If coming to Indigenous affairs anew this past weekend, you would be forgiven for thinking that the Coalition has signalled a new approach to Indigenous affairs at the recent Garma festival.
Tony Abbott, it might seem, is putting his money where his mouth is in his quest to be the prime minister Indigenous Australians have never had.
The announcement of a new Indigenous advisory body led by Abbott’s “kindred spirit” Warren Mundine apparently heralds a new direction in Indigenous policy.
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Louise Taylor is an Aboriginal (Kamilaroi) woman and a barrister/solicitor practising in the Australian Capital Territory. Louise is the convenor of the Women’s Legal Centre, an Indigenous Law Centre associate, and a member of the Law Council of Australia’s Indigenous Legal Issues Committee. Her piece is written in a personal capacity (and not the views of NACCHO)
Perhaps you nodded along and thought “good, let’s get moving on this”. Perhaps you thought Mundine surely must have been given a mandate from community representatives. Or perhaps, like me, you wondered how this announcement was anything new.
Under the Howard government, the National Indigenous Council was a hand-picked group advising the then prime minister on Indigenous affairs. The idea was to convene a group of Indigenous experts – of which Mundine was part of – to advise government on improving outcomes for Indigenous Australians. From what we know of Abbott’s proposed advisory body, it will also consist of handpicked experts advising him on improving outcomes for Indigenous Australians. Not much difference, then.
Meanwhile, shift scenes at Garma: minister for Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin is with Noel Pearson, who has convened an impressive coalition of community organisations with eight leaders from five regions across the country. In a speech launching the government’s “empowered communities” program, Pearson invoked the idea of a “cultural renaissance” and a “common agenda”. He spoke of Macklin’s support for the idea of an “interface mechanism” designed to empower communities to take control of their own destiny.
Coincidentally, Abbott’s Garma speech invoked his “friend” Noel Pearson. Pearson was absent from any alignment with the Abbott plan. Curiously, Mundine and Abbott were the headline act in the mainstream media. A weird choice, given I’ve yet to see any major support from other Indigenous people or organisations for the Coalition’s plan with Mundine at the helm.
On its face, the ALP initiative apparently has some community support, with some hard hitting regional leaders associating their names with it. And let’s be frank, agree with him or not, it’s no small thing in Indigenous affairs when Noel Pearson lends his influence to your cause.
This leads me to a tangential issue. I see a common theme in both camps – the almost complete absence of Aboriginal women at the national leadership table. It troubles me that the domain and face of national Indigenous leadership is portrayed consistently as Indigenous men.
Noel Pearson. Warren Mundine. Mick Gooda. Mick Dodson. Patrick Dodson. Where are the women? When Rudd and Abbott speak of their Indigenous “mates”, they always name men. There are many competent and capable Indigenous women who are thinking innovatively and deeply about solutions for their communities. Do we see or hear from them?
Drilling down into the Macklin plan, they are absolutely there – Andrea Mason, Fiona Jose and Jenny Hayes to name a few. But we are rarely treated to the benefit of their views at a national level. Apart from the formidable professor Marcia Langton, who we do see and hear from now and then, the debate is missing the presence of Indigenous women at what appears to be a crucial time in the shaping of policy.
We know this is not a reflection of what is going on in our communities, where Indigenous women are front and centre of the grunt work being done to improve outcomes and keep communities together. Perhaps Abbott considers Aboriginal women too busy “cowering in their houses or their huts” to participate in policy discussion directly affecting the lives of their families and communities. We have a new female co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, and I have yet to see one single mainstream media engagement with her – on anything. Is her number in Rudd’s contacts list? I wonder.
Which leads me to another point: what of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples in all of this? It was to be the replacement Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, a new kind of representative body fostering engagement with government and advocating the collective and representative views of Indigenous Australians. Neither camp has articulated a vision for the future of the only national body underpinned by democracy supposedly reflecting the collective ideas and views of Indigenous people.
Is the National Congress not the already existing “interface mechanism” for the government to engage with Indigenous people? Or is the emergence of a new paradigm from both camps a vote of no confidence in what the Congress has delivered?
And herein lies what I suspect will ultimately be the rub, the fatal flaw in Abbott’s proposal: engagement and consultation are both clearly missing, even though they’re hallmarks of successful policy and the key to legitimacy. Why are Indigenous Australians exempt from a democratic process for representative leadership that other Australians have the privilege of? I strongly suspect that given the choice, we would like the opportunity to anoint our own leaders, thanks very much.
- NACCHO political download alert: Tony Abbott and Warren Mundine puts land rights at heart of Aboriginal policy approach (nacchocommunique.com)
- NACCHO political debate alert :Aboriginal policy- check out where the parties stand (nacchocommunique.com)
- NACCHO political alert: What is the future of Aboriginal leadership and activism ? (nacchocommunique.com)
- Tony Abbott unveils Indigenous advisory council, promises to close the gap (abc.net.au)
- Abbott wants indigenous council (bigpondnews.com)
- NACCHO Blueprint 2013- 2030 news – AMA supports important initiatives to Improve the health of Aboriginal Males (nacchocommunique.com)