Ineffectual bipartisanship ruins social policy

Opinion Article

2011 March, 26

Recently Mal Brough, former minister for indigenous affairs in the Howard government, told The Australian that the Northern Territory intervention was “just another failed program” because Labor  had maintained the policy only for political reasons.  

In essence Brough was saying that Labor’s heart was not in it and, as a result, the intervention’s aims  had not been realised.  

Brough is correct that the intervention has fallen short. From afar it appears some good things have  come out of it, but on the whole it has not worked.  

Had he remained minister he would have shouldered full responsibility for its implementation. From my experience of Brough, although he was a determined leader, he was amenable to advice and deeply committed. 

Whatever people might have thought about the political motivations behind the intervention, for Brough it was always Aboriginal suffering that was uppermost.  

Having said that, I think the present minister, Jenny Macklin, is equally committed and her extension of  the income management reform principle to the wider Australian community is testament to that commitment. She has been steadfast in her support for our reforms in Cape York Peninsula, which she  extended when she supported our schooling reform plan.  

Brough and Macklin both erred in a fundamental respect in relation to the Territory, whereas they were correct in their support for our endeavours in Cape York during these past three years.  

Commonwealth legislation underpinning the Northern Territory intervention and Cape York welfare  reform was passed at the same time in mid-2007. While the reform objectives are similar, there are fundamental differences. The first difference is that in Cape York the reform agenda has been the  initiative of Aboriginal leaders and the policy proposals have come from the Cape York Institute, not  from government. The Northern Territory policy is unilaterally decided by government.

A second difference is that in Cape York the reform agenda is being implemented in large part by Aboriginal leaders and organisations. State and commonwealth governments work in partnership with  our organisations, whereas in the Territory it is almost exclusively a government-run show.  

As a result, a third difference is that in Cape York there is no great presence of the large national non-government organisations that routinely deliver social programs that dominate the Territory scene.  

I am highly sceptical of these NGOs because they have shown little demonstration of having moved  much beyond the old passive welfare paradigm.  

Their other problem is that, as recipients of commonwealth government service delivery contracts, they  have no long-term commitment to the people and the places that are at issue here.  

They have no roots in these troubled communities and they have no long-term stake or responsibility  for their futures. We have been better off without them in Cape York.  

A fourth difference is that in Cape York income management occurs only in cases where welfare recipients have failed to fulfil their conditions for receiving income support.  

Where welfare recipients fail to send their children to school or fail to look after their children and abide by their housing tenancy obligations and the law, a group of local elders appointed to the Family Responsibilities Commission, established under complementary Queensland legislation, is empowered  to ensure mutual obligations.  

The Family Responsibilities Commission has the discretion to decide what proportion of income is  managed and for what duration. The difference from the Territory is that the Cape York scheme  encourages community members to take up their responsibilities. If people are being responsible, they  are not affected by income management.  

Income management in the Territory has delivered undeniable benefits to the Aboriginal people concerned. The objections of the anti-intervention Left and the sillier sections of the liberal Left are  nonsense. When you see the increased expenditures in community stores, you see the most basic benefit from income management: food, clothing and bedding. For too many people in privileged  circumstances, money for basic necessities such as food and clothing seems mundane, but for the  hungry and the cold they are crucial.  

The design flaw in the income management scheme in the Northern Territory was ill-advised: it detracted from its credibility and undermined its obvious benefits. Brough should have devised a streamlined version of the Cape York approach so that responsible people were commended for taking responsibility.  

Whatever the design and implementation problems with the Territory intervention, the fundamental  mistake made by the Coalition and Labor is that the intervention was heavily premised on  governmental leadership and delivery.  

An Aboriginal reform leadership and active involvement in delivery was imperative, but this didn’t happen. Aboriginal reform organisations needed to be identified or encouraged to form, with clear  incentives to pursue reforms, but they weren’t.  

The parlous experience of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission era had blinded too  many in parliament and in the bureaucracy to the fact that Aboriginal reform organisations and leadership cannot be dispensed with.  

You can’t do it without the natives and their organisations. You can’t contract leadership out to external NGOs and public servants. There must be ownership and responsibility in Aboriginal hands.  Otherwise we breach the meaning of what Howard, channelling Eleanor Roosevelt, said when he told  us in Cape York in 2004: “There is nothing the government can do for you that you are unwilling to do  for yourselves.”  

Macklin should consider Brough’s conclusion the other week. She was ill-served by the review she  appointed following the election of the Rudd government. Macklin has been hobbled by the perception  that she is merely sustaining someone else’s convictions.  

She should go back to the drawing board and devise her own refreshed policy framework. I would  think people such as Galarrwuy Yunupingu and Northern Territory parliamentarians Marion  Scrymgour, Adam Giles and Alison Anderson need to be convinced of and own the policy.  

I have no doubt Brough would have adjusted his policies as impediments and unintended consequences  arose. That such a dynamic undertaking would require sails to be trimmed and tacking according to the  gales and the swell was obvious.  

This did not happen and instead the great leviathan of the commonwealth bureaucracy has dictated the  course of events.  

Aboriginal policy will never prosper if the leviathan is not restrained and self-determining humans seeking a better life are again free to roam the continent.  

My view is that both sides of the Australian political divide -- Liberal-conservative and Labor -- too much believe in the agency of government, rather than a partner in support of other more crucial actors  in the community.  

There is a strange bipartisanship when it comes to conceiving government’s role in social policy that is  harmful.  

It is high time Australians of all political shades get clearer about the role that government should best  perform in securing social progress.

Ineffectual bipartisanship ruins social policy