Blown by fickle winds of Aboriginal policy

Opinion Article

2012 November, 2

"Triumphalism is the enemy of good government, especially a newly elected one driven by an irrational compulsion to replace all the policy furniture - even when it is new." 

This week Russell Skelton from The Age took the words right out of my mouth. Skelton is a Fairfax exception, regularly bringing unsettling guests into the parlours of cosmopolitan Melbourne: the peoples of remote Aboriginal Australia. His writing tells he has walked the red dust desert streets of Papunya and Utopia. The Age is better than The Sydney Morning Herald but it is a strange thing that Fairfax has mostly ignored this story across the past decade. 

The Herald did not cope well with the fracturing of the progressive paradigm in indigenous affairs. Its response was to stick its head in the sand. While this newspaper has long opened its door to indigenous contributions to national debate, from Marcia Langton to Wesley Aird, Chris Sarra to Galarrwuy Yunupingu, the Herald rarely features indigenous writers. Indigenous intellectuals such as Larissa Behrendt should be regulars, but aside from the odd piece, the Herald stable has no room for indigenous voices. 

In a perceptive commentary this week Skelton wrote of the problem of newly elected governments dismantling everything inherited from their opponents, even good policies: "Take the Country Liberals government of Terry Mills. Within weeks of him assuming power in the Northern Territory, hubris appears to have got the better of the Chief Minister and his team, most of whom have never seen the inside of a cabinet room. 

"Considered change is to be welcomed when it leads to significant improvements in public policy. When driven by impetuosity the results can be chaotic, ill-considered and potentially disastrous. Such is the decision to junk the banned drinkers register targeting 2300 problem drunks." 

Skelton was referring to the ditching of the banned drinkers register, a promising initiative of the former Labor government aimed at dealing with the appalling alcohol situation in the NT. He correctly identifies the CLP government's related policy of running plebiscites to reconsider grog bans in communities as "framed in disingenuous human rights speak". According to some conservative politicians the indigenous right to self-determination is the right to be supplied grog by their political friends who own alcohol outlets. 

I was glad to see the end of Labor's long reign in Queensland. Peter Beattie and Anna Bligh showed episodes of genuine interest in indigenous policy. They confronted the grog scourge with alcohol management plans, and they saved lives and alleviated much suffering by doing so. If I was one of their most strident critics when it came to their selling out Aboriginal lands to the extreme greens, their leadership on grog controls and support for welfare reform was steadfast and correct. 

Premier Campbell Newman was right, however, in his observation that while Labor grappled with social policies for indigenous Queenslanders, there was no serious development program. The social normalisation of indigenous communities requires economic normalisation. Labor had no serious development policies; its capitulation to environmentalists would have closed the door to development for indigenous people in Cape York. 

Newman's challenge is to not jettison the social progress made in the Beattie and Bligh years but to instead add a solid development agenda. The decision to open a debate on relaxing alcohol controls at the behest of the community leaders of organisations that presided over the social disaster that Beattie and Bligh confronted during the past decade, is disappointing and unproductive.

How can we close the gap on indigenous disadvantage if successive governments just chop and change policies arbitrarily, without proper reference to evidence and history? Given that closing the gap is a generational challenge, we must maintain a commitment to the right social and development policies for a number of decades. The right policies must survive changes of government and, by this definition, must transcend the ideological whims of political parties.

Of course policy settings are not static, and it is never the case that at any one time all the solutions are located. But there must be respect for reform policies. Policies are not correct simply because those propounding them are the government of the day.

I have grappled with indigenous reform policies through the tenure of three prime ministers, six federal ministers of Aboriginal affairs, four premiers and six state ministers, most of whose names I struggle to recall. I am just a novice compared with Yunupingu, Langton and people such as Pat Dodson, who have a longer experience of the changing winds of Aboriginal policy in this country.

Getting policies right is like hammering an anvil. Reform policy is the convergence of the right analysis, the right strategy and the right implementation. It is a constant work in progress, where the insights and gains are hard won.

During the recent months of debate over alcohol policies I have heard politicians talking how alcohol management plans have driven people out of communities into urban areas. But then I recall the controversy 20 years ago when the mayor of Cairns organised a bus to take itinerants back to their home communities in Cape York, 10 years before alcohol restrictions. Yes, there is an itinerants' problem but reopening the problems back in the communities is not the solution. I hear politicians talking about how alcohol restrictions have resulted in a breakout in the use of cannabis. But the cannabis epidemics in remote communities were well established for more than two decades, long preceding alcohol restrictions.

But this is what happens if you let folklore and anti-intellectual rejection of proper policy analysis drive policy. I leave the last word to Skelton: "Any government coming to power after 10 years in the wilderness believing it has all the answers should think again. Good government today is not a set of ideological assumptions but a process of consultation, intelligent evaluation and implementation based on measurable outcomes."

Blown by fickle winds of Aboriginal policy