Getting The Facts You Deserve


"Dismally poor returns." That’s the verdict of the Strategic Review on government expenditure on Indigenous policy prepared by the Productivity Commission for the Cabinet. The commission released the full text of the first Indigenous Expenditure Report on their website in February. That report was commissioned by Kevin Rudd when he was PM and still commissioning up a storm and talking about evidence based policy.

The Strategic Review recommendations were intended only for Cabinet and they weren’t released. Along with other similar documents, they were the subject of protracted Freedom of Information proceedings by Channel 7, who reported on the documents on Sunday night. (You can read the Strategic Review document and the Administrative Appeal Tribunal decision which released the documents here.)

There were few surprises in Channel 7’s story. The review might paint a dismal picture of Indigenous policy implementation in this country, but the considerably terse document draws some all too famliar conclusions. As Yahoo7 puts it, "the explosive document calls for 25 programs to be shut down straight away. Excessive red tape, inefficient spending, flawed government logic and false assumptions all contribute to the failings."

That’s putting a sensational spin on things but the report is clear that the problem isn’t that there’s not enough money, or even bad policy but systemic failures of implementation. It’s an oversimplification to suggest that the commission concludes that Indigenous spending is a waste of money — but there’s certainly lots to be worried about:

"In the Indigenous area, more than any other, there has been a huge gap between policy intent and policy execution, with numerous examples of well-intentioned policies and programs which have failed to produce their intended results because of serious flaws in implementation and delivery."

The report is critical of the proliferation of funding structures and argues that mainstream service delivery to Indigenous communities is needed, recommending that existing services be improved — rather than just inventing new funding programs. $3.5 billion is spent a year on Indigenous policy and that’s money that could be better spent by avoiding red tape and duplication of programs — and by more effective oversight: "In many cases the need is not so much for higher levels of spending as to use existing resources (both Indigenous-specific and mainstream) more effectively."

Change is being measured by the COAG Closing the Gap targets for measuring Indigenous disadvantage and, according to the Productivity Commission, these are not being sufficiently monitored. And the scrutiny of the commission revealed that "there are real risks that the States and Territories will not deliver on key aspects of the agreed COAG agenda. The capacity of the Northern Territory Government is a particular concern, as evidenced by its performance to date in the housing and schools domain."

As if that weren’t enough bad news for Jenny Macklin and the Gillard Government, today Amnesty International released a report highly critical of the Closing the Gap policy overall.

In view of the grim conclusions of the Productivity Commission report, it’s little wonder the Government fought hard to keep these documents under Cabinet privilege. That said, successive governments have been presented with plenty of evidence that their policies aren’t working — and they’ve ignored that evidence. Macklin has form in this regard: see, for example, her response to the Intervention review she commissioned.

Government policy on Indigenous affairs came under fire on the weekend at the Garma festival in Arnhem Land when prominent Indigenous leader Garralwuy Yunupingu called for an end to welfare handouts to remote communities. 

Nicolas Rothwell reports, "He is contending that the welfare system itself encourages dependency, with consequences for the psychology of Aboriginal people as much as for the economics of their small-scale societies."

"Welfare is, for Yunupingu, a state of mind, and also a western innovation. Welfare saps the will to work, and hence to learn. Welfare is controlled by outsiders and granted by government, and so damages community cohesion and self-respect. Welfare can never generate the wealth needed to escape poverty; welfare becomes a destination in itself. It leads, above all, to an administered society where the scale of social programs and outside helper numbers acts to muffle the tone and flavour of Aboriginal life."

The Productivity Commission’s brief was to produce a report which "can contribute to a better understanding of the adequacy, effectiveness and efficiency of government expenditure on services to Indigenous Australians."

The picture that has emerged point to an ineffective and inefficient set of programs. That said, this document is only the most recent to point to thoroughgoing failures of implementation. The Productivity Commission recommends "policies and programs which are patient and supportive of enduring change". In view of the failure of successive governments to act on the advice they have commissioned — keep in mind that this latest document was presented to Cabinet in February — changes are needed at the highest level of government. 


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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.