So just who is sharing the responsibility in Indigenous policy?


Despite the rhetoric, the Federal Government’s new policy approach of negotiating individual ‘Shared Responsibility Agreements’ with Indigenous communities is not genuinely designed to be mutual or community-driven or to necessarily improve the health and welfare of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is about ideology.

In the Government’s Shared Responsibility Agreement with the Mulan Aboriginal community that was widely debated late last year, the local Aboriginal community were to commit to washing their kids’ faces and other health measures in return for funding from the Federal Government for petrol bowsers and the Western Australian Government reviewing the adequacy of health services in the community.

While various Indigenous leaders criticised the Agreement as a form of blackmail, as racially discriminatory, and as making an illogical connection between children’s hygiene and the more convenient provision of petrol, the Federal Minister for Immigration, Multiculturalism and Indigenous Affairs, Amanda Vanstone, stated that it was ‘an example of how we want to work in all the communities’. She said: ‘A community gets what it wants “ a petrol bowser […] and the kids get better health outcomes. Who could complain about that?’ The Prime Minister stated: ‘it is not just a question of money, because a lot more money has been put into Aboriginal health. It is a question of culture. It is a question of practice. It is a question of attitude. It is a question of community responsibility.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson

Thanks to Peter Nicholson from The Australian.

The administrator of Mulan’s Aboriginal Corporation was quoted extensively in media reports as saying that the community itself came up with the idea, and approached the government. However, there were other factors in this deal that were less reported. The administrator also said that earlier requests for funding for a petrol bowser had come to nothing, until he received advice from a senior Indigenous affairs bureaucrat that the community could negotiate a Shared Responsibility Agreement committing to particular health measures in exchange for such funding.

Well before the Shared Responsibility Agreement negotiations, the school in Mulan introduced a twice-daily face-washing program. As the administrator stated, ‘It was nothing to do with government for the first several months “ it was just community people talking about things that were not happening and changes they wanted to make’. Eighteen months earlier, 90 per cent of children aged ten to sixteen were infected with chlamydia trachomatis bacterium, the most common cause of preventable blindness in the world. By the time the Mulan Agreement became national news, the incidence of trachoma had already dropped to a seven-year low of 16 per cent as a result of the community-initiated measures. However the pre-program rates of trachoma were referred to in media analysis as a rationale for the Agreement.

Another side to the Mulan story is that some members of the community were not supportive of the Agreement, saying they felt it was unfair. They said: ‘We are a proud people, everyone is well looked after. Look around, this is a clean place, a proud place.’ A journalist who attended a community gathering while in Mulan wrote that ‘Several of the community’s elders clearly had no idea about the terms of the deal’ and that some people in the community were scared to speak out against the agreement in case the Government took away their land.

This raises important questions about whether the Federal Government’s policy approach, endorsed by state governments being party to such Agreements, is genuinely about improving the health and welfare of Indigenous people through community-driven negotiations that respond to local priorities, or about making a top-down framework to prove an ideological point.

Shared Responsibility Agreements are a kind of quasi-contractual arrangement that imply two parties “ Indigenous communities and governments “ that are entering into them by choice, with both parties having equal responsibility for and benefit from the agreement.
However in reality, there is an enormous power imbalance embodied in such agreements. They make those responsibilities governments have to all citizens for the provision of basic services and infrastructure, conditional in Aboriginal communities on specified behavioural change, and shift perceptions of responsibility for existing problems and lack of progress solely to Indigenous communities themselves.

While it is important to have practical, tangible outcomes to work towards and to measure in addressing problems in Indigenous communities, it is also important that more complex systemic analyses of the causes of disadvantage and discrimination are not replaced with individualised, short-term, reactive agreements.

While there has been no punitive outcome identified as following from a community not delivering on its obligations – other than governments considering not entering into further agreements with that community – there is also no accountability mechanisms in place if governments do not live up to their commitments. If such agreements fail, it will almost certainly be those communities that are portrayed as somehow at fault.

As the Mulan example demonstrates, Indigenous people are initiating measures to address systemic health and other problems in their own communities. They should be supported and resourced to continue such measures, not having to bargain for basic entitlements.

Without a comprehensive acknowledgement or evaluation of the causes of past policy failures in Indigenous affairs, the government’s new focus on Shared Responsibility Agreements has been introduced with little critique or detail about how such agreements will be negotiated, agreed upon and measured. And despite the rhetoric, governments insisting that communities must negotiate for basic funding in exchange for behavioural change is not mutual or shared, but distinctly paternalistic and coercive.

Aden Ridgeway, quoted in Mark Coultan and Mark Metherell, ‘A new deal for indigenous Australia’, The Sydney Morning Herald, December 11 2004.

Mick Dodson, quoted in Patricia Karvelas and Amanda Banks, ‘We are just saving our kids’, The Australian, 10 December 2004,,5744,11645024%255E601,00.html

Pat Dodson and Noel Pearson, ‘The dangers of mutual obligation’, The Age, 15 December 2004,

‘Government makes “shared responsibility” deal with WA Indigenous community’, The World Today, ABC Radio, 9 December 2004,

‘Howard “unhappy” with Aboriginal health’, The Age, December 10 2004.

Quoted on ‘Mulan deal a return to native welfare days: Dodson’, ABC Radio PM, 9 December 2004,

Steve Pennells, ‘Rules unfair, say proud Mulan people’, The Age, 10 December 2004,

Amanda Banks and Paige Taylor, ‘Routine routs eye disease’, The Australian, 10 December 2004,,5744,11645030%255E2702,00.html

For example, see Editorial: ‘Defending the real rights of Aborigines’, The Australian, 10 December 2004.

May Stundi, quoted in Steve Pennells, ‘Rules unfair, say proud Mulan people’, The Age, 10 December 2004,

Steve Pennells, The West Australian, 11 December 2004.

The Politics of Despair, by Moira Rayner in New Matilda , 15 December 2004

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