Mate, there's a job to be done

Opinion Article

2010 October, 9

Indigenous Employment Minister Mark Arbib must use his power to get results.


Mark Arbib, one of the so-called faceless men who brought down Kevin Rudd and installed Julia Gillard as Prime Minister, is a machine politician from the right faction of the NSW Labor Party. Among his responsibilities he is Minister for Indigenous Employment, a portfolio he held as parliamentary secretary under Rudd.  


I fully appreciate the special ambiguity of the term “mate” in this particular milieu. (Just ask Rudd what he thinks about his mates now.) Arbib is a mate of mine and I think he is genuine about the plight  of indigenous Australians. There is something about his ethnic background that gives him some understanding of outsider status and the importance of doors of opportunity opening to all regardless of race.


But it will take more than empathy and goodwill towards disadvantaged people to make good on his  promise. He will need to find a determination to tackle this fundamental policy challenge that was markedly lacking under his predecessors in the Rudd government.  


In the final years of the Howard government indigenous policy reform and particularly employment  were the subject of intense focus and energy. Former indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough was on  the cusp of a new putsch on employment, moving beyond the Community Development Employment Program and pushing people into all available real jobs.  


CDEP programs that had heedlessly sprung up in urban and regional centres, which had the effect of  creating make-work ghettos in places where real jobs were available, were closed down.  


All of a sudden you could see black fellas working on construction sites and other places where they  were missing for years.


Out in remote communities, distant from labour markets, policies were aimed at ensuring that every  last available job was taken up by local unemployed people. And policy was beginning to focus on  supporting mobility for workers in such communities, so they could go to the places where real jobs were available.


Then the Rudd government came in and we lost three years. The new CDEP policy framework adopted  by Labor has been a disaster. It has severely compromised our welfare reform agenda in Cape York Peninsula. Whereas our plan sought to push work-ready people into all available jobs and prepare others for job readiness, the Labor policy just resulted in one huge change: thousands of people who  were once employed on CDEP are now sitting on Newstart.  


How is this reform?  


The theory underpinning the Labor policy is that the obligations of Newstart recipients to seek work --  otherwise they would be breached and have their entitlements curtailed -- would provide the impetus  for the unemployed to take available jobs.  


But then, unbeknown to the public, a predecessor of Arbib, Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor,  then minister for employment participation, issued a directive through Centrelink not to breach anyone living in remote communities for failing to fulfil their Newstart obligations.  


So there we were, waiting for the new Labor policy to work its wonders, not knowing the minister had  secretly pulled the stick out from the bunch of carrots.  


The Rudd government’s squibbing of indigenous employment reforms took place in the throes of the  global financial crisis and there was understandable uncertainty about the employment market.  


But even with the stimulus spending, former ALP president Warren Mundine’s call for a proper share  to be directed to indigenous employment and business development was largely ignored. The procurement and investment policies surrounding the stimulus funding still left indigenous Australians  out on the woodheap. It seems even Keynes didn’t like black fellas.  


Arbib will have to get serious if he is to succeed where his predecessors have failed.


Former NSW minister Rodney Cavalier’s new book on the problem with the dominance of the apparatchiks in the modern Australian Labor Party echoes the critique laid out by John Button in his  2002 Quarterly Essay. 


If the spectrum of a political movement goes from philosophy and policy on the one side to polling and  power on the other, then the nose-on-your-face fact is that the contemporary Labor Party is too heavy  on the latter side of the spectrum, and paper thin on the philosophy side.  


While Labor is short on people with philosophy, no party can take power without the likes of Arbib.  Every government that needs a Bob Hawke will also need a Graham Richardson. These people skilled  in polling and the ways and means of power are indispensable.  


So the likes of Arbib have a long and venerable pedigree in successful governments.  


The problem with Labor of course is that too many of the remainder of caucus are just pale imitations  of Arbib and add no philosophical or policy ballast to the party. There’s no problem with finding a  Richardson in the present party, it’s just that there is no Hawke or Paul Keating.  


Arbib would do well to remember Richardson’s achievements in his ministerial career. I would make  the case that he was Australia’s most effective minister for the environment. Once having described  him at the time as a knee-capping Benny Hill with a green streak, I think Richardson’s achievements  are a testament to how far power and political skill can take a minister who is convinced of their cause.  


Coming from the Right, Richardson made more hay from the leftist issue of the environment than those  coming from the Left, such as John Faulkner and Peter Garrett. In his last days as health minister,  Richardson was hatching a revolution for indigenous health which, if he had had more time or had been given the field earlier, would have been the kind of leap forward that is needed. His loss to this cause  was a great loss. 


If Arbib takes Richardson as his inspiration then he will mobilise his aptitude for power to make bold  reforms in indigenous employment. Caution and hesitation must give way to decisiveness and cut-through. The last thing anyone wants to hear is, “I’m waiting on my department people to get back to me.”  


We cannot afford to waste another term of government.

Mate, there's a job to be done