Two months have passed since Tony Abbott became Prime Minister, promising to be a prime minister for indigenous affairs.
He brought the portfolio into his own department. But nothing much has happened as a consequence out in the suburbs, or the towns or the settlements where Aboriginal Australians actually live. It’s now getting to the stage where one might expect to see signs of a government, and a commitment, in action.
From Jack Waterford Canberra Times And we thank Jack for his article
Here’s a few notes from near HQ.
Hundreds of Commonwealth public servants are now inside the Prime Minister and Cabinet portfolio, if not its offices. Not all are from the old FaHCSIA department, which once led the national efforts to reduce Aboriginal disadvantage. Others have come from Education, from Science, and from the miscellaneous units once created in many different agencies to connect the hopes and aspirations for Aborigines with more general parts of national endeavour. Health retains its indigenous health units.
But one will search in vain for any evidence or proof of this transition, indication of the new order or battle, or for signs, beyond broad election policy statements, describing new priorities, programs and activities. Indigenous responsibilities are yet to be reflected on the PM&C website, and the order of battle – who, for example, is responsible to whom, and for what, has yet to be published, certainly to outsiders.
No doubt it has been business as usual, in Canberra, regional offices, or even at the front line. But one thing missing is a steady stream of press statements issued locally, regionally or centrally, announcing actions, reactions, progress or setbacks. There has been an absolute reduction in the number of self-serving statements praising the courage, wisdom, vision and personal generosity of the former minister, Jennie Macklin, but there has not been a commensurate increase in statements associating the new minister, Nigel Scullion, with everything desirable and good.
Most Aboriginal organisations are treating the hiatus much as Russians treat winter at times of invasion. They are waiting to see what the enemy wants and does. Even many of the cynical believe that Abbott is fair dinkum in wanting to achieve change, though they have little idea of what it is he actually wants or plans, or how it will change their lives. For most, if experience is any guide, life will go on, though the quality and quantity of people bossing them around, to no effect, may change.
Abbott plans, apparently, to listen respectfully to ideas from people such as Nyunggai Warren Mundine, chairman of the new Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council, Noel Pearson, and, probably, Dr Peter Shergold, a former PM&C chief who was once the head of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, when it was the primary government executive body in indigenous affairs .No doubt this advice will be important in shaping policy. But it is not clear how much it will shape day-to-day decision making, nor does it tell us much about who will be making the decisions.
The council is to meet three times a year with Abbott and senior ministers. Mundine will meet Abbott and Scullion once a month. The council ”will include indigenous and non-indigenous Australians with a broad range of skills, including experience in the public sector, business acumen, and a strong understanding of indigenous culture”; it will be, in short, just the sort of important sounding, but actually powerless body that the government spent much of the past week axing as surplus to requirements.
One of the potential problems of the advisory council was highlighted in a perhaps unintentionally ironic, but not inaccurate, summary of an article by Mundine in the Financial Review this week. This read: ”Policy in the past 40 years has not altered the appalling position of indigenous people. That is why we need an advisory council.”
Gosh, why didn’t anyone think of that before?
Perhaps adding to the (or my) depression was an advertisement from the Menzies School of Health Research for a co-ordinator for its indigenous youth life skills development project. This $70,000 position, based in Darwin to work in the Top End, is to devise an anti-suicide program.
”The indigenous youth life skills development project is a multi-disciplinary intervention study aimed at building an evidence-based suicide prevention program for indigenous youth in remote settings. The project involves the design, pilot and evaluation of a skills-based suicide prevention intervention designed to build strength and resilience amongst indigenous school-aged youth. The project will involve a range of stakeholders in the East Arnhem region to ensure a culturally appropriate, strategic and coordinated approach.
”The project coordinator will support the design, implementation and evaluation of the indigenous youth life skills development project in the East Arnhem region including facilitating and coordinating stakeholder and community consultations, facilitating youth engagement with the program and assisting with the collection of evaluation data in a timely manner.”
One could quote more of the essentially meaningless abstract nouns and other verbiage describing a job for which indigenous people ”are strongly encouraged to apply”. Provided, that is, they have a ”willingness and ability to undertake air travel by light aircraft and use available accommodation in remote communities for several nights per week” and ”an understanding and awareness of relevant workplace health and safety as well as equal opportunity principles and legislation along with a commitment to maintaining a healthy and safe workplace for all Menzies staff, students, volunteers and visitors.”
