Recent indigenous policy failures can't be pinned on Aborigines

Opinion Article

2013 June, 15

Former mandarin Peter Shergold's reflections last weekend on 20 years of "personal and systemic" failure in indigenous policy at the highest levels of government is a seminal admission. 

Not entirely unseriously, a colleague suggested that on the basis of his admission Shergold should answer for these failures before an appropriate tribunal. 

Shergold was the first chief executive of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. As secretary of the departments of employment and then education and the prime minister and cabinet under John Howard, he "had significant responsibility for the design and oversight of indigenous programs". 

He was an empathetic and diligent senior bureaucrat who took indigenous affairs seriously and gave it more attention than most. But his admission of failure is correct. I agree this failure was not a result of hostile public sentiment or lack of political will. The public has long wanted better for indigenous Australians. I also agree there has been political will, though it waxes and wanes, and certainly what has been willed has mostly been wrong. 

Shergold identifies three lessons learned in a "demanding and wickedly complex" field. 

First, "far too many government initiatives, generally well meant and adequately implemented, simply end up compounding the problem of passive welfare and learned helplessness". 

Second, "programs are often designed and regulated to the most exacting of ethical standards, meet every guideline, tick every box and acquit every expenditure but still end up disconnected from the outcomes they were meant to deliver".

Third, "there is far too little willingness to tailor services to local need or to devolve responsibility and decision-making to the community level". 

This is as accurate a diagnosis as we are likely to read. Yet 

It is 13 years since we started railing against this, but the standard politician and indigenous affairs bureaucrat would not know what could possibly be wrong with this kind of service delivery. Passive income is well understood but passive services are not. 

Shergold's belated critique of the uselessness of too much government program effort angers me because former US senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was clear about these problems - way back in the early 1960s. He recognised these programs were premised on the idea of feeding the sparrows by feeding the horses. 

Service delivery gives rise to a very large industry that ends up being self-serving. Remember back when ATSIC was on the ropes and the problem was said to be the ubiquitous Aboriginal industry? We don't hear much about the Aboriginal industry today. 

There were three players back then: indigenous organisations and leaders; the bureaucracy; and consulting and service industries involved in indigenous affairs. Of these three horses feeding on the indigenous affairs budget, only indigenous organisations and leaders were identified with the pejorative label Aboriginal industry. ATSIC was assumed to be exclusively a failure of indigenous organisations and leaders. No one accused the other two horses of contributing in the ATSIC story - the bureaucracy and the consultants and service providers - but no one identified them as having contributed to the shortcomings. 

Since ATSIC's demise, across the nation indigenous organisations have been de-funded and closed down. The bureaucracy's share has grown considerably and the share of the consultants and service providers has grown exponentially. Today the nominal budgetary outlays for indigenous affairs are way more than in ATSIC's heyday, and indigenous affairs is indeed a true industry. 

Two players have grown enormously. First, large non-government welfare organisations have moved into the vacuum following the dismantling of ATSIC. Mission Australia, the Smith Family and an array of mainstream bodies have pushed indigenous organisations to extinction. Their vast scale and capacity to win large government tenders mean local and regional indigenous organisations cannot compete.

Second, numerous private, for-profit organisations have moved into the indigenous service scene. 

Government policies favouring outsourcing and competitive tendering favour these large NGOs and private providers. 

That is why indigenous organisations have disappeared. If there has been failure during the past decade, this has been a period when the mainstream bureaucracy, NGOs and outsourced service delivery providers have been the principal actors. There is no ATSIC to blame any more, and if you know anything about the declining role of indigenous organisations and leaders in the administration of indigenous affairs in this era, you will know they too cannot be blamed for the poor progress. Shergold presided over this shift. 

Although there is a role for mainstream NGOs and private providers, Shergold and the governments he served failed to understand that while you can outsource government services, you cannot outsource leadership. 

No amount of services to indigenous people will change things without leadership. This leadership must come from the people whose lives and futures are at stake. Mission Australia or some private provider that has won some temporary government tender to provide employment services to a community cannot provide the necessary leadership. 

The only thing remaining to outsource in indigenous policy today is one's status as a member of the community supposedly targeted by the policy. Then we will have an indigenous policy scene devoid of indigenous people. 

I took Shergold and indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough to Arnhem Land following the Howard government's announcement of the Northern Territory intervention in 2007. In the wake of the ructions surrounding the move, I urged Shergold and Brough to meet Galarrwuy Yunupingu. I argued the government needed to put the responsibility back on indigenous people and their organisations. 

They never listened. Instead we got the Intervention Express, special flights to ferry the hordes of public servants to Darwin and back, and the convoys of service deliverers driving daily in and out of communities. 

As Nicolas Rothwell reported in this paper, Yunupingu ended up making his own way with his community. If the intervention's vast resources had been available to the Gumatj and other clans in Arnhem Land to achieve the desired policy objectives, I wonder how much further advanced things would be. 

If Tony Abbott aspires to be a prime minister for indigenous affairs, he will need to come to grips with the stark truth of Shergold's conclusion. He will need to understand that governments that do not understand how they can be a junior partner with indigenous people in tackling the future are governments that are destined to repeat this failure.

Recent indigenous policy failures can't be pinned on Aborigines