Queensland shows how appropriate reforms can transform communities.
Yesterday, Queensland’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships Minister Desley Boyle tabled the annual highlights for Queensland’s discrete indigenous communities.
The Queensland government has the commendable practice of regularly presenting data – quarterly and annually – in a transparent way on important social indicators in indigenous communities.
This year, analyses of long trends over almost a decade have been incorporated in the report. The most important result is that hospital admissions for assault-related conditions have been slowly but steadily decreasing for almost a decade.
Surely there can be no more devastating manifestation of social dysfunction than serious violence. As normalisation in the most basic sense - relative absence of violence - gathers pace, the scene is set for the most important reform for the future, which is to radically improve the life prospects of indigenous children through education.
The reforms in Queensland have been rolled out in three phases. First, alcohol management plans were developed for communities, starting with Aurukun eight years ago. These were general reforms, aimed at stopping the social disintegration in all communities.
I recently made an unfavourable assessment of Peter Beattie’s legacy and said that his main achievements were relatively easy environmental wins.
But I acknowledge that Beattie played in important role in this first important phase of indigenous reform.
There has been some criticism of Queensland’s alcohol policies. Critics have argued that the restrictions are discriminatory, that other substance abuse problems increase, that more people are brought in contact with the criminal justice system and are sentenced to pay fines.
The link between raging alcohol abuse epidemics and dysfunction is, however, patently obvious, and it is important that policies that are proving effective remain in place for the long haul. A key statement in the Queensland government’s report is therefore that “alcohol restrictions will remain in place” until the promising trend in communities develops into a sustained normalisation.
The second set of reforms has been welfare reforms that aim to change the incentives for individuals and families to create a good community environment for children.
The basis for welfare reform, which at this trial stage is implemented in four Cape York communities, is the Family Responsibilities Commission.
Unlike the blanket quarantining of benefits in place in the Northern Territory, the FRC works directly and intensely with community members who breach certain conditions such as sending their children to school.
Another key component of welfare reform is to work towards tenancy normalisation and home ownership.
Anna Bligh’s government is fully engaged in this work, as well as the FRC reform and continued alcohol reform.
The third stage of reform is to provide high-quality primary education to community children and make sure they continue to high-quality secondary education.
These reforms have been implemented in only two communities, but this week it was announced that the Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy will establish a campus next year in a third community, Hope Vale.
Coen State School, where the academy began operations in January this year, is in my opinion one of the best primary schools in Queensland. Effective instruction is being delivered to students, who consistently attend almost all of the time. The other academy school in Aurukun is making excellent progress, starting from a difficult situation where normal expectations of school attendance were absent.
It is too early to say what the Cape York reforms will achieve. However, it is obvious that we will not be able to close the gap in indigenous regions within a generation unless we have comprehensive policy frameworks centred on the key issue: improved life prospects for children.
Queensland seems to be the only jurisdiction in the country where there is such a framework for indigenous progress: alcohol management, canteen closures, conditions attached to welfare, housing and home ownership reform, infrastructure, education reform and so on.
The federal government’s support from 2004 onwards has been crucial for the Queensland reforms, and many elements of the policies of the commonwealth and the other states and territories are correct, but one does not get a sense that most Australian governments have a sense of direction in indigenous policy. Queensland is a standout.
One of the problems with indigenous policy nationally is that the partnerships policies struck under the banner of the Council of Australian Governments during the tenure of the Rudd government are not premised on reform.
There are considerable investments being made, particularly in housing, under the COAG partnerships agreements.
The problem is that COAG did not establish a framework to get state governments and indigenous communities to adopt some basic reforms in return for the new investment.
So communities such as Aurukun that have adopted welfare reforms are supported along with communities that have not.
Why accept the sticks of reform when you can get the carrots of investment from governments for nothing? For this reason the Rudd government’s Closing the Gap framework was flawed, because there is not enough sharp reform embedded in it.
This is where the reforms that have been adopted in Queensland represent a departure from what is happening in other jurisdictions.
Indigenous development in communities still has a long road to travel in Queensland, but the fact that the government takes indigenous policy seriously means that we are heading down the right road.