-generational welfare dependency and long-term unemployment, people like Pearson and Mundine have provided leadership for our whole nation, as well as to their own people.
But for a job guarantee to be viable, unemployed people need at least a basic education. Plainly, this can’t happen in schools where even the official attendance rates are scarcely 60 per cent and where teachers typically turn-over every few months.
School attendance is not about “stopping people from being blackfellas” as parents in remote communities sometimes fear. Because mastery of high cultures is hard, not easy, a good education will help cultural survival, not hinder it.
The first step to a good education is actually attending. Regular attendance is the basic indicator of a functioning school. This is true of all students and of all schools, not just Aboriginal ones.
To avoid singling out and possibly stigmatising largely Aboriginal schools, an incoming Coalition government would work with the states and territories to ensure that attendance data for each school everywhere is published and we would expect this to be happening within 12 months of a change of government.
I support quarantining welfare payments for the long term unemployed, but it’s always struck me as a very cumbersome way to enforce school attendance. This was always a federal substitute for the states and territories’ neglect to enforce truancy laws.
On-the-spot fines, administered by truancy officers, would be a much more straightforward way to proceed so an incoming Coalition government would work with states and territories to bring this about.
We would also work with the states and territories to encourage much longer-term postings to remote schools with suitable incentives to try to ensure that they attract the best of the teaching profession.
Similarly, we would work with them to encourage longer-term postings to remote clinics and suitable subsequent professional recognition to try to ensure that these clinics attract some of the best doctors and nurses.
Finally, an incoming Coalition government would work with the states and territories to ensure that all larger indigenous communities had a permanent police presence. After all, few children would go to school or adults go to work if there’s no one to enforce alcohol restrictions and no one to ensure that people can sleep safe in their own homes. It’s important to respect Aboriginal culture – but also to recognise that it hardly makes ordinary law enforcement something that can be dispensed with.
Still, my intention tonight is to focus on how things can improve, not to reinforce dysfunction narratives.
Just in my own lifetime, there has been a remarkable change in Australians’ attitudes towards Aboriginal people. Fifty years ago, Australians thought that we had an Aboriginal “problem”.
Today, we are proud to have an Aboriginal heritage. Then, we were happy merely to count Aboriginal people in the census. Today, we are on the verge of recognising them in the Constitution.
As with all great social changes, millions of people have taken it upon themselves to be better than they were: to be more aware, to be more generous and to be more alive to their own potential. This has been a people’s movement
More and more of us have been in this together.
As Australians, our inclination is always to give three cheers for our country. We now accept, though, that for Aboriginal people, our settled history has never been a golden age. In this area, the challenge is not so much to live up to the past but, more often than not, to live it down.
The challenge is not to be worthy of our predecessors but to be better than them. For all the good that was done in the past, these are our best days yet with better days still to come.
Aboriginal policy is less about setting goals than making a journey; less about doing things for indigenous people than all of us finally accepting that there is so much we can learn from each other.
Should the Coalition win the election, Aboriginal people will be at the heart of a new government, in word and in deed.