Holding a Moral Compass


Forty years ago, 90 per cent of voters in the 1967 referendum gave very clear support to the idea of equality for Indigenous fellow citizens. Response to this year’s referendum anniversary tells me that Australians today want no less.

But we do need to acknowledge that we’re in the midst of another crisis in our relationship with Indigenous Australians a crisis that won’t be resolved in the months before a Federal election, not at the political level anyway. Nobody’s listening at this stage of the cycle.

As one who has in the past asked for a comprehensive national response to the evils of child abuse and who strongly supports urgent intervention, I hope that there is a moral compass giving direction to the current Federal intervention in the Northern Territory. I am making what might be heroic assumptions about the goodwill and bona fides of the Government and the Opposition. I realise many Aboriginal people will find it difficult, if not impossible, to make the same assumptions.

Let me make my own feelings on the matter clear. I am shocked at the extent to which the legislation rushed through Federal Parliament  last week :

  • is contemptuous of Aboriginal property rights;
  • is contemptuous of the principle of non-discrimination;
  • is authorising an absurd and unattainable level of micro-management of Aboriginal lives far beyond the capacity of the Federal bureaucracy;
  • provides for desert dwellers to be forced into towns, as they were once emptied out of the cattle stations in the 1960s with devastating social effects; and
  • could see successful communities and families returned to dependence, crushing the engagement which is essential to making progress.

Everything I say is predicated on my hope that away from the hysteria of the forthcoming election campaign, in a calmer post-election atmosphere, whoever is in government will not use this legislation to create a new regime of injustice and inevitable failure. The legislation would allow that to happen. It must not happen.

Just before the tabling of the ‘Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill,’ Reconciliation Australia (of which I’m a Director) called on the Federal Government to make public its evaluation of the intervention so far and clarify which aspects of the Bill were needed to protect Indigenous children. We asked that all non-urgent aspects of the legislation be extracted and delayed to allow for respectful consultation and communication with the affected communities.

No Australian should accept that racial discrimination is necessary in any context. As fellow Director of Reconciliation Australia, Mick Dodson, has said recently, this is a principle as sacred as the rule of law itself. Racial discrimination is not excusable in any situation and is all the more troubling when we know what needs to be done to make children safe.

I’ve been involved in these issues since my schooldays. I’ve overseen as many disappointments as every other Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. I do know this is not easy. But the answers, while complex, are known. We have learned from past successes and failures and that understanding is being repeated by a range of reputable, knowledgeable people who cannot be dismissed as ideological, out of touch, or driven by agendas. They place evidence over passion, hard-headedness over experimentation, consistent hard work over silver bullets.

You can read the multitude of reports that underpin their thinking the most recent being the report of Pat Anderson and Rex Wild (Little Children Are Sacred)  that set the scene for the Government’s actions in June.

The chorus of advice from diverse sources reflects the findings of research conducted by Reconciliation Australia and the Australian National University around the ingredients of effective Indigenous governance similar findings to those documented by researchers in the United States and Canada and elsewhere when they’ve looked deeply for actual evidence of what works in overturning disadvantage in Indigenous communities.

The reality is that we have all the tools we need to be striving for much more than simply making Aboriginal children safe, important a starting point as that must be.

And at this stage in our history, we also have the prosperity. Australians will tolerate extra spending when they’re confident that it will yield results; when stories of despair are balanced with stories of hope and success, when policy is based on evidence of what works.

The Aboriginal communities currently in the frame will work with government if they are provided with this vision of success. Civil order is a prerequisite for a community to be healthy, happy and successful. But so too is hope.

There is really no contest either about the fundamental importance of Indigenous engagement as a prerequisite for success this is what reconciliation is all about these days building the respectful partnerships that underpin every example of success we have at our disposal, locally and around the world.

Let’s learn from our mistakes centralised, imposed programs delivered from Canberra or State/Territory capitals have not delivered the success we must now expect. This Government (and the next) will be judged on the extent to which the intervention in the Northern Territory is backed by a comprehensive, national commitment to deal with social circumstances which underlie the horrors of sexual violence.

Over the next year, the Government and the Opposition stand to be judged. After all the hand wringing and all the show of intervention, will there be ongoing, bipartisan commitment to the whole agenda of tackling underlying circumstances? The substantial increase in the Government’s financial commitment is a positive straw in the wind but there is a long way to go.

We all need to be coldly realistic about this, and accept that government has limited immediate capacity to even take this first step. And the next steps are not a separate exercise. The long-term planning needs to start now if we are not to recycle this horror story in two or three years’ time.

Governments know the way forward. We must not dismiss what we’ve learned from the last 30 years of largely failed policy in this area, just because it offends someone’s ideology. It’s time to adopt and stick to evidence-based, fact-based approaches.

What we have now is a Government at the Federal level which has taken on the responsibility to get real results. This is one of the unique elements of the Territory intervention, a Prime Minister and Indigenous Affairs Minister accepting responsibility for the total program.

