Are white policymakers maintaining the Indigenous gap?

Despite greatly increased effort in recent years, the policies of Australian governments towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders continue to fail on many levels. According to the latestClosing the Gap report, while there have been advances that promise much, particularly in early-childhood education, there has been little progress in other areas. School attendance, life expectancy, literacy and numeracy, and employment outcomes have all failed to meet designated targets.

Many Australians want, passionately, to make up for past wrongs. So these outcomes need some explaining. In the past decade, there has been more money spent on overcoming Indigenous disadvantage than ever. According to the Productivity Commission, total direct spending on Indigenous Australians was estimated to be $33.4 billion in 2015-16, up from $27 billion in 2008-09. Since 2013, at the federal level, the priority given to “closing the gap” has been emphasised by a machinery of government change, initiated by Tony Abbott, that brought operational responsibility for all federal Indigenous activities into the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Mutitjulu elder Rolley Mintuma and Pat Anderson from the Referendum Council with a piti holding the Uluru Statement from the Heart last year. The Turnbull government rejected the statement's call for self-determination.
Mutitjulu elder Rolley Mintuma and Pat Anderson from the Referendum Council with a piti holding the Uluru Statement from the Heart last year. The Turnbull government rejected the statement’s call for self-determination. – Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

So why has there not been more success? While everyone talks about evidence-based policy, hardly anyone ever practises it. In the case of Indigenous policies, the evidence, which has been around for some time, indicates that the needs of Indigenous communities cannot be addressed through conventional bureaucracies, operating bureaucratically. Public bureaucracies are good at carrying out specified tasks, where lines of accountability are clear and the expertise that is needed can be identified and applied.

But engaging with Indigenous communities, particularly in remote areas, cannot be defined in these terms. The communities may be small but their situations differ from each other. In many cases, they have long-standing internal divisions. Communities want to develop, but not necessarily in the ways white people think they should. Indigenous people themselves have been saying they want governments to “do things with us, not to us”.

In short, we don’t listen enough. Indigenous people are collectively giving their own political response. Through the Uluru Statement from the Heart and in other forums, they say they want a process of agreement-making that will underpin self-determination. While the federal government may be reluctant, this agenda will undoubtedly continue to grow at many levels, including the states and territories.

 But there will be an ongoing need for our public bureaucracies to begin to work differently. It might plausibly be said that governments are not good at interacting with communities of any description. Citizens are all too familiar with “consultations” in which the answer has been predetermined, and no one is really listening.

In the case of Aboriginal communities, the power imbalance is particularly marked. It is not that white public servants and consultants are not well-intentioned. But all too often, their actions are determined by the need to meet prescribed outputs: contracts entered into, reports filed and targets met.

Too much money is worse than too little. It ends up with consultants and advisers, when it is skill and experience we should be supporting.

From the community point of view, these arrangements are very unlikely to meet their needs. All communities want to reduce the disadvantage under which they suffer. But they don’t necessarily want to become just like white people either. They want to work “two ways” – remaining true to their culture and values while interacting successfully with white society. White people, for their part, simply get more impatient. If improvements do not occur, we decide, it must be because we are not putting enough pressure on the people concerned.

In this environment, it’s little wonder interventions don’t work. White society has the power to enforce compliance, but unless communities buy into the outcomes, it’s hard to see how sustainable change can be achieved.

We are a changeable lot, as well. Over the past 40 years, the policy pendulum has swung from extreme paternalism (when children were taken from their families), to a form of self-determination (when the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was in operation) then back to paternalism again. We can’t make up our minds whether Aboriginal people should receive services in the same way as other Australians (mainstreaming), or whether specific programs work better. For example, we encouraged local employment through specific schemes, such as the Community Development Employment Program, and then, in the Howard years, decided that “real jobs” were what was needed. Often, implementation proves just too difficult. After initial successes, too many native title claims have either been denied or have languished in the Federal Court.

So what works? Experiments in public policy are rare. But from the early to mid-2000s, there was a combined Commonwealth-state effort to find out what works by trialling whole-of-government approaches at eight trial sites across Australia. The lessons seem straightforward, even obvious, but bear repeating. It was found that if programs and services were to make a difference, cooperative relations between agencies and communities were essential. Trust and cooperation did not develop overnight, and needed to be nurtured over time. Aboriginal communities wanted to be listened to. They needed support for the projects that mattered to them. They needed help with good governance: the training and the means to make good decisions, and to make them stick.

But the main message was that white bureaucracies and officials were not working in ways that were compatible with these objectives. Evaluators have found, time and again, that what is needed is the capacity to listen, understand and develop relationships. This requires time and patience. Impatient policymaking, constant chopping and changing, was fuelling cynicism and despair.

There are lessons about resources that flow from this. Money in the right places at the right time is more important than money overall. Indeed, too much money – such as the federal and Northern Territory governments have at their disposal – is worse than too little. It ends up with consultants, advisers and logistics people, when it is skill and experience we should be supporting. Above all, we need public service leaders who are prepared to support their people in the field, and can balance requirements for accountability against the need to get things done. Not easy.

Guilt for past wrongs is understandable, but may be distorting our perspective. We white Australians want our Indigenous fellow citizens to be more like us, or at least the way we like to think of ourselves. We want their aspirations to be the same as ours, although we know that ours come at a price: constant change, and the relentless materialism that seems to go with it, are damaging for people and communities.

Perhaps we might learn lessons from Aboriginal Australians. What, or where, is our “country” and how should we care better for it? Should we value cooperation more and competition less? Do we pay sufficient attention to our own forms of traditional knowledge and the opinions of elders? And do any of us, anywhere, have sufficient powers of self-determination?

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