Heaven knows the suicide problem is bad enough, and the need to do something important. But why wouldn’t any observer recognise immediately that people who see the problem in terms of such agglomerations of abstract nouns are hardly likely to have the insights to do much about it? Indeed, it is in part such a bureaucratic and logorrheic approach to social problems that is making so many despair.
Meanwhile, Abbott might be confirmed in thinking a radical break with the past is needed by the pathetic scorecard accorded to Council of Australian Governments’ ”initiatives” on almost everything, but certainly closing the gap on indigenous disadvantage.
The COAG Reform Council reported during the week that while there were odd signs of progress, it was clear the rate of improvement had slowed over the past five years or so (should one say the period of the Rudd and Gillard governments?). In some areas, things went backwards; in others it was impossible to say whether there had been any change.
The comparisons, and the statistics, were coming primarily from economists and accountants, rather than people able to properly compare slices of life. Even with imagined randomness, and purportedly objective measures (say percentages of children passing a reading exam, or the number of people waiting too long to see a doctor), the results, though interesting and perhaps indicative, were hardly ever likely to be significant in any statistical sense. That the council supposed they were illustrates one of its problems.
Thus the indigenous child death rate fell from 212 per 100,000 in 2008 to 196 per 100,000 in 2012, and this was ticked as evidence of ”good progress”. I very much doubt that it is of even slight statistical significance.
The disappointing or indifferent results from Commonwealth-state initiatives were to be found in the general areas of health and hospitals, schools (including preschools, reading and numeracy) and indigenous affairs.
Perhaps it is all the fault of an incompetent (whether or not well-meaning) Labor government. But it was just this Labor government that brought great energy, zeal and extra resources into precisely these fields, compared with before. Commonwealth spending in indigenous affairs may have increased by 50 per cent. More and, supposedly, more focused, spending on health and education were supposedly big positives of the Labor era. So positive that Abbott decided, late in the election campaign, to ”adopt” Labor policies.
So all that extra money, and all of the earnest and sometimes sanctimonious talk, made hardly any difference? Even if it sometimes did, if not by much, it was quite plain to the COAG Reform Council that the marginal benefits of all of this extra activity and spending were very low.
When politicians and bureaucrats face this fact – and there is no evidence they have done so yet – there are usually three possible responses. One is to recognise that there is something wrong with the policies, and to change course. Another is to ignore the evidence, and to carry on regardless, wasting more and more money, until it all runs out. Another is to redouble efforts and do and spend more, convinced that the plan will work, must work, or is not working only because of some managerial or ideological obstructionism. This is the ”policy is right in theory, so it must work in practice” approach.
This is pretty much the story of Aboriginal affairs, considered from Canberra as a harmless activity or game for ineffectual but zealous bureaucrats. (Considered in the field, by ”clients”, it’s a different, tragic matter, if with surprisingly little relationship to the prattle, the buzz, the memos, or even the relentless search for usable ”good news stories” by inspectors-general for indigenous affairs.)
Ten years from now, indeed, hardly anyone in Aboriginal affairs will even remember that there was a Labor government, although they may regard Kevin Rudd with vague affection for saying sorry. The lamentable Macklin era will have become assimilated into stories of the John Howard-Malcolm Brough intervention. This saw the re-bureaucratisation of the field, the hollowing out of Aboriginal organisations and politics, the abandonment of ”consultation” and the advent of a command ”engagement” economy, and the blaming of most personal and community ”dysfunction” on the victims or their parents. Australian taxpayers invested an extra $7 billion in trying to make a difference, with ever diminishing returns, if any.
Abbott, and those to whom he pays the most respectful attention, will insist that they will be different with a switch away from welfarist policies, ”sit-down” money and cultures of dependency. They will reward initiative, promote enterprise, education, employment and involvement with the wider economy. Yet they do not admit that a good deal of the ineffectual bossiness and reorientation of the past seven years has also been about the same thing. Noel Pearson, to use just one example, has consistently received handsome funding and encouragement from Canberra. One can, perhaps, learn lessons from the experiences of people in his area. But if they were capable of delivering salvation – as Abbott sometimes seems to urge – one ought to have, by now, seen some signs.