Over the past several months, I’ve been invited to deliver and re-deliver in many different settings a speech about the incoherence of government policy in Indigenous affairs. The two key factors I identify are these:

  • A refusal across all governments to face up to the real cost of meeting current and future needs conveniently hidden behind the line that you ‘can’t solve these problems by throwing money at them.’ It’s true, you also need sound policy and effective administration. But there are big deficits in infrastructure, in personnel, in employment, and they all cost money to fix.
  • The ‘start again’ syndrome which affects almost every new Government and Minister. Rather than build on areas of success we re-organise. What better way to avoid responsibility now than by damning the past, re-organising, and cherishing the thought that continuing failure will not be apparent until you have departed.

I was Minister for Aboriginal Affairs more than 25 years ago, and I’ve known all of the other Ministers over nearly 40 years. I, like them, have been disappointed at how little was achieved of the things I set out to do. But over those years, a great deal has been learned about what works in delivering better outcomes in education, employment, health and housing. If we don’t start applying what we’ve learned, we’ll continue starting from scratch with every new Minister.

At the end of June, at the OECD World Forum on Measuring and Fostering the Progress of Societies, the Chairman of the Productivity Commission Gary Banks gave a speech entitled, ‘Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage in Australia.’ In that speech, he said that every serious analysis of what works in Indigenous communities has four factors in common:

  1. Co-operative approaches between Indigenous people, government and the private sector;
  2. Community involvement in program design and decision making a bottom-up rather than top-down approach;
  3. Good governance; and
  4. Ongoing government support human as well as financial.

If the points are starting to sound a bit repetitive, that’s exactly the message I’m trying to get across.

Let’s look at Banks’s points, one at a time and remember, these same points are made in Treasury Secretary Ken Henry’s speech from the recent Cape York Institute Conference; they’re in the Anderson/Wild Report; Tom Calma’s Social Justice Report; and they’re explained at some length in the latest report of Reconciliation Australia’s Indigenous Community Governance Research Program.

On the point about partnerships between Indigenous people, governments and others the first big challenge is building trust. If the wider community is cynical about governments’ sincerity, it’s not hard to understand the doubt and fear, even anger, expressed by Indigenous people. To allay those fears, the new way of doing things has to be better than the old way. Trust is only built through consistency and commitment.

The same radical change is needed to deliver on Banks’s second point about giving communities real decision-making power. And that doesn’t mean, as has so often happened in the past, flying into communities to tell them what’s going to happen.

The point Gary makes about good governance is significant. What it means is that governments must support communities to develop the kind of leadership and structures needed if those communities are to engage with government in the required way for example, to negotiate shared responsibility arrangements.

And then we come to the invisible gorilla in the room the resources, human and financial. Delivering results will cost more money education results require more and, in some cases, better teachers; healthy families require government to address a huge deficit in housing and endless reliance on fly-in fly-out services for quite large communities. It means the right facilities and the right personnel on the ground.

The critical message is this: All progress is local.

Important as such initiatives are in assisting a limited number of Indigenous children, there’s no use romancing that we can educate all of these children at private boarding schools the reality is that the vast majority will be educated in local State schools. The quality of those schools and the support they receive from government is critical.

Real jobs must be available in Aboriginal communities. We need to stop using a work-for-the-dole scheme to deliver services, and start offering people full-time employment to provide basic services as is the case in every other Australian community. It’s time we stopped complaining about people not joining the real economy if we don’t extend to their town the real jobs paid for by government everywhere else.

What we need to see from government is the commitment to develop, fund and maintain a national framework cross-Party, cross-Minister, cross-government which provides long-term support for locally driven solutions. There has to be the framework for a top-down, bottom-up knit.

This national framework for local success must come in the form of centrally located government machinery operated by well-supported, well-resourced, talented public servants from both the Federal and State bureaucracies. It must include private sector expertise around Indigenous enterprise development, and academic input that keeps the work grounded in a strong evidence base.

Gone are the days when any government can baulk at setting targets in this area. A national plan must have targets, short-term and long-term and it must be publicly accountable to report on progress in achieving these targets.

No single Government or Minister, no matter how long they last, can carry this on their own. But what this Government and this Opposition can do is confirm it as a national objective and set the framework for it to receive the requisite national support over decades.

How can we break from the past and get consistent long-term action? I think the Sue Gordon-led taskforce provides a model which could work. Nothing keeps politicians and bureaucrats honest like having significant Australians, recognised experts of independent stature taking responsibility for driving this plan, including some private sector surveillance.

Beyond the life of Sue Gordon’s taskforce, we need to draw together the best and brightest and most influential of people to build and lay out this framework. People from business, from mining and banking and, importantly, Indigenous people who have the skill and the relationships to make an essential contribution to this effort. Indigenous men and women who provide role models to their people and a stark lesson to anyone who believes, let alone perpetuates, devastating stereotypes.

We’ve used this taskforce model to craft solutions in other complex policy areas like taxation, financial systems reform, and the emissions trading scheme. It can work if the political will is there, and the money.

This is a time of unprecedented prosperity when we have tens of billions of dollars of Government surpluses.

If we cannot now commit to dealing with this matter, once and for all, we never will.

This is an edited version of the 2007 Vincent Lingiari Lecture, delivered on 11 August, at Charles Darwin University.

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