No shared power in mutual obligation


In December last year the federal government embraced Noel Pearson’s concept of ‘mutual obligation’, ending a seven year impasse between Indigenous leaders and the Howard administration, which began when leaders turned their back on the prime minister at the 1997 Reconciliation Convention in Melbourne.

Pearson’s ‘vision’ was for the government to accept some responsibility for Indigenous people’s well-being and in return for funding Indigenous communities to accept responsibility for changing their behaviour.

Thanks to Bill Leak

Thanks to Bill Leak

On May 27, Amanda Vanstone’s Department for Indigenous Affairs released the bare details of 52 Shared Responsibility Agreements (SRAs) signed, overwhelmingly, by remote communities. In Coober Pedy, for example, Aboriginal kids often don’t participate in science class because they don’t have shoes. As part of the SRA, the federal government will provide shoes and the community will enforce a ‘no school, no pool’ policy.

Despite criticisms of SRAs by notable Indigenous commentators, such as Aden Ridgeway and Larissa Behrendt, the system’s introduction has seemed inexorable. Then, in The Australian on June 6, a frustrated Lowitja O’Donoghue criticised Howard’s special advisor on welfare, saying ‘he is not our new Messiah’.

Pearson’s views stem from his experience in Cape York, yet he has had widespread impact. While his reform agenda is rolled out nationally, those without the ear of the PM find their views ignored.

Meanwhile, a policy that radically reconfigures the relationship between government and the most marginalised people in our society still remains to be seriously scrutinised by the public sphere.

In particular, two important issues about SRAs have been under-discussed.

Firstly: the focus on remote communities, geographically removed from the ‘real economy’, suggests that these people are far worse off than the majority of Aboriginal people, who live in urban Australia. However, statistics about the socio-economic status and health of urban Aboriginal communities do not support this assumption.

It is not remoteness that determines Indigenous disadvantage. The root cause is the relationship between the non-Indigenous state and Indigenous people the fact of colonisation divides our two socio-political groupings.

Secondly: there has not been adequate discussion about the relative positions of power enjoyed by government on the one hand, and communities on the other.

One reason that non-Indigenous commentators in the public sphere are reticent to talk about power and Aboriginal communities is that the government has been disingenuous throughout SRA negotiation processes, representing itself as the willing party to Aboriginal-initiated agreements. ‘Aboriginal communities have the solution to their own problems’ reiterates Vanstone, and on this point we agree. Therefore, to disagree with mutual obligation the government and Pearson imply is to rob Aboriginal people of initiative and their problem-solving capacity. Too many people have stayed silent, afraid to find themselves among those that Pearson says ‘would confine Aboriginal people to the status of victim forever’.

Significantly, Pearson and Pat Dodson cautioned in The Age back in December that the government must not misuse its position to ‘socially engineer’ Aboriginal people. They pointed out that the parents of Mulan had a responsibility to their kids’ health, not to government. Subsequently, this point has been utterly lost, as the government increasingly ties funding to changed behaviour.

In a welcome editorial that same month The Age asked, ‘How can an agreement be mutual if it is enforced from above?’ and expressed misgivings about the potential for government coercion. On the ground, six months on, we find these concerns are being put far more explicitly.

The fallacy of SRAs is that there is no shared power. Marji Thorpe, member of the Black GST collective (, argues that SRAs need to be examined in the context of the lack of a legal status for Aboriginal people. She says, ‘We need treaties because every Aboriginal nation in this country needs to be recognised. Every Aboriginal nation in this country needs to have the right to negotiate their own settlement. They need to be able to give consent that is informed. And they need to be able to negotiate on an equal basis. We’re a long, long, long way from that.’

There’s ample evidence of a top-down process. We spoke to a Victorian ATSIC regional councillor (whose job ends June 30) who explained that bureaucrats had been appointed in each state to fulfill government-set SRA quotas. In Victoria, that’s a quota of two SRAs by the end of the financial year. The councillor expressed concern about who the government would identify within each community to sign off on an SRA. Without ATSIC, communities’ own decision-making and representative structures might be tapped into, which is a good thing. However, this leaves it at the government’s discretion to approve community ‘representatives’, and their priorities, as legitimate or not.

If the 52 SRAs to date are anything to go by, the government could always repackage existing, already funded programs to meet quotas.

While the government represents itself as responsive to the immediate and desperate needs of a people that die 20 years earlier than the average Australian, the $450 million shortfall in spending on Aboriginal health clearly demonstrates it is failing in even its most basic responsibilities to Indigenous people.

It’s high time for a heads-up. Australia is way behind comparable countries (United States, Aotearoa-New Zealand, Canada) on Indigenous empowerment. Again, Australian Indigenous views on this have long been ignored, but the statistics are irrefutable: health outcomes are better in comparable countries that have treaties with their Indigenous populations.

In the US, NZ and Canada, ‘sovereignty’ and ‘self-government’ are not dirty words. Forget ‘shared responsibility agreements’: try ‘self-governance compacts’.

The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians is now implementing self-governance in health after gradually wresting management control over health programs from the federal government over two decades.

In this case, self-governance is underpinned by block grants to tribes. According to the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, ‘All of the federal government’s budget in a particular service area [is transferred]to a tribe, without stipulating the specific programs in which the money must be used. Under a compact, a tribe can set its own priorities, develop its own programs, and create a truly indigenous system of service provision.’

As a result the Choctaw Indians have achieved staggeringly positive results, including a rise in average life expectancy from less than 50 in the 1960s, to 68.

According to Michael Mansell, Aboriginal lawyer and sovereignty advocate, the crucial question is: ‘who gets to make decisions about Aboriginal people’s lives?’ Mansell asserts that only when Aboriginal people meet the government on equal terms, as political representatives of sovereign nations, can they really begin to make (un-compromised) decisions about their own lives.

And when Aboriginal people have control over the decisions that affect their lives, they will then assume control over their future.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.