“Behind the idea of “empowered communities” stands that torchbearer of new thinking, Cape York’s Noel Pearson, in alliance with a corporate partnerships network, Jawun. Their blueprint calls for “better governance structures” and more effective service delivery; a long list of concerned figures from Australia’s business leadership backs the vision
What the new Empowered Communities concept Pearson is proposing brings to the scene is simply a distrust of government and public service, and a wish for power to swing somehow to the governed, to the administered. Indigenous organisations would thus sit in judgment on the agencies that fund them, a pattern without obvious national precedent
WITH much fanfare, flanked by the new elite counsellors of Aboriginal Australia, Tony Abbott stepped forward this week in Sydney to support “empowered” indigenous communities and a grand audit of governmental spending on indigenous affairs.
A fresh path, but the wrong solution to the right problem.
Behind the idea of “empowered communities” stands that torchbearer of new thinking, Cape York’s Noel Pearson, in alliance with a corporate partnerships network, Jawun. Their blueprint calls for “better governance structures” and more effective service delivery; a long list of concerned figures from Australia’s business leadership backs the vision.
An Abbott administration will give them $5 million in start-up funds to set up an indigenous-backed productivity panel and evaluate the vast spending now poured into special indigenous programs across the continent. It is a slight decision with momentous consequences: it signals with a trumpet the prime ministerial candidate’s willingness to embrace radical proposals and his acceptance that the federal bureaucracy is failing in its tasks.
This newest initiative, though, adds fresh layers of confusion to a confused scene. There is a grave need for clear thought in Aboriginal policy-making, particularly in the remote communities of the north and centre where the need for a new model is most urgent. The problems lie in government programs, with government – and it is by government that they must be solved.
This is not virgin terrain. The commonwealth commissioned a review of its $3.5 billion worth of indigenous specific programs that was completed three years ago and reported “dismally poor returns”. There is an existing Productivity Commission that makes its regular voluminous reports on Aboriginal disadvantage.
What the new Empowered Communities concept Pearson is proposing brings to the scene is simply a distrust of government and public service, and a wish for power to swing somehow to the governed, to the administered. Indigenous organisations would thus sit in judgment on the agencies that fund them, a pattern without obvious national precedent.
Is the bureaucracy in need of this supplement? The commonwealth has long been quietly sympathetic to the idea of a spectrum of different approaches to social projects, and has funded various public-private ventures handsomely, in the thought that they may achieve results in key areas: among them the Generation One scheme championed by mining magnate Andrew Forrest and the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation of financier Andrew Penfold.
Pearson and Jawun are fishing in the same pond, in the hope that indigenous influence over program funding can build some dividend. Social power, though, grows slowly, from cohesion and community economic strength: it cannot be given by adjusting the state’s mechanisms, only claimed.
This moment in the politics of Aboriginal governance needs a phase change more than a corporatisation. The crisis has not grown purely because of the public service overstaffing and the administrative failures of the great power departments in Canberra, or the constant policy vacillations of successive regimes. It also has come from the intensity of governmental desire for improvement, from ever-increasing programs.
This hyper-administration is matched by poor understanding of conditions on the ground, an assumption that Aboriginal communities are somehow different in their needs from the rest of the bush, and an unwillingness to invest in national development infrastructure in remote regions of Australia. All this suggests a need for regional, not racialised, thinking in the pursuit of remote community advancement. The roadblocks that are specific to the communities are already well-identified and need no evaluation, only action: they are passive welfare, communal land tenure, poor education and a pandemic of alcohol and drug abuse. Against this backdrop, outside panels to advise on service delivery are mere distractions.
The public service has responsibility for delivering public programs and should be rewarded according to outcomes. A new cadre of specially trained and qualified remote area experts is needed as a dedicated stream within the public service, in just the way specialist remote area teachers must be recruited from the best of their profession and given career-long contracts; it would be logical for such experts to be locals by origin.
If a change of government comes next weekend, there is an opportunity for a complete rethink of government in indigenous areas, by government, rather than through the hasty creation of parallel structures. The crisis is at ground level and much of it relates precisely to the powerlessness of communities before bureaucrats.
Take the example of the remote Ngaanyatjarra lands of the western desert.
The newly imposed “remote jobs and communities program” just launched by the federal government has stripped $3.5m from the region and doomed it to slow extinction through lack of services. Its local governing bodies lack powerful friends such as Jawun, which has given its patronage instead to the NPY Women’s Council, a fringe group with no responsibility for core service delivery.
Abbott stands with Pearson, and he stands on the verge of office – but should he take power, it is the Australian public service, not some collection of corporate well-wishers, that will have to take prime responsibility for resolving the remote indigenous community crisis.